Is pain always bad? How do you handle pain? I’m not a fan of pain. I’ve been battling a heel spur for the past year. Initially it hurt sharply every step I took. But through treatment, especially stretching, it is at bay. I can still feel it, but it isn’t crippling. I even run 4-5 times per week for a few miles, and it doesn’t seem to have worsened. My heel pain, though, is relatively minor. I know, if it grows, I could get surgery and remove it. There are other pains, hurts, traumas in life that are far more severe. How should we view them? As all bad?
We continue our Advent study of 2 Thessalonians, and in this post we’ll try to give some perspective on those important questions. In this first week of Advent, we are studying chapter 1. In verse 3, after sharing his important greeting, Paul dives into commenting about the Thessalonian Christians’ situation. We learn that he has heard a good report from Timothy, who has just returned from visiting the Christians in Thessalonica. As a result of Timothy’s good report, Paul thanking God for the Thessalonian Christians for two specific actions that Timothy observed in his visit: their faith is growing and their love for each other is increasing.
Certainly Timothy mentioned a lot more to Paul about his visit. Why does Paul focus on those two actions? Turn to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the one that Timothy carried with him and delivered to them on his visit. In 1 Thessalonians 3:10 and 12, we read a prayer that Paul prays for the Thessalonian church. First, in verse 10, Paul says he is praying night and day earnestly to be able to see them, and to supply what is lacking in their faith. Imagine if a Christian you really respected said that to you. How would you feel? “I just want you to know that I am praying nonstop for you because your faith is lacking.” Woah. That could hurt. But it is to be expected since these were new believers. Now Paul has learned that his prayer has been answered! Timothy visits Thessalonica, observes them Christians, returns to Paul and reports how their faith is growing! Paul is ecstatic and wants to encourage them.
Now look at 1st Thessalonians 3:12, and there we read about the second part of this prayer. Paul writes a short prayer to God, asking him to help the Thessalonians’ love for one another increase. In 2 Thessalonians 1:3, he expresses great excitement that this second prayer has also been answered. Paul is so happy, and he wants the Thessalonians to be encouraged, to keep going in that direction of increasing faith and love.
Paul doesn’t mention increasing faith and love just because those prayers were answered, he also mentions them because those are two key elements of discipleship. Could it be said of you that you are increasing in your faith, and in your love for your brothers and sisters in the church family? We could summarize these two aspects of discipleship this way: the Thessalonian Christians are growing spiritual maturity in their lives. At this point, we don’t know precisely how they grew spiritual maturity. What actions or habits did they practice? I wish we knew more. What is clear is that both their faith and love increased.
In verse 4, Paul is so excited about the increase in spiritual maturity of the Thessalonians Christians, not just because of the growth itself, but also when he considers the context in which they grew. They grew maturity in Christ while they were being persecuted. You can see Paul hearing this news from Timothy’s report and thanking God. His prayers have been answered. When you are so concerned for someone going through a hard time, and you are praying for them, and they get through it, you know how excited you are. You rejoice with them. That’s what Paul is doing, and he admits that he brags about them to the other churches. There he is in Corinth, probably saying, “Guess what I just heard? Your brothers and sisters in Christ, you know the ones in the town with the crazy people that kicked me out, those Christians in Thessalonica are not only surviving, they are thriving!” I love that Paul reveals that he boasted about the faith of the Thessalonian Christians to other Christians. It gives us a little window into the relationships between the churches in those days. He was intentionally trying to connect them, to bond them, in the family of Jesus.
How much do we know about the stories of the churches around us? I’m thankful for my local ministerium because I get to know the pastors from the churches that participate in the ministerium, and from those pastors I get a bit of news about how things are going in their churches. I think we could do a better job of telling those stories, including telling stories within our own congregation. The primary way we tell each other our stories is through sharing them in small groups, Sunday School classes, personal relationships. That’s why I encourage you to get involved in a group if you are not in one already. We need those places where we can tell the stories of our lives and support and pray for one another.
After these very encouraging greetings, Paul, in verse 5, now writes theologically. He begins with what seems to me a strange comment: “all this is evidence that God’s judgement is right.” What evidence? He is referring to the fact that the Thessalonians are persevering and even growing spiritual maturity despite being persecuted. So their spiritual growth and perseverance in suffering is evidence that God’s judgment is right. What does Paul mean? I don’t know about you, but I find that an odd statement. Is Paul saying that the persecution and suffering is from God?
I suspect Paul, first and foremost, wants the Thessalonian Christians to avoid discouragement. They could easily think, “What am I doing? I’m following Jesus, and all it has gotten me is persecution. How could God allow this?” We say that kind of thing when life doesn’t go our way, right? Imagine if we were being persecuted for our faith! We could pray, “God, I am in physical bodily pain because of you. I am losing my friends because of you. How can you allow this? How is this right? Do you love me? Are you even real?” In fact, we do pray those kinds of prayers, even when we aren’t being persecuted. Our thinking can spiral downward real fast when things are tough. Paul knows that. So while he has now raised the specter of their persecutions, he wants to quickly cut off any negative thinking that might spark. He reminds the Thessalonian Christians that God’s judgement is right. What he means is this: God has allowed the Thessalonians to go through this difficult time, but they have grown tremendously through it, so look on the difficulty as right. Have a positive view of the pain, because it grew spiritual maturity within you.
I will admit, being positive about pain is not easy to do. But Paul reminds us that we can see it from God’s perspective, that he can redeem pain, that we can even grow through pain.