I wasn’t alone-alone until I was 24 years old. I don’t mean “by myself” alone, but rather that “I knew no one and no one knew me” alone. When I moved to Austin, I had only a handful of loose acquaintances. On any given night, all two of these acquaintances had plans or other obligations, and I became acutely aware of my aloneness. I had never not been busy and the sudden change of pace felt abrupt. It was an adjustment for me. I didn’t know how to not be busy. I didn’t know how to be alone-alone. During that time (let’s be real, it was about a year) with myself and my thoughts, I came to realize how dependent I was on other people, not only for my happiness and entertainment, but also for my sense of self.
I realized that I tended to take on different social roles depending on the group people I was around. In one group I was the “entertainer” and always brought the humor to the group; in another group I took on the “mother” role, offering advice and coordinating plans; in other groups I took on other roles. This was never explicitly stated anywhere, but was more of an unwritten expectation, not just for me, but for everyone. I just adapted from group to group for the first 23 years of my life; I let other people tell me who I was and who I was not.
So when I didn’t have any people around to adapt to, I had a bit of an identity crisis. I had never had to “tell” anyone who I was and what I was about, I had always just shown up and “shown” it. The abrupt halt in my social interaction forced me to take a step back and evaluate who I actually was when no one was looking (or even in the near vicinity to see) and if that version of myself was the same out and about as it was when I was alone-alone.
Paul had a similar-ish situation (I say similar-ish because imprisonment and being new to town are obviously not the same). Paul’s plans changed abruptly. He was plucked from his vibrant and active life of ministry and thrown into prison. He went from traveling all over sharing the gospel, constantly around people, to being confined and contained to a solitary cell. Would he still be considered a teacher if he didn’t have any students? Would he still be considered a missionary if he had no one to hear his message? Would he still be a servant of God if he wasn’t able to reach people like he once was?
Seeing how Paul adjusted to his plans changing is both challenging and encouraging. He didn’t dwell in hypotheticals of what might have been had things gone differently; he didn’t abandon his calling simply because he didn’t have an audience; he didn’t put his mission on hold because his circumstances changed.
Paul kept going. Outside of prison, Paul was about the gospel and discipleship. Inside prison, Paul was still about the gospel and still about discipleship. He didn’t get to preach the gospel to crowds in temples or cities, but rather to a prison guard here or there. He didn’t get to visit the pockets of believers trickled throughout the Mediterranean face to face, but he got creative and found a way to communicate his same message through letters.
Paul didn’t look at his dire situation as confining, though he was confined. He didn’t drop everything just because things were out of his control. He didn’t take a break until things got back to normal, either. He was the same person inside of prison as he was outside of prison.
In his letter he encouraged the Philippians to be of one mind and one spirit– to be about the gospel. He prayed that their love would abound in knowledge and discernment so that they would be able to make decisions that are in step with the gospel (1:9), he encouraged them to live a life that was worthy of the gospel (1:27), and reminded them that it was the Spirit who would enable them to do this– that He who began a good work in them would carry it out to completion (1:6). In short, Paul encouraged the Philippine believers to look to Jesus and keep going, which is exactly what he did even though his plans changed.