(This post reproduces one of the chapters in our eBook – Lessons in Christian Living from the Early Church. You can get a free copy of the book in a choice of PDF, Kindle and ePub formats from our downloads page.)
The apostle Paul suffered many hardships and a great deal of mistreatment during his missionary journeys (2 Corinthians 11:25-26). Acts tells the story of how he and Silas, while they were at Philippi on the second journey, encountered a female slave who made a great deal of money for her owners by predicting the future. When Paul cast out the spirit that enabled her to do this, the woman’s owners were infuriated and raised an uproar against the missionaries which led to them being seriously beaten:
The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:22-24).
This was no simple “roughing up” at the hands of a few disgruntled individuals. Luke stresses that the crowds joined in the attack so it sounds as though the two men may well have been badly beaten even before they were “severely” beaten with rods in a professional level punishment. The pain of cumulative beatings like this would be intense and would have lasted for days. To add insult to the injury, Paul and Silas were then thrown into the “inner” cell – the lightless dungeon-like part of the prison where they were fastened in stocks so they could not even move.
These events took the concept of “no good deed goes unpunished” to new levels of irony. We can only imagine the levels of pain and discomfort Paul and Silas must have felt at this time. But Luke tells us that:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose (Acts 16:25-26).
The jailer himself was converted, and if you have read the account in Acts you know the end of the story is much happier. After they were freed, Paul and Silas left the jail and went to the house of the convert Lydia … where the believers tended their wounds and encouraged the two men? Actually, this is not what happened. It is certainly what we might have expected to have happened to the two missionaries, but Luke plainly tells us the very opposite: “After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them…” (Acts 16:40 emphasis added).
It was Paul and Silas who encouraged the believers! The lessons for us in this amazing twist to the story are clear. We may not rise to the level of encouraging that these two servants of God accomplished, but their actions teach us not only that any time is a good time for encouragement, but also that the most effective and meaningful time we can ever encourage others is when we ourselves are suffering.
Encouragement is a wonderful thing, but if we are not careful there is always a danger that when we ourselves are feeling buoyed by peace and happiness, our encouragement of others who are down or discouraged can seem slightly hollow – it’s easy for us to say “be encouraged” when we are not the ones suffering. But when encouragement is given by those who are suffering themselves, it carries a level of truth and effectiveness that cannot be doubted. It’s a story we should try to remember. When we find ourselves in times of suffering, it can remind us that we may have the opportunity to encourage others more than we might ever otherwise do.