About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once, all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. (Acts 16:25-26)
Paul and Silas were in prison because they had made a delivery that turned out to be dangerous. It wasn’t an exploding parcel or a letter-bomb. In fact, their action probably resulted in saving lives. But when they delivered a slave girl of a fortune-telling spirit, the loss of future income for her owners led to a major blowup. The Roman magistrates in Philippi ordered that Paul and Silas be stripped and beaten. Roman floggings typically consisted of 39 lashes with whips that could bite deep enough to expose bone. It was not unusual for a prisoner to die as a result of the flogging.
So here they were, chained to a prison wall, flayed backs oozing, nerve endings screaming for someone to clean and treat the wounds. They were being severely punished for doing God’s work. Their endurance was stoic, but what’s with the singing? Surely even God wouldn’t expect them to be giving a praise concert under these conditions!
But Paul and Silas are operating in a different context, one that is centred on God and not themselves. They demonstrate what can happen when we respond with prayer and praise when confronted by attacks that are harsh and undeserved.
The first thing that happens is that other people pay attention when we respond to persecution with praise and thanks to God. It’s so counter-cultural, so at odds with our self-focused human nature that it stands out like a sore thumb – or in this case, a mutilated back. When Jesus came, He turned expectations of what the Messiah would be and do and look like upside down. Following in His footsteps, Paul and Silas do the opposite of what their fellow prisoners would ever expect, and because of it they have their undivided attention.
Secondly, their praise not only reverberates, but is earth-shaking. It’s no accident that in honoring God and putting their trust completely in Him, Paul and Silas usher in an event that shakes the foundation of the prison. Not all prisons have bars: Satan’s goal is always to keep us in the prison of our fears and discouragements and self-pity. Praising God upsets his applecart; in fact, it repeatedly defeats his purposes because it sets us free from ourselves and keeps our eyes on God. When we praise God in the circumstances that most threaten us, it shakes Satan’s foundation in our lives. Prison doors fly open and chains fall off – both ours and those of the people who are sharing our prison and witnessing our response.
Third, praise keeps us alert to the full extent of what God wants to accomplish through our trial. Paul and Silas could have made a run for it, but they stayed put because the jailer and his household had yet to be released. They refused to take the easiest and fastest way out in order to be true to their mission: to save souls through the redeeming work of Jesus. Sometimes God keeps us in a hard place longer than seems strictly necessary so that others can be saved through our example or ministry.
Finally, a praising and thankful response despite the circumstances can heal our wounds as well as speak to the needs of others. Paul and Silas used water to baptize the jailor and his household, washing away their sin and bringing them to a new birth. The jailor washed their wounds clean, the wounds they’d received in remaining true to God’s calling. As we do God’s work in response to His leading, we often find that our own wounds get treated and healed in the process.
Overcoming our natural human response to trouble is tough. It’s so much easier to wallow, to strike out, to complain loud and long. Easier in the short run, but Satan will exact a high price for it over the long haul. Unless we cut off the supply, he’ll use each negative response to add another bar to our prison cell.
Father, may we remember that You deserve our thanks and our praise in every circumstance. Use our praise to bring freedom that sings – a melody that leaves us and others unchained in Your service.