Isolated in Philly

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Philippians 1:12-26

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body.

More thoughts for meditation

Statistics are hard to come by, but 60-100,000 prisoners are in short-term to long-term solitary confinement in the U.S. The federal government has a “supermax” prison in Colorado in which inmates spend years locked in small cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. Studies investigating the effects of the psychological and physical isolation in prison have found them to be detrimental to the mental health of the inmates, particularly to mentally ill inmates. Adverse effects include sleep disturbance, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations and self-mutilation.

Prior to his conversion, the Apostle Paul was someone who imprisoned other people. He locked up countless Christian believers, both male and female, and cast his judicial vote for their execution at times. After his conversion, the imprisoner became the imprisoned, an experience which so stamped Paul’s identity that he referred to himself as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:1). The book of Acts records Paul being locked up on three occasions – at Philippi, Caesarea, and Rome. Paul was not alone in this experience. Peter and John were also repeatedly thrown in jail, and, like Paul, they too were sometimes busted out of jail by divine intervention. Paul mentions a fellow prisoner, Junia, a woman, in Romans 16. The early church was actually led by a bunch of jail birds, and God was a primary accomplice in their escape!

Paul was not in a supermax prison when he wrote to the Philippians. But I think he was subject to the same psychological problems regular and super-isolated prisoners are. To the Philippians he wrote about pondering whether he should live or die! His isolation under house arrest was a lot like what we are experiencing in our Covid-19 prison. Experts say the lockdown is causing post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression and insomnia. Long-term effects are likely to be OCD, chronic loneliness and even  agoraphobia. Like Paul, people have had more thoughts about dying in the virus season. The CDC reports that “the percentage of respondents who reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey (10.7%) was significantly higher among respondents aged 18–24 years (25.5%), minority racial/ethnic groups (Hispanic respondents [18.6%], non-Hispanic black [black] respondents [15.1%]), self-reported unpaid caregivers for adults (30.7%), and essential workers (21.7%).”

Suggestions’ for action

At the end of his letter to the Philippi church plant, Paul assures them, “I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).

These verses are often taken to mean we have supernatural abilities because Jesus gives me strength. And Jesus giving us strength and ability beyond what is normal for us definitely happens. But to think that happens all the time and is what Paul is saying seems like a particularly Eurocentric interpretation, mostly based on an outlook of conquering the world and proving one is worthy and powerful. I don’t think Paul is powerful and I think he suspects he is going to be killed which, according to post-biblical history, happens after yet another imprisonment.

The strength Paul says he has comes from the “secret of contentment.” In quarantine or not, healthy or not, mentally ill or not, plenty of friends around or not, employed or not, respected or not, I can do it. The “all things” actually comes at the emphasized-beginning of the Greek sentence. I think he is assuring the Philippians that Jesus is with him and with them, no matter what, in all things. Being content in our living relationship with Jesus, perpetually saved, is joy. Then we can say, “Even if I am in prison God will be with me and might even use prison. If I die, that might even be better than being alive. I am strong enough to go through anything in Christ.”

Have you learned the secret of contentment? I don’t mean “have you mastered it.” Are you hanging on to the secret in your isolation? Are you mad at God because things aren’t normal and you are not happy and successful?  Happy and successful or normal, you can do it.

Pray: Teach me the secret of contentment in you, Jesus.