As I was thinking about this text, I was struck by Paul’s statement that he kept telling the Thessalonians while he was with them that they would suffer. In fact, in 1 Thessalonians 3:3, Paul goes as far as to say that we are destined for these things. So, try to picture Paul’s ministry among the Thessalonians. Paul comes to Thessalonica and within the month or so he is there, he immediately teaches them about Christian suffering. This fact is very telling of Paul’s theology – suffering is central to his understanding of the gospel. This is somewhat counterintuitive to modern Christians. Today it seems like very few people are talking about suffering, and if people do talk about suffering it is only later on. But for Paul, there was a place for teachings on suffering at the heart of his theology. So, what we want to do today is talk about the inevitability of suffering, the goal of suffering, and the way to take suffering.
The Inevitability of Suffering
The idea that the righteous will suffer is a radical concept. In fact, if you read the Old Testament the suffering of the righteous was a real theological problem. Often the psalmist laments his suffering and what makes his suffering worse is the prosperity of the unrighteous. For instance, the psalmist writes, “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Psalm 73:2-3) The psalmist is not the only one. Religious people of all ages have also wondered about this very point. A good New Testament example is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. The older brother is furious at his father, because his father accepts and throws a party for a prodigal son. Why him? Why do the wicked often flourish? Aren’t we like the older brother in many ways? The wicked should suffer; the righteous should flourish. Isn’t this the reason why many Christians are confused that there is even a thing called suffering for the believer? Therefore, the inevitability of suffering for the believer is in many ways a new concept for many people. But this is what Paul immediately taught the fledgling group at Thessalonica. Where did he ever get such an idea?
The obvious answer is Jesus. Jesus spoke of the suffering of the righteous throughout his ministry. Recall that Jesus spoke on suffering as early as the Sermon on the Mount. “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.” (Matthew 5:11-12) In John 15:20, Jesus is even more explicit: “No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Again Jesus says in Matthew 16:24-25, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Therefore, the clear teachings of the Jesus and the New Testament are that suffering is the inevitable lot of believers. One theological reason for this is found in Paul’s theology. We are united to Christ, not only in his death, but also resurrection. He clearly says in Philippians 1:28 that we share in both the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. But what does this mean? To be more pointed, what does it mean to suffer for Christ in America? How do we even suffer in a country that is religiously free and wealthy? We are certainly not in Paul’s situation. For example, Paul suffered for Christ in tangible ways. He was beaten in Philippi, left for dead after being stoned in Lystra, chased out of several cities, and finally killed for his beliefs. Not many of us can say this. So, how do we suffer?
Perhaps the simplest answer is that we do not suffer. At the slightest hint of suffering we run. This may be one of the chief problems. We do not know that we are destined to suffer. That said and with rhetoric pushed to the side, what does it mean to suffer for Christ? To make a long story short, I think it means to love as Christ did. In other words, we will suffer, if we love. Let me try to explain. If you look at the life and work of Jesus, we will conclude that he suffered because he loved his people. He came into our world to glorify God (to be sure), but also to save us. He went to the cross to take our sins away. Or as Paul says, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Or as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich…” From these verses, I think we can reasonably conclude that suffering is intimately connected to loving and serving people. From this perspective, we too will suffer only when we love God and his world.
In the context of 1 Thessalonians, the fledgling church is suffering, because it refuses to stop loving God. A group of zealous Jews is incensed at this new group, because of its belief in Christ. They are probably fearful of the political and social ramification. To disturb the peace of Rome (Pax Romana) is no small matter. But this new congregation will continue to worship Christ, because it loves Christ. Love and devotion is at root. Now let’s consider the love of others. Even after a little bit of reflection, it will become clear that love for people will inevitably lead to great suffering. Why? We live in a broken world. If we love the poor, then we will suffer financially. I guarantee it. If we are generous, we will feel it. If we love the sick and lonely, then we will suffer in terms of time and energy. If we love indiscriminately and not in a mercenary fashion (for the thought of our own gain), we may suffer popularity, time and comfort. If we are true friends to people, then their needs will be more important than our needs. Our desires may not be fulfilled. We will experience sacrifice, which is a form of suffering. Let me give you a concrete example of this. Good parents suffer a lot. Why? They love their children. Their children’s needs are ahead of their own. There is a sacrifice, which is created by love. For another example, think of Mother Theresa taking care of lepers. Why did she suffer so much? The answer is love. When we love as Christ loved, there is a certain inevitability of suffering in our lives – no matter where we live. Is this not what Paul is trying to emphasize in this letter time and time again? He repeatedly writes, that he is constantly praying for them (1:2, 3:10), that he loves them (2:8, 11), that he want to see them (2:17), that they are his joy (2:18), etc. Love is at the root of Paul’s suffering. And Thessalonians as imitators of both Paul and Christ will also suffer. Therefore, from a practical point of view, we, too, can be certain of suffering, if we walk a path of love.
The Goal of Suffering
Now that we have looked at what it means to suffer, we need to say a word on the goal of suffering. More particularly, let’s break down this section into two parts – Satan’s goal of suffering and God’s goal of suffering. What, then, is Satan’s goal for suffering? From this text, Paul is filled with anxiety, because he does not know how the Thessalonians are faring in regards to their suffering. He even worries that his work among the Thessalonians was in vain on account of the tempter. (1 Thessalonians 3:5) This concern of Paul illustrates Satan’s goal in causing suffering. It is to invalidate the work of God. It is to make people fall away from God and his plan. It is to make people swerve from suffering. If he succeeds in this, Christians will not love deeply and sacrificially. If this takes place, the gospel of Christ will not be incarnational in the world. In other words, the world will not be able to see the sacrificial love of Christ in concrete ways. In this sense, they will not be able to see Christ. As many people have said already, the great cause for atheism in our world is Christians. Without the sacrificial love of Christians, how will the world see the sacrificial love of Christ? A few years back this point came home to me in the most vivid way. I was talking to a missionary about the status of Christianity in the Middle East. I asked this missionary how will Christianity ever take root in the Middle East and this missionary gave me an answer that I will never forget. He stated that the only way the Middle East will turn to Christ is when hundreds of Christians pay the ultimate price in love. When people see the sacrificial love of Christians, then they will see the sacrificial love of Christ. This is exactly what the church father, Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Satan knows this. Therefore, his goal is to dissuade Christians from suffering and loving.
God’s goal of suffering for Christians is entirely different. 1 Thessalonians does not offer a theological treatise on the goal of suffering, but Paul does intimate that suffering is the way to maturity and growth. If suffering poorly can derail faith, then suffering well will deepen faith. (1 Thessalonians 3:5) That we are on the right track in saying this is certain. In Romans 5:1-5, Paul states that suffering leads to perseverance, and perseverance leads to character, and character leads to hope, which does not disappoint. Paul’s point is clear. It is only when we suffering well that we grow and mature. Even a little bit of reflection will make this point clear. All things in life require suffering for maturity. A great athlete or musician only becomes great through suffering (practice). Similarly, it is only when we suffer in our faith that we are tested and grow. So, let me ask you a question. Do you want to mature? If you say, “yes,” to his question, then what you are in essence saying is that you want to welcome suffering and hardship in your life. Let’s briefly look at how this works. How do you learn to persevere and endure? The answer is simple: through hardships. Without these hardships there is no need to persevere. How do you build character? Well you need to persevere and you need to be tested. A person of character has been tested and he or she has been approved. Finally, how does one have unswerving hope in God? In other words, how do you trust in God and rely on him? You need character. It is only those who are strong in Christ that can ever hope in him and live their lives in view of that hope. So, what is God’s goal in suffering? There are many answers, but let me give two – our maturity and our Christlikeness. God’s goal is to build us up through hardship. This is why suffering according to the New Testament should be met with rejoicing.
The Way to Take Suffering
Finally, we come to the most important question. How do we to suffer well? Or to put it another way, how are we able to love sacrificially? This is a crucial question, since it is difficult to suffer well. To be absolutely honest, it is impossible to suffer well or to love sacrificially by our human endeavors. Apart from the gospel of Christ, we will either flee suffering or endure it with the wrong heart. In both situations, we will not suffer in the way God intends for us to suffer. So, how should the Christian endure suffering? The answer is faith. In the context of this passage, Paul finds out that the Thessalonian church is still standing, that they are suffering well. He learns this through Timothy, who gave a glowing report of their faith. “But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.” (1 Thessalonians 3:6) What Paul is saying is that the Thessalonians are able to stand firm in the midst of hardships and continue to love, because they have faith in God. This is the only way we will be able to overcome hardships and continue to love sacrificially. In other words, we are able to love sacrificially, when we realize and experience the sacrificial love of God in Christ. To be more concrete, we are able to give, when we realize that we have been given everything we need in abundance through Christ. We are even willing give our lives, when we realize that we have new life in Christ. There is a dynamic that takes place when we encounter Christ. Our hearts and minds begin to change; our worldviews are altered. This is exactly what happened to the Thessalonians. They turned from idols to the living God. They now realize the love of God in Christ and for this reason they are filled with joy. How does this work?
By reading the letter of 1 Thessalonians carefully and knowing a little about the Greco-Roman world and its religions, a few points are clear about the Thessalonians. First, they were deeply religious people. In no way were they secular. It is really anachronistic to even suggest such a thing in the first century. Second, their religion was really mechanical. As long as they did their part, the gods would reciprocate. Third, the idea of having a relationship with God was foreign and the idea of pleasing God was largely absent. Ethics, generally speaking, did not enter into the realm of religion. In the Greco-Roman world ethics and morality were mostly in the realm of philosophy. Finally, the idea that the gods loved people was not central. Therefore, when the message of Christ came and the Thessalonians believed, the gospel radically changed them in the most amazing way. For the first time they realized that God loved them not through works or observance of rituals, but through Jesus. In fact, the demonstration of God’s love was the death of Christ. Moreover, they learned that God acted in love while they were still sinners. In addition, for the first time they realized that they were in a position that they could even love God and please him. If you think about such things, these are really earth shattering realities. The Thessalonians wanted to love God out of an overflow and response to his love. The thought of suffering and enduring was no longer distasteful, but an honor. So what do these things mean for us?
Dear friends, first, we need to be reminded that we are destined for suffering in Christ. This means that we are really called to love people, even when it hurts. And to be honest, it will hurt when we truly love. And if you think about it, our church will only grow in the proper way when we have this kind of love. This is the love that we all need to see and experience. And it is this kind of love that will show the true love of Christ. Too often Christians offer an unchristian type of love, a love that is predicated on gain, popularity, convenience. This is not the message of Christianity. Gospel love is when we care about others more than ourselves. Second, we need to have faith in God. We need to have our minds filled with the gospel and we need to experience it to the core of our being. We need to know and experience the security of God’s grace that we can enter into insecure situations. We need to know that God loves us, so that we can love without even receiving love. We need to feel so rich that we can be generous without strings attached. Do you get the picture? What we need is more of Christ.
 Ps. 42, 43, 73. Tags: 1 Thessalonians, christianity, Sermon, Theology