In the first reading for Tuesday’s daily Mass there is a description of a remarkable event in the lives of Paul and Silas. Even more remarkable than the event itself is their reaction to it. Let’s pick up the story told in Acts:
The crowd in Philippi joined in the attack on Paul and Silas, and the magistrates had them stripped and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After inflicting many blows on them, they threw them into prison and instructed the jailer to guard them securely. When he received these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and secured their feet to a stake (Acts 16:22-25).
It is easy to read this passage and underestimate the severity of what happened. The two were beaten with rods. Such beatings varied in intensity, but because the jailer is later described as having to bathe their wounds, we can reasonably conclude that it was severe. Beatings like this one led to deep bruises and external bleeding, and often caused such things as internal bleeding, broken ribs, and trauma to internal organs.
After this severe beating, likely bloody and in extreme pain, Paul and Silas were bound by leg shackles and cast into the deepest and darkest cell of the prison. The cell likely contained rats and vermin and any water was likely contaminated with human waste.
All this would be enough to lead most people into despair and self-pity. Yet what do we find?
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:26).
Despite a terrible beating, severe pain, and horrible conditions, they were singing and praising God loudly enough for the other prisoners to hear.
Here is a remarkable teaching: happiness is an inside job. Paul and Silas, despite every physical discomfort, had a joy that could not be repressed or taken away. Their connection to God could not be severed.
Too often, we root our happiness in external matters such as money, esteem, and creature comforts. Yet many who have these things in abundance are still unhappy, while many who lack them are happy. Happiness goes deeper than external matters. There is a joy we can have that the world didn’t give and therefore cannot take away.
There are moments of sorrow and tension in every life, including mine, but deep down there is a stable serenity the Lord has given me for which I am overwhelmingly grateful. I have come to discover that deep inner place of peace, joy, and contentment—and it is largely unaffected by external factors.
There is a Greek word, μακάριοι (makarioi), which describes a kind of stable happiness or blessed state. The pagan Greeks used it to refer to the happiness of the gods, which was unaffected by worldly matters. Jesus takes up the verb form of the word in the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. In other words, stably blessed and happy are those who have their treasure in Heaven rather than in this passing and unstable world.
We should seek the gift of inner and stable happiness, the gift to be like Paul and Silas, the gift to bless the Lord at all times and in all circumstances. This, of course, is the “normal Christian life.” As Scripture says,
I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).
Paul himself says,
Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Phil 4:4).
Yes, the normal Christian life is one of joy that is largely unaffected by external events, joy that is accessible even in moments of sorrow, joy in which a consolation, difficult to describe, is always at work.
There are two final things to note in this passage, both of which show how Paul’s and Silas’ joy and confident disposition affected others. There is a saying, when I get better, others get better too. In other words, everyone affects those around him.
The first thing to note is the liberating power. The text says,
There was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose (Acts 16:27).
It is the role of the Christian to exude a joy and a confidence that liberates others from the prison cells of despair, sin, and depression.
Do people see you as a person of hope? Does your joy liberate and give confidence?
Second, note how the love manifested by Paul and Silas moves the jailer to repentance and conversion. The text says,
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.”
Consider that the jailer may well have been involved in beating Paul and Silas. The average person might be happy to see the jailer try to kill himself. Paul, however, calls out to try to save him, even at the risk of being imprisoned again. So moved is the jailer by this love and faith that he seeks immediate conversion. How has your love and reverence for life won the hearts of others?
Yes, happiness is an inside job. Here is a gift to be sought from God: an inner transformation and peace that is stable and largely unaffected by external things. What a gift this is to us, and to others around us, for when I get better, others get better, too!
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Happiness is an Inside Job, As Seen in Scripture