About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. Acts 16.25-26.
Paul and Silas are in Philippi and have been put in prison for casting a spirit of divination out of a slave girl and thus depriving her owner of the income he had been generating from her fortune-telling activities. But they have not merely been put in prison, they have been placed in the “inner prison” — a place of damp and of cold and of pitch darkness — and their feet have been “fastened … in the stocks” (Acts 16.24). This forced prisoners either to lie on their backs or to sit upright only by propping themselves up on their arms; and either option must have been excruciatingly painful for Paul and Silas because, as a prelude to their imprisonment, they had been stripped then “beaten with rods” and had “many blows” inflicted upon them (Acts 16.22-23). Their backs and arms and buttocks would be bruised and raw and bloodied.
So what were these two shaken, pain-ridden, helpless apostles doing as midnight approaches? Bemoaning their plight to each other? Asking God: “Why have you allowed this to happen to us?” No, not a bit of it. They were “praying” and, more importantly, “singing hymns to God”. They were praising, and praise opened the prison doors.
Now I have to confess that I find this — the principle that praise changes things — to be one of the most difficult principles that I ever have to apply in my life, yet it is undoubtedly one of the most important. For the principle is really not that praises changes things but that praise changes me by re-orientating me towards the Lord in circumstances that have had me turning in all the wrong directions, and thus enabling the Lord to come to my help and to rescue me.
An illustration might help. In early 1971, my first wife and I adopted a new-born baby girl whom we called Heidi … or rather we received Heidi into our lives and were to adopt her at the end of the six weeks during which the law gave the birth-mother the right to change her mind. And the birth-mother did just that, with one day to spare. After having loved Heidi and cared for her and made her our own over those six weeks, she was physically taken away from us. My wife and I were utterly bereft. We couldn’t eat or sleep properly. We were full of grief, anger, disappointment, bitterness … and questions. “Why, God … why? How could you allow this?”
But then a man of God came knocking on our door. “Have you yet begun to praise God in the midst of all this?” he asked us. “Praise God? For what?” we asked him. “How can you praise God when something like this has happened?” “Because ‘for those who love God all things work together for good’ Romans 8.28,” he replied. “And ‘all things’ means ‘all things’ … including Heidi being taken from you. So God is at work here in what is happening and you can praise him for that; and until you do, nothing can change and you cannot move forward into God’s purposes for you.”
They were wise words. Falteringly, we began to praise and worship, and in doing so to submit ourselves to the will of God and to recognise his hand upon our lives. And the very next morning we received a telephone call: “The birth-mother has changed her mind again. You can have the baby back and she has signed the release forms for the adoption to go ahead.” Praise had opened the prison doors.
The principle is there throughout Scripture. In the days of the kings, a mighty army came against Israel and Jehoshaphat was very afraid but the Lord told him what to do. “And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the LORD and praise him in holy attire, as they went before the army, and say, “Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures forever.” And when they began to sing and praise, the LORD set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed” (2 Chronicles 20.21-22).
In the midst of adversity and difficulty and fear, I find it the most difficult thing in the world to lift up my heart in praise and turn my eyes upon Jesus and see in him the truth of the never-failing goodness of God. Yet I know now that only when I bring myself to do that can the prison gates spring open … and often in ways that exceed all my hopes and dreams.