The prisoner

The prisoner dictated a letter to some of his dearest friends hundreds of miles away in another country. He told them that he was in chains—most likely chained to his jailer, as that was the custom of the time. Ironically, he had previously also been jailed in the city in which his friends lived.1 On that occasion he had been beaten and imprisoned—illegally, it turned out—in the city’s most secure cell. He was considered an atheist2 and a rabble-rouser, and was well known to authorities throughout the empire, who were glad to get him off the streets whenever they could.

It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when he was dedicated to enforcing the law. He had even been an officially sanctioned vigilante who went about brutally clearing his area of miscreants—men, women, and children alike.3 That had been a task he relished. But that had been long ago. Now he was on the other side of the fence, and his former colleagues were complicit in his censure and imprisonment.

The apostle Paul knew his life was in the balance. It was either death or freedom for him—it seemed no other options were even being considered. He had been held under a sort of house arrest for a while, but no longer; and his new jailers, drawn from the ranks of the Praetorian Guard,4 were particularly tough. In any case, the wheels of Roman justice were turning exceedingly slowly. His dear friends in Philippi were worried about him and had sent money toward his upkeep. Some were old legionaries who knew how the Roman system worked, how tough and often unfair it was. So Paul was writing to reassure them that God had everything under control.

The Philippians were some of his favorite people, it seems. He wrote tenderly to them, encouragingly, telling them to look on the bright side. If this was his time to die, he would go to be with the Lord; and if he was freed, that was good too, because then he could come and see them again. He said he couldn’t make up his mind which was better.5 He had committed all into God’s hands and had received peace in return. His words are immortal and they resonate with all believers:

            Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. …

            Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

            And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.6

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Pass it on

I believe that God wants to encourage people, but often He needs us to do it. And, believe it or not, we do have what others need. We have God’s Holy Spirit and His words of love! Our life can be influential because of the power of our words. Our words don’t need to be profound or eloquent—just simple words that meet a person’s need for love, hope, significance, or comfort.

If you feel like you have no time, no energy, no expertise, or little to give, don’t worry; that’s common to many of us. But we can all give through our words of encouragement, through which our lives can have influence, and we can spread God’s love wherever we go. In just five minutes or less, we can make a difference at a bus stop, on the metro, at the shop, at work, at school, online, going for a walk, and the list goes on.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves: What can I say to this person that will help them in some way, lift their spirits, brighten their day, make them feel appreciated, valued, and worthwhile? How can I leave this person feeling good about themselves, that what they’re doing counts? Then let’s ask God to give us the faith to say whatever He lays on our hearts.

  1. See Acts 16:12–40.
  2. One of the crimes attributed to the early Christians was atheism, because they denied the existence of gods other than the one God.
  3. See Acts 9:1–2.
  4. See Philippians 1:13–14.
  5. See Philippians 1:22.
  6. Philippians 4:4–9 NLT