As we're talking about this story, about Paul and Silas in prison and the chains falling off not just them, but every single prisoner in the place, there's something I've hinted at a bit but never really latched onto, yet, it deserves a conversation. In fact, I was starting to just write the next part of the story that I wanted to be telling, and I noticed that I was mentioning it again, so I decided to stop and, well, let's just talk about it.
It's the fact that Paul and Silas were not praying in that prison.
See, this idea is so foreign to us. We are a people of faith who think that the absolute best thing we can do for another person is to pray for them. We think, perhaps, that the least offensive thing we can do for someone is to pray for them. We think that if we want the power and presence of God to show up in a meaningful way, then it's definitely prayer that will make that happen.
We have spent our lives being taught how to talk to God, the importance of talking to God, the power of talking to God, and on and on and on. We've had a major emphasis in most of our teaching, at least in many mainstream churches, on prayer as the avenue to connection with God.
Strange, then, isn't it? that in the Bible, it's most often praise that is emphasized.
This is true back in the Old Testament when Israel came to offer sacrifices. This was true in the wilderness when Miriam started dancing. This was true when David sat down and wrote, through the course of his life, dozens of psalms - these are songs, folks, not prayers. Even though we today often read them as prayers and use them in our own prayer life.
In the Gospels, we don't see many persons approaching Jesus with prayer. They cry out, and we tell ourselves this is prayer, but look at how much praise is happening around Jesus, too. It's incredible when you really start reading with an eye for this.
And now, here we are with two young believers in prison, just as the movement is getting off the ground, and they aren't praying for God's divine intervention. They aren't praying for God's goodness. They are praising His goodness. And that is when the chains fall off.
It raises an interesting question: what if the world wasn't the object of our prayer, but the witness of our praise? How would it change the way the world sees God?
Let's face it - prayer has gotten kind of a bad reputation. We use it as an opportunity for gossip. It's become passive-aggressive in some cases, as we say snidely, "I'll pray for you." It's too often an empty promise - we say we will pray for someone, but we're really just trying to end the conversation and move on; too many of us don't pray the prayers we promise. It can sound rude to someone who doesn't believe, like we're not actually doing anything at all. And it's extremely (it seems) hands-off; it feels like the very thing the Bible tells us not to do, telling someone to keep warm when we have a coat to offer them. In prayer, too often, we tell someone we'll ask God to keep them warm while our extra coat is right there, draped over our own shoulder.
Praise is...it's just different. It is. Praise isn't a fingers-crossed hope; it's a confident assurance. It comes flowing out of this place that just knows that God is good and isn't waiting on Him to prove it.
Do you see the difference? Paul and Silas could sit in that prison and pray, even pray out loud, and everyone's going to be holding their breath, waiting to see if God is as good as they say He is. Waiting to see if He's good enough to answer. But they don't do that. No, they sing about how good they know He is, and that's far more real in that moment. That's far more relevant to the rest of those prisoners. They don't have to wait to see if God is good; they already know it. After all, what other god has prisoners singing praises in a dark place?
Praise changes things, and our world needs our praise as our witness. Yes, they need our prayer, too, but they need our praise. They need to hear us singing the goodness of God.
There's just something about it.
If you don't believe me, try it.