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Isolation and Imitation

Helen Thorne

Isolation and Imitation

We all need a role model – someone who shows us how to live life well. Ultimately, our role model is Jesus, of course. But the Bible encourages us to have godly people to look to as well. So, in this season where Covid-19 is grabbing headlines at every turn, where can we look? Maybe the Apostle Paul. Because, as we face the multi-faceted challenges that self-isolation may bring, there is much we can learn from him about doing 'being away from the Body' well.

Much as Paul’s life contained an array of ups and downs, there’s no worldwide pandemic in his letters from which we can draw useful tips. But Paul did know what it was like to be confined. He spent years under house arrest – no freedom to come and go as he pleased – his only visitors were those sanctioned by the government officials around. He certainly experienced hardship during his confinement – people stirred up trouble for him (Phil 1:17) and dear friends became life-threateningly ill (Phil 2:27). But he experienced joy too – the tender support of a valued brother (Phil 2:22) and generous gifts from the wider church (Phil 4:10). And in that mix of good and bad he calls us to imitate him (Phil 3:17). So, when we look at his life through the lens of Philippians, what do we see? 

Isolation is a time to encourage others 

With limited access to the basics of life, and often needing a personal scribe, letter writing may not have been the most convenient of tasks for Paul. But he engaged in it with a passion. There was certainly pain in his life but his heart was overflowing with a desire to see others thrive and so he put pen to parchment. And what glorious words he wrote! He told people what he was praying for them (1:3-11), what encouragements he could see from his chains (1:12-26); he encouraged them to keep going in their faith, even when life was hard (1:27-30) and drew their gaze back to Christ (2:1-11). He took the opportunity to challenge them to keep growing (2:12-18) and, where necessary to repent (4:2-3). There was even a place for going over some basic Christian truths once more (ch. 2-3) as well as passing on personal news (2:19-30; 4:4-23). What hope drips from every sentence we read in Philippians! 

Isolation is a time to pray

Paul wasn’t just writing about prayer, he was praying too. With time on his hands, he didn’t put his mind into “screen-saver mode” and just let time pass. He was strategic with his minutes and his hours. What did he pray? Well, not much about the practical struggles of life (though he clearly was keen on the idea of release – 2:24). Rather, he had a focus on the spiritual well-being and growth of the people he loved. There was pressure all about, but he knew, in the hands of the living God, that pressure could mould the church into something ever more beautiful and ever more fruitful (1:3-11). And so he asked God to do just that. 

Isolation is a time for mission 

His confinement didn’t mean lack of contact with all human beings – there were guards around and sometimes visitors too. Many hadn’t heard about the astonishing hope brought by the risen Lord Jesus Christ. So it was a time to tell others about their Saviour. And there wasn’t any reluctance on his part to engage! The whole of the palace guard heard the gospel (1:13) – that’s no small mission for a man who couldn’t leave the house – but, in the goodness of God, his words were able to go out. And the church was encouraged as a result. 

Isolation is a time for personal growth

And, in the middle of all this, Paul shows that he is growing too. It’s not like he’s some super-being who’s on a higher spiritual plane than the rest of us (3:13). This time of isolation had been hard for him but he was using it to become more like Jesus. His own personal testimony of growth? He’d learned how to be content whatever his circumstances – in plenty and in need he had learned to trust God to provide and work his purposes out (4:11-13). 

There are doubtless other ways besides to emulate Paul but maybe that’s enough for a start. As we think about self-isolating, or encouraging others who are – as we wrestle with the many practical challenges that the coming weeks and months will doubtless bring – let’s not fail to ask ourselves whether we are following Paul’s example. 

  • Are we using our times of isolation to encourage others? (Through letters, emails, social media and texts).
  • Are we using our times of isolation to pray? (For all the needs of the world – for the virus’ progress to end – but perhaps especially for the spiritual growth of the people around).
  • Are we grasping evangelistic opportunities as they arise? (There are always avenues of communication in this 21st century world – will we use them to give people the best message of hope the world has ever known?)
  • Are we using our times of isolation to grow? (Of course we’ll mess up and find things frustratingly hard at times but do we see the coming season as fertile ground for increasing Christlikeness for us and those we hold dear?)
  • And in the process, can we be extra role models in this time of need?

As the Apostle Paul says, “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who lives as we do” (Phil 3:17).