I heard Professor Bruce Waltke describe a Christian's response to pain this way: We once rescued a wren from the claws of our cat. Thought its wing was broken, the frightened bird struggled to escape my loving hands. Contrast this with my daughter's recent trip to the doctor. Her strep throat meant a shot was necessary. Frightened, she cried, "No, Daddy. No, Daddy, No, Daddy." But all the while she gripped me tightly around the neck. Pain ought to make us more like a sick child than a hurt bird.[i]
Acts 16 contains three stories that each involve a different kind of pain, and shows God’s deliverance for those who trust Him. As Paul and Silas are walking the streets of Philippi, they encounter a slave girl who is demonically possessed. Her masters make use of her fortune-telling ability to make a fortune for themselves. Tormented inwardly by an evil spirit, her weakness becomes an asset to her owners. Paul sets her free by saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her (Acts 16:18[ii])!” Immediately she is released from the pain of possession, and presumably from her slavery as her owners find no more use for her.
Jesus still sets people free from the pain of inner torment. Sin, guilt, fear, addiction, depression, despair, and broken dreams all tear at our souls, but Jesus has the power to heal. That recovery might not be as immediate as the slave girl’s healing. It might take years of counseling or confession to a trusted friend. You might need the right medication or a regular time of Bible reading, prayer, and meditation. But Jesus has the power to set you free from your pain and slavery.
Because Paul and Silas have robbed the slave owners of their valuable business, the offended parties start a riot and have the apostles thrown into prison. In the night, God sends an earthquake that breaks chains, busts open doors, and sets them free. But when the jailer sees all the prisoners gone, he draws his sword to kill himself. With a loud voice, Paul shouts, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” Trembling with fear, he asks the apostles, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household (Acts 16:28-31).” They share the hope of Jesus with the family members, who receive the Lord and are baptized.
In this story, the jailer is set free from the pain of panic. Falling under the false assumption that the prisoners have fled and that he will be executed, he tries to take his own life. But Paul reassures him and saves his life in that way. So today, Jesus wants to set you free from the pain of panic. Surprising and scary situations arise that produce panic within our hearts, but God speaks peace to our pain, saving us from our own rash decisions. Then He speaks salvation to our souls, offering eternal life and peace.
This chapter shows the psychic girl and jailer—two people who are set free, but whose chains were not immediately apparent. Then it shows two other people who are in chains, but who are already free on the inside. When Paul and Silas are in prison, their souls remain unbound. It is their spiritual demeanor that the jailer sees, leading him to ask how he can be saved. He sees the joy in their faces, despite the pain of very physical wounds. He hears the songs they sing about Jesus, and learns that bars and chains and stocks can never fetter the soul. This calm presence of spirit is what he needs, and it’s this that he reaches out for in the darkness. This is what God wants believers to be like—people who can find peace even through tears, joy even in the midst of pain, hope even when life seems like a prison, and love even for their jailers. This isn’t a false happiness that you put on to mask your pain—it’s the very real presence of God that you can call on in the midst of your hurt, to give you strength and contentment. It’s the joy that lets you sing through the pain.
Recently I read about this kind of contagious joy:
As a third-century man was anticipating death, he penned these last words to a friend: "It's a bad world, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people are the Christians--and I am one of them."[iii]
Isn’t it great to have access to that kind of joy? Philippians 4:4-5 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” God’s presence lets you can sing through the pain. And that joy is so infectious that it causes people around you, like the Philippian jailer, to see what you’ve got, and want it too.