I want to know something. I have one question I’d like to ask St. Paul today.
I demand an answer.
“How were you able to be singing hymns to God at midnight, having been falsely accused, thrown into a Roman jail, and having your feet fastened in the stocks?
I want to know how you got from “Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks” to “But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.”
Meditating upon this episode in Paul’s life and the rest of what I know about his life and ministry, I think God has revealed some clues. First, right there in the verse about singing hymns, lies part of the answer: Paul and Silas were praying. When I look, uncomprehendingly, at Paul and Silas singing, I have a mental image of them in the stocks in a dark, dank dungeon, feet in wooden stocks, having been humiliated and humbled.
I have, in other words, an entirely human picture of what was going on. But not Paul. While Paul undoubtedly was unaware of his “human condition,” he obviously saw something else.
What He saw was God.
Why else would he pray in such a situation? Me? I think maybe I’d have been stunned at first. I’m sure I’d be praying, out of fear if not anything else, but I’m not sure how long it would take me to get to the singing, if at all.
Why not? What did Paul have that I didn’t? I want some of it!
Paul had a strong sense of the presence of the Lord, even, especially, in difficult times. He had learned that he must suffer for Christ and that in his weakness the strength of Christ was made known.
Paul also had Silas. Every one should have a Silas or a Barnabas or a Timothy or an Epaphroditus. One of the reasons we don’t see God in difficult circumstances is because we attempt to face those circumstances by ourselves. But we’re not made to. We were created for community, for relationships, by one who is in His very essence a relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
My whole life seems like it’s been a slo-mo unfolding understanding of the importance of relationships. In retrospect, the state of my relationships explains a lot about my life: why I had a very happy childhood, with 2 godly parents and 3 great siblings; why I seemed depressed in 4th grade (all my friends from the previous 3 years were in different classes that year); and why I didn’t watch the Super Bowl this last year, even though I had a deep desire to see New England lose.
This February at Super Bowl time, I was in England to defend my Ph.D. thesis. Since England is 6 hours ahead of Central Standard Time, the Super Bowl began very late in England. Although my Dad had accompanied me to England, on the night of the Super Bowl he was in Wales, visiting some relatives. I found the one place in all of Lancaster University that seemed to be showing the Super Bowl and stumbled into a room of English uni students watching the game. I scanned for a place to sit, and there weren’t many. But as I plotted where to sit, I felt my interest in the game waning.I didn’t know anyone in the room. I suddenly realized how much of my enjoyment in life comes from enjoying my experiences with those I love.
In a similar way, we have a need to share our lives in the tough times, too. Why is it that those who have experienced war together have social bonds and relationships that endure? We’re created to experience life together, and to the degree that I am withering under the circumstances of my life I’ve probably not been sharing that experience with others, in spite of the commandment to bear one another’s burdens.
I think another reason Paul could sing in prison was because he had prepared his whole Christian life for moments such as this. Paul’s being thrown in prison wasn’t an isolated incident in his life: he had already had many moments of persecution and resistance. He had already had a lot of experience with suffering with and for His Lord, and so He knew how the Lord would be with him this time.
But too often, we don’t seek the Lord in our afflictions or tough times, and we are always starting on square one. I believe that one of the reasons Jesus Christ was ready for the Cross was that He had been preparing for it His whole life. The Passion and Crucifixion weren’t isolated moments in time: Jesus knew they were coming. He knew what the Father had appointed Him for, and He had practiced an entire life of giving Himself perfectly to the will of the Father.
So Paul prayed, had Silas, and had spent his life obeying the Lord. The result was that he could sing in prison.
The results for others? Most intriguing, we discover that the other prisoners were listening to them (verse 25). Can you imagine the other prisoners, for whom the prison was just a prison and suffering just suffering, hearing these weird prisoners singing hymns to their God? Why would Luke record this? I think it’s highly significant for how we respond to trouble in our lives. Someone is always watching. If you’re a parent, your kids are always watching you. Regardless of who you are and what trouble you have, someone is watching to see how you’ll respond. (And don’t forget the heavenly audience!)
As a result of Paul and Silas’ not fleeing, and, I think, of their singing in prison, the Philippian jailer believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. Because the Philippian jailer believed, his whole household converted.
Last, but not least, what do we find Paul and Silas doing the moment they’re released? They entered into Lydia’s house, saw the brethren, and encouraged them. Do you think this encouragement would have been nearly as great if they had not been thrown in prison and not maintained an attitude of praise?
The suffering and trials in our lives have a significance far, far beyond what we normally ascribe to them. We, too, can sing in our prisons, if we seek God in them.
Prayer: Father, I ask that You would send Your Spirit to me today to be the Spirit of spiritual songs and hymns. By Your grace, teach me to sing Your praises all the day long, songs of thankfulness and songs of joy, so that all who see may also give You praise. Encourage me by the fellowship of the saints, and sustain me by Your daily bread that when the moment of imprisonment comes I may continue to sing. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
1. Imagine what Paul and Silas were singing about. How can you sing in a similar way in the difficult circumstances in your life?
2. Find someone in your life with whom God is asking you to share your tough times.
Resolution: I resolve to find occasions to sing to the Lord today, especially during the difficult moments.
© 2014 Fr. Charles Erlandson