Dear Reader, please familiarize yourself with the story of Paul and Silas, Acts 16, and their imprisonment in city of Philippi. Read it here.
The accompanying picture is of the jail cell where Paul and Silas were held as prisoners as recorded in the Book of Acts, chp.16. It is in the city of Philippi (Greece) and I had the privilege of visiting it one year and standing in this spot.
Now, I must admit I was a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting Alcatraz or Sing-Sing, but this little 12’x8’ hovel didn’t impress me! Archeologists, however, have never found another jail in the ancient city of Philippi so they are certain this is the very same one written about in chapter 16.
I must admit something else too—I was a little skeptical about the whole story about the earthquake. That was, until I was in Greece and experienced one myself! It seems that Greece is very prone to quakes and small tremors that rattle the country. In fact, the first night we were there our hotel in Athens swayed to the movement of the earth.
Earthquakes happen all the time and buildings are designed so that they withstand the rigors of the numerous tremors. It’s a part of life, a part of reality. So, can I make a metaphor out of it for our lives? Can I say that we experience earthquakes—maybe not the natural ones, but seismic shifts in our life that have the ability to affect us negatively? Glad you agree.
Perhaps it’s the current political climate or a personal spiritual struggle. Maybe you’re not experiencing the economic boost others are or there are some challenges at home with your teenager. Heck—it’s Thanksgiving, right? Maybe it’s the fact that you have to spend time with family over the holidays—these are circumstances which can surround us like a jail cell, rattle our days, trapping us in pessimism and grumpiness, compounding our pain as we throw ourselves a pity party.
And that’s why Paul and Silas and their story is important during the Thanksgiving season—to remember that we aren’t called to give thanks for particular circumstances. Instead, we are called to give thanks in all circumstances—both good and bad. Not for all, but in all. Hear the difference?
Now, I don’t think I need to go into giving thanks in good circumstances, do I? I mean, “Wow, hon, look how our portfolio has just skyrocketed the last two months!” Or, the surgery was successful or your son is named MVP of the Super Bowl. You get the idea.
We know it’s the tough times that really test our faith, really test our obedience—and giving thanks in a situation that is not good is one of the hardest. Read this small selection from Paul and Silas’s story:
Acts 16: 22The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. 23After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
Praying and singing hymns, praying and singing hymns, and praying and singing hymns—giving thanks in their situation; not necessarily for it, but in it.
How so? The Apostle Paul gives us an idea how this worked for him when he wrote to Christians living in Thessalonica. He said this in 1 Thessalonians 5: 16Be joyful always; 17pray continually; 18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
How does Paul begin? With joy. Why? Because joy takes the burden off our backs. Nehemiah said this: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”(8:10) But it is His joy, not ours. It His strength, not ours. Yet, they are ours as we experience the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Think about it: every church has a doubting Thomas or a Gloomy Gus, an Eyore, where talking to them is like witnessing an autopsy. So a conscience decision has to be made by the believer to practice a joyful attitude even in the circumstances that shake our foundations like an earthquake or enclose us like a jail cell.
And you know what that conscience decision is? It is not saying I’m going to be cheerful 300 times a day, like a spiritual mantra, but it is a conscious decision to be obedient to the Lord. That’s right. It’s a totally different approach than trying to will yourself to be joyful. To be within the will of the Lord rather than rely on your own will.
Go back to Acts 16; it tells the dramatic story of Paul and Silas and the Man from Macedonia—a man Paul saw in his dream begging them to come over to him and his countrymen and share the gospel with them.
Paul and the others knew at once it was the Holy Spirit leading them so they changed their plans and obeyed, going a new direction, a direction that would eventually take them to Philippi and this mess. But they accepted the Lord’s will for themselves and could rejoice in it because it was His will for them—His good and perfect and pleasing will.
And they could rejoice in it, because they were, as the text tells us, praying and singing to God. Praying and signing to God continually in community with others. They weren’t watching TV, or on the computer or on their cell phones. They spent their difficult hours praying and singing. How often do we spend our difficult hours trying to fix problems rather than focusing on Jesus through the Word and song, praying with others? And, what did God do while they focused on Him, He solved their problem!
Our problem is not that there isn’t a way through our problems (earthquakes), or problem is that we either don’t like God’s way or don’t believe He can rescue us from our circumstances. So then, the way out is a spirit of Joy, continual prayer and praise, which leads us to being able to give thanks in, not necessarily for, all circumstances. Make sense?
Think also about the impact Paul and Silas’s attitude and actions had on the others that night—including the guard. Even in the stockade they sang and prayed and bore witness to God’s love in their lives through Christ. Eventually, the scriptures tell us the jailer and his family were saved. Maybe even some of the prisoners.
But their thankfulness in the situation, not for it, was a witness to the power of Christ in the life of a believer. Thankfulness is therapeutic.
This Thanksgiving when you’re gathered around the table with family and friends share what you’re thankful for; this story and exhortation to give thanks in all circumstances challenges us to believe that God is intimately involved in our lives. That he has not left us or forsaken us.
It affirms for us that in the worst of circumstances God is working for the good of those who love Him—those who give thanks in their circumstances, not necessarily for them–That His grace is sufficient to see us through.
Put it this way through the life of Christ: When we suffer we have the opportunity to identify with the sufferings of Jesus. We can get a glimpse of the struggle he endured on our behalf—not his own! God is not asking you to deny what your earthquake or jail experience is. He is asking you to rejoice that even when you don’t know what He is doing, He does.
Psalm 92 1 It is good to give thanks to the LORD, And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High; 2 To declare Your loving kindness in the morning, And Your faithfulness every night, 3 On an instrument of ten strings, On the lute, And on the harp, With harmonious sound, 4 For You, LORD, have made me glad through Your work; I will triumph in the works of Your hands.
When we give thanks in, and not necessarily for, we recognize that God, not our problems, is in the details of our lives. And because they have been overcome in Christ, it truly is something we can be thankful in… and for!