Recently I noticed that the story in Acts 16 of the woman in the grip of a spirit that allowed her to predict the future is unfin-ished. The woman is enslaved. She was an income stream to her enslavers. To the Apostle Paul, she was an irritation.
The writer (understood to be Luke) paints a picture of a woman persistently following Paul and those who were with him as they were on their way to prayer. She follows them, telling the truth, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” Luke makes it a point to tell us that this scene was repeated for many days. For reasons that are not explained (though a myriad of Bible commentators have tried), Paul reaches his breaking point. Different translations of the story describe Paul’s emotions as “annoyed,” “fed up,” and “great distress.” The Greek phrase used is similar to the phrase describing the anger of religious authorities toward Peter and John for preaching about Jesus (Acts 4:2).
“Finally, Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ At that moment the spirit left her” (Acts 16:18, NIV).
Can we actually help people from a place of irritation?
The woman was instantly freed from the spirit that had owned her. She was healed. But to the folks who considered themselves this woman’s owner, the healing represented a loss of income. Angered by the impact of Paul’s actions on their financial bottom line, they make trouble for Paul. He and Silas are beaten and jailed—and freed by the grace of God. It’s a miraculous story that includes the jailer being brought from the brink of suicide to new life in Jesus. Our very own Dominique Gilliard explores this story and its implications for us in his book Subversive Witness. (Get the book!)
But I want to call our attention to something else.We never hear about the enslaved woman again. What happened to her after the angry owners targeted Paul with their rage? What became of her life after she was deemed useless to the people who likely took care of her so they could turn a profit? Did Paul really help her? Can we actually help people from a place of irritation?
When I preached this story, I asked my congregation if they had ever helped someone while letting them know how deeply inconvenient their need was. Or if they had ever helped someone, only to discover that they had made the original situation worse. In addition to these questions, I confessed that thinking about this woman brought to mind memories of Carlos who lived directly across the street from our family. He was ten, the same age as one of my sons. Carlos was often outside alone, looking for ways to pass the time without getting into trouble. We, however, didn’t engage Carlos much in the short time he was our neighbor, mostly because we were too busy doing ministry.
This is what life with Jesus is like. Some days we miss opportunities to love our neighbors because we’re awash with anxiety, frustration, or busyness. Other days, we get to be a part of seeing miracles happen.
We are never told what happened to the woman in Acts 16. We can’t say whether her future was better or worse. To the writer, she seems to exist only as a setup of the grand miracle that happens later when Paul and Silas and the others are in jail. Even the folks who put the headers in between Bible verses to tell us what we’re reading don’t mention the woman. She’s essentially invisible.
And yet she’s there. Her presence—and Paul’s irrita-tion—remind us that some days, our walk with Jesus is full of missteps and mistakes. Our efforts to love our neighbors might occasionally hurt more than heal. But, like Paul and all the other disciples, both modern and ancient, we’re invited to keep walking forward with God.
Because, even though some days are better than others, God never stops walking with us and working through us.