The Philippian jailer and us: Apostle’s words refute Accuser’s lies

Photo: Giulia May, Unsplash.

“Do not harm yourself, for we are all here,” Paul shouts to the jailer in Acts 16. The man in charge of the prison has drawn his sword to kill himself, fearing the inmates have escaped after a miraculous earthquake flung the doors open.

I can only imagine the thoughts that went through the jailer’s head when he saw the security breach. The fear of failure, shame and loss of livelihood was too much to bear. What would his employer think of him? What would his family think? What would his community think? 

Despair like the jailer’s is all too common today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports suicide in the United States increased by 4% from 2020 to 2021. There are likely many reasons for this increase. Whether situational, mental health–related or both, suicide can be a preventable tragedy. 

Having worked as a mental health professional, I and others in my line of work often told clients that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. While this is true, I often felt this line was invalidating to the person in despair. How does it sound to someone who hears and believes lies about themself? In the moment, temporary problems don’t feel temporary. 

We can’t know the Philippian jailer’s history, but how many of us can identify with his feeling of failure? More than a few, I’m sure.

Scripture refers to Satan as the accuser (Revelation 12:10). In the Book of Job, Satan acts as the accuser, alleging that Job’s loyalty to God will not withstand the test of suffering. The word “satan” means “accuser” in Hebrew. 

I believe everyone is acquainted with the Accuser. Whether we actually hear the words or do battle with the Accuser in our mind, we recognize the voice that says, “You’re not good enough. You don’t matter. You really messed up this time. Why even try anymore?” 

One source of this lie is white supremacy culture. Perfectionism is a characteristic of this culture. It turns mistakes into personal faults. 

This lie causes a person to internalize failure. You don’t fail at something, you are a failure. You don’t make mistakes, you are a mistake. 

When the pressure is on and the stakes are high — real or perceived — all too often we think our self-worth depends on how we perform. 

When a voice tells us we are a mistake and a failure, that’s the Accuser talking. 

But another voice tells the truth: The Divine says we are loved — because of, not despite, all the things that make us human. 

The Accuser’s lie ties the ancient story of the jailer to our present day. We’ve been conditioned to think failure is personal and shameful. We need words of truth to dispel the shame. Paul’s shout — “We are all here!” — offers the reassurance the jailer needed: Look, you didn’t fail! No one is leaving! 

The jailer has a “second-day” -moment. This term describes the experience of people who survive a close encounter with suicide to see another day. Paul’s words remind the jailer there is blamelessness for things beyond his control. 

When he realizes this, the jailer asks Paul what he needs to do to find salvation. The answer is to believe in Jesus and be baptized. This is true not only for the jailer but for his entire household, and the story ends in welcome and hospitality. 

For those of us who are not in the jailer’s plight: How can we be more like Paul? It might seem as if Paul said the perfect thing at the perfect time, but in fact he was simply present. Paul offered a listening ear to the jailer’s desire to be saved. Paul ended up coming over to his house and eating with his family. 

Is it really this simple? I think it is. Show up. Say, “We’re here.” Offer grace. Offer presence. Stay and eat. 

We don’t need to come up with elaborate responses when someone is waist-deep in lies. Sometimes all it takes is saying, “We’re all here.” 

Joanne Gallardo

Joanne Gallardo is conference minister of Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA in Goshen, Indiana. Originally from northwest Ohio, Joanne Read More

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