I recently preached on Acts 16 (6-16) which is the account of Paul and Silas in prison. This powerful story got me thinking about the prisons in which we find ourselves. You may not have been to a physical jail, but we can all relate to feeling shackled, imprisoned or bound by something. There are areas of our lives in which we know, all the well, the feeling of being “stuck” or imprisoned. The story in Acts 16 is a powerful reminder that although these “prison-places” are difficult to bear, they can be deeply formational times that are important for our faith and can in fact, become places of ministry, majesty and miracles.
Paul and Silas were doing everything right. They were following God’s call on their lives. They had risked it all and put everything on the line to dedicate their lives to the ministry of the Gospel and yet, the ended up being beaten and thrown in prison. When God sends us, we usually have visions of glory and wonder, but sometimes, God leads us to places of pain. We tend to feel (perhaps subconsciously) like when we do all the right things, God should reciprocate by making things go well for us, but that is not how things work. That is a works-salvation mentality that is not at all in line with Biblical principles. God’s love for us, and His grace, is not dependent on our performance or on doing the right things, and in the same way, He does not necessarily prevent bad things from happening to us when we are in line with His will. In fact, He never promised His followers that being a disciple was going to be easy. To the contrary, He told them that they would have trouble and face persecution for His sake (John 16:33, Matthew 5:11).
Times of pain and suffering are part of life and part of the road of discipleship, but when we experience them – even in the darkest places of imprisonment we can imagine – God is there and we can cling to the truth of His love for us. We can hold onto the promise that He does work all things to the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28) and that He can use our places of pain to minister to others.
Prison experiences can also be a gift in the sense that they tend to drive us to our knees and make us more dependent on God. When things are going well, it is easy to become self-reliant and to fail to trust and rely on God as we should. That is what Paul and Silas did in that place. I often wonder at their response – their incredible faith that enabled them to sing praises to God, even in the dark prison in which they found themselves. Their ministry and witness in that place was incredibly powerful and many were converted because of it. In the same way, our faith in clinging to God when things go wrong speaks powerfully to others about the truth of God’s love and power.
Another important thing to note from Acts 16 is that Paul and Silas were freed, while they were still in prison. Their shackles fell off and they found true spiritual freedom, even though their physical circumstances didn’t immediately change. They were free long before the guard actually let them out because they had true freedom in Christ that did not come from their outward physical conditions, but from the condition of their hearts, eternally secure in Christ.
Wherever you find yourself in a “prison-place” today, know that God is there. He is at work in it and in you, and if you let Him, He can transform it from a place of misery to one of majesty.
“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.” – H. Norman Wright