The winter was never more pronounced. In preparation for the evening — certain to bring even more intense cold — the father and young son made that nightly trip to the woodshed. While father chopped the wood a choice neighbor joined them for the exchange of some small chatter. The chopping completed, the young son cradles his tender arms as father piled the wood on. Soon he was bending forward with his load.
“Sonny boy,” said the dutiful neighbor, “don’t you have about all you can carry,” as father continued. Instantly, the young lad looked up to the neighbor and said, “Sir, my father knows exactly how much I can take.”
Put that truism on hold — use it as a backdrop — as we find its reality in the experiences of Paul and Silas.
Battered, beaten, lacerated, and jailed unjustly, Paul and Silas prayed and praised God. This passage has always amazed me. Beaten with the harsh Roman rods and stretched in the torturous stocks — amid all this inhumanity and injustice, the missionaries joyfilly praised God! Amazing!
In fact, everyone in this entire episode is disturbed and confused except the missionaries. The young girl is possessed; her owners are angry; the city magistrates are the pawns of public opinion; the jailer is at the point of suicide; the inmates are so awed and confused that they forgot to escape when they had the opportunity; and the missionaries, who had reason to be most disturbed, were calmly and joyfully praising God! Truly amazing!
How can this be? How can someone after being severely beaten and jailed unjustly be singing? The usual response to this kind of treatment is despair, disappointment, and depression. Lesser persons would wallow in self-pity, strike out in resentment, or succumb to resignation. Not these two! They were praying, singing, and praising God so loudly that they were disturbing the other prisoners! They had found joy in their suffering. In this passage, we can learn how to do the same.
I. They Exercised the Freedom of Choice!
Viktor Frankl suffered through the horror of years in concentration camps during World War II. He literally lost everything — family, job, possessions — everything except one thing: his power of choice. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he states, “… everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances…”1 Every prisoner had the inward power to choose what kind of prisoner he would be. Paul and Silas had determined to be praising prisoners.
It’s also true with us. There will never be a time for us when outward circumstances are just right. We can never control, change, or manipulate all outward circumstances, but in every circumstance we can exercise the inward freedom to control our response. It is our choice!
George Buttrick has said, “The same sun that hardens the clay melts the wax.”2 It is our choice whether we will let the inevitable suffering and misfortune of life harden or soften us. We can choose to be hopeful or hopeless. You can determine whether you will be an optimist or a pessimist. It all depends on how you look at it, and you determine in which direction you look.
I love Zig Ziglar’s illustration of General Creighton Adams who surprisingly found himself completely surrounded by the enemy. Listen to his optimistic speech to his men. “Men, now, for the first time in the history of this campaign, we are in a position to attack the enemy in any direction!”3 It all depends on how one chooses to look at it.
Paul and Silas found joy in suffering because they exercised their freedom of choice. The soldiers could beat their backs but could not defeat their spirits. They could imprison their bodies but not their wills. Instead of hatred, Paul and Silas chose love. Instead of resentment, they chose forgiveness. Instead of despair, they chose joy.
II. They Exemplified the Choice of Joy!
The missionaries not only exercised the freedom of choice, they exemplified the choice of joy. And why not? Did not Jesus say, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:11)? This is God’s purpose for you: that you might enjoy His full and abundant life. As one Christian creed puts it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” We are saved to enjoy God. Did not Paul understand this and speak out of experience when he said, “Rejoice evermore … In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). We can choose joy!
Christian joy is not mushiness, gushiness, or jolliness. It is not a false, phony, and naive cheerleader kind of joy. This is not a superficial joy dependent upon outside circumstances. We are not talking about a reward for perfection or hard work. Christian joy is the natural result of Christ’s life flowing through us as we obey His will. It is the deep peace that comes from accepting His way. Never dependent upon outside circumstances, Christian joy derives from an inward Presence and following that Presence wherever it may lead.
Again Frankl is helpful. He states, “If one has a why to live, he can endure almost any how.”4 Paul had a “why” to live. He was “on mission” for Christ. The “how” of his existence was secondary; the “why” was primary. Following the inward leadership of the Holy Spirit, the outward circumstances hardly seemed to matter. Paul and Silas chose to be on mission and exemplified the choice of inward peace and joy.
III. They Enjoyed the Promise of the Presence!
Paul and the missionaries not only exercised their freedom and exemplified the choice of joy; they enjoyed the promise of the Presence. What promise is this? Nothing less than the words of our Lord when He commanded us to go into all the world, to make disciples and as you go, I will be with you. Paul found joy because he knew that the Saviour was with him. As we go for Christ, He always goes with us.
Christ not only goes with us, He always acts in our behalf. Sometimes He acts just as He did in our text; sometimes He performs a miracle. He reaches down and miraculously rescues us as He did Paul.
Sometimes I feel we miss many miracles because we are insensitive to inspire others to help. As a 19th century Hasidic rabbi once put it, “Human beings are God’s language.”5 Many times, just at the right moment, a certain someone appears with just the right word. It’s the hand of God. Other times God chooses to work in our behalf by giving us the ability to solve our situation or the power to endure. Yet He is always at work. Paul could praise and pray in prison because he knew that God was always with him, active, and bringing about His results.
Paul could pray and praise in prison because he knew that somehow God would find a purpose and meaning for his suffering. In his remarkable book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold S. Kushner states that “suffering ceases to be suffering when it finds a meaning.”6 Suffering ceases to be suffering and finds meaning when it reminds us of the suffering of our Lord. Paul states, “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ … for it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ … you should also suffer … (who) humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 1:27; Philippians 2:8).
Could not our suffering remind us of all He suffered for us? Yet Christ not only suffered for us, He suffers with us. We truly have “a crucified God.” God suffers with His children when we reap the natural result and painful harvest of our sinful ways. No one sorrows more deeply than God when the life of a precious child is claimed by a drunken driver! The cross shows us that, beyond a shadow of doubt, God feels our pain, experiences our sorrow, and knows our agony. If our suffering alone reminds us of His suffering for us and with us, it has served us well.
Our suffering ceases to be suffering and finds meaning when it helps others. Kushner states that the suffering of his son from progeria (“rapid aging”) was an inspiration to many others. Paul knew that God would use his suffering to help others, and he was right! The jailer and his whole family were saved.
How many times has God used the suffering of others to inspire us? Have we not been touched and uplifted by the suffering and sacrifice of one such as Mother Teresa? I walk more upright because of the courage in suffering of my arthritic aunt Ida Mae. Could it possibly be true that I might somehow — by carrying my cross — inspire and help others? Our suffering ceases to be suffering when it helps others.
Our suffering ceases to be suffering and finds meaning when it helps us. One of our most treasured Bible verses speaks so helpfully here. “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). In Romans 8:29, He defined the “good” inRomans 8:28 for which He is working in our lives: “to be conformed to the image of His Son.” In short, God is working in our lives to make us more like Jesus. And that’s the most wonderful thing that can ever happen to us!
God doesn’t cause our suffering but is always at work in the suffering of His children to make us more like Jesus. Paul stated in Philippians 3:10 that it’s worth the loss of everything to “know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death.” Our suffering finds meaning as it causes us to be more like Jesus. It’s the promise of His presence in our lives.
John Claypool’s story is still a wonderful description of the Christian life. It’s the story of a peasant who lived in a village at the foot of a mountain range. In full view of the village on the side of the mountain stood a monastery. Once a monk descended from the mountain to the village below. The peasant, running up to the monk, said, “Oh Father, surely yours is the best of all lives — living so close to God up in the clouds. Tell me, what do you do up there?”
After a thoughtful pause, the monk replied, “What do we do up there? Well, I tell you. We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up.”7
That’s it! That’s the Christian life! We all belong to the “Society of Skinned Knees!” We all fall down and have to get up — again and again and again! And it is our choice! Do we stay down or do we get up?
Fra Giovanni, the 16th century poet said it well:
“The gloom of this world is but a shadow. Behind, yet within reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see and to see, we have only to look.”8
In suffering, look to God. He gives us the freedom to choose, enables us to choose joy, and is always with us using our suffering for His purposes. As the psalmist said, “Thou wilt show me the path of life; in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Psalms 16:11).
Are you sitting on the right hand?
1. Viktor E. Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning. (New York: Pocket Books, 1959), p. XI.
2. John R. Claypool. “The Choice Is Always Ours” (an unpublished sermon).
3. Zig Ziglar. See You at the Top. (Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 1975), p. 336.
4. Frankl. op. cit. p. 127.
5. Harold S. Kushner When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), p. 140.
6. Ibid., p. 141.
7. John R. Claypool. “Growth in Grace” (an unpublished sermon).
8. Claypool. op. cit.