As the events in our homes and cities and world continue to escalate, we struggle to find our footing. We strive to keep hold of hope, to keep believing in a God we cannot see. But, nothing tests our faith like suffering.
- Physical pain that intensifies or refuses to recede chisels our rock of resolve a sliver at a time.
- Emotional pain, at first blow, can be stuffed and ignored – until it can’t. All our denials to acknowledge that the hurt exists ends up exploding all over those we care for most.
- Spiritual pain is subtle and easy to miss because we lump it into the emotional bin. But when we don’t recognize and deal with anger we harbor toward God or His Church, with the bombardment of enemy-accusations, or with the nagging doubt that threatens to become unbelief, we suffer.
And all the unnamed, unresolved pain eats away at the foundation of our faith until it has nothing on which to stand.
It’s why we spend time investigating Scripture. It’s why we dig deeper into God’s brand of hope. It’s why we turn to those who’ve gone before us, like Paul – because they demonstrate faith in the midst of suffering. They show us how to persevere with hope. They remind us what it is to love like Jesus.
One of the churches founded by Paul, located in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki, was packed full of people, politics, and business exchanges. The Thessalonians stood proudly upon their loyalty to Caesar, so when the sect of Jesus followers began proclaiming Christ as king, the gospel turned into a threat to Caesar’s rule.1 As a result, Paul became a wanted man and only managed to stay with his new converts a few weeks before having to flee the city. When roadblocks prevented him from returning, Paul sent Timothy to the Thessalonians to see how they fared and to encourage them (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2,5). The long wait for news about the Thessalonians distressed Paul:
“I couldn’t quit worrying; I had to know for myself how you were doing in the faith. I didn’t want the Tempter getting to you and tearing down everything we had built up together.”1 Thessalonians 3:5 MSG
Unable to be with his hurting flock, Paul fretted much about these new converts who were leaderless, persecuted, and ostracized socially.1 He was dying to know if they remained strong in their faith.
Paul’s agonizing wait finally ended with Timothy’s arrival with word that, indeed, the believers stood firm, “exhibiting the virtues of genuine Christianity: faith, love, and steadfastness, the product of hope.”1 And Paul could not contain his gratitude, which is why the opening of this first letter to the Thessalonians is emotionally charged with thankfulness and joy, leading us to our verse for the week:
“We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”1 Thessalonians 1:3 NIV
Work Produced by Faith
We have been exploring our trio of Christian graces for many weeks now, so maybe it doesn’t come as a surprise that Paul would use faith, hope, and love as the measure for genuine Christianity. What might be interesting is how Paul breaks them down.
First, I find it curious how Paul juxtaposes two words that often seem to be the center of much contention in the Church: ‘faith’ and ‘work.’ However, without explanation, Paul merely puts the debate to rest when he praises what he sees in this healthy church: work produced by faith. This is not ‘works righteousness’ that tries to earn grace but effort that flows from faith in Christ. This is “not the dead works of the Law or the barren works of carnality” but work that is sourced by the Holy Spirit dwelling in a believer.2 It’s a producing done with purity of heart – without selfish ambition or expectation of recompense.
The kind of work varies from person to person because God has prepared good things for each of us to do (Ephesians 2:10). What matters more than the type of work is the surrendered heart behind it. And the way the Thessalonians set about doing good works reflects Holy Spirit direction and Heavenly Father inspiration, thus giving Paul assurance of their true faith.
Labor Prompted by Love
The Thessalonians’ labor prompted by love becomes further proof of their steadfastness. We could split hairs about the difference between ‘work’ and ‘labor,’ saying that the Greek for ‘work,’ ergon, means “task, employment; a deed, action” – while the Greek for ‘labor,’ kopos, means “laborious toil, involving weariness and fatigue.”3 But, whether we’re talking about simple tasks or labor that wears out a person, the emphasis is ‘love.’ For, with love, all work and labor is for God and out of gratitude to Him. The love we receive from Him is unwavering and unconditional. As a result, we love Him and His people in the same way (re: 1 Corinthians 13).
“Laboring in love is prompted by the knowledge that all we are and all we have is from the Lord. The more we know of God’s goodness and grace towards us, the more we are prompted to labor in love for the Lord.”3
I can’t help but think of a parent’s love. When Larry and I became parents, there was nothing we wouldn’t do for our boys.
- Our love drove us to stay up all night when one of the boys was sick, cleaning up stinky messes that would normally have us running the other way. And the next day, the weary son would hug our necks with weepy gratitude.
- Our love pushed us to fight for them despite the fact that we’re peacemakers at heart, and their response was to appreciate our devotion – and to become fighters for others.
- Our love caused us to sacrifice our own needs for theirs, which hardly went noticed by the boys. But we did it anyway.
My comparison falls short when we consider not all human parents are moved by such love because of deeper brokenness, but with God – with God, His love is always pure and good and His reason for holding us close.
When we feel such pure, poured-out love, we respond, like the Thessalonians, with a gratitude that propels us with love toward others. Such labors of love reflect genuine faith.
Endurance Inspired by Hope
The third gift of the “three that remain,” ‘hope’ becomes visible in the way believers endure suffering, persecution, and trials. Paul’s assurance in their unwavering faith solidified when he heard stories of the way they persevered in the face of great pain. Nothing shook their foundation. Their faith stood firm because of their enduring power of hope in Christ.
The certainty of who God is, the trustworthiness of His Word, and the belief in the return of His Son carried this group of believers when everything and everyone else around them questioned their choices, beliefs, and actions. Their confidence did not waver. Their hope held like a sturdy anchor in a storm because of promises for a better future with Jesus. And that future hope becomes a “present reality in the prayers of the apostles.”1
We can look to the Thessalonians and find a true Christianity upon which to model our hope.
- This group faced consternation about their odd beliefs because they stood out – they looked different from the culture around them.
- They were forced to the margins of society, picked on, targeted, and completely misunderstood.
- They had no written Bible, not even a trusted local pastor, yet they sunk everything they had in what Paul had taught them and in how the Spirit led them.
- They endured because they leaned into the practices handed down to them – like prayer, fasting, and gathering together for worship, study, and the act of remembrance.
- They persevered in the struggles because they’d put their entire hope in a Savior who met them where they were in the everyday moments and who would take them home on the much anticipated Day.
Then Paul, in his joy and exuberance at the news of this church’s burgeoning faith, put all the details into a letter, forever capturing the truths of what a true Christian walk looks like. Paul’s indelible marks leave for us a map to follow as we seek to live as followers of Christ in the truest of ways – each way marked by a spiritual gift we’ve come to know as the trio of Christian graces. They source us. They motivate us. And, they guide us in the way to live most fully for Jesus.
Father God, our eyes are opening to the realities of the spiritual nature of our struggles. We’re beginning to understand the impact that all categories of pain have on our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits. And, we see now how often the Tempter tries to get to us and tear down everything we’ve built together. So, we choose to keep our minds set on You, our eyes fixed on You, our bodies offered to You as living sacrifices – because we see the absolute necessity of such focus and surrender if we’re to continue holding firm to our faith. Lord Jesus, You are the Way. The only way to endure with hope. You are the Truth. The only truth that is able to sustain our faith. You are the Life. The only life that stems from love and shows up as love. Thank You for using people like Paul, Timothy, and the Thessalonians to demonstrate for us that we are not alone in our struggles and that there is hope in trusting You. Thank You that these people of genuine Christian faith show us how to live with hope and with as set apart people for You. Holy Spirit, all this surrendering and dwelling and choosing only happens because of You and your presence in us. We ask You to speak louder and lead with bold clarity so that we never have an excuse to veer off the narrow road. Keep nudging us to do work produced by faith, to labor for Christ out of love, and to endure with hope because of the faithfulness of Jesus and the prayers of the saints. Thank you for each spark that reignites our hope. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
(inspired by Ephesians 6:12; James 1:2-3; 1 Thessalonians 3:5; Isaiah 26:3; Hebrews 12:2; Romans 12:1; John 14:6; Deuteronomy 14:2; 1 Corinthians 3:16; Matthew 7:13-14; 1 Thessalonians 1:3)
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.
- 1 – The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, pages 1437-8.^
- 2 – KnowingJesus.com article on our verse
- 3 – Biblehub.com interlinear Greek for 1 Thessalonians 1
- Here’s a great resource that combines both elements of hope and suffering, and it’s with one of my favorite theologians, Lisa Harper. It’s the October 2nd episode of her Back Porch Theology podcast with guest Dr. Curt Thompson, called “Suffering and the Formation of Hope.”
- There’s a song on our Flames of Faith, Hope, and Love playlist that can become an anthem for us as we keep choosing to set our minds on the Lord and put our hope in Him — “Not Consumed” by Chandler Moore. It even has this cool beat to it that feels like we’re marching with all the other believers and chanting all the truths that build our faith. So good.
- What to watch for and anticipate:
- My very first edition of my The Abiding Life newsletter hits inboxes this week. Eek! Can’t wait to have another avenue to engage with you. Let me know what you think and what you’d like to see included in this monthly email.
- Advent is nearer than I can even fathom. But, the big reveal of this year’s Advent series title and theme will be in the newsletter. It all gets going December 3rd.
- On Wednesdays I’ve begun posting 5-7 minute teaching videos on my Facebook Author Page and Instagram (@shelleylinnjohnson).
- Rhythms — It’s hard to imagine how life can ramp up after all the busy and intense we’ve been walking through, but it is about to get holiday-crazy. So, in this set-apart life of ours, we’re going to need those intentional moments of stillness more than ever. Rest. Refocus. Receive. Realign. These are the rhythms of getting still. Let’s do this!
- 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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