About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them… – Acts 16:25 ESV
Most of us have no problem praying when everything around us is falling apart. In fact, it seems that our prayer lives actually improve drastically when our circumstances take a turn for the worse. We become prayer warriors in the midst of problems. But what kind of prayers do we pray in those moments? If we were honest, we would have to admit that our prayers usually center around our rescue. We want God to deliver us from trouble, fix our problem, remove our pain, heal our sickness, improve our finances, restore our happiness, and we want Him to do it NOW. But the story of Paul and Silas gives us a glimpse into a different kind of praying when faced with troubles and trials. Acts 16 tells of their arrival in Philippi, a Roman colony. Luke records, “And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together” (Acts 16:13 ESV). In virtually all of Paul’s missionary journeys he went to the local synagogue on the Sabbath. But in this case he went to a “place of prayer.” For a city to have a synagogue, there had to be a minimum of 10 Jewish men living there. So evidently, there were only a few people of Jewish descent living in the city of Philippi and, as a result, they had to find a place to gather for worship and prayer. It was there that Paul and Silas met Lydia, who they led to the Lord and baptized. She hosted them in her home during their stay in Philippi. Some time later, on their way back to the place of prayer, they met “a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling” (Acts 16:16 ESV). Actually, she was demon possessed and was used by her masters to tell people’s fortunes. When she saw Paul and Silas, she shouted, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17 ESV). She did this every time she saw them. And while what she said was true, it was not acceptable to Paul and Silas. Perhaps they feared that they would become too closely associated with a woman who was known to be possessed of a spirit. So Paul, “having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour” (Acts 16:18 ESV).
With the removal of the demonic spirit, the girl lost her ability to tell fortunes, and her owners lost their ability to make money. This resulted in Paul and Silas being dragged before the rulers of the city and accused of causing a disturbance. They were beaten with rods, thrown in jail and had their feet chained in stocks. It was in this condition that we find them praying. But not only were they praying, they were singing hymns. The passage does not tell us the content of their prayers, but it indicates that their prayers and songs were heard by the other prisoners around them. Luke tells us that they were “praying and singing hymns to God” in the middle of the night. The very fact that he mentions both prayer and singing seems to indicate that they were joyful, not sorrowful. They were praising God, not just pleading with Him to get them out of their predicament. They were worshiping, not whining about their circumstances. And their actions were getting the attention of those around them. Their unorthodox behavior in the midst of their problems couldn’t help but be noticed by those who shared their lot in life.
Paul was well acquainted to difficult circumstances. He wrote to the believers in Corinth, giving them a glimpse of all he had been through. “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13 ESV). In a second letter to the church in Corinth, he let them know that his experience with trouble and trials was ongoing. But so was his less-than-normal reaction to them. “In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. We patiently endure troubles and hardships and calamities of every kind. We have been beaten, been put in prison, faced angry mobs, worked to exhaustion, endured sleepless nights, and gone without food. We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love” (2 Corinthians 6:4-6 NLT).
It wasn’t that Paul enjoyed pain and suffering. It was that he had learned to trust God regardless of what was going on around him or happening to him. He found peace in the midst of problems because he knew God was there with him. He wrote, “We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us. We use the weapons of righteousness in the right hand for attack and the left hand for defense. We serve God whether people honor us or despise us, whether they slander us or praise us. We are honest, but they call us impostors. We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive. We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything” (2 Corinthians 6:7-10 NLT).
We aren’t told what Paul and Silas prayed, but I have a sneaky suspicion that they were praising God for His sovereignty, power, protection, wisdom, and unshakeable plan. He knew what they were going through and He knew why they were going through it. He had a plan behind their problem. And Luke records that while they were praying and praising, an earthquake shook the building, their chains fell off and the doors of the prison flew open. But rather than run for daylight and freedom, Paul and Silas led the jailer and his family to Christ. And the amazing thing is that the jailer took them to his home, washed their wounds and fed them, but rather than escape, Paul and Silas chose to go back to the prison. Had they been praying for release, they would have seen this as God’s answer to their prayers. But I believe they were praying for God’s power to be on display, so that more people might come to Christ. They weren’t praying for their problems to go away, but for their God to have His way. And He did.