God brings unexpected joy.
For some time now, I have been contemplating the connection between suffering and love. There is much written in the New Testament about these two topics—a lot of it from the mouth of Jesus—and there seems to be some sort of indelible link between the two.
Paul mentioned it again in the opening of his letter to the Christians at Thessalonica: “You paid careful attention to the way we lived among you, and determined to live that way yourselves. In imitating us, you imitated the Master. Although great trouble accompanied the Word, you were able to take great joy from the Holy Spirit!—taking the trouble with the joy, the joy with the trouble.” (vs 5-6)
How come we always find these things—great trouble and great joy—together in God’s Kingdom? Even Jesus, who announced the Kingdom, remarked, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:11-12)
Is it possible that the joy of the Holy Spirit is an accompaniment to suffering? Or perhaps it’s just that we are able to feel it and experience it most in the midst of hardships? Why is that, and how does it work?
I’m asking questions today that I don’t really have any easy answers to.
I recently did an interview for the Hope Channel that will be aired sometime this fall, and during that interview, we talked about the 18 months I helped my mom care for my dad as he died from ALS. During the interview, the hostess asked me to describe the most traumatic moments from that experience.
The question really took me by surprise, because it made me realize that I had never thought of those 18 months as a traumatic experience. Quite the contrary: I really wouldn't trade that experience for anything in the world. That’s not to say there weren’t sad moments, because there were. But the sadness was always buoyed up (if not swallowed up) by this grand sense of hope and wonder and expectation.
Knowing God, I knew that if it were best for my dad to be healed, he would be healed. And I guess that acknowledgment freed me up to experience all the joyous and outrageously wonderful moments I had with my parents during that time. It was the hardest, but one of the most wonderful, times of my life.
And I wouldn't give it back.
Suffering is universal. It’s pretty much the one thing that touches every person on this planet in some way at some time. But the beautiful thing about God is that He offers joy right along with the trouble.
The more we come to know Him, the more we can rest in the joy He brings, trusting in what He said—that we are most definitely blessed even in the midst of our suffering.
God is not a business.
I have grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist church all my life, and recently, I've begun to be more interested in the history and founding of the denomination. For the first couple of decades, there was no official organization—just a loosely-knit group of people who had become excited about new things they were learning from the Scriptures.
During that time, as the message of newly-understood truth was beginning to spread, there were several people who traveled around the country to preach. Many moved from place to place, working odd jobs or on small farms until they could earn enough money to finance their next evangelistic effort. I have often wondered about the effectiveness of those preachers. Is there any inherent difference in the impact of the message when you’re financing it instead of it financing you?
I thought about those young preachers when I read this statement from Paul in today’s chapter: “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.” (vs 8-9)
This was Paul’s personal preference. He didn't believe it was wrong for ministers to be financially supported. In fact, in his letter to the Corinthians, he said, “Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. But I have not used any of these rights.” (1 Cor 9:13-15)
So, why did Paul refrain from making his living from preaching the gospel? I think it’s because he didn’t want anything to hinder the spread of the message. Of course, money isn't going to automatically hinder anything, but at the end of the day, money is still a mightily-corrupting influence, and there is a real danger that a person who makes his money via the gospel might begin to compromise the message if he perceives the money will otherwise dry up.
Case in point from Adventist history: Those early “Adventists” (even though they weren't called that yet) routinely discussed different theological viewpoints in the little magazine that they published. There was no creed, no litmus test of doctrine. These people were wrestling with the Scriptures and debating among themselves the new ideas they were discovering.
After the inception of the General Conference in 1863, that culture of debate slowly diminished, and today, there is a lot of pressure on pastors to conform their thinking to a certain list of ideas—regardless of what they may discover in Scripture to the contrary. Thus, pastors are faced with the choice of conforming in order to maintain their income or leaving the church’s employ for some other field of work (while they may or may not continue with gospel ministry on the side).
I’m sure the Seventh-day Adventist church isn't the only denomination where pastors may face this dilemma.
It seems to me that Paul didn't want to face such a dilemma. So, instead of worrying about what he was saying (because it may have an impact on where his next meal came from), he worked hard to make his living elsewhere and focused on proclaiming the gospel as he understood it—regardless of the consequences.
And sometimes I wonder if returning to that model wouldn't be a liberating thing for the church—any church. Then, only those who had a true passion for studying the Scriptures and preaching the gospel would undertake it, because it would require expending their own time, effort, and resources. Please don’t misunderstand me. There are many wonderful, salaried pastors who are passionate about the gospel, but that doesn't negate the inherent danger of “financed ministry.”
God is not a business, but it is relatively easy for religion to become big business. Whenever and wherever that begins to happen, the gospel is sure to suffer. The truth about God is much more important than getting paid for preaching the truth about God. If one begins to hinder the other, maybe it’s time to consider defunding the gospel.
God embraces suffering.
There is still something in me that feels surprised over statements such as this about suffering: “We sent [Timothy] to strengthen you, to encourage you in your faith, and to keep you from being shaken by the troubles you were going through. But you know that we are destined for such troubles. Even while we were with you, we warned you that troubles would soon come—and they did, as you well know.” (vs 2-4)
Time after time, both in the words of Jesus and Paul’s letters, we are prepared for the fact that suffering is an inevitable part of life—especially the Christian life. Yet we still react with shock when we encounter hardship, and there are still plenty of people who preach that suffering only comes to those who are wicked. Somehow, lots of people believe that Christians aren’t supposed to suffer.
But the message of the New Testament regarding suffering is:
- We shouldn't be surprised by it.
- We shouldn't think it’s strange.
- We should rejoice when it comes.
How foreign this still seems to us! But why should it? The symbol of Christianity, after all, is a cross, not a hot tub. And from the very beginning, the God-man who came to announce the arrival of the Kingdom said that whoever wanted to have a part in this Kingdom would have to take up a cross.
Suffering isn't foreign to the way of love.
That’s why God—who is Love—embraces suffering. He doesn’t run from it, hide from it, ignore it, or pass it off to someone else. He shoulders it: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:1-2)
Thus, it stands to reason that those who profess to want to be like this God will also embrace suffering. This doesn't mean that we look for opportunities to hurt ourselves. This isn’t about some sort of pain ritual. But it does mean that, as Paul said, we know we are destined for suffering, and we receive it with grace and joy, trusting in the plans God has for us.
Suffering isn't foreign to the way of love. In fact, if love is defined as being others-centered, then it automatically comes with a certain amount of sacrifice and self-denial. And if God is this way by nature, then He rates a lot of things higher than His own personal comfort—which is to say, He embraces suffering.
Oh, we say we want to be like God.
Do we really?
Or is that cross you wear around your neck just a pretty piece of jewelry?
God will wake you up.
It is, perhaps, the height of irony that famous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was an atheist in the extreme, for he penned one of the most well-known poems about death—Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night—and the imagery he used suggests that he unwittingly understood what Paul was trying to communicate to the Christians in Thessalonica: What we call “death” is but a good night’s sleep.
Paul put it this way: “We want you to know what will happen to the believers who have fallen asleep so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring to life again all the believers who have fallen asleep. We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout . . . and the Christians who have fallen asleep will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. So encourage each other with these words.” (vs 13-18)
What’s very interesting about this passage is the use of the phrase fallen asleep to refer to believers who have “died” and the use of the word died in reference to what happened to Jesus. It’s interesting because this isn’t just a matter of poetic translation. Paul actually used two separate Greek words here—one meaning to sleep (koimao) and one meaning to die (apothnesko).
Of course, it’s obvious that when Paul refers to people “who have fallen asleep,” he’s not talking about people who are snoring in their beds. He’s talking about people who are six feet underground. So, why use the different terms? Why not just say that the believers have died as Jesus did?
Well, perhaps that’s the whole point of Paul’s message. Perhaps the basis for his statement that we should not grieve like other people who have no hope is the reality that when we “die,” we are merely “going to sleep” in God’s eyes. It really isn’t death. It is not permanent or irreversible or forever. It’s just a good night’s sleep.
So why should that stem the tide of grief when we have to say goodbye to a loved one?
Well, let me ask you this: Do you grieve when your kids go to sleep at night? Do you agonize over all those hours that you won’t get to hold them or hear their voice or play with them? Of course you don’t. I have a two-year-old, and most of the time, I feel like turning cartwheels when it’s bedtime.
We don’t grieve while our kids sleep at night because we believe that they will wake up the next morning. We believe that our separation—and, as brief as it may be, separation is exactly what it is—will be short-lived. But when a child dies, or “falls asleep” as Paul puts it, it’s suddenly a little bit harder to see the separation as short-lived—even though it very well may be.
After all, each one of us is headed into that Good Night, and the truth is, we have no idea when our “bedtime” will come. You could bury your child today, agonizing about all the years you’re going to have to live without him . . . and then get killed in a car accident on your way home from the cemetery.
Through Paul, God is trying to remind us that He is going to wake us all up. Death is but a sleep, and it is surely as temporary as laying your head down on your pillow at night. Nobody is going to get left behind. Nobody is going to be overlooked. In fact, if we are still alive when Jesus comes back, our loved ones who have already fallen asleep will be waiting for us when we’re caught up in the sky.
So, with all due respect to Dylan Thomas, yes, you can go gentle into that Good Night . . . as long as you hope, hope in the coming of the Light.
God isn't a shock jock.
You've heard the term “shock jock,” haven’t you? It refers to a person who intentionally tries to surprise or shock people—usually in disturbing or disgusting ways. They specialize in the unexpected, in catching people off guard.
In this chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul is very clear that God is not a shock jock: “You aren't in the dark about these things, dear brothers and sisters, and you won’t be surprised when the day of the Lord comes like a thief. For 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. Stay alert and be clearheaded.” (vs 4-6)
Paul is writing about the second coming of Christ, a day that he says “will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night.” (vs 2) But, he says, it doesn't have to be that way, because those who choose to have relationship with God now—while they won’t know the specific day of His return—do not have to be caught off guard by His return. They will be watching and waiting, anticipating.
I have long been intrigued by the description of how others will experience His coming—those who have chosen not to have a relationship with God: “When people are saying, ‘Everything is peaceful and secure,’ then disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape.” (vs 3)
It’s hard to imagine a time in this world when people will be commenting on the widespread peace and security of life, but there are certainly a lot of people around the globe who are always working toward ushering in such an era. And, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with peace and security, it appears that those who will think they have found it will be sorely unprepared for the calamity right around the corner.
Apparently, what masquerades as peace and security may be anything but.
And this is why Paul reminds us that God has prepared His people for what is to come—so we won’t be lulled into a false sense of security. I must admit, however, that sometimes it’s easy not to be lulled into that. Especially in America, where we enjoy freedom and opportunity, it’s very easy to get caught up in the idea that we are in control of our lives. It’s very easy to feel like we are captains of our own destiny—and that we can save ourselves and save the world.
God doesn't want us to be lulled into that kind of thinking. While it’s true that we make choices about our lives every day and while it’s true that those choices have a direct impact on our lives temporarily, we’re not just here to live our lives temporarily. Our lives are headed somewhere. This world is headed somewhere. History is headed somewhere. It’s on a big collision course with the climactic ending of a war that’s been raging in the universe over the character and government of God.
The more we remove ourselves from the context of that universe-wide war and perceive that we are simply “living our lives” here, the more we are in danger of being lulled into that sleep Paul was talking about.
God wants us to be alert and awake, meeting each day with expectant anticipation for what He’s doing—even when we don’t know exactly what it is! He isn't a shock jock; He doesn't want us to be surprised, startled, or caught off guard. He wants us to not only know what's coming, but Who's coming.
We may not know when. And we may not know how.
But we shouldn't live a single day without the awareness that He’s on the way.