When God Provides An Escape, and When He Doesn’t

chains on gateWhat happens when the earthquake doesn’t come?

In Acts 16, Paul and his companion Silas are thrown in prison in Philippi. They had delivered a young girl from a spirit of divination, and this angered some powerful men who had enslaved her and profited from her fortune-telling ability.

Now out of a high-revenue, low-overhead business, they dragged Paul and Silas before the city magistrates, accusing them of disturbing the peace and teaching unlawful customs.

And, perhaps most insidious, being Jews.

Ethnic hatred wasn’t invented by the Alt-Right.

The magistrates, without so much as a trial, had them stripped naked, beaten with rods and thrown into prison.

Paul and Silas responded by praying to God and by singing hymns to the entertainment of all the other prisoners.

Because, wouldn’t you?

Around midnight an earthquake shook the foundations of the prison; the chains fell off everyone’s ankles and all the doors swung open.

They were free!

What a sign of God’s power!

The jailer became a believer, and the magistrates apologized.

Isn’t God great?!

Fast forward a couple of years to the events described in Acts 19. The heady initial success Paul had seen had turned to severe opposition. He might have gotten the upper hand on many of his opponents, but he didn’t vanquish them, and they hounded him wherever he went.

Civic leaders, already resenting that the Romans allowed the Jews to skip the town festivals which honored the local gods, couldn’t tolerate this guy who claimed privileges belonging to both Roman citizens and Jews.

His fellow Jews, wanting to live peacefully among in the Roman empire, didn’t like being lumped together with this radical who kept talking about a crucified messiah.

While he was in Ephesus a riot broke out because he claimed that their beloved Artemis wasn’t a real goddess after all, but just a statue. “Great is the Ephesian Artemis!” the crowd began chanting.

Instead of amazement and acceptance, Paul was causing riots. People wanted to kill him.

He starts to realize that his life and that of the Messiah are wrapped up in more ways than he initially suspected. Just as Jesus encountered initial success, then fierce opposition which led to his abandonment by all but his closest associates, and finally death, Paul’s ministry would follow the same trajectory.

He’s experiencing the fierce opposition. Soon comes the abandonement.

Before long Paul ends up in prison, probably right there in Ephesus where the riots had been just a prelude.

Well, Paul knows what to do, right? The last time he was in prison he prayed and sang hymns and God used an earthquake to release him. Surely he would do the same or something similar.

This is how God works—we pray and sing from prison, he miraculously frees us and proves to everyone that he’s on our side and they better get to apologizing.

So Paul prayed and sang hymns.

I suppose; it doesn’t say he did, but, I mean, wouldn’t you?

It worked before.

But there was no earthquake that night. Nor the next.

Days went by, then weeks.

No earthquake.

No deliverance.

The shackles remained around his feet, the prison doors remained locked.

Worse, most of his so-called friends didn’t bring him food. (The Roman didn’t feed their prisoners; it was up to their family and friends.)

Paul was left in his cell, tired, hungry, cold, probably subject to regular beatings.

If he’s not prayed-out, he’s certainly sung-out.

Wondering if it’s all been in vain. All his efforts. All his zeal.

If it wasn’t just his friends who had abandoned him, but God as well.

Later he would open the letter known as 2 Corinthians by acknowledging that he was “utterly, unbearably crushed” and “despaired of life itself.”

It was a dark period of his life from which he probably never fully recovered. Nonetheless, he said, he learned through this experience to rely on God.

Rely on God? But God hadn’t come through! He didn’t send an earthquake! He didn’t release Paul from prison! What’s he talking about?

He’s saying that, instead of relying on formulas—pray + sing = deliverance—he’s simply trusting God.

He’s trusting that God knows what he’s doing.

No one likes suffering, but it’s a necessary component of spiritual growth. Resurrection and new life always come after the cross.

Avoid the suffering, you avoid the new life.

Suffering isn’t good, but God is, and he will use whatever hardship you are going through to shape you into the image of the crucified Jesus.

You can rely on him.

Even when the earthquake doesn’t come.

Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash

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