Suffering and singing
May 11, 2021
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. – Acts 16:25
In my younger years, I didn’t have much use for Paul. I blamed him for some of the ways that his writings have been used to subjugate and divide. Since then, I learned more about his context and the ways in which he truly teaches radical liberation in Christ. Paul is certainly cranky sometimes, but who isn’t? He knew pain, suffering, and struggle to a degree that many never will. He was also a faithful pastor to bourgeoning faith communities across the Levant. His letters offer a remarkable blend of teaching, encouragement, and exhortation.
I am struck by the account of his imprisonment as told in Acts 16. As circumstances got very difficult, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns. In prison, having been flogged, they praised God. That is the work of a seriously deep and powerful faith.
Paul suffered plenty, but still he could write beautiful framing of what suffering can mean:
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.Romans 5:3-5
Specifically, he was talking about suffering for our faith. Instead of avoiding suffering for our faith in Jesus, we should welcome it. That’s a far cry from what we sometimes hear from Christians who want all the privileges of the Christian faith without any of the cross-bearing.
One of the great, unnamed heresies of our time is the idea that we can reconcile a prosperous life in the empire with the self-offering to which we are called as Christians. We want a faith that we can squeeze in around jobs and soccer games. We want a church that doesn’t ask too much of us. We want to think kind thoughts about the world’s problems without giving up our comforts or our status to address those problems. We somehow imagine that Jesus would bless our demands for rights instead of calling us to embrace our responsibilities.
I wonder if I would sing hymns, like Paul did, if I were facing the challenges he faced. And yet the testimony of suffering Christians has blessed us all. In the words attributed to Tertullian, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” I pray that I am never a martyr, but I also pray that I will never demand the privilege of Christianity, only seeking to offer what I can to the glory of God.
Mosaic from St. Paul’s outside-the-Walls in Rome, where St. Paul is said to be buried. St. Paul is at Jesus’ right hand. Photo by Scott Gunn via Flickr.