Lately I’ve found myself in “preparation mode,” which is not unusual for this Planner. But I’ve been learning throughout my fifty-four years that there’s a difference between being prepared and putting my hope in the plans I’ve created.
So, as I read Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I recognize his voice of encouragement for the anxious and highly persecuted church in Greece. For this band of believers, their unstated lament of brokenness begs to know when the relief will come – almost as though they can ‘plan their hope’ to endure if they know how long.
Paul reminds them, however, what Jesus taught – we don’t know when. Not even Jesus knew the answer to that question (Matthew 24:36). As such, Paul picks up the lessons that Jesus passed on about being ready, day or night, for His return: Have those oil lamps filled and burning (Matthew 25:6-13). Watch and pray (Mark 13:32-37). Be awake and sober (1 Thessalonians 5:6)! In other words, “Preparedness does not come by speculations about when that day will arrive.”1
In our generation, we may not face persecution like the early Christians, but there is much happening in us and around us to make this life difficult. We watch with a deep knowing that this is not how it’s meant to be. We anguish with hearts that cry out for Christ to return. And though it’s tempting to want to spend our time calculating the events of the world eschatologically, the truth is we won’t know when the End Days will be; therefore, our best bet is to live our lives for Christ with faith, hope, and love – so that we’re always ready for Him.
With conflicts escalating in the world, our hearts resonate with the Thessalonians more than they ever have. We take in the images of profound desolation, human displacement, and absolute destruction – and our emotions overwhelm us. Maybe some of us even ask the same question, Lord, when will You return to make everything right?
But, just like those in Thessaloniki twenty centuries ago, Paul’s words are meant to encourage us, as well:
“You are all children of the light and of the day; we don’t belong to darkness and night. So be on your guard, not asleep like the others. …Let us who live in the light be clear headed, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation. …Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.”1 Thessalonians 5:5-6, 8, 10-11 NLT
Perhaps what war and threats of war do more for us than anything is wake us up. Suddenly, the creature-comforts we thought we couldn’t live without seem frivolous. The plans for elaborate vacations feel selfish. The desires for more wealth, more success, more friends pale in comparison to what others in the world lack. The Spirit is prodding us – not with guilt – but with awareness that there is more to our lives here on earth than ourselves. In fact, there’s more to life than what we see with our eyes. In another letter, Paul comes right out and says it:
“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”Ephesians 6:12
Though the battles on earth are fierce and awful, the real fighting happens in the spiritual realm. The prophet Elisha helps us understand this truth:
“When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. ‘Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?’ the servant asked.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’
And Elisha prayed, ‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”2 Kings 6:15-17
Those horses and chariots of fire were there the entire time. Only when the Lord removed the veil did the servant see the spiritual army ready to fight for them.
Spiritually speaking, nothing has changed since Elisha’s day. Those same armies are ready to fight for the people of God – believers in Christ who no longer make up one nation but are scattered throughout every nation. Those armies are vast and strong. As in stronger than any force on earth.
This – THIS – is where our hope is to be placed. Not in what we see, but in what we know to be true. It’s why Paul, and other apostles like Peter, consistently point us to the spiritual gifts and traits we need to find protection in the battles we face.2 It’s also why they utilize a soldier’s armor as their metaphor. They want us to be battle ready!
In the NIV, verse eight of our first Thessalonians passage more accurately captures the truth that “the trilogy of faith, love, and hope is the vital element of the armor:”1
”But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”1 Thessalonians 5:8
Think about everything we’ve been learning about our trio of Christian graces – how they work together to source us with everything we need and strengthen us for all we face. Together they become our spiritual protection.
Like a breastplate, faith and love work to shield our hearts from the attacks of the enemy. Like a helmet, hope covers our minds with the truth that we are already saved! Which is why Paul goes on to say that whether we’re dead or alive, we will live with Jesus forever (v.10). The miracle of living in the established hope of what’s to come bolsters our hearts and minds with hope for everything we face in the here and now.
Take heart, friends. Bonded with love, faith becomes “a real, live shield; not a sentimental hopefulness, but a Spirit-fueled, tangible reality. Faith is palpable protection.”3 This spiritual shield “graces us with the power to lay down all our tired strategies of self-protection. Self-protection in exchange for God’s protection.”3
Knowing that the greater battle is in the spiritual realm and that we are protected helps us believe what Paul is trying to teach about spiritual preparedness. And, his words are meant to encourage us, just as they did the first century Thessalonians:
- Instead of worrying, Paul exhorts us to keep our eyes open and be smart – not sleepwalk through life (v.6 MSG).
- Instead of trying to determine what “the days” are telling us about Christ’s return, we are to “walk out into the daylight sober, dressed up in faith, love, and the hope of salvation” (v.8 MSG).
- Instead of hiding alone in our homes, we are to move toward one another in hope so that we’ll all “be together in this, no one left out” (v.11 MSG).
So. When the news reflects to us images of the terrifying and heart-wrenching, when our personal lives feel dark and hopeless, and when we’re tempted to take things into our own hands, we can choose to turn our eyes and feelings and thoughts to Christ. We can recall that we worship the Light of the World, who died so death could be defeated, who resurrected from the dead so we can have life fully – now and eternally (John 10:10).
The power that raised Christ from the dead resides in us (Ephesians 1:19-20)! And that power enables us to do more than we can imagine (Ephesians 3:20) – to keep moving forward, to step out of fear and into Christ’s love, to trust that the ultimate victory is already won, and to join the work already happening in the spiritual realm around us.
The best way to enter into such holy work is to pray. By ‘pray,’ I don’t mean putting voice to our worries over and over and over, like kneading bread – JD Walt calls this “worrying our prayers.” By ‘pray,’ I mean stepping into the power we’ve been given and contending for those who need Christ’s love and power most. This kind of praying is battling in the spiritual realm. It’s putting on that armor and getting into the fray, praying protection, in Jesus’ name. Praying provision, in Jesus’ name. Praying peace, in Jesus’ name.
Friends, Christ has gone before us, and He has provided us with power for spiritual preparedness. With that power we can refocus our gaze off all that overwhelms us and onto the One who holds everything we need to endure with hope. We can wake up from the slumber that fear, anxiety, and comfort have been quietly lulling us into to live with the power we’ve been given. We can join the fiery army of heaven and fight for what is good.
This is holy preparedness.
As we put our energy into being light in the world, encouraging other believers, and engaging in the spiritual battles through prayer, we’ll no longer be distracted by all the “what ifs” or tempted to try to number the days until Jesus returns. Instead, we’ll fight the good fight knowing we are protected and prepared by the faith, love, and hope given to us by Christ.
Father God, thank You for giving us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that we can know You better. We pray that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened so we’ll know the hope You have called us to, which are the riches of your glorious inheritance in your holy people and your incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is same strength You put to work when You raised Christ from the dead and seated Him at your right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked – not only in the present age but also in the one to come. Father, You placed all things under Jesus’ feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way. How incredible to think the same fullness and power of Christ reside within us! And are always for us! Lord Jesus, in You we place our hope, remembering that the victory has already been won because of You. In You we put on our shields of faith and love so that our hearts continually know your protection. We release every desire and inclination to make plans, to self-preserve. Instead, we name our fears, we speak our anxious thoughts, we verbalize every feeling of guilt and shame and regret as the means of lamenting and laying down. Then we pick up faith like a shield and choose to trust You. Holy Spirit, how we need You. Every hour we need You. Not a minute goes by that we aren’t assailed by doubts and debilitating emotions. So we thank You for the power You infuse into our hearts and minds and souls. We thank You for the hope that strengthens us to persevere with faith and love. Each day we know God’s mercies are new, so we continue to set our minds on Him through your presence and power. And by living out of such faith, hope, and love, we know that we’re not only protected but completely prepared for what this life throws at us and for life with Christ.* It’s in His name we pray, amen.
(inspired by Ephesians 1:17-23; 1 John 5:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:8; Psalm 46:1-3; Romans 15:13; Isaiah 40:31; Lamentations 3:22-23)
Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
- *I don’t know about you, but that last line really gets to me – I find myself asking, do I really believe that? Am I living as though I believe that? It’s been a rough week, and I’ve been tempted to live out of my emotions and churning thoughts. So this part of the prayer that so easily flowed from my fingers is now what I choose to pray until I believe it. Lord, let it be so for each one of us!
- 1 – The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, pages 1437-8.^
- 2 – Peter, in our passage two weeks ago, teaches that ”through faith [we] are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5); and Paul goes deeper into spiritual armor in Ephesians 6:13-17. Other places Paul uses military metaphors to describe what we have at our access to stand firm, to fight, to hope = Romans 13:12; 2 Corinthians 6:7, 10:3-5; Philippians 2:25; and 2 Timothy 2:3-4.
- 3. – JD Walt of Seedbed’s Wake Up Call, specifically March 17, 2021
- What song from our Flames of Faith, Hope, and Love playlist do you keep going back to? This week, it’s Bristol House’s “Altars.” It’s a place to begin praying…
Here’s my altar made for you
In this moment I will choose you
Let surrender be my song
Lay aside the things I want — for You
It’s all for You
- On Wednesdays I’ve begun posting 5-7 minute teaching videos on my Facebook Author Page and Instagram (@shelleylinnjohnson).
- Rhythms — Here’s a wild observation. What if some of our distracted, hurried way of living is about us trying to avoid the harder feelings, the deeper truths? My getting still with the Lord this week hasn’t been a peaceful time but moments of ugly tears and sobs. But in the stillness, I’ve been able to name what hurts, admit my thoughts (which, of course, is what He knows I need to do for my own sake), and lament — and in doing so, I’m finding an ever-inching-closer healing. Even in the stillness of sitting down to write this post, I’m rediscovering the truth of everything God has been showing us. To be as spiritually whole as possible, we have to get still — so that we can get real with God and ourselves — and let hope do its work in us. And HOW TRUE are Isaiah’s words!?! “Those who put their hope in the Lord find strength.” XOXO
- Finally, as a community, let us not neglect sharing God’s hope with others! Share your God-stories with people around you. Share this site. Share God’s Word. Shine His light of His hope into the world!
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