Something unusual happens to me every time I read this story from Acts chapter 16. In some ways it’s an odd story, featuring a slave woman who is possessed by a spirit that enables her to predict the future. Two thousand years removed from the story and its setting, we wonder what this description could mean. It’s hard to know for sure what troubled her. It poses an interesting question, but that isn’t the part of the story that grabs my attention.
The slave woman follows Paul and Silas around town, calling out to anyone who will listen that “these people are servants of the Most High God” and that “they are proclaiming a way of salvation to you.” She is speaking the truth, though Paul is unwilling to acknowledge it as truth because it is prompted by an evil spirit. She harasses them for several days until Paul has finally had enough. He stops, turns to her, and rebukes the demon that possesses her. She is instantly healed. The miracle demonstrates the power of God at work in these early apostles, the same power that was at work in their Lord. It poses the question of how that same power might be available to us, but even this isn’t the part of the story that grabs me by surprise and causes me to wonder.
The healing annoys the woman’s owners, who have lost a convenient source of income, and they turn against Paul and Silas. They seize them and drag them before the local authorities with the accusation that they are “causing an uproar” in the city. The crowd joins in on the attack against Paul and Silas, which compels the authorities to order that they be stripped of their clothing and beaten. Accused and found guilty without a trial, they are “severely beaten,” thrown into prison, with their legs secured in chains.
And then there is this line: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” And that is what grabs me in this story. Every time. I’m always surprised by that line. I find myself thinking, “How can that be?” Unjustly accused by greedy men, seized upon by a crowd, hauled before the authorities, severely beaten, thrown into a first-century prison, bloodied and in pain, publically humiliated and soundly defeated, their legs locked in irons… and then: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” How is that possible? Who would be singing hymns to God in those circumstances? I try to imagine myself in their place. I wonder if this would have been my response.
What is Paul’s secret? What enables him to praise and thank God in the most difficult of circumstances? From what deep place in his heart is he drawing this strength? What enables him to sing and to worship in such trying conditions?
I’ve thought about this and here’s what I’ve come up with: I think what we’re seeing here reveals Paul’s true identity. Our identity, what we truly believe about ourselves, expresses itself in our words and actions. And it seems clear to me that Paul’s sense of himself has nothing to do with accomplishments or achievements or success; it does not depend on any external factor. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledges that there was a time when he was enamored by the marks of success. He writes that at one time he had it all: he was from a reputable family, he had received a top-notch education from one of the leading educators of his time, he was passionate about his faith and lived it with a zeal that impressed both his peers and his elders, he was popular and acclaimed by all. In short, he had it all. (Phil. 3:4-6)
Until he met Jesus. And his life was changed completely. From that moment on, all of the marks of status, all of his achievements, all the respect and admiration he had won, became as nothing to him. “I wrote them all off as a loss for the sake of Christ,” he tells the Philippians. “I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:7-9a) From that moment on, Paul’s identity was hidden in Christ. He recognized that he was no longer his own; that he had been bought with a price.
The great French monastic and martyr, Charles de Foucauld, once said, “As soon as I believed there was a God, I realized that I could do nothing else but live for him alone.”[i] The same was true of Paul.
But can you see the freedom that this new identity gives him? He no longer has to curry favor from the rich and powerful; he no longer has to please or impress; he no longer has to strive to be ‘successful’ in the eyes of others. All this, he says, he counts as “refuse” – as “sewer trash” (as one translation puts it). Now he is a new creation in Christ. The old has passed away; all things have been made new.
Have you known this kind of freedom? Freedom from the tyranny of having to achieve what the world measures as success? The freedom of not having to be better or stronger or more attractive or more talented or wealthier or more popular in order to be counted as worthy? This is the ‘glorious freedom’ of the children of God and it comes from knowing that we are unconditionally loved by God. Always. Paul knows this freedom. He has cast aside the marks of worldly success and embraced the truth that he is a new creation in Christ. All things have been make new.
Paul has one purpose for being in the world and that is to proclaim Christ. He lives for this. He writes to the Philippians from jail, and tells them that he is pleased to be in prison because the word is spreading, people are hearing about Jesus. He has suffered countless hardships, but they have been nothing to him in comparison to the joy he has found in Jesus.
“Who will separate us from Christ’s love?” he asks the Roman Christians, “Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” No, he says, “I am convinced that nothingcan separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord; not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Rom 8:35-39)
As a beloved child of God, Paul knows the perfect freedom of belonging to God: “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear,” he reminds the Christians at Rome, “you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children… if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Rom. 8:15-17)
It is this knowledge – that he belongs to Christ and is unconditionally and forever loved by God – that gives him the boldness and courage to take the risks that he does. He is like a tree with deep roots, roots that give him a stability and steadfastness that enable him to withstand all kinds of challenges, setbacks and disappointments without giving up or becoming discouraged. He has an unshakeable faith that he is God’s, and this faith holds firm even in the storms and tempests of his life.
Perhaps this is why he can encourage the Christians at Philippi to “rejoice always,” as we see him and his companion rejoicing here in a first-century prison cell after having been beaten and abused. “Rejoice always” – because you belong to God, because you are deeply and irrevocably loved by God, because there is nothing in all the world that can ever separate you from God, because you are God’s beloved child, a fellow heir with Christ of all that God is and possesses.
When you are facing life’s trials, when life seems to be an uphill battle, when you fear being overwhelmed by fear or worry or grief, recall this image of Paul and Silas, beaten and bloodied, locked in chains, singing and praising God! This joy can be yours as well. This freedom belongs to you as a child of God. Nothing can destroy it or take it away from you. You are, and always will be, the beloved of God.
Send down your roots into this deep soil, so that when trouble comes, you can remain steadfast and unmovable, knowing that God always has the final word. And rejoice. Always and everywhere. No matter what circumstance you find yourself in. Trust God’s power and love. Easter is Love’s Victory over evil and death; all fear is washed away. You! – yes, you! – are a beloved child of God.
“See what love the Father has given us,” exclaims the author of First John, “that we should be called the children of God, and that is what we are!” (NRSV) Alleluia!
Note: Except where otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible, ©2010.
[i]Quoted by Jean-Francois Six in his book Witness in the Desert: The Life of Charles de Foucauld, MacMillan Press, 1965, p. 28.