The book of Philippians is a really popular one in the Bible, for very good reasons. It’s a lot more positive than other epistles we could name (**cough cough, First Corinthians, cough cough**), and it has a lot of very famous verses. Lots of people have as their “life verse” stuff like “To live is Christ, and to die is gain,” or “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And that’s all to the good.
But today I’d like to focus on a much lesser-known portion of this letter. It’s probably a lot less known because it’s mostly “house cleaning” sort of material. Paul is telling his readers that he’s hoping to send Timothy to them soon, so that Tim can bring back news from them. He praises Timothy as being utterly unique in Paul’s ministry and life. And he (Paul) is hoping to come see them soon as well. He loved these people, and his warmth towards them shines through here.
But then we come to some verses about Epaphroditus. He was the one sent by the Philippian church with their love-offering for Paul. Obviously they fully trusted in his integrity, competence and steadfastness, and he'd completely vindicated that trust. He’d arrived in Rome, searched out and found Paul, and delivered this gift faithfully into his hands.
That’s the point at which we have a little drama: Epaphroditus got sick. Really sick. It looked like he wasn’t going to make it. Obviously Paul prayed for his dear friend, and the Lord had mercy on them both and healed him of his illness.
What I want to consider for a moment is Paul’s reaction to all this. In a sort of throwaway line, he says that the Lord had mercy on them both, because if Epaphroditus had died, he (Paul) would've undergone “sorrow upon sorrow.” In other words, Paul would’ve been overwhelmed with grief, at least for a while.
How do you react when you face a heavy loss, when you lose someone who’s been really dear to you? Sometimes well-meaning believers try to comfort a fellow grieving Christian with theology: “You know that he’s in a better place right now, where there’s no pain or crying or loss. He’s experiencing so much joy right now that he can’t contain it all.”
All of this is theologically true. God’s word says it.
But do you think you’re more spiritual, more “heavenly-minded” than Paul was? If so, are you insane? I don’t think there’s ever been a mere mortal who’s been closer to our Lord than Paul the apostle. You might make the argument that there were people as close to the Lord, but not more.
And if his dear friend Epaphroditus—who was not only a believer, but a hero in the faith—had died, Paul would’ve been overwhelmed with grief. At least for a while.
Our Lord wept at the grave of a dear friend. Theologians debate as to why he wept (considering he was about to resurrect him), but the bare fact remains that he wept. Our Savior, the Lord over all creation, weeps with us: “In all [our] distress he too [is] distressed.” The Psalmist tells us that he “daily bears our burdens.” Yes, he’s Almighty God, and he knows (as we should also) that all will be well in the end. But that doesn’t keep us from weeping in the here and now for our heart-wrenching loss. At least for a while.
For all the Christians out there who have a fellow believer who’s undergoing loss: Please hold off on the theology for a while. Let them weep. Weep with them, and “mourn with those who mourn.” The only time in the book of Job where it says that his friends comforted him was in the beginning, where they maintained silence with him for seven days. Then they opened their mouths and ruined everything.
For a while (seeking the Spirit’s wisdom as to how long), let them cry it out. Weep with them. Let them know that you’re with them. I promise you, our Lord wants you to be his shoulder for them to cry on, his arms to hold them, and his voice to (eventually) speak words of comfort. Let him use you.
Lord Jesus, when I see a brother who’s lost someone dear, please use me to comfort them. And let my words be few.
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