Paul’s sole objective was to work so that people’s faith in the Lord might develop and make progress. In Philippians 1:25 he said, “I will again be with you so that your faith (and resulting joy) might increase.” The faith of these Philippian Christians was already quite advanced. Every time Paul remembered them, he thanked God for how they had joined with him to further the gospel (Philippians 1:3, 5). “When I left Macedonia,” Paul said in chapter 4, verses 15–16, “no church entered into partnership with me in contributing toward the advance of the gospel except you only, for even in Thessalonica you sent me help more than once.” Why, then, was Paul not content simply for the Philippians’ faith to remain at the same, rather high level? Why did he feel that, when he visited them again, he must work to advance their faith? Why should each of us be similarly concerned that our faith progress, rather than simply remain constant?
One reason, I believe, is that Scripture clearly teaches that suffering and difficult times lie ahead for each of us on life’s pathway. The Psalmist said: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Psalm 34:19). “Through much tribulation we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), declared Paul. He urged that “no one be moved by these afflictions. You yourselves know that afflictions will be our lot. For when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we would suffer affliction” (1 Thessalonians 3:3-4)
In the immediate context of both the Acts and Thessalonian passages we read how Paul sought to strengthen the faith of those Christians, so they would not be swamped by the sufferings that lay ahead of them. In another passage (1 Timothy 1:19) Paul spoke of how some people do, in fact make “shipwreck of faith.” Thus, I conclude that Paul worked to advance his readers’ faith so they would be strong enough to sail through the storms that lay ahead.
Likewise, we all must work now at advancing our faith. Then when the evil day comes (cf. Ephesians 6:13), we will have sufficient strength of heart and mind to avoid making shipwreck of faith. It’s like the way in which, last July, my wife and I started using our days off to take long hikes in the mountains so that, come September, we would be fit enough to keep up with our two teenage sons when they joined us for a seven-day backpacking trek into the High Sierras.
But just what do we do now, so we will not be overwhelmed when the evil day comes? How do we do “spiritual pushups” so our faith becomes stronger? To answer this we begin by noting, back in Philippians 1:25, how joy increases as faith increases. From this (see also Romans 15:13) it is clear that joy is the barometer of our faith. How strong is our faith right now? That will be indicated by how much joy we are experiencing in the Lord.
Our faith and consequent joy in the Lord increase as we deliberately bank our hope on one of God’s promises found on the pages of Scripture. At any given time, each of us is happy in the Lord to the extent that we perceive our future to be bright because of what God has promised. But hearts and spirits sink when we are troubled about the future. So we need to find where God has promised a different sort of future for us than our visible world seems to portend. Then we need to turn our attention away from the visible things that trouble us to the unseen fulfillment of specific promises that God has made and deliberately bank our hope on these promises. Like David, we must strengthen ourselves in the Eternal, our God (1 Samuel 30:6), by recalling what he has promised and banking our hope thereon.
This is how we do “spiritual pushups” and thus build up our spiritual stamina so that we can withstand the “much tribulation” through which we must go. Therefore, it is necessary to make progress in our faith, now, before the difficult times come. God said to Jeremiah, “If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with the horses? And if in a land of peace … you were weary, then how will you do in the swelling of Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5). So Hebrews 12:12–13 commands us to strengthen our faith: “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen you weak knees … so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”
Daniel P. Fuller