November 21, 2004

JOY IN THE JAIL

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Acts 16:25

Once upon a time there were twin boys who were identical in looks but opposite in their outlook. One boy was a pessimist, the other an optimist. No matter how well things went for the pessimist, he always found something to be sad about. And no matter how badly things went for the optimist, he always found something to be glad about. The twins’ parents didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t think these extremes were healthy, and so they went to a counselor for advice. The counselor suggested a plan to brighten up the pessimist and cool down the optimist. It involved the twins’ birthday presents.

When the big day came, the pessimist got a stack of expensive birthday presents: new clothes, a new bike, a new computer, and a bunch of new video games. Surely this would make him happy. But the pessimist just looked gloomier than ever and grumbled, “Now that I’ve got new clothes, I’ll be in even bigger trouble if I get them dirty. The bike will break before long, if somebody doesn’t steal it first. The computer is going to be obsolete before long–they’ll have better ones by next year. And these video games will strain my eyes and wreck my brain.”  The parents were disappointed at his reaction.

Then they went to another room to see how the optimist was doing. The only thing they’d given him was a box filled with horse manure. Surely a birthday present like that would cool his enthusiasm. But when they walked into the room, the boy was laughing and dancing and throwing the smelly stuff into the air. When he saw his parents, he shouted, “Oh, thank you! Thank you! This is the best birthday ever! With this much manure, there’s got to be a pony somewhere!”

Most of us aren’t quite as gloomy as the pessimist in that story. And most of us are not as enthusiastic as the optimist. But we have one thing in common with both of them: our outlook depends more on inner attitude than outer circumstances. Some people seem to have it all—good health, good looks, good income, nice house, nice car, nice family—and they’re still unhappy. Others don’t seem to have much of anything—they’re poor, they’re in poor health, they’re widowed, they’re exploited and attacked and oppressed—and yet they’re still joyful and thankful.

Now of course we’d all rather have things go well for us. We like pleasant situations better than painful ones. But still, our outlook depends more on inner attitude than outer circumstances. If you’re a chronic complainer, it’s not just because everything always goes wrong for you. It’s because you have something wrong on the inside. If you’re basically joyful and thankful, it’s not because things always go your way, but because you have a Source of deep inner joy. As a pastor friend of mine puts it, “If the right things are right, it doesn’t matter what’s wrong.”

Singing in the Dungeon

The story I started with is obviously a joke. It didn’t really happen. But now let’s look at something that did happen. In Acts 16 the Bible describes the experiences of two missionaries, Paul and Silas, in the city of Philippi. A slave girl there had a spirit by which she predicted the future. It was miserable for the girl to be possessed by an alien spirit, but it was profitable for her owners, since she earned lots of money for them by fortune telling. This girl met up with Paul and Silas, and Paul drove the spirit out of her by invoking the name of Jesus Christ. That was good for the girl but bad for her owners.

When they realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the public square and brought them before the magistrates. They couldn’t prove the two men guilty of any real crime, so they played on racial prejudice and vague accusations. “These men are Jews,” they said, “and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

Many of the bystanders soon joined in the attack on Paul and Silas. They hated Jews anyway; they figured most of them were “un-Roman” and downright criminal. So any punishment these two got would be too good for them. The ruling officials went along with it. Like many other officials, these magistrates jumped to a conclusion based on racial stereotypes and unproved accusations, and they ordered that Paul and Silas be taught a lesson. They had them stripped of their clothes and had them severely beaten with rods. Then they threw Paul and Silas into prison and commanded the jailer to guard them carefully. The jailer, not taking any chances, put them in the inner cell, the maximum security dungeon. Then he clamped their legs in wooden stocks. The stocks weren’t just secure. They were sadistic. They dug into the men’s flesh and kept them from moving or stretching their legs.

What would you do in a situation like that? Let’s say you are a target of racism, religious prejudice, and false charges, you don’t get a chance to speak in your own defense, you’re railroaded by officials who couldn’t care less about you, you’re stripped naked, you suffer police brutality and torture, and then you’re dumped in a dark, dirty dungeon and clamped in stocks. The place smells awful, and it’s impossible to sleep—you have too much pain from the cuts and bruises, and your legs are so cramped in the stocks that it is impossible to get comfortable. And all this happened because you helped a girl. What do you do?

Do you start planning revenge? Do you file a huge lawsuit? Do you at least complain and feel sorry for yourself? Do you get frustrated and angry at God for letting such a thing happen to you? That’s how most people would react. But what did Paul and Silas do? They prayed, and they started singing hymns to God. That’s right—they started singing in the dungeon!

From Suicide to Salvation

Thanksgiving depends more on what’s on the inside than what’s happening on the outside. Paul and Silas were living proof. They sang praises to God from a maximum security cell even after suffering terrible injustice and abuse. The Bible tells what happened next:

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 everybody’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about the kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family (Acts 16:25-34).

It’s amazing that Paul and Silas could sing for joy in horrible circumstances, and it’s equally amazing that their jailer could be transformed so totally. One moment the jailer was a bully, shoving Paul and Silas into the worst cell and clamping them in stocks. The next he was kind and concerned, washing their wounds and doing whatever he can to help. One moment the jailer was suicidal and ready to plunge a sword into his own body. The next he was filled with joy. Why? Because he had come to believe in God. He received salvation through faith in Jesus. Jesus transformed his relationship to others and his outlook on life.

When I say that what’s on the inside matters more than what happens on the outside, I’m not just saying we need to work at developing positive thinking and a greater sense of optimism. What we need on the inside is Christ on the inside. With Christ on the inside, Paul and Silas had something to sing about even when everything else seemed to be going wrong. With Christ on the inside, the jailer and his family were filled with joy. It wasn’t just a pep talk on being nice and thinking positive that changed the jailer. It was Jesus.

“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Believing in Jesus is what changed the jailer, believing in Jesus is what gave Paul and Silas an unquenchable spirit of praise and thanksgiving, and believing in Jesus is what you and I need more than anything else. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Admit your sin and your need to be saved. Put your trust in Jesus. Count on him to change you on the inside. When you believe in Jesus, he forgives your sins, he gives you peace with God, and he guarantees eternal life. He comes to live in you through his Holy Spirit, and he begins to make you the kind of person he wants you to be. And in all of this, the Lord gives you an unshakable confidence that it’s all right even when everything is all wrong, and he fills you with joy and thanksgiving.

So let me ask you: Do you believe in the Lord Jesus? Do you love the Lord? Do you feel grateful to be his child? Are you filled with a joy that is inexpressible and glorious? If not, then you don’t know what you’re missing. If you’re unhappy because things aren’t going your way, if you don’t see anything in your life to be thankful for, then you don’t just need new circumstances. You need a new you. And for that, you need Jesus. If you haven’t yet believed in Jesus and given your life to him, then I urge you to do so right now. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you’ll always have something to be joyful about, you’ll always have something to be thankful for, you’ll always have something to sing about. You can even have joy in a jail.

Keeping Our Focus

For those of us who are already Christians, we need to ask ourselves: When we face trouble, do we still have a joyful and grateful spirit at the core of our being? Or do we tend to forget all the eternal gifts we have in Christ, and focus only on the things that haven’t been going our way lately?

I don’t want to make light of the troubles and hardships we often face. Trouble is troubling, or it wouldn’t be trouble. Hardship is hard, or it wouldn’t be hardship. We don’t have to pretend we enjoy pain and grief. We can cry honest tears and not be ashamed. The joy of the Lord doesn’t turn us into robots. Jesus doesn’t program us to do nothing but grin all day and sing all night. Jesus himself certainly didn’t do that. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth,” says the Bible, “he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).

Don’t think Paul and Silas were immune to sadness, just because they were singing in the dungeon. Singing isn’t the only thing they did. They were also praying. They were asking God’s help to cope with this terrible situation. They didn’t think it was all fun and games to be beaten and brutalized. But the fact remains that their troubles didn’t get the best of them. They prayed—and maybe even shed some tears of pain and frustration—but they never stopped rejoicing that they were sons of God, and they never started to hate their enemies or lash out at them. They were realistic about their troubles, but they never took their eyes off Jesus, and because they had Jesus, they still had reason to sing and be thankful.

What was going through Paul’s mind while he was singing in the dungeon? Well, here’s what he writes in one of his letters.

This all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed… Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:7-9, 16-18).

Paul depended on God’s power, not his own. He focused more on eternal glory than on temporary troubles. That’s the kind of faith that moves a man to sing even in a dungeon, and that’s the kind of faith you and I need. Focus on God’s power more than your own weakness. Focus on the everlasting life Jesus has given you more than on the troubles that come your way. You and I don’t have to pretend that hardship is fun, but we do need to keep the right focus. We need to kind in mind that if we’re Christians, no matter what troubles we face, they will never outweigh the privilege of knowing Christ and being sure of eternal life. It doesn’t matter what’s wrong if the right things are right.

Contagious Joy

We Christians need to remind ourselves of this, both for our own good and for the good of others. Who is going to believe that Jesus is the source of lasting joy if his followers are grouchy and bitter? Who will even be interested learning more about Christ if all Christians do is scowl and growl and gripe? If we’re so sour that people think we were baptized in lemon juice, they’re not going to be very eager to join us. People aren’t looking for help in being grumpy; they’re already good at it.

We’re living in a society where whining is a way of life. Everybody’s a victim. Everybody’s getting a raw deal. If something goes wrong, it’s somebody else’s fault. If a baby has a birth defect, somebody must be sued. If you spill coffee, somebody must be sued. In this complain-about-everything, sue-for-anything, everybody’s-a-victim society, it’s easy to become a complainer like everybody else, to get bogged down in feeling sorry for yourself and to lash out at those who seem to be causing your problems. Even Christians can slip into this.

Paul and Silas were singing in the dungeon, but many of Christians are griping from mansions. Many live in comfortable homes and enjoying considerable freedoms but still complain constantly. They’re grumpy in their personal life, they’re upset with social trends, and they are downright bitter at their political enemies. Every time a legal decision goes against their position, they feel sorry for themselves. They complain about anti-Christian discrimination, and they become bitter and even nasty toward the leaders they blame for their troubles. They’re so busy attacking these leaders and declaring their badness that they hardly have time to thank God for his goodness.

When those outside the church hear Christians griping, what are they supposed to think? All they hear is one more interest group that moans and gripes and spews venom at its enemies. They hear an interest group trying to claim victim status along with all the other interest groups. If Paul and Silas had taken that approach, they’d have been too busy snarling about the rulers and jailer to sing hymns to God. They’d have been more interested in suing the jailer than in saving him.

Why do you think the criminals in the prison with Paul and Silas didn’t make a break for it when the earthquake popped open the doors and broke their chains? Why do you think the jailer asked Paul and Silas what it took to be saved? Because Paul and Silas were different! They weren’t the typical sullen, bitter victims of injustice. Their joy in jail was a wonder to their fellow prisoners and to the jailer.

Acts 16:25 says, “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”  Today, though, it might be more accurate to say, “The Christians were complaining and condemning, and nobody wanted to listen.” It’s vital for the health and happiness of our own spirits, and also for reaching the people around us, that we Christians focus on Jesus once again, recover our joy in him, and sing louder than we snarl. Then people might be more eager to listen to us. Even if we aren’t winning court battles, we’ll be winning hearts.

Not Just Doormats

Am I saying we should never stand up for our rights? Should we just be doormats and take abuse from anybody who wants to stomp on us? Not necessarily. We still have heart the whole story of how Paul and Silas responded to unjust cruelty. The morning after the beating and imprisonment, the city leaders sent officers to the jailer with orders to release Paul and Silas. They were free to go. But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us in prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out” (Acts 16:37).

The local officials hadn’t realized that Paul and Silas were legal citizens of the Roman Empire. They hadn’t bothered asking, and they could get into big trouble for violating Silas and Paul’s rights at citizens. Paul knew that, and he wanted to teach them a lesson. He wasn’t about to sneak off in secret. He wanted them to squirm a bit and to admit they were wrong, not just for his own sake but so that city officials would treat Christians more carefully in the future. Paul kept his inner joy even through all the wrongs they had done, he willingly shared the message of salvation with the jailer, he never sank into a despairing, vengeful mood, but that didn’t make him a doormat. Paul knew his rights as a citizen, and he didn’t want government officials to assume that they could mistreat Christians whenever they felt like it.

So there are times when it’s okay to stand up for our rights. But first things first: our main focus must always be on our Lord and Savior. Our dominant attitude in Christ must always be one of joy and gratitude, not resentment and self-pity.

Maybe things have been going well for you, and you have all sorts of things to feel good about and thank God for. If so, great! I’m happy for you. But even if you’ve been going through tough times, even if you’re surrounded by troubles, even if you’re enduring harsh and unfair treatment from others, you still have something to be thankful for, you still have something to sing about, as long as you belong to the Lord Jesus Christ.

PRAYER

Father in heaven, thank you, for your wonderful love and for the gift of eternal life. Thank you for all the other privileges you’ve given us. You give us so much to be thankful for. Help us to receive your riches in Jesus. Give a special measure of your strength and joy to those who are suffering or grieving or oppressed. Give wisdom to know when to confront injustice and claim the rights of citizens, but always protect us from a bitter victim mentality. Make us joyful and thankful in good times and bad. Give each of us the confidence that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.