Prison is not an experience most of us equate with joy. The two things just don’t seem synonymous. Prison implies restrictions, lack of freedom, punishment and deprivation. When injustice is added into the equation – being wrongfully imprisoned – we can’t imagine viewing this as a positive experience!
But Paul and Silas offer us a different perspective on imprisonment. (Acts 16:16-40) They are wrongly arrested, flogged and imprisoned because their actions in delivering a slave woman from an impure spirit led to a loss of income for money-grabbing owners who depended on the woman’s ability to tell fortunes to rake in profit, but we don’t find them timorously cowering in a corner or woefully lamenting the limitations of the justice system. Instead, we find them praying and singing hymns to God! (Acts 16:25)
Repeatedly in the book of Acts, joy is the response to persecution and opposition, including physical harm to individuals.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41)
When facing accusation and death, Stephen’s ‘face was like the face of an angel.’ (Acts 6:15)
When forced out of town, the response was ‘and the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 13:52)
This is in direct response to Jesus’s words (Matt 5:10-12) and is a response that runs through the entire New Testament:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. (James 1:2-3)
But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet 4:13)
How can we learn to do this? We do this primarily by focussing on God’s sovereignty, power and purposes which cannot be thwarted. (Job 42:1) No matter what comes against us, we know that God is in control and can work for our good in all circumstances. (Rom 8:28) We learn to see beyond the present troubles to the eternal glory He is working out for us (see 2 Cor 4:16-18, Rom 8:18). Sometimes, deliverance comes quickly (Paul and Silas are released from prison by miraculous means and move on from Philippi); at other times, it may not be so quick and may even end in our death (as ultimately happened to Paul and many other apostles.) But joy is promised to us by Jesus’s constant presence with us and becomes a testimony in itself.