Millions of us are under house arrest right now for nothing we did wrong. What can we learn from others who’ve been there before?
Granted, that’s not exactly the truth. Quarantine isn’t arrest, and neither is self-imposed isolation due to this virus. Every life is unique, every experience different. Most of us, though, can at least get out and take a walk or maybe even a drive. We don’t have guards; we may not have many visitors, either. Some of us are weighed down with extreme economic and/or health concerns, for ourselves or for others we love.
Yet there are similarities there, too. You might think it’s bleak enough on its own without calling it “house arrest.” I have a reason for going there, though, and it’s simply this: We’re not the first. Others have made it through even worse confinements, and we can learn from them. Some have been victims of errors in the justice system, others incarcerated because of prejudice alone. Some were (and are) political prisoners, and others have been persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Today I’m starting a short series on what we can learn from some of them, starting with the apostle Paul, then the early Christian writer Boethius (a political prisoner with profound Christian insights). I’ll read from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another political prisoner, and his Letters and Papers from Prison, then Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. (Any other ideas?)
The apostle Paul had it rough:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Cor. 11:24-27)
And that doesn’t even include his many imprisonments. He wrote four letters generally called “Prison Epistles.” Ephesians, Phillipians, Colossians, and Philemon. His second letter to Timothy also came from prison (2 Tim. 2:9).
Phillipians is the best of them all for telling how he was doing there, and its one overriding theme is joy. He finds joy in God’s people, in Christ, in the advance of the gospel, in the assurance of his future with Jesus. (You can find the references — read the book!) He is cheered by Timothy, Epaphroditus, and the Phillipian church he was writing to. He considers it of “surpassing worth” to know Christ, including the privilege of “sharing in his sufferings.” He caps it with the instruction to “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice.”
Christ at the Center
How’d he do it? How did he maintain such joy?
Paul knew that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” That’s the sum of it, as far as I can see. He wanted above all to live in fellowship with Christ, and to teach, instruct, evangelize, and encourage others to do the same. Paul knew that Christ was with him in prison as much as anywhere. He knew that he was Jesus’ bondservant, which simplified his own duties to obeying and following Christ in whatever circumstance he was. He had the discipline to focus on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent. What a great way to keep from falling into bitterness and resentment!
And he had “learned in whatever situation I am to be content,” because “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The power of God himself gave him strength to maintain his joy.
That’s lesson one from Paul: Keep Christ at the center
Paul gives us practical examples, too, for how to maintain joy in confinement:
Music and Praise: He and Silas were singing hymns to God at midnight when God freed them from the Phillipian jail (Acts 16:25)
Prayer: His prison epistles are filled with prayers, too many to list here. Mostly he prayed for people he cared about. Read the letters listed above for yourself and see!
Visitors: He asked Timothy to come to him (2 Tim. 4:9), and he was eager to see Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:26). In his house arrest in Rome (Acts 28) he “welcomed all who came to him” (Acts 28:30).
Sharing the Gospel: “Proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”
Reading: He asked Timothy to bring him his books in prison (2 Tim. 4:13).
Writing: This one is almost too obvious to see. He wrote at least five letters from prison, to people he cared about, encouraging them and teaching them.
We can do all of these. Some (3 and 4) might be by phone, video, or social media in these days of extreme social distancing. That’s real enough to count, though. And these are the kinds of things that can lend real personal meaning to what we do, even if it’s from a confined place.
Image: Bab Kisan, believed to be where Paul escaped from persecution in Damascus
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