Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
What’s it Mean to be “Anti-Fragile”?
This morning, I’m going to open with a little bit longer introduction than I normally do, in order to introduce a concept that I want to use as we consider this story that we just read.
Back in 2012, Nassim Nicholas Taleb published a New York Times bestseller titled Antifragile: Things that Gain by Disorder. Nassim, to my knowledge, isn’t a believer—he’s often described as a scholar in statistics, risk analysis, and probabilities.
I bring up his book Antifragile, this morning, because his point in the book is to expose a concept that cultures have always been aware of, although even today—we don’t have a name for it. Believe it or not, no language has a word for everything. A few months ago, I mentioned that the Scandinavian languages and cultures have a word for everything that involves the warm and cozy feelings of the holidays—hygge. “Cozy” doesn’t quite capture that feeling, does it? In Scandanavian cultures, hygge isn’t about just “getting cozy” over coffee and a blanket in the evening. There’s almost a soothing ritualism to hygge—and, we don’t quite have an English word that’s comparable. Languages often fall short.
So it is with Nassim Taleb’s point on the matter of what he calls anti-fragility. That’s a word he made up, because our language—and in his research, no other language—has really designated a word for what he regards as “antifragility”.
What is antifragility? What’s it mean to be “antifragile”? It’s a concept that we know, culturally—and, most cultures have reference to this idea. The pop singer Kelly Clarkson actually had a hit song called “stronger” that touches on the idea of antifragility. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Sufferings and getting knocked around make you stronger. It’s the opposite of fragile.
A helpful way to capture this is to think of how we describe various densities, on a spectrum. Glass is fragile—it breaks easy. It has a high fragility. Rubber is resilient—you can bend it out of shape, and it’ll go right back to its original shape. Plastic is either brittle (it cracks easy) or resilient (it doesn’t crack or break). Metal, we often say, can be malleable. It can bend, be pounded, but it won’t break into pieces.
I almost titled this sermon “Malleable Ministers in the hands of a Mighty God”. As we look at Paul’s journey, you see that he’s like a malleable piece of metal—his plans get changed. He originally desired to minister in Asia, God sent him elsewhere. He begins ministry in Philippi, and he doesn’t fuss or get defeated. He adjusts to whatever God throws at him, trusting in God’s providence. You might say he’s “malleable”—he doesn’t break, and he bends with God’s providence.
Although, I just couldn’t focus on the thought of Christians being malleable. It falls short of what God calls us to—and really, what the gospel does to us. God, through the gospel doesn’t simply make us “adjustable” or “flexible” in unexpected and hard situations. The gospel makes us stronger in them. That’s not malleable metal. That’s a class of it’s own. It’s anti-fragile.
A compelling image that Taleb gave in his book was a parcel—a UPS box—that said “fragile! handle with care!”. Taleb asked, “what would the opposite packaging label be?” Most would say “durable, handle as you please” (or something like that). If you think about it, that’s not the opposite. That’s kind of a neutral sticker. The opposite sticker, strictly speaking, would say “anti-fragile! please break me!”. Instead of being destroyed when broken down—or just being resilient—the object gets better. It benefits from being jostled around. You could think of the mythological creature, hydra—it loves to be destroyed. Cut off its head, and it grows two more heads. Or, for an example that’s closer to home, Taleb points out that information is “anti-fragile”. What happens when the government bans a book—and tries to destroy it? Suddenly, everyone wants to read that book.
Antifragile Ministers of an Almighty God
Since this book came out, several Christians have been quick to use the word“antifragile” to describe Christians, and the church. While the word is new, applying the concept that this word captures to Christians is not. Tertullian’s famous words 1800 years ago capture this idea—“the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church”. Persecution grows the church. Or Peter himself, in First Peter 1:7, captures the idea by describing Christians as metal in a refining fire. When we’re thrown into fire, we’re purified—“the dross to consume and thy gold to refine”, as we often sing. Impurities make metals more brittle. Sin and doubts make us brittle—and, as refined metals gain resilience, we gain resilience. We get stronger through fire. I think you get the idea.
If you haven’t caught onto where this is headed—our passage describes what antifragile ministry looks like in the hands of an Almighty God. You could say Paul’s ministry, his decisions, and his will—was antifragile. Or to make it bigger than Paul—the church, Christ’s kingdom—is antifragile in this morning’s story. It’s all in here for us this morning, so that we might likewise, by faith, might learn to be antifragile as a church and as Christians.
What we’re going to do today, is see a number of characteristics in Paul’s ministry that might help us understand what it looks like to be “antifragile”—to grow stronger in the faith—when we’re met with unpredictable struggles in life. Paul saw a lot of struggles in this story—and, as we’ll see, the church is stronger and bigger at the end. We see conversion, Satan’s demons cast out of people, prison bars opened up, and the Roman magistrates publicly apologizing to the church for their ill-treatment of Paul. This isn’t just resilience—“we got through it without breaking”. This is antifragile ministry in the hands of an Almighty God, who works all things together, through Christ, for our good (Romans 8:28).
And, I really do think that this is applicable for where our church is at. It’s no secret (and I’m comfortable at this point to say this from the pulpit) that our church is in a stage of generational transition. Many of the older folks among us have expressed fatigue after decades of faithful ministry to this church—and, many of the younger families are may need to step up in one way or another. It’s at moments in a church’s life like these, where we need to remember to be antifragile. There may be unpredictable changes in the coming years. There may be some poking at sensitive matters, and toes stepped on. Will be we fragile—and say “that’s a fragile matter your stepping on, Pastor”? Or, will we simply be “resilient” and “just get through it” without breaking? Or will we be antifragile, and grow stronger in the coming years? I hope and pray that the story before us might give us some examples of antifragility to aspire to. It’s describing Christ’s kingdom—Christ’s ministry—for us, here, of which we are part of this morning.
Five Descriptions of Anti-Fragile Christians
So, let’s jump in. I see five descriptions of an antifragile church—an antifragile ministry—here. Let’s just walk through the story, and we’ll see them come out as we go along.
1. Antifragility in Paul’s Calling
First, let’s just recall the context of this story. I think there are a few things to learn from as we remember where we’ve been, here in Acts. As I mentioned before we read this passage, the first part of Acts 16 kicks off Paul’s second missionary journey into the area that is now western Turkey. Chapter 15 verse 36 tells us that Paul originally aspired to this second journey in order to encourage the churches that he planted during his first journey.
Now, I just want to point out that this is, indeed, a second journey—back to those churches. That should shock you, by ordinary standards, if you remember what happened to Paul in his first missionary journey. In his first journey, Paul was mocked and slandered, beaten on a number of occasions, and left for dead in the desert after one beating. Then, by the way, when Paul returned to his home church in Antioch, he came home to a group of Jews who began challenging the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice for salvation. He came home to a pastoral crisis in his home church. So, he takes a trip down to Jerusalem to get this sorted out with the church there.
If that was you—or, if you were journeying along with Paul through all this—what would you say at that point? I’ll leave that to your imagination, but I imagine a picture of “rest and relaxation” might have grazed your mind. Paul, here, says “Let’s do it again. Let’s visit the churches from our first journey”. Paul is solid, driven—strengthened—by all this. What keeps this guy going?!
In his letter to the Corinthians, he tells us. In First Corinthians 15:10, he says—
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
What keeps Paul going—strengthened, motivated, fearless, antifragile? Grace. Grace fuels him, sharpens and fashions him—to be the sort of man he was. From the context of this story, as we remember Paul’s example from a broader perspective, we’re reminded that the source of our antifragility—our strength through weakness—is grace. The strength doesn’t get mustered up from within us. It’s given to us through the gospel, every day.
I recently began giving bible lessons at St. Mary’s Inpatient Recovery center—and, in one of those lessons, I touch on something that I think is applicable to all this. When you’re in recovery—or generally, fighting any sort of sin, like alcohol, or general complaining and fussing when life gets hard—you need strength. In many situations, you need to get stronger with every temptation—because believe it or not, the temptations often get stronger the longer you resist them. After three months of fighting the fight, we’ll often say to ourselves—“Oh it’s ok, you haven’t complained about your husband or wife in 3 months, you’ve done really well. It’s ok to let a foul word out to your friends right now. No harm, no foul, right?”. Wrong—and, the beauty of the gospel, is that it’s grace that keeps you steadfast overtime, not your own prowess. It’s grace that makes you fearless, obedient, steadfast—not yourself.
The way I explain this to the recovery groups at St. Mary’s is through the example of fear. In many ways, one big reason why we give into temptation, is fear. Perhaps you give into complaining or gossiping because it’s a means of control—and you fear of losing control if you don’t gossip or complain. It’s like the child who fusses to get what he wants. He’s afraid he’ll lose control of what he wants if he doesn’t fuss.
Living like that, by the way, is exhausting. It’s a mark of fragility—losing strength rather than gaining strength. It’s taking your own life into your own hands, and you end up sucking your own life dry—and, that is a situation ripe with fear. You look at how big your problems and temptations are, and you look in at yourself to see how small you are, and two things happen—(1) you fear as you are left to your own strength (it’s lonely, you know), and (2) you get exhausted.
Paul wasn’t looking in on himself for strength in his service to God. That’s what he was saying in that verse from First Corinthians. “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Had he looked to himself for strength, he would have fallen into fear and sin. Instead, he looked up to God, and was strengthened by grace. He walked in the forgiveness and Spirit of Christ everywhere he went.
While Paul clearly lived that way, Peter commends us to live that way. In First Peter 4:11, the apostle Peter commends all those who serve in the church—"whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 4:11).
So, the very thought of Paul setting out for a second journey, given everything that he’d been through, demonstrates his antifragility—and, it generally forces us to consider where he gets all of his energy and ambition from. He gets it from God, from grace. One minister calls it “grace-driven effort”. I like that.
So, the first description of an antifragile person is that he gets strength from God, through his grace in Christ, especially when life is exhausting. Now, what does it actually look like to serve with “grace-driven effort”?
2. Antifragility in Paul’s Obedience
Consider the actual journey Paul makes when he sets out on his journey. As I had mentioned, he originally set out with the desire to visit the churches he had planted on his first journey. Although, as we read in our passage—is that what he was doing? Not at all. You see, the Spirit of Christ had other plans for Paul, and Paul obeyed.
Chapter 16 verse 7 even says that “they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them”. Then, Paul received a vision that directed him to Macedonia. Paul goes without hesitation, and he ends up in Philippi. That’s where our passage picks up, this morning.
Philippi, even as our passage tells us in verse 12, was a “leading city of the district of Macedonia”. It was a big city—a cultural center in many ways. It was a strategic place to proclaim Christ.
Now, what does Paul do when he gets to Philippi? Verse 13—
And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.
So, we see Paul looking to worship on the Sabbath day with God’s people, and we see Paul looking to evangelize Christ to God’s people on the Sabbath day. The reference to the riverside, there, is a reference to a Jewish practice at that time, when a city didn’t have it’s own Jewish synagogue. If there weren’t enough men in a city to lead and establish a synagogue, it was customary for the few Jewish people to “go down to the river to pray” on the Sabbath, as it were. A place of prayer was usually designated around a source of water, for prayer. Paul, knowing this, seeks out his Jewish kinsmen as the first point of his ministry in Philippi.
What I want us to see at this point of the story, is Paul’s obedience to Christ in all of this. Paul set out on the journey with a very different journey and mission in mind—to encourage the churches he already planted. Only now, Christ commands him to go to Macedonia. He obeys, and ends up in Philippi. More than this—he goes to the river on the Sabbath as his first target in Philippi because he’s being obedient to Christ. Christ told the apostles that Christ should be preached to the Jew first, and then to the gentiles. That was a standing order for the apostles in that day, for reasons we won’t go into this morning. Although Paul, here, obeys.
It’s a mark of antifragile ministry—obedience to Christ’s marching orders. For the Christian, obedience is a matter of faith. It’s a matter of receiving instructions, and trusting that they will bear fruit. Often, obedience requires us to lay our own wisdom and plans down, trusting that God’s designs are better. It’s the classic sports, or military story. An athlete must decide if he’s going to trust his coach, of he’s going to take matters into his own hands. The same is true for a soldier responding to his commander. Obedience is a matter of trust.
I can imagine many reasons why Paul may have struggled with some of Christ’s instructions. He had baby churches that he planted on that first journey—perhaps it would have been better for him to focus on continuing to build up the church in that region so there could be a more powerful, bigger church in one area. Instead, Christ told him to cross the sea into territory that hardly even had a Jewish presence. The further west he went, the fewer synagogues; the fewer people who had even heard of Yahweh, and his promised Messiah. Yet, Paul went.
More than this, Paul went to the small gathering of Jews when he got to Philippi. You almost wonder how that would be strategic. This group was a marginalized group, culturally. In a massive city like Philippi, we’re talking about a small gathering that can’t even constitute a synagogue. Although, that’s where Christ told him to go. What happens? Lydia and her household is saved—and more than this, the Lord provides through Lydia a place for Paul and Silas to stay. Verse 15—
15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.
I love that—she prevailed upon us. She insisted.
God’s instructions are always best. Humble obedience is always best—and, by the way, God’s instructions are usually frustratingly simple. I often meet with people who want God’s direction in their lives, and they expect me to get some revelation and tell them what they must do. “Do I marry this guy, or not?”. “Do I take this job, or the other one?”. God’s commands rarely pertain to the particulars, like that—even though we often want them to. God’s commands are far more simple—but, in their simplicity, they’re actually quite hard. “Do not worship other gods.” “Do not lie”. “Do not cheat”. “believe in Jesus, repent from your sins, and be baptized”. “Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you”—and “drink, this is the blood of the new covenant” (the sacraments). “Do not commit sexual immorality”. “Proclaim the salvation in Jesus alone.” Or to sum it all up—“love God and your neighbor”.
God’s commands to his people in Christ are very ordinary. The ten commandments are very ordinary—and, the means of grace by which we are saved is very ordinary. Proclaiming the gospel, and reading the word, and receiving the Lord’s Supper and Baptism aren’t commands to a flashy, lights-in-the-sky church ministry. Although, they are the means through which Christ promises to strengthen us, and make us anti-fragile. Humble obedience lends itself to antifragile people as God blesses the obedient.
In Paul’s unique situation as an apostle, he obeyed Christ in going to Macedonia, and in going first to the Jew, and he was blessed for it. He saw a household converted, a church established, and Lydia gave him a place to eat and sleep.
But again, this is all coming from God’s grace. Lydia’s conversion, no doubt, strengthened Paul’s spirit with encouragement, and with her hospitality. Although, the story makes it very clear that it was the Lord’s work to save Lydia. It was the Lord’s blessing that saved Lydia, and so strengthened Paul in this way. Verse 14—“The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us” to stay at her house. That all came from the Lord—“The Lord opened her heart”. All salvation, strength, and success in ministry is from God and his grace. May God be working this grace among us, to strengthen and bless us, here at Covenant.
So, antifragile people get their strength from God’s grace, and they are obedient to God’s commands.
Hiatus: The Way of Fragile People in a Fragile World
Now, as we continue reading the story, we’ll take a quick hiatus from Paul’s antifragile ministry in order to see an example of the world’s fragility. The world, brothers and sisters, is fragile. It’s cursed, and it always breaks down. Consider how verses 16–24 move this story along. We’ll likely see some things that remind us of what’s happening in our world, today.
In verse 16, the story really ramps up when Paul and his companions make their way to “the place of prayer” again. Then, verse 16, “we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling”. So, this was a fortune-telling slave. She’d tell fortunes and reveal hidden knowledge, and her owners would get the profit. Verse 16 tells us that the fortune-telling came from “a spirit of divination”. So, this is demonic warfare at work, here. Men building their lives upon Satan’s kingdom, versus men like Paul who built their lives upon Christ’s kingdom. One is fragile, the other is antifragile.
We’re told that the demon takes the offense and throws the first punch. The woman seeks to undercut Paul “for many days”, we’re told, by following Paul around and revealing his group as “servants of the Most-High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation”. Now, that may seem that like it’s helping Paul—but, it wasn’t. People have made a number of suggestions to answer why, but suffice it to say, it’s not particularly helpful when people hear about you and who you are from a spirit-possessed slave woman of the occult. Even then, people had reservations about divination and fortune-telling. More than this, it’s possible that spirit was trying to get exorcised, so that Paul would get negative publicity for dismantling a man’s business which he built up around this woman.
Now the quick point, here, is just how fragile we are when we build our lives upon the curse, or upon the kingdom of Satan. When Christ’s kingdom came into town, this man’s world was shaken, and it fell down to dust. His slave was rendered powerless, and useless. Then, because he’s so fragile, he riots. Fragility doesn’t just break—it retaliates. Fragility has a mean bite. Broken glass cuts. That’s why we often call fussy, manipulative people “fragile”. When their worlds break down, they panic and lose their minds.
Verse 19—“but when [the slave girl’s] owners saw their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers”. Then—just to cut to the chase—they charged Paul for disturbing the city with an unlawful religion and custom. The sob-story was given, and the likewise fragile Roman government quickly joined in the retaliation. Paul and company were beaten and thrown into prison without trial.
I’ll let you make the connections to our modern political environment, today. Or, to get closer to home—make the connection to yourself. Ask yourself, “am I a fragile person”, “when do I break, and retaliate?”. Sometimes retaliation isn’t a riot, it’s a retreat into isolation and despair—to the bottle, if you will. Sometimes it’s a retreat into something that looks good—you go get house projects done by yourself, or do the dishes, with a spirit of anger or resentment rather than joy and fellowship. That’s fragility. Fragility takes many forms—but, it’s always destructive. It’s not a matter of simply, “do I break”—but even, “what do I do when I break?”. If you’re not pursuing fellowship, forgiveness, and strength in Christ and with others, then I’d suggest you consider this matter deeply.
If your life isn’t established upon Christ, you will break. You will be fragile—at best, durable and hard to break. But, you won’t be antifragile. You won’t get better and stronger through trials.
When this man got his property rightfully taken from him, he stirred a riot. I’ll remind you of what the gospel does in Hebrews 13, in the same situation. There, the author of Hebrews commends early Christians saying, “you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property”. Christians rejoiced—they got stronger, happier, bolder when they were robbed. That’s antifragile. Why? The verse continues, “…since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” God’s grace and hope makes antifragile, rejoicing Christians, folks.
3. Antifragility in Singing
That, by the way, leads us into the next part of our story as we continue to consider Pauls antifragile ministry. Look at what Paul and his companions did in verse 25. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” Here’s antifragility in action. This is what it looks like to grow stronger even in the moment of affliction. What do we do to receive God’s grace for strength and hope? We sing, and we pray. That should define us, Covenant Presbyterian. Singing hard, especially when life is extraordinarily hard.
I would love to hear singing from the kitchen, when there’s a desire to complain about all the dishes that need to be done after a fellowship event. I would love to hear our children say “when mommy and daddy are struggling, they sing praises to God in the house, and things get better”. Sing songs that express the sadness—there are Psalms of lamentation and weeping in the Bible. Sing songs that lift the soul into the blessings of Christ. Sing songs of prayer and deliverance. Take a lesson from the Psalms—a book of songs—and remember that God’s people have always been a singing people, especially as a means to lift us up into grace during troubles.
So, just to recap all this—antifagile Christians (1) are strengthened by God’s grace in suffering, and press on into that second missionary journey. They (2) are obedient Christians, humbling receiving God’s ways as wise and life-giving rather than their own. Antifragile Christians (3) sing and pray as a means to be strengthened by grace in suffering. What else?
4. Antifragility in the Jailbreak
Verse 26 tells us what happened when Paul and his companions prayed and sang. “Suddenly there was an earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.” Then, as we keep reading, Paul actually stops in all the chaos and urgency of the moment to preach the gospel to his panicking and suicidal jailer. Verse 28—
28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
Don’t you love that? Paul doesn’t get delivered from jail, and say “whelp, we got out of this undamaged”—that’s resilience. Paul isn’t just resilient. By grace, he’s an antifragile minister at the disposal of an almighty God. He comes out of prison with a converted Jailer, whose new allegiance is Christ rather than Caesar. He’s come out with a new member of Christ’s kingdom—all because Paul is razor-sharp focused on evangelism, and confident in Christ’s power to save and protect him. He can take the time to save that fragile, despairing jailer who needed a savior.
And by the way, Paul didn’t simply come out of the jail strengthened in numbers, with a new convert. He came out strengthened in another way. That jailer, with his whole family now baptized, responds just as Lydia did with an invitation to his home. Verse 34—"Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” The kingdom of Christ, the church, grows through tribulations because God provides a peculiar salvation and strength and generosity to his people.
Now, there’s one last way the church was strengthened through all this.
5. Antifragility in Paul’s Personal Escort
In the last paragraph, the Roman authorities respond to all this by trying to cover it up. “Let those men go”, verse 35. They wanted Paul and his companions to leave quickly and quietly, because there was no good way for the Roman officials to explain it and maintain their pride. Paul wouldn’t do it—he and his companions were Roman citizens who were unjustly condemned without a trial. As a result, the whole town perceived the new church in Philippi to be a criminal, unlawful activity. Paul was concerned about the reputation of the new church he planted in Philippi. So, with great wisdom, Paul demanded a public apology and escort in order to vindicate the name of Christ and his church. Through all this, the church in Philippi wasn’t simply left with a bad reputation—or even a neutral reputation. God designed all this so that the public authorities would publicly commend the church as above-reproach, through their apology. The church was strengthened, and it grew—all because Paul was zealous for justice, and the church’s positive reputation.
Antifragile Christians and churches (1) get their strength from God’s forgiveness and grace, (2) obey God, (3) sing God’s praises and pray often, (4) are focused in evangelism, and (5) are passionate for justice and a good reputation.
That’s antifragile ministry in the hands of an almighty God. That’s Christianity, that’s the church. Because we are strengthened by an infinite and eternally wise God who governs all things together for out good, we grow when we’re beaten down. So, sing praises to God, pray often, obey his instructions, rest in his forgiveness and fellowship through Christ, and trust that the Lord will strengthen your spirit in your fight against temptation and sin when life gets hard.