Worth It After All – 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10
- Apr 22, 2013
- Series: President's Bible Study
(Part 3 of a study of 1 Thessalonians 2:17 – 3:13)
It was probably the bleakest time of my life. I was pastoring a church in Aberdeen, Scotland. It all looked so good. We had outgrown the 320-seat sanctuary and moved to new premises with over a thousand seats. Every few weeks we baptized people who were coming to faith. Throngs of young adults came to the services. We had planted a new church which grew quickly to over one hundred adults attending.
I was the senior pastor, and I should have been deliriously happy, but I wasn’t. I was in the middle of dark depression. To me nothing mattered, nothing was being achieved, my ministry and my life were for nothing. My doctor had been helping me through depression for months, but the cloud of darkness only got blacker.
One Sunday evening I preached an evangelistic sermon. My heart was not in it. I was saying the right words, but they were empty. They were reaching no-one. Because I felt I had to, I gave an appeal at the end. Anyone who wanted to give their lives to Christ or to deepen their commitment could come forward. No-one would come.
I could not have been more wrong. About thirty made their way to the front, more than had ever committed themselves at any service before.
I left good, well-trained people to counsel and help them, and I headed off into the night. I drove my car to the top of a hill, and sat there looking out at the lights of the city. And I cried. In desperate misery, I wept. My life was in torment. And yet that night God had done something wonderful, something amazing, in many people’s lives. I just did not know how to cope with it.
That was my experience back then (and another time I may write more of how it all eventually changed). That experience was not the same as the apostle Paul’s at the time he wrote to the Thessalonians, but there are parallels – as we will see.
1 Thessalonians 3:6-10
6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. 7 Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. 8 For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
Paul’s anxiety for the young Christians of Thessalonica comes through strongly in these verses and those that went just before. Here his emotions and desire spill out in three distinct ways.
First, deep fear that all he has done has been for nothing.
Paul is very open that he is going through a time of distress and persecution. He’s under severe pressure. In another letter he talked of anxiety great enough to make him despair of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8). Here, in this letter, he’s despairing of ministry itself. In verse 5 of this chapter three he has written: “I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.”
He’s asking himself, was it all for nothing? All that preaching; enduring that persecution; days and nights at risk on journeys and in strange countries; pouring out my heart; sacrificing being with a wife and family; having almost no money; living constantly on the edge of eternity… Was all this for nothing?
Haunted by these questions, he sent Timothy because (to use his own words) he “could stand it no longer” (v. 1, v. 5).
We need to be real about pressure, and many Christians find that kind of honesty hard. Surely we can rise above fear or doubt or stress? Maybe in a perfect world we could, but in the broken world in which we live, we don’t. In spiritual warfare Christians are as likely to get hurt by anxiety or stress or depression as any soldier in ordinary warfare may get wounded.
And Christian leaders are no exception. If Paul could not escape his anxieties, why would today’s pastors, youth leaders, counselors or any other ministry leader be different?
Thinking it may all be for nothing? Fearing we can’t go on? Scared the whole ministry might fall apart?
I’ve been there. And it happened to Paul. It happens today also to faithful Christian workers. It’s just one of the wounds of our struggle for the gospel.
Second, however, Paul has the immense relief of news that his ministry has not been for nothing.
The curtain is pulled back, and he sees something important and lasting has been done. Timothy brought back very positive news about the Thessalonians, and Paul is more than encouraged: “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:8).
The news he hears is life-giving for Paul. He’s enduring very difficult times – lots of opposition – but these Thessalonians are staying true to Christ. That is fantastic. That makes every struggle worthwhile.
When I was a young pastor, someone asked me to visit Margaret. She didn’t come to church, but she sent her children. I’m not a fan of cold-calling on anyone, so it was with great hesitation I agreed to make the visit. One afternoon I knocked on her door. Margaret was busy looking after children, but I was invited in and we sat together in her kitchen.
It turned out I’d visited just days after her brother died. She was hungry to hear if there was anything beyond this life.
“Oh yes there is!” I said, and shared the good news of Jesus, his death and resurrection. Half an hour later Margaret gave her life to Christ. A few weeks after that she was baptized and she started coming to church.
Then I moved away to another city. Often as the years went by I wondered what had happened with Margaret. Most people I visited did not give their lives to Jesus, not immediately and maybe not ever. Maybe it was too good to be true that Margaret had really become a Christian. Perhaps she’d long since given up on church and on Jesus.
Eventually I was invited back to the old place to preach. There was Margaret. Still loving Jesus, still following Jesus, still serving Jesus. Wow! That was so wonderful. My heart soared. My spirits lifted. My faith grew.
For a long time Paul had not known what happened to the Thessalonians. He’d feared the worst. The news he got was the best.
God is very able to watch over his children. He loves them more than any of us do, and he can protect, guide, shepherd them very well even without us. We worry because we don’t know. Sometimes it’s because we’re not there to care. As if it’s all about us.
God knows what he’s doing, and we can be at peace because those we love are in his hands.
Third, despite great hardships personally Paul longs to serve the Thessalonians even more.
They’re well. They’re holding fast to the faith. But if there is anything else Paul can do for them, he wants to do it. “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith” (v.10).
Paul is facing great personal hardship. It wouldn’t be surprising if he was focused on his own needs. But he isn’t. Nor is he looking for sympathy. The Thessalonians are going through great trials, and maybe there is something he can do to strengthen them.
May God give all of us that zeal, that passion, that determination, that longing to love and help others.
I have read stories from World War I and other conflicts from soldiers grateful for wounds that did not kill them but got them sent home – an escape from the horrors of the trenches and the risk every day of dying. They’re glad to have served, but now glad for an honorable way out of the battle.
Perhaps there have been times when we’ve reacted like that. Maybe family obligations gave us a way to refuse others. Maybe our health has been enough of a reason to feel we should be served rather than serving others.
God called my friend Marjorie to ministry, but then she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis which progressed quickly enough that she was soon in a wheelchair. No-one imagined she could still minister. But, with help from her husband Allan, for over twenty years Marjorie has been a hospital chaplain, meeting patients from her wheelchair and serving their needs. Did she have a way out? Of course she did. But she wasn’t looking for an ‘out,’ just for the way to serve needy people with the strength and love God gave her.
No matter how hard life is, very little is impossible and very little is too late. It’s not time to step back; it’s still time to step up and serve others.
Is life tough? Yes. Is serving God hard? Often, yes.
But, in the hardest of times, is God there, is he still using us, and is there yet more we can do for him? Yes, yes, and yes.
All those years ago, while I was struggling through deep depression, God brought people to faith through a sermon I preached. I had no optimism about that sermon, but God changed many lives. I learned: it’s not about me, it’s about him. God takes the frail and broken people of this world and in their hurt and pain uses them to achieve great things. I thank God to this day for that.
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