Chapter 28 – Singing and Suffering

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Acts 16
22 … the magistrates tore the clothes off Paul and Silas and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had beaten them severely, they threw them into prison and commanded the jailer to guard them securely. 24 Receiving such orders, he threw them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the rest of the prisoners were listening to them.

Sometimes we may feel beaten. Defeated. Laid bare for the world to pick at. Maybe you are looking at the Thanksgiving table with dread this year, thinking, “I don’t have anything to be thankful for!” I’m hurting. I’m suffering. The question is, in the middle of this present darkness, how can we be found singing? What do we have to be thankful for?

We have all met those people who have a funny way of encouraging. I heard a story of a man who was dealing with some troubling weight issues. He was experiencing heart problems because of his weight and the heaviness of his situation showed on his face. When telling a friend about this, he was met with some form of encouragement.

“Oh ya, I had an uncle once who got so heavy he couldn’t get out of bed.”

“What did he do about it?”

“Oh, he died.” And then, as if to encourage, the friend goes on, laughing, “so, be happy you’re still breathing, eh?”

Paul, a man well acquainted with suffering, has a funny way of encouraging people too. He is writing a letter to the Thessalonian church as way of encouraging them to press on through the cultural persecution they are facing. What could this man so acquainted with suffering say to encourage them. In talking about the suffering that we just read (him being beaten and thrown in jail) he says:

2:2 – we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi…”

He first says, “I know all about suffering. I know what you’re going through.” And then he goes on to say, “You, Thessalonians heard about how I was beaten and imprisoned and thought, ‘that looks like a good idea!’ ”

2:14-15 – For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out;

His encouragement in the midst of their suffering is, “I’ve suffered too. But look, it could be worse. You could be dead. They killed Jesus. Be happy you’re still breathing!”
And then, as if this wasn’t encouraging enough, he goes on to declare…

3:2 “… you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for… (suckers.)”

What a nice guy, eh?

We are often told to ignore our problems and try to focus on what we have. After all, it could be much worse. But this is not a Biblical idea. Jesus didn’t live this way, and Paul doesn’t speak this way. They don’t run from suffering, but embrace it. Why? Because life is full of suffering. Sometimes that’s where we live, and if we run from our suffering, we are running from our lives. If we avoid our suffering we are not dealing with it, but burying it so that it may come back later with greater ugliness.

The answer is not to ignore our pain and think about how much worse it could be. No, instead the answer is to give thanks. What do you have to be thankful for? Why are you singing while in jail? Sandwiched in the middle of these passages about pain is this beautiful verse.

2:13 – We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

Constantly giving thanks because of the Gospel. The good news of salvation doesn’t drive away all the suffering, but is doing something in the midst of it. That is what salvation does. In order to have a saviour you need something to be saved from. This is not a call to look outside of our circumstances as some place up past the clouds, some distant place in the future that will take us away from the pain of this life. This is not the Word of God that the Thessalonians received. The Gospel is in the beauty of an empty cup, because only an empty cup can be filled. Thankfulness is found in the innumerable possibilities of what God will use to fill that cup. The Gospel is found within our hunger, because only the hungry have room for the juicy steak.

If we jump ahead in Paul’s letter to Chapter 5, we see a beautiful picture of the Gospel.

9 God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.

1st – Awake or asleep. Alive or dead. The Good News of Jesus that Paul proclaimed to them is: we live with Jesus. Whether this side of the grave or the other, We live.

2nd – God has destined us for “obtaining salvation.” This isn’t just a one time deal. It doesn’t say that Jesus did die and we will obtain salvation somewhere on the other side of the clouds. This is a continual obtaining of the salvation that is all around us. This is the Jesus that doesn’t tell us to ignore our suffering and be thankful that we aren’t worse off. No, this is the Jesus who is continually saving us while we continually suffer. He is not just the light at the end of the tunnel but he is the light that lets us know there even is a tunnel. He is that light, after death (or as Paul puts it, have fallen asleep) and this light, here and now, while we are yet awake.

This is why in 2:13 is says that we “continually give thanks.” If someone comes up to you and says, “I’m going to save your life one day,” will we be continually thankful? Will you even be thankful at all? Imagine you need a heart transplant and the doctor comes in and says, “I will have a new heart for you someday, after you’re dead, so be happy.” Next time he walks into the room, are you going to be thankful? Perhaps he will be thankful that you are too weak to get up and show him how thankful you really are!

We continually give thanks for the continual salvation that is so broad, deep, and powerful it surrounds us and fills us during the continuation of this life. It even extends past the grave. Death might conquer our bodies, but that isn’t really where our life was anyway. This is the good news.

Our understanding of how good this good news is will measure the breadth of our thanksgiving.’ The greek word most often used for giving thanks in the Bible is “eucharistia.”

Eucharistia = Eu + Charizomai

Eu – to fare well, to prosper, to be well off (well done my good and faithful servant.) This is the state of eternal life in which we live—the state of being “well” with God.

Charizomai – To do a favour, to give freely, to restore one to another, forgiveness.

Eucharistia – to be thankful, to be mindful of favours,

The act of recognizing that we are in a state of perpetual “goodness,” constantly being seen as a “well done” servant, because of the unmerited forgiveness that Christ gives to us.

This word is most commonly used by Jesus when “giving thanks” before a meal. Interestingly, today, we call this saying “grace.” Even in our modern understanding of the concept of praying before a meal, we understand that there is more going on than just a general “thanks for the slop.” We are reminding ourselves of God’s grace: the unmerited favour of his forgiveness which makes us “good.”

This is not just any old favour, and so its not any old thanks. We all know those thank yous. They are the ones that come in response to receiving a Christmas or birthday gift that we don’t really want. There is no power behind the words: no feeling, because the gift wasn’t really something we wanted or needed. We are saying thanks for a good gift, a good favour or forgiveness and restoration that makes us good with God

When we say thanks to God it isn’t “thanks for nothing.” We all know those well meaning people who try to do us a favour, but it just ends up poorly. Children are good at this. Unloading the dishwasher and breaking glasses in the process. Perhaps you have a friend like I had growing up who loved to try and fix other people’s problems. He would get in between a broken relationship and try to repair it. He would go on someone’s behalf to try and win favour in the other person’s eyes… but inevitably made things worse. So the response comes, “thanks for nothing.

With Jesus, it is “thanks for everything!” thanks for the good gift of your forgiveness and the continual gift of your favour, protection, and provision. Thanks for making me good. The problem is, we don’t often think of this while we are suffering. We say things like, “thanks for forgiving me so that I can go to Heaven, but could you do something right now?” The secret is, he is doing something right now. He is continually refining us, making us better than we used to be. We are continually growing, but this sometimes comes with growing pains. We are continually stretched, and this leaves stretch marks. We are continually made new, but in order to be made new, something has to die. In order to have our cup filled with his blessings, it first must be emptied.

One of the very last things that Paul says to the Thessalonians is this:

5:16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Give thanks in all circumstances = give thanks because of all circumstances. Because it is in that suffering that we see God. It is when we are lonely that we feel his warm embrace. It is when we are beaten that we feel his healing touch. When we are lost that he finds us. When we are struggling that he shows us the way. When the storm rages all around us, he walks out to us on the waves and doesn’t calm them, but instead calls out to us and says, walk this storm with me. Because in the middle of the storm I AM.

This is the truth that Paul recognized while he was beaten and in prison. It is the truth that he calls the Thessalonians to remember through their own storms. It is what Peter found out on the water.

We are familiar with the story. The disciples are in a boat, in the middle of a lake, in the middle of the storm. The wind is howling. The waves are crashing. Their boat is a tiny speck in a waste ocean of darkness, suffering, pain, death. The question is, in the middle of this storm, where is Jesus? He is not calming the waves. This time he isn’t sleeping in the boat. He is, in fact, seemingly absent. But it is in that moment of intense helplessness, hopelessness, that they spot Jesus. Not as the storm is clearing. Not standing on the shore at the other side of the lake. Not in another boat, battling the waves beside them. Jesus is in the storm.

The saviour is in the eye of the storm. He is small speck compared to the raging waters, but there something in his step. He is in the storm and yet he isn’t. He is not fighting the waves, or forcing back the wind. Jesus simply walks out to them. He is taking an evening stroll in a thunderstorm, completely at peace.

What does our saviour say to do? Get out of the boat. Enter into the storm with me. Don’t run from these circumstances, because then the storm will chase you. Don’t try to fight the storm, because you will surely lose. Instead, be present with Jesus in the storm. Walk with him on the water without fear of drowning. Sing a song of praise while beaten and chained. Give thanks not because the storm has passed or because it was never there. Simply give thanks because of all circumstances.

When we sit down to our Thanksgiving dinners this year, let’s remember to be thankful. When we bow our heads to say grace, let’s remember what we are saying, and who we are saying it to. Let us remember the one who walks in the storm with us. Let us walk through the wind and the waves singing hymns of praise and find peace at the centre with Christ.

For a full cup, give thanks

For an empty cup, give thanks.

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