By Pastor Ellen Fowler
I read Acts 16 a few days ago. I’ve been working on imagining myself in Bible stories, and this one became very real to me.
It’s the story of Paul and Silas in a town called Philippi. They were there because Paul had had a dream in which a man asked them to come to Macedonia.
The Condition of Your Heart
Upon arriving in Philippi, they found a place of prayer on a riverbank and talked with the women who were there. One of them, Lydia, was interested – it says the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying. (Note to self: ask God to open my heart when other people are speaking words I need to hear!)
Lydia was so touched by what she heard that she got baptized and invited them to stay with her while they were in Philippi. What a blessing for everyone, including Paul and Silas!
It seems that Paul and Silas made a regular practice of going to the same place of prayer every day. One day they encountered a slave girl with a spirit of divination, who followed them and shouted that they were servants of God who were telling people how to be saved. Absolutely true!
But after she’d done it for a few days, Paul got angry. I wonder if he saw the torment the girl was in, and wanted to see her free.
In any case, he told the spirit to leave her, and it was gone. I bet her life changed from that day onward.
But her owners now had no way to make money from her. They dragged Paul and Silas to the magistrates and accused them of teaching Jewish customs which were against the law in a Roman colony. (Keep in mind that Paul and Silas were preaching Jesus…)
The entire crowd turned against them, and the magistrates commanded that they be beaten with rods.
Have you ever watched a movie where someone is being beaten? Whenever I do, I flinch every time the whip snaps across the person’s back and drags the flesh away.
Acts 16 says that Paul and Silas were beaten “with many blows.” What a radically different result than when Lydia believed!
Then they were thrown in prison, in a cell within a cell, with their feet in shackles. There they sat, backs torn open, bruises rising all over their bodies. Cold metal around their ankles. The taste of blood in their mouths; blood thickening around their wounds. Damp air, cold stone floor, putrid smells, rats, flies.
When I put myself into that situation, I could imagine my reaction. This is partly because I’ve undergone a couple of painful surgeries in the last two years.
I get tired of hurting. I’m very aware of the pain in my body – it’s often more real to me than God, or at least more at the center of my thoughts. So, I imagine I would have been pretty absorbed in my own physical pain.
And in addition to that, Paul and Silas had been doing the Lord’s work! This was their reward? I wonder what I would have been feeling: Anger at God for allowing this? Self pity? Fear of what might happen next?
Having thought about all that, I was humbled by Paul and Silas. They prayed. They sang. They rejoiced. They counted it joy to be persecuted in the name of Jesus. They did all this, not knowing what would happen next, or how long they would be in that cold dank cell without food or care or friends.
Jesus was enough for them.
Then, hallelujah! God breaks through, with an earthquake that shakes the chains off every one of the prisoners and makes every cell door fly open. The jailer is ready to kill himself in disgrace, when Paul yells out, “We’re all here!”
Would you have stayed if you were Paul or Silas? I hope I would have been connected with God enough to stay if he told me to – but on my own, I would have been out of there in a heartbeat.
And Paul and Silas weren’t the only ones who stayed – all the other prisoners did too! Why? Could it have been that they were changed by hearing Paul and Silas sing and pray for hours on end, despite the pain in their bodies and the horrible conditions surrounding them?
Imagine being another prisoner, miserable, angry – and hearing Paul and Silas give thanks. We know the jailer and his whole household got saved as a result of this incident – I wonder how many of the other prisoners did too?
Make Thankfulness Your Default
Thinking about this story has made me desire to spend more and more of my life giving thanks. I want to get to the point where thankfulness is my default – regardless of what’s going on in my body, regardless of my circumstances.
I can quote many Bible verses about thankfulness, as I’m sure many of you can. It’s my prayer that those verses move out of my head into my whole being – that I can live in thanksgiving every day.
Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. – I Thessalonians 5:18 NLT
…Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Ephesians 5:19-20 BSB
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