Sometimes Scripture speaks to us with a command, telling us what we must do; sometimes with a prohibition, announcing what we must not do; sometimes with a warning, alerting us to dangers in life; sometimes with a lesson taught; and sometimes with an example, enabling us to see the heart of God lived out in the life of a person.
1 Thessalonians 2:17 – 3:5 shares such an example that stands out in sharp contrast to what we often find in the world around us.
What we find in the world around us too often: Many years ago, someone who signed her name as “Ashamed of my species in L.I.,” wrote to Ann Landers,
“I just read something in the New York News that made my blood boil: The parents of a 13-year-old are suing the town of Babylon, Long Island, for $21 million, alleging that a lifeguard at the municipal pool refused to save their son from drowning. He said, ‘It wasn’t my area.’
“According to court papers, the boy was swimming in the crowded pool when suddenly he began to drown. Despite repeated pleas from his friends and other horrified bystanders, the lifeguards on duty failed to go to the aid of the boy. Finally two of the boy’s friends pulled him out of the pool. Not one of the lifeguards attempted to resuscitate the lad as his life slipped away by the poolside. He died 30 minutes later in a hospital.
“An observer said, ‘She [the lifeguard] waved me away when I told her someone was down there, at the bottom of the pool. She told the other lifeguard to help. He said it wasn’t his area.’
“The prosecuting attorney charged the death was the result of ‘pure indifference—the most shameful disregard for a human life I have ever come across. They just didn’t want to be bothered.’
“What is happening to the world? Where are compassion and concern for one’s fellow man?”
The sin of apathy is not new. Several decades ago, Helen Keller remarked, “Science may have found a cure for most evils, but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all—the apathy of human beings.”
But God is not a God of apathy; the God we meet in the Bible is a God of deep compassion. Therefore, when God establishes His own heart in a person, that person begins to show the compassion of God, caring deeply for others. That’s what we find in Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians. Over and over again we see evidence of his deep care for these people.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:17, he writes, “But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.”
In 1 Thessalonians 3:1, he shares, “So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens.”
And in 1 Thessalonians 3:5, he repeats, “For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.”
Compassion toward us is the heart of God, and compassion from us is the way we live out the reality of God’s heart in us. Because God’s heart for the Thessalonians was alive in Paul, Paul cared deeply about them. (There is no smidgen of apathy in what he writes.) When God’s heart is alive in us, we, too, should find ourselves caring deeply for others.
Such care may change the world! As C. Neil Strait points out, “Love is the ingredient that makes every relationship in life, whatever it is, a little better. Love has a capacity to mend the broken, heal the hurting, and inspire the despairing. Love that reaches beyond the misunderstandings and the failures is a love that unites and encourages. Such a love is one of our world’s greatest needs.”
Often I have heard Christians speak of what we should do with the Word of God. They stress that we should study it, or we should memorize it, or we should recite it in worship, or we should teach it, or we should spread it, or we should obey it. Each of these suggestions is good, but as I read Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I find myself wondering whether we have been putting the emphasis on the wrong side of the equation. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul speaks of the “word of God” being “at work in you who believe.” Rather than asking, “What should I do with the Word of God?” perhaps the more important question to ask is, “What is the Word of God doing in me?”
As I contemplate this question, other things the Bible says about itself come to mind:
Psalm 119:105 describes the Word of God as “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Am I letting the Bible shed light into my ignorance, my prejudices, and my sinful attitudes and habits? Am I allowing the Bible to provide insight to my outlooks, understanding to my misconceptions, and direction to the way I live?
Jeremiah 23:29 suggests that God’s Word is like “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.” Am I letting the Bible break down my pride, my arrogance, my stubbornness, my callousness toward others, my apathy, and my prejudices?
Ephesians 6:17 calls the Word of God “the sword of the Spirit.” Am I relying upon Scripture to defend me in my spiritual battles?
Hebrews 4:12 adds that the Word of God is “sharper than any double-edged sword” and that it “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit.” Am I letting the Bible do its needed surgery in my soul? Am I letting it cut into my heart so as to expose the falsehoods that lie there? Am I allowing the Bible to cut sin out of me?
And 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that Scripture is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Am I letting the Bible train me and correct me and equip me and challenge me to be a better person? Am I seeking for the Bible to help me to grow in the likeness of Christ, with His integrity, humility, kindness, compassion, and courage, so that I can do good works?
An unknown writer remarked, “I am the Bible, God’s wonderful library…. To the weary pilgrim, I am a strong staff. To the one who sits in darkness, I am glorious light. To those who stumble beneath heavy burdens, I am sweet rest. To those who have lost their way, I am a safe guard. To those who are sick in sin, I am healing strength and forgiveness. To the discouraged, I am a glad message of hope. To those who are distressed and tossed about by the storms of life, I am an anchor, sure and steadfast.”
What a great and terrifying thing it is when the Word of God is at work in a believer!
When I was in high school, some friends and I cut school a day early for a backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park over Memorial Weekend. We planned out a round trip which required us to cover a set distance each day, but from the beginning, everything seemed to go wrong. Our car broke down along the way, and we had to wait for one of the parents to switch vehicles with us. We had further car trouble along the way, so we got started hiking much later than we had planned. On top of that, we brought raw chicken to cook our first night, but as it sat in the hot, broken-down car, it went bad, so the next morning, one of our group woke up with food poisoning. We waited around for much of the day, but being foolish, self-centered high school students who were intent on completing our loop, we did what one should never do to a friend: We left him behind and hiked on without him. (Fortunately, he caught up with us the next day). Since we started late again, we felt driven to reach our planned camping spot even though the sun set before we got there. We pressed on in the dark with a couple of feeble flashlights until we completely lost the trail. We set down our sleeping bags and fell asleep. Early the next morning, I woke up, climbed out of my sleeping bag, took a few steps and looked down a sheer cliff that any one of us might have tripped over in the dark. We were so focused on reaching our destination (completing the loop) that we risked the life of our friend while leaving him behind, and we risked our own lives while hiking in the dark.
Since that time I have grown up a bit, and I have learned that the destination is never more important than the people who accompany us along the way. And I have learned that the most important goal to reach is not a point on the map but the kind of person I am becoming.
John Maxwell said, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”
As I read Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, it seems clear to me that Paul knew where he was going (he was intent on helping the Thessalonians to grow in the likeness of Christ). He was going that way himself (he was growing in the likeness of Christ). And he was showing them the way (he was demonstrating Christ-likeness in how he lived with them).
In verses 7-12 he writes, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory.”
Quite some time ago, Pastor Mark Thompson of Faribault, Minnesota, suffered terrible knife wounds from an assailant in his home. One of consequences of his difficult recovery was being forced to miss watching his son Chris run in the state cross-country championship meet. Pastor Thompson asked his brother Merv to go in his place. According to an account in the St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch, Mark told his brother, “I can’t be there to see Chris run, so I want you there at the beginning of the race. Holler a lot…. Then at the end, I want you to really cheer loudly. And I want you to make your voice sound like mine.” With his uncle’s encouragement, Chris ran a strong race, finishing in second place. Merv, also a pastor recognized the theological significance of what he did: “That’s what Jesus wants us to do,” he said. “Make your voice sound like mine.” (Leadership Journal, summer, 1989)
This is the task given to Christians: Cheer people on toward the goal of growing more and more like Christ, while making our voice sound like His.
A made-up story is told of Jesus’ return to heaven after His time on earth. The angel Gabriel approached Him and asked, “Master, do they know all about how You loved them and about what You did for them?”
“No,” Jesus replied, “not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know.”
Gabriel was perplexed. “Then what have You done to let everyone know about Your love for them?”
Jesus said, “I’ve asked Peter, James, John, and a few others to tell people about Me. Those who are told will tell others, and My story will spread throughout the earth. Ultimately, people all around the world will know about My love.”
Gabriel frowned, “But what if they fail? Do you have another plan?”
Jesus answered, “No. I’m counting on them.”
Though the conversation is fictional, the message it conveys is accurate: For some strange reason, God has chosen to spread His story throughout the world through fallible people like you and me.
In his book, Severe Mercy, Sheldon Van Auken writes a few sentences that should deeply challenge and humble every Christian. He writes, “The best argument for Christianity is Christians—their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians—when they’re self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration. When they’re narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”
We have the capacity to attract people to Christ or to repulse people from Christ, depending on whether we reveal to others the love and joy and goodness Christ is growing in us, or whether hypocrisy, nasty attitudes, and self-interest flow out of us.
From what Paul shares in 1 Thessalonians 1:8, God’s strategy was working in Thessalonica: “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.”
People from northern to southern Greece and beyond were being drawn to Christ because of what they saw in the Thessalonian believers.
God’s strategy worked in my life, too—particularly through a woman named Fran Watron. She was my Sunday School teacher when I was a rowdy, obnoxious and rebellious Junior High School student, but I watched her conduct herself consistently with love and joy and goodness. Despite her struggles with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, she exhibited peace, patience, endurance and joy. I watched the compassionate and caring way she interacted with a friend of hers who lived with severe Cerebral Palsy. I experienced her incredible patience toward me and her caring interest in me. Through her I was drawn to Christ.
God’s strategy is both risky and wonderful. Tragically, many people have run away from Christ because of the hypocrisy, nasty attitudes and selfishness they have encountered in Christians. But others, like myself, have been drawn to Christ through the love and joy and goodness of Christians we have known.
I pray for God to prune from my life those attributes in me that drive others away from Christ, and I pray for God to grow in me the fruit of the Spirit that will draw others to Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.