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Feb. 21, 2017:  Cast Off and Discarded

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Is it possible that the world listens much more attentively to our story in God when suffering comes into our lives? In the worst of times, I wonder if the world wants to see if what we say we have in God is real.

Acts chapter 16 has some interesting things to say to this question. Paul and Silas have been dragged into the marketplace by an angry mob. They are unjustly tried before the local magistrates, beaten within an inch of their lives and thrown into the inner sanctum of a prison (a kind of dungeon) where their feet are fastened with stocks. A prison in a Roman colony in the 1st century was really a place to be left to die. We can see this in the way that Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, describes their treatment. The verb Luke uses in verse 23 is to be “thrown” or “cast” into prison. The word “cast” means to throw something off without regard to where or how it lands. It is to be discarded like a piece of garbage.

While we might not have physically spent time in prison, we can probably identify a time in our lives when we felt cast off or discarded, when we felt unjustly treated, when life felt brutal, when it might even have felt like God had cast us off and that He did not care about what we are facing. It would not have been unreasonable for Paul and Silas to have felt this way and yet Luke records their first reaction is one of praise. We're told: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” (Acts 16:25a). Here they are in a prison, bleeding and wounded, left to die, brutally incarcerated… and they are worshipping, at midnight! This does seem like such a deeply counterintuitive thing to do. It might even seem like inauthentic pietism. So what is going on here?

Our worship is always at God’s initiative. Our longing for God only ever comes as our heart responds to His longing for us. The Lord also knows that our worship is the means by which we can begin to discern His presence—even and especially in the place of deepest darkness and despair. Their worship was not false pietism but actually God’s loving initiative to enable them to find Him in the darkness. 

And so we read, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…” (Acts 16:25). What must the other prisoners have thought of this? Who sings songs in prison? Who are these two men, beaten within an inch of their lives, now imprisoned and discarded, left to die, in the very worst conditions, who are clearly worshipping their God?! It had to be incredibly compelling to those listening.

Do we sometimes imagine that the challenges we face in life are somehow a poor witness to the love of God? That to be a “good commercial” for the love of God our lives have to be polished and perfect? I think the world quickly sees the inauthenticity of this. People want to know “if God is real, can I rely upon Him to be there for me in the worst of times?”. What I have found (and what we see demonstrated in the worship of Paul and Silas) is that the love of God is most compelling not when everything is going swimmingly but actually in the midst of our suffering. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

Isn’t it also interesting that in the midst of their praise and worship the power of God arrives in force! The initial manifestation of the power of God that night was an  earthquake. “… and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately the doors were opened and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.” (Acts 16:26). The jailer (for whom this was NOT good news) would have expected the prisoners to overpower him, most likely kill him and then escape. And even if he survived their escape, under Roman law he was the guy under orders to keep these prisoners captive, and in the event of their escape, his life is forfeited. And so Luke records, “When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.” (Acts 16:27).

Now it is the jailer who believes himself to be the one to be discarded or cast off. And it is exactly at this moment that Luke records a second, and even greater, miracle. Amazingly, Paul and Silas stay put. There is no violent mass exodus. They stay exactly where they are and cry out to him, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” It is this second miracle—this demonstration of the power of God made manifest in their mercy toward him—that brings the jailer trembling to his knees with the words, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they tell him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” This phrase “believe in the Lord Jesus” is really a compressed shorthand for “accept and receive the mercy that Jesus holds out to you through His work on the cross.” And all that follows would tell us that the jailer did just that and it brought him joy! It was a natural, reflexive joy that issued in celebration (he fed Paul and Silas), compassion and healing (he tended their wounds), and restoration and transformation (the jailer’s whole family was baptized).

There is no place of captivity that the love of Jesus cannot reach. Your life might be a wreck right now. Perhaps your marriage is struggling, your children are causing you pain, or your finances are a mess. If you are a follower of Jesus, you may feel that in your current state you are a very poor representative. As it turns out, you may well be a far better representative of authentic Christianity than any seemingly well-scrubbed, have-it-all-together colleague or friend. People may not recognize the reality of God in you right away, but they know there is something holding you up in the midst of your suffering—and that by itself speaks more loudly than any sermon or devotional or newspaper column can offer. I certainly don’t wish suffering on anyone, but be encouraged: it’s often in our weakest places that the good news of God can shine most powerfully.