We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. (2 Thessalonians 1:3, NIV)
These are the words God spoke through the apostle Paul to a community of believers in a town called Thessalonica. Because they are the words of Scripture, they are the word of God for us today.
The letter has just three short chapters and they are full of encouragement. I once heard a recently retired minister speak and he said, “If I could do it all over, the one thing I would do is encourage God’s people more.” The title for our series is “Staying the Course When You’re Tired of the Battle.” That’s what this letter is about.
When the trials keep coming
The church in Thessalonica was born in great difficulties. You can read the story in Acts 17. Paul spent three weeks in this town proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 17:3). Many people came to faith in Christ through his preaching.
But as soon as the church was established, the new believers experienced opposition. Some bad characters rounded up a mob and started a riot in the city (Acts 17:5). They descended on the house of a man called Jason, because that was where Paul was staying. When they couldn’t find Paul, they took Jason and he found himself in court.
Paul had to leave the city during the night, knowing that he may never be able to return to see these folks again. A few months later he wrote the letter that we call 1st Thessalonians, and a short time after that he wrote this second letter to these believers.
Most people can put up with trouble for a while, but when the problems keep coming, it begins to wear you down. That’s how it was for these believers according to 1 Thessalonians:
In spite of severe suffering you welcomed us. (1:6)
You suffered from your own countrymen. (2:14)
When we were with you we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way as you well know. (3:4)
It’s the same story in 2 Thessalonians:
Among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. (1:4)
Notice the present tense. It has been some months, but the trials have not stopped. When trials keep coming your way, you begin to wonder “How long will this continue?” Paul is writing to encourage these believers so that they will stay the course when they are tired of the battle.
Here is the key verse: “Never tire of doing what is right” (2 Thessalonians 3:13). The danger is that you’ll do right for a time and then you’ll tire of it. This letter is given to us in the New Testament to teach us how Christ enables his people to persevere.
What is the battle that’s making you weary right now?
Maybe you’re fighting to hold your marriage together, or you have a rebellious son or daughter who is bringing you pain. You’ve been dealing with family issues for some time, and it’s not easy to keep going.
Maybe you’re battling a particular sin. You think you are making progress. Then suddenly that old sin rears its ugly head. The battle just goes on and on. You’re tired of it.
Maybe you work in an environment where everything is affirmed, except faith in Christ and the pursuit of a godly life. You are facing the ongoing erosion of an increasingly hostile culture. You’re different and, over time, it is beginning to wear you down.
Some of you have been called to serve in extraordinary circumstances. You’re facing the struggle of sustaining ministry. Anyone who serves God wholeheartedly will know what it is to come to the place of saying, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this. How much more can I take?”
Everyone has a battle to face, and there will be times when you get tired of your particular battle. This series is about perseverance. It is about how you can stay the course when you’re tired of the battle.
The Place to Begin in the Battle for Perseverance
Among God’s churches, we boast about your perseverance. (2 Thessalonians 1:4)
You are persevering. We thank God for this, and we talk about it in the churches. We tell other believers what you are facing, and we tell them how you are standing in all these persecutions and trials.
As a matter of fact, we encourage others by telling them about how you are staying the course. Your example when you stand strong in difficult circumstances will encourage other believers more than you will ever know or can imagine.
The word “perseverance” (NIV) can be translated “patience” (KJV) or “steadfastness” (ESV) or “endurance” (NLT). This gives us a sense of the scope of what Paul is talking about. We boast about your perseverance. We boast about your patience, your steadfastness, your endurance.
The obvious question is “How do I get that?”. How can I have more patience with my children? How can I persevere in ministry? How can I build stability and endurance into my life? How can I be the kind of person who goes the distance as a Christian in this hostile world?
What produces this character? Here is the big thing that I want you to grasp today: Perseverance is the fruit of growing in faith and love. Where do I get that idea?
1. Your faith is growing
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more. (2 Thessalonians 1:3)
Paul says, “Your faith is growing.” There are degrees of faith in Scripture. Jesus said to Peter, “You of little faith” (Matthew 14:31), and to a centurion, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith (8:10). The disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).
It is a wonderful thing to have faith in Christ. If you are a Christian, you have faith in Him. But what is happening to your faith? Is it growing?
When the disciples found themselves in a storm, they panicked. And Jesus said, “Where is your faith?” He wasn’t saying, “You haven’t got it.” Clearly, they had faith. They were his followers. He was saying, “You aren’t using it!” What about you? Are you exercising faith by applying it to the particular battles that you are facing?
Faith is confidence in the ultimate triumph of God. That’s what you need when you are struggling with difficult relationships, stubborn sins, discouragement in ministry and the hostility of an unbelieving world.
2. Your love is increasing
Your faith is growing more and more and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. (2 Thessalonians 1:3)
Not only are there degrees of faith, but there are degrees of love. Our Lord tells us that the one who has been forgiven little, loves little and the one who has been forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47).
Paul is saying, “Here is the wonderful thing for which we are thanking God: Your faith is growing. Your love is increasing.” Growing faith and increasing love are God’s work in the hearts of these believers.
3. God is at work in you
We ought always to thank God for you… and rightly so, because your faith is growing. (2 Thessalonians 1:3)
You are under pressure, and yet your faith is growing and your love is increasing. How does that happen? It is irrefutable evidence that God is at work in your life.
Paul must have had special joy as he wrote these words, because this is exactly what he had been praying for:
Night after night we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. (1 Thessalonians 3:10)
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else. (1 Thessalonians 3:12)
Paul was so concerned about these believers, and being unable to go and visit them himself, so he sent Timothy to them (3:5). Timothy came back with this report, “They are still suffering, but their faith is growing, and their love for each other is increasing!”
No wonder Paul says, “We thank God for this.” This is an answer to prayer! It is God who causes faith to grow and it is God who causes love to increase, and this is clear evidence that God is at work in you.
Don’t you thank God that becoming a Christian is more than just your decision? If it was just a decision, I would have changed my mind a long time ago—whenever things got difficult.
How do you get perseverance?
Your faith is growing and your love is increasing… therefore… we boast about your perseverance. (2 Thessalonians 1:4)
Perseverance is the fruit of growing faith and love. John Calvin says:
‘Patience is the fruit and evidence of faith.’ These words ought, therefore, to be explained in this manner: ‘We glory in the patience which springs from faith.’
As you grow in faith and in love, you will have the patience to endure. Underneath this whole business of perseverance is faith and love.
Perseverance comes through faith. James says it like this, “The testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:3). The same is true of love: “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4). That is its nature.
Do you need more patience? The way to get it is to grow in faith and love. Grow in faith and you will grow in patience. Grow in love and you will be able to endure. “Love… always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
It is in the nature of grass to grow. In the same way, it is in the nature of love to be patient and it is in the nature of faith to persevere. Don’t look at the surface of the problem. Look at the root problem. Christ causes His people to persevere by growing their faith and increasing their love.
Sometime during this week, like many of you, we will be taking down our Christmas tree. We have a cut tree this year, and you know what that deal is like once you get into January. The pine needles start falling off.
This tree that you brought home on the roof of your van begins to dry out. Its color fades. The tree looks beautiful for a while, but it is no longer an evergreen because it has been cut. There was life in the tree when you brought it home, but that life cannot be sustained because there is no root.
Faith and love are the roots of perseverance. Patience, steadfastness, stability and endurance are nourished by deep roots of faith and love. It is important not only to know this, but to be able to use it.
How to Use This Doctrine
The Puritans used to teach a great doctrine and then they would outline its “uses.” What use is it? That’s a good question to ask. How can you use the doctrine of persevering faith and love?
Use this to improve your praying
How should you pray when you are worn out, losing heart, tired, discouraged and weary of the battle? You could pray, “Lord, give me patience.” That would be good. But a better way to pray is to ask God to increase your love and to renew your confidence in his ultimate triumph.
You can pray about the surface issue, but you will pray better if your prayer touches the root of the problem. Underneath all your struggles with patience and perseverance, you will find a faith that is losing heart and a love that is growing cold.
Faith and love are the roots that nourish perseverance. When the Thessalonians were facing all these troubles, Paul did not pray, “Lord, please stop these terrible trials.” Nor did he pray, “Lord, give them patience and help them to persevere.” He prayed, “Lord, let them grow in faith and increase in love.”
You’ve been praying for an unbelieving loved one for years and nothing has happened. You’re getting discouraged. You can say to the Lord, “Help me to persevere in prayer.” But a better way to pray would be to ask God to increase your faith in His ability to change this person and to increase your love for this person with whom you are probably now feeling very impatient.
The reason you are discouraged in praying is that you haven’t seen an answer, and you are getting increasingly frustrated with the stubbornness of the person for whom you are praying! As your love for this person increases and your faith in God’s ability to change them is renewed, you will get fresh wind in your sails to sustain praying.
Suppose you are caring for young children. The demands on you are constant, and as time has gone on you find that you are getting short tempered and impatient. You see what’s happening and you want to change. How do you pray?
You can ask the Lord to help you be more patient with your children. But when you know that patience is the fruit of faith and love, a better way to pray is to ask God to fill your heart with His love for these children and to give you a new confidence in what He can make of their lives.
Maybe you are battling again with the same old sin. You are discouraged by your many failures, and you are tired of the battle. Ask the Lord to increase your faith in His power to overcome this evil in your life. Ask God to help you love Him more than you love the sin that besets you.
That’s striking at the root of the problem. As your faith grows and your love for Christ increases you will persevere in your battle against sin, and though you may fall many times, you will prevail. God is the One who makes faith and love grow, so ask Him to do it! Ask Him to do it specifically in relation to your battle.
You can apply this to any situation in which you are weary of the battle. I’d like you to work this out in your Life Groups this week. List all the battles that people want to share in the group and then ask, “What would it look like to have more faith and more love in this situation?”
Use this to sustain your usefulness
Ministry can be started through marvelous gifts, but ministry can only be sustained by faith and love. In order to sustain ministry in the long term you have to love the people you serve and believe that God is at work among them.
I’ll never forget the words of a wise pastor who said to me when I was just starting out, “Ask God to give you a large heart full of love for the people you serve, a quiet confidence in what He is able to do among them.”
Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “It is not great gifts that God uses so much as great likeness to Jesus.”
Great gifts are not enough to sustain a ministry in the long term. Some people are like rockets on the fourth of July. They go up with a big noise and a flash of light and then they fizzle out after a short time.
Faith and love will not fizzle out: “Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away… [but] these three remain: faith, hope and love” (1 Corinthians 13:8,13).
Use this to encourage others
John Stott has a helpful observation. iii He raises the question: How do you encourage a brother without flattering them? If you don’t say anything to affirm them, then you will leave them discouraged. If you keep telling other people how marvelous they are, you may tempt them to pride. I am always being told this by people who want to sell me something.
What do you say to a person who is doing well? How do you encourage without flattering in the family with your children and in the church where we want to encourage each other. Paul shows us how to affirm a person without spoiling them. He thanks God for the Thessalonians and then he tells them he is doing so. Stott says:
If we follow this example we will avoid both congratulation which corrupts and silence which discourages… This way affirms without flattering and encourages without puffing up.iv
Learn to identify the grace of God in others, because that is precisely what Paul and doing here, and tell them.
Use this to leverage your trials
I’ve found great benefit in recent years by reading older writers. One of the reasons I like reading guys who are dead is you know that they’ve finished the race. Time sifts the wheat from the chaff.
The best writers cultivate a profound grasp of the glory of God and an incisive understanding of the Christian life. This week I was helped by reading Archibald Alexander. Alexander was a pastor for 20 years before he became the first (and only) professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he served 40 years.
He wrote a piece called “Growth in Grace” in which he gives practical directions for growing in the Christian life:
For your more rapid growth in grace, some of you will be cast into the furnace of affliction. Sickness, bereavement, bad conduct of children and relatives, loss of property or of reputation may come upon you unexpectedly and press heavily on you. In these trying circumstances, exercise patience and fortitude. Be more eager to have the affliction sanctified than removed.v
Let it be more important to you that Christ use this affliction to make you more like him than to get out the other side of it. Think about this—the grace of God can advance in your life through a difficult marriage, through rebellious children, through sickness, through a financial loss or through the loss of your reputation.
God will use the hardest things in your life to make you like Christ. The trials of your life are the setting in which God will display his gems of grace. Don’t waste your suffering! Be more eager to have your affliction sanctified than removed.
Then Archibald Alexander says this: “Learn from Christ how you ought to suffer.”
Christ endured what he suffered by exercising faith, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he trusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). That’s faith! He is surrounded by darkness, but he puts his faith in the ultimate triumph of God!
Jesus also endured his suffering through love. How could he stay on that cross? People are shouting for him to come down. What made him stay there? “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for His friends” (John 15:13).
Was it the nails O Savior that bound You to thee tree?
No! ‘twas Your everlasting love, Your love for me: For me!
Christ persevered through faith and He endured through love. Paul says, “When I see you enduring great trials because your faith is growing and your love is increasing, I see a reflection of Jesus Christ in you.”
© Colin S. Smith
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