But that is exactly the way it isn’t. Here are three other Bible verses that drive home the same wonderful truth: “You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7). “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31). And: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins…” (1 John 1).
Don’t – please– spend too long analysing those verses. No! Just rejoice in them, grab hold of them with both hands, and run with them.
You need to read back a few verses. Does this make any difference?… Paul and Silas have been “stripped” and “beaten”, they have been “severely flogged” and “thrown into prison”, they are in “the inner cell” (sounds nastily like a dungeon), and their feet are “fastened in the stocks”. Ah!
Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t spell out any more details. But I’m sure he could have mentioned the gloomy darkness, the cold, the damp, the smells (I doubt if there were en suite washing facilities and other hygienic provisions), probably spiders, not to mention rats and mice. And just the sheer pain and discomfort. Not nice.
And yet they are singing and praising God. An obvious question arises: Would you – would I – have been doing the same? I can only say, speaking for myself, that I have my doubts.
The message is easy to understand even if hard to put into practice: faith in Christ should enable us to be cheerful and positive even in the hardest of circumstances. I’m sure that Paul and Silas will have consoled themselves with the thought that God’s hand was somehow in this turn of events (God does indeed “move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform”) and that good would ultimately come of it.
If you read on you find that that was exactly what happened. An earthquake strikes and everyone is in fear of their lives. The jailer, probably a semi-retired Roman centurion, hard-bitten and used to squalor and violence, is converted to Christ. An impromptu baptismal service takes place in the early hours of the morning. True, Paul and Silas feel it prudent to move on from Philippi – but never mind, they leave behind them an embryonic church (Paul wrote them a letter some time later – have you recently read his beautiful little Letter to the Philippians?).
There’s a detail I’m really glad Luke gives us: he goes out of his way to say that while Paul and Silas were having their prayer and praise session the other prisoners “were listening to them”. Can you picture that? I wonder what they thought? – “What’s that noise? Is somebody singing? Surely not!” Had such a sound ever been heard before in that horrible place? Cries of pain, yes. Shouts of rage, fury, frustration, perhaps. Sobs of despair, I suspect. But hymn-singing? Praying? This must surely have affected them. (Perhaps it explains why, when the doors flew open, none of the prisoners attempted to escape – they sensed that something very wonderful was taking place.)
What can I say? Just this, perhaps. May God help us to maintain our faith and positive spirits in all the circumstances that come our way. And may he also hear our prayers as we remember that even today there are many of God’s people in similarly horrible situations all around the world.
In other words, when we set about trying to restore the sinner, we don’t do so from a height of supposed superiority. Oh no, we do so as sinners ourselves, aware that next time it could be us in need of this treatment. “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
I believe that encouragement is one of the greatest things we can give to our fellow-Christians – indeed to anyone. I’m supposed to have a fairly confident personality, but, believe me, it’s something I need on a regular basis! A child who is never praised will gradually wither and lose self-confidence, like a flower starved of the sun. And we adults aren’t really that different, are we?
A simple word of thanks can change someone’s whole day. A little quiet recognition of what someone is doing can mean the difference between success and failure. A positive, cheerful and optimistic spirit, based of course on a solid faith in the love of God, can lift a whole group – including a church. Are you a Barnabas, I wonder?
But, sadly, Barnabas has a brother (though I am making him up; he isn’t actually mentioned in the Bible). His name is Discourager. He or she is the person who goes round spreading gloom and despondency, always seeing the worst rather than the best, for ever finding faults and problems, difficulties and impossibilities.
Well here in Psalm 11, sure enough, is Barnabas’s brother. The writer is obviously having a problem with him. We find him protesting: “How can you say to me, ‘Flee like a bird to your mountain’…?” In other words, How can you tell me to run away? Oh yes, it’s something I would just love to do. But what sort of faith in God would that show? How can you urge me, in effect, to give up? Go away! Leave me alone!
I imagine every single one of us has felt from time to time the desire to run away, to stop fighting and trusting, to throw our hands in the air, to curl up into a ball, to close our eyes and hope that next time we open them our problems will have gone away. Of course! We are only human, after all. But it isn’t the answer. Problems need to be confronted, difficulties overcome, with a combination of hard work, simple faith and sheer perseverance. Spiritual stickability, I sometimes call it.
The Psalmist may well be wobbling a bit, but he has got the right approach. “In the Lord I take refuge,” he says – as if to say, I can curl up in God, thank you very much, so I don’t need to be running away. In verse 4 he declares, with surely the psalm’s key words, “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne”. As if to say: I know it doesn’t seem particularly like it, but God is in control. So why should I give up? And how dare you tempt me to!
The fact is that the voice of Barnabas’s brother is the voice of the devil. He loves to discourage God’s people, whether individually or as a church. And the business of each of us, as people of faith, is to send him packing – as Jesus said to Simon Peter in a different context, “Get behind me, Satan!”