Keep Your Eye on the Donut and Not on the Hole
September 20, 1998
In the 20 years I have been a pastor, a good portion of my time each week has been spent talking with people going through hard times. I suppose it just comes with the territory. When things go well, the pastor rarely hears from people. But when life tumbles in, the pastor gets a telephone call. I’ve discovered that in those situations people usually ask two questions:
1. “Why has this happened to me? I can’t see any purpose in it.” The only reasonable answer is to say that what you see depends on what you look for. Some people never discover an answer because they’re looking in the wrong places.
2. “What do I do now?” Recently I discovered a good answer to that question. It’s a little saying that contains a big truth. When hard times come, keep your eye on the doughnut and not on the hole. Think about that for a moment. A doughnut has two parts—the fried dough and the hole. You’ve got a choice of which one will attract your attention. You can either focus on what you’ve got or you can focus on what you lack.
Your perspective in times of difficulty makes all the difference. Our text tells us how Paul responded to a difficult experience in his own life. We learn from these verses four perspectives on adversity that will help us focus on what we have, not on what we lack.
I. Adversity Opens New Doors for the Gospel.
“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (v. 12-13).
The word “advanced” is a military term that refers to the movement of an army into enemy territory. As the soldiers move forward, they clear the obstacles, open the roads, drain the swamps, and build pontoon bridges so that the whole army can advance unhindered. Paul means to say that his imprisonment—which seemed to be a setback—actually served to advance the gospel in Rome.
Think for a moment about the long chain of events that led to this moment. It started in Acts 21 when he went to Jerusalem to make an offering in the Temple. Unfounded rumors spread that he had brought a Gentile into the sacred precincts. That led to a mob scene where Paul was severely beaten and would have been murdered if the authorities had not stepped in and arrested him. Eventually he was sent to Caesarea to stand trial as a Roman citizen. There he was held without bail for two years. (He narrowly avoided being murdered by a group of 40 cutthroats who vowed not to eat or drink until they killed him.) Meanwhile he gave his testimony to Felix, the Roman governor, who listened attentively and then kept Paul in confinement, hoping for a bribe. Still later he testified in chains before King Agrippa. Eventually he was put on a boat with other prisoners and sent to Rome. But the boat never made it―foundering and eventually sinking during a violent storm on the Mediterranean Sea. Paul and other survivors were washed up on the shores of Malta where a serpent came out of the fire and bit him. Finally he was brought in chains to Rome where he was kept under house arrest for two years, awaiting trial before Caesar. Meanwhile his opponents spread rumors about him, attempting to destroy his reputation and ruin his ministry.
That’s the background of Paul’s statement in verse 13—”what has happened to me.” As he looks back, he sees clearly that everything happened for a divinely-ordained purpose—the false rumors, the riot, the beating, the arrest, the four years of confinement, the public misunderstanding, the ruining of his reputation, the slanders, the whispers, the accusations against his name, the shipwreck, the snakebite, and his house arrest in Rome. All of it now is clearly seen as part of God’s plan to bring him to Rome at precisely this moment in precisely this situation so that he would be where God wanted him to be.
Do You Really Believe in God’s Providence?
As a Christian, Paul had a high view of the providence of God. That’s the belief that God is in charge of everything that happens to us—the good and the bad, the positive and the negative—and that in some way unknown to us, he orders all things, including our own free choices, so that what happens to us is for our good and his glory. This doctrine is easier to believe when things are going well, when our health is good, our family is together, our marriage is positive, our career is moving forward, and we have money to pay our bills, a good church to attend, friends who love us, and everything is coming up roses. It’s something else to say that you believe in God’s providence when your health is bad, your marriage is failing, your family is blown apart, your career is going nowhere, and your friends have turned against you. That’s when you discover what you truly believe.
How could Paul look at his circumstances in such a positive light? After all, being chained to a soldier in a Roman jail is normally not a good career move. Here’s the answer. Paul judged everything by Kingdom Priorities. I find it fascinating that he doesn’t mention his own circumstances or complain about his imprisonment. It’s as if it doesn’t matter at all. The only thing he cares about is that the gospel be preached and that people come to Christ. Since Paul lived solely for the Kingdom, he could find something good even in jail in Rome. Surely, God must have sent him there for a purpose. He would find that purpose and rejoice in it.
He found that purpose at the other end of the chain. Paul was being guarded by members of the elite Praetorian Guards. These highly-trained soldiers served as a cross between the Secret Service for the Caesars and the Army Special Forces. Created by Caesar Augustus some 70 years earlier, the Praetorian Guard numbered about 9,000 in Paul’s day. They were paid double the normal wage and served for 12 years, after which most of them retired in and around Rome. Over time they became a powerful political force, putting forth nominees for the Roman Senate.
All this meant that the Praetorian Guards were one of the most important groups in ancient Rome. How would Paul reach them with the gospel? It wouldn’t work to rent a hall and have a “Rome for Christ” crusade. Who wanted to hear a Jew from Tarsus talk about some man named Jesus? But God wanted to reach the Praetorian Guards so he took his best man and had him unjustly arrested and sent to Rome where he was put in jail and chained to a member of the Praetorian Guards 24 hours a day. Since they changed guards every six hours, this meant Paul had a new audience four times a day, 28 times a week, and over 2900 times in two years.
That’s why Paul could truthfully say that the news about Christ had spread through the entire palace guard. No doubt he had personally witnessed to hundreds if not thousands of them during the long days of confinement.
I suspect that before too long he wasn’t chained to them; they were chained to him. God designed a “chain reaction” for the spread of the gospel in Rome. It was the first “Evangelism Explosion.” Only God could think of something like this.
In a Virginia Prison
This week I received a letter from a man in prison in Virginia. I do not know the man, have never met him, and know nothing about him other than what he writes.
I have been incarcerated for the past 23 years, 12 months and 21 days. I have been in prison for a total of four times of about 29 years. I am 58 years old, have three children of 35, 34, and 32 years old. I am divorced and live here in Virginia.
Here is the reason for his letter:
I am writing you to let you know that I have received a rich blessing from reading your book What a Christian Believes. I have since accepted Christ Jesus into my life and now enjoy spiritual freedom—freedom from sin, fear, and slavery. Until a person is willing to say, “I am a sinner in need of salvation,” he cannot experience such freedom from guilt and condemnation as I have. I was hopelessly enslaved by sin before I read your book and accepted Jesus into my life.
He closes the letter by asking that I pray for revival at the correctional center where he is serving time. I mention this because the book has been published for barely two months. I have no idea who found a copy and gave it to this man in prison in Virginia. There is a connection that only God knows. But it illustrates a great truth. When God wants to save a man, he saves him. Prison bars won’t stop the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this man will become like the Apostle Paul and use his remaining days in prison to spread the gospel to his fellow inmates.
We often see God’s hand at work only in retrospect. I don’t think Paul had any clear idea during those long months in jail in Caesarea that he would end up in jail in Rome preaching to the guards. That would only be revealed later. The same is true for all of us. Rarely do we see the “big picture” while we are in the midst of a great trial. God’s purposes are generally revealed much later. Our part is to patiently trust God while we wait for better days.
One final note on this point. Circumstances are no obstacle to God. You can be chained and in the will of God. You can be chained and in the will of God and be innocent of all charges. Sometimes God puts you in chains because you can reach more people in chains than you ever could in freedom.
I’m sure that Paul didn’t want to go to jail and didn’t enjoy the experience. But in the midst of everything, he saw God’s hand at work in his circumstances—and thus he could rejoice.
Jesus is Lord even in prison! He has his people behind bars so they can spread the gospel!!
II. Adversity Encourages Bold Witness.
“Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (v. 14).
Courage is contagious. In this case Paul’s courage in chains spread to the believers who watched him witness to the Roman soldiers. And persecution can be productive. Even though Paul was in jail on a trumped-up charge, his incarceration produced a harvest of bold evangelism across the city of Rome.
How did Paul encourage his fellow believers while he was in prison? I can think of at least four answers:
a) He faced his difficulty with joy.
b) He used every opportunity to speak up for Christ.
c) He demonstrated a complete lack of fear.
d) He refused to complain or blame others.
This same thing happens today. In July I received a form letter in the mail from World Relief asking for prayer as their new president, Clyde Calver, traveled to southern Sudan, site of enormous persecution of Christians by some radical Muslims. Reports over the last several years have detailed the looting of churches, burning of Christian villages, the wholesale murder of Christian leaders, and even stories about Christian children being sold into slavery. This is all accompanied by famine and widespread civil war. I knew a bit about this and so I read the letter with interest.
About three weeks ago I went to the TV-38 studios in Chicago to tape an interview for the “Among Friends” program. Since they usually do a whole week in one day, guests from several programs meet in the “Green Room” before the taping. When I walked in, I spotted a nice-looking gentleman and his adult son. He immediately stood and said, “Hi, I’m Clyde Calver with World Relief.” I recognized his name and mentioned that I had read his letter. It turns out that he had just returned from his trip to the Sudan and was going to talk about it on the television program.
When I asked if the reports about widespread persecution were true, he replied in the affirmative. Then he added a detail I hadn’t heard. He said that in many places the church in southern Sudan is growing rapidly. Despite the persecution (or perhaps because of it), one church leader told him, “We’ve got too many converts. We can’t take care of them all.” That’s a nice problem to have, isn’t it?
How has it happened? An early church father named Tertullian gave the answer when he declared that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. You can kill the messenger but you can’t kill the message. For 2000 years enemies of the gospel have done their best to wipe out Christianity. But if you stop it here, it springs up there, and then when you turn around, it springs up where you thought you stamped it out.
Too often we say, “I’m waiting for better circumstances.” God says, “Go ahead and speak up. I don’t need good circumstances in order to do my work.” Hard times often give us fantastic opportunities to share the gospel with others.
III. Adversity Reveals Our True Friends.
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains” (v. 15-17).
No matter how you read them, these verses sound strange to our ears. Paul is speaking about two groups of genuine believers in Rome. One group loves him and preaches the gospel from good motives. The other group evidently is jealous of his leadership and took advantage of his imprisonment to divide the body of Christ.
It’s important to note that whoever these selfish preachers are, they aren’t false prophets or apostates. If they were, Paul could hardly have rejoiced in their preaching. No, they are true brothers in Christ who nevertheless are using Paul’s situation as an open door to advance their own cause. They had the right message (the gospel) but preached it from wrong or unworthy motives. Their message was good, the motives were bad, and their methods were questionable.
Perhaps they said things like this: “You know how much we love and respect our dear brother Paul. No one loves him more than we do. However, it seems as if Paul causes trouble wherever he goes. Someone stones him, or they arrest him, or he has to sneak out of town in the middle of the night. I don’t like to mention it, but there are bad rumors about him back in Jerusalem. I personally don’t believe them, but we can’t reject them out of hand. It’s possible he’s guilty of the charges against him. He’s a wonderful preacher but he seems to stir up trouble in every city. Frankly, I think it’s extremely embarrassing to have an esteemed apostle in jail. And in Rome of all places. Perhaps it would be better if Paul had never come to our city. In any case, he can hardly be our spiritual leader while he’s in jail. Let’s agree to pray for him and ask God to release him and send him somewhere else—preferably a long way from here.”
It’s sounds convincing, doesn’t it? Especially if you don’t know all the facts.
No doubt it broke Paul’s heart to know that some of his brothers were using his prison time against him. Couldn’t they see how God had opened this door for the gospel? Couldn’t they rejoice with him at the progress of the gospel? In any case, he would rest content knowing he was in God’s hands and that he had many friends who truly loved him.
Adversity does that—it makes clear who your friends are. And who they aren’t.
IV. Adversity Proves Our Ultimate Values.
“But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice” (v. 18).
Here is Paul’s triumphant conclusion. He has chosen to rejoice in spite of his critics. Paul’s only concern is the gospel of Christ. As long as people preach Christ, it doesn’t matter what they say about him. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Good point. For Paul, the “main thing” is the gospel. He refused to be diverted by lesser issues such as how certain people felt about him being in jail. On one level, it was an irritation; on another level, it didn’t matter at all.
Have you ever wondered how political leaders can stand the unending stream of criticism that comes to them from every side? Think of the thousands of letters any president receives—and the critical editorials no matter what position he takes on any issue. In today’s world, with the hyper-scrutiny of public officials, it’s a wonder that anyone dares to run for high office. How do those in power maintain their balance in the face of unrelenting criticism? The answer is not hard to find. The best leaders have committed themselves to a cause that is beyond them. They believe in something (whatever it might be) that is so great that even after they have given their best effort, there is still much work to done. They believe in the cause so much that it doesn’t particularly matter what happens to them personally.
That’s how Paul felt. In the end, whether his fellow believers loved him or hated him didn’t matter so long as the gospel was preached. This is an amazing attitude when you consider how easy it is to be bitter against those who mistreat you. How easy to grow angry and strike. How “natural” to attack those who attack you.
Do you believe God can work through people you don’t respect? Let’s make it more personal. Do you think God can speak to you through people you don’t like—and don’t even trust? Is that possible? Can God do that? Can he put you in an office working under a Grade A, Government-Certified Total Jerk—and then work through that person to direct your life?
Consider the following key statements:
a) God can use bad people to do good things.
b) He can use flawed people to do his will.
I know the second statement is true because he routinely uses people like you and me—and we’re all flawed in one way or another. There’s an important lesson here regarding how we respond to people we don’t respect and may not like very much. Think before you react—God may be speaking to you through a very disagreeable (or even disreputable) person.
Learning to Disagree Agreeably
This also raises the larger question regarding how we relate to other Christians—especially those who aren’t in our group or denomination. As you know, there are hundreds of denominations, and in most denominations there are smaller groups divided by doctrine, practice, history, worship styles, and geography. The same is true inside most churches. There are pioneers, settlers, newcomers, transients, radicals, conservatives, progressive, and moderates, to name just a few divisions. How should we relate to other believers who don’t see things the way we do?
This is crucial because today we have Calvinists, Arminians, dispensationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, plus we have the traditional worship people, the contemporary worship people, and the liturgical worship people. Not to speak of fundamentalists, neo-fundamentalists, charismatics, evangelicals, and so on. No matter what we say, we Christians love labels … and we love to argue about our labels.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Jack Van Impe, the famous evangelist known as “the Walking Bible” because he has memorized thousands of Scripture verses. By his own testimony, for many years he used his sermons to attack other Christians over matters that might properly be called secondary issues. Eventually the Lord broke his heart about the infighting and name-calling in Christian circles and he vowed to change his ways. In his revealing book Heart Disease in Christ’s Body, he includes the following anecdote:
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, we were closing our crusade on Sunday afternoon. The arena we were using featured wrestling on Sunday night, and then Rex Humbard was scheduled to begin a meeting on Monday. Humorously, the marquee outside the facility read:
Jack Van Impe
That might have been true of Jack Van Impe at one time. However, during my remaining years in the ministry, I want to glorify God by being an example of His love—striving to promote true Christian unity among all members of His body. (Heart Disease in Christ’s Body, p. 41).
In light of Philippians 1, how should we respond to fellow believers with whom we have a genuine disagreement—regarding doctrine or practice? I suggest the following three principles as being consistent with Paul’s attitude in this passage. We should …
a) Hold our convictions graciously.
b) Differ when we must regretfully.
c) In all things we should love sincerely.
Grace enables us to speak the truth without alienating other brothers and sisters who see things differently. Regret comes from the fact that in a fallen world we will never see eye to eye with everyone. Sincere love helps us build bridges to those with whom we disagree.
The Hidden Purposes of God
Adversity comes to all of us sooner or later. We’re not given a choice about most of the things that happen to us. Everyone who reads this sermon is in one of three situations with regard to hard times. Either you’re in one right now, or you’re just coming out of a hard time, or you’re about to go through hard times and just don’t know it yet. Such is life this side of heaven.
Since adversity comes to all of us sooner or later, the only choice we have is regarding our attitude. Will we look at the doughnut or will we look at the hole? If we look at what we don’t have or what we have lost, we will almost certainly lose our faith. If we look at what we still have, we can find the courage to keep on going.
It appears that Paul refused to be mastered by his circumstances, no matter how difficult or personally frustrating they might be. He resolved to see the hand of God at work in every situation. Thus he could rejoice even while chained to a Roman soldier.
How can we live like Paul? By committing ourselves to the truth that God has a hidden purpose in what he allows. Often that purpose will seem well hidden to us. Remember that Paul couldn’t see the big picture until he finally arrived in Rome. Until then, he simply trusted God moment by moment, seizing every opportunity to preach Christ.
During one particularly hard moment in his political career, Winston Churchill wondered out loud why a certain thing had happened to him. His wife replied that it was a blessing in disguise. “If it is a blessing in disguise,” Churchill declared, “it is certainly well disguised.” Some of you reading my words are dealing with well-disguised blessings at this very moment. You see the dark cloud, but where is the silver lining?
Lessons from the Carpet Mill
During my college years I worked briefly at a carpet mill in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My job was fairly low-tech—mostly pushing a broom and keeping the walkways clean. In my spare moments I loved to watch the huge carpet machines at work. As you stood in the back you could see huge spools of yard—dozens of them, of every conceivable color—spinning rapidly as the yarn went into the machine. From the back side everything seemed to be a meaningless jumble of colors and noise. Nothing made any sense. There didn’t seem to be the slightest pattern at work—just a mass of colored threads making their way at high speed into the mechanical weaver. When you walked to the front of the machine, an entirely different sight greeted you. There you could see carpet slowly emerging—row by row, all the colors perfectly in place, arranged in order as if by magic. But it wasn’t magic at all. Someone had programmed the machine to take that tangle of threads and turn it into a pattern of exquisite beauty.
In this life we stand as it were at the back of the machine looking at the multicolored threads of circumstance. Some are the dark colors of sadness and confusion, others the bright tones of happiness and success. On this side there seems to be no pattern—only colors and noise. Now and again God gives us a peek at the finished product and we are aware that something beautiful is being produced in us by the Master Designer. But in this life we never see the big picture. That will all change when we finally get to heaven. Then we will see that everything that happened to us had a purpose—even those things that seemed to bring us nothing but pain and heartache. Those dark tones that seem so pointless will in that day be a vital part of a pattern so beautiful that if we were to see it now, it would take our breath away.
Let us therefore be patient and let the Master Designer complete his work in us. When we cannot see the big picture, we can still trust that our Heavenly Father knows exactly what he is doing. And while we wait, let us take every open door the Lord gives us to share Christ with those around us. As we seek first the Kingdom of God, we will discover that through the good times and the bad, in days of pleasure and days of pain, through our laughter and through our tears, God is at work in us.
A woman whose heart was crushed by a tragedy not of her own making wrote a poem about what God was teaching her. It summarizes the meaning of this passage better than anything I have seen.
The things that happen unto me
Are not by chance I know,
But because my Father’s wisdom
Has willed to have it so.
For the ‘furtherance of the gospel’
As a part of His great plan,
God can use our disappointments
And the weaknesses of man.
Give me faith to meet them bravely
Trials I do not understand,
To let God work His will in me—
To trust His guiding hand.
Help me to shine, a clear bright light,
And not to live in vain—
Help me hold forth the Word of Life
In triumph over pain.