Encouragement for the Fainthearted

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It’s been said that if you speak to hurting people, you will never lack an audience.

In Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians, he wrote to a group of people who were discouraged and fainthearted, worn down and tired from the struggles of life. Maybe you can relate to those feelings as well.

In 2 Thessalonians chapter 1, Paul gives the Thessalonians three things in order to encourage these fainthearted people: an outside perspective, an explanation of God’s justice, and a surprising prayer.

An Outside Perspective

We know that the Thessalonians were dealing with very difficult things: persecution, false teachers, problematic people in their congregation. And yet, Paul, in seeking to encourage them, gives them an outside perspective on how they are doing. He tells them that he can see growth in their life, in the areas of faith and love.

We all need those people in our lives who will put their hand on your shoulder, look you in the eye, and tell you what they see in you. I’ve had a few people like that in my life, and it is incredibly powerful.

This isn’t only true in regard to encouragement; sometimes we need someone to do that for us in order to help us see where we’re off-track or need to improve. An important, but often overlooked passage in the book of Genesis is Genesis 49, where Jacob gathers his sons to him in his old age and gives each of them a “blessing suitable for them” (Genesis 49:28). He takes each of his sons, and speaks into their lives, telling them what he sees in them that he is proud of, and what he sees in them which is cause for concern.

For parents, I think this is absolutely essential: that we give our children and outside perspective on what we see in them. It can be incredibly life-giving.

This is also important in friendships. This past week, in the wake of Pastor Jarrid Wilson’s death by suicide, there has been an outpouring of love and kind messages posted online from people who knew Jarrid. Many people who struggle with depression are overwhelmed by negative thoughts, and lies from the enemy, Satan, “the Father of Lies”, that they are alone, that people would be happier if they were gone, that no one would miss them, that no one cares about them, that their life is not worth living, etc. For a believer, our minds are the primary battle ground of spiritual warfare. To make it worse, our hearts are deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), which means that telling someone to “listen to your heart” is some of the worst advice you could possibly give. It is important, therefore, that we give those who are discouraged or fainthearted an outside perspective on how we really see them, think about them, and feel about them, so they know how much they are valued and appreciated, so they are encouraged by the growth that we see, and challenged by the things which cause us concern – lest they be abandoned and left alone to the spiritual battlefield which is their own hearts and minds.

An Explanation of God’s Justice

Many people feel that human hardship and suffering calls God’s justice into question (see: “I Could Never Believe in a God Who Lets Bad Things Happen to Good People”). However, in 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul evokes God’s justice in order to encourage fainthearted people.

He explains on the one hand, that God is not unfair in allowing these things to happen to them, because God is allowing these things and using them in their lives to shape them and grow them. Additionally, God is just and will deal with those who abuse and do wrong. Finally, God is beyond just, in that he will bring about a day of relief from suffering for those who are in Christ, will all sin, death and evil will end forever and we will be glorified with Christ.

A Surprising Prayer

My tendency, and perhaps yours as well, when I face difficulty that causes me discouragement, is to pray that God would take away the problem or fix the situation. Surprisingly, that’s not what Paul prays for when he prays for the Thessalonians. Instead, he prays that God would strengthen them, and that God would be glorified through them, no matter what happens – whether their situation improves or not.

As human beings we seem to be obsessed with our circumstances. In our culture, we tend to pray disproportionately for God to protect us from bad things happening to us (think: “traveling mercies”), compared to how much we pray for God to be glorified in our lives, whatever that might entail. I am challenged by Paul’s prayer here to be asking this key question all the more: How can I glorify God the most in the midst of this situation?

For more on this topic, check out the sermon from White Fields Church: Encouragement for the Fainthearted

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Martin Luther King Jr. On Christianity and the Gospel

31 Powerful Quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, the day when we commemorate the civil rights leader, who was also an ordained Baptist pastor.

I’ve written before about MLK Jr.’s letter to fellow pastors from his jail cell in Birmingham, and about his most famous speech.

Here are a few things he said about Christianity and the gospel:

1. “The end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may.”

2. “There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God. We have worshiped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short-lived.”

3. “The early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

4. “If any earthly institution or custom conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to oppose it.”

5. “We need to recapture the gospel glow of the early Christians who were nonconformists in the truest sense of the word . . . Their powerful gospel put an end to such barbaric evils as infanticide and bloody gladiatorial contests.”

6. “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter to Pastors

55 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to fellow pastors from a jail cell in Birmingham, where he sat because of a non-violence “sit-in” protest. He wrote the letter mostly on pieces of toilet paper and scraps of newspaper.

Here are some excerpts of that message which every Christian would do well to read today.

“Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”

For the full text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” click here.

Aren’t Justice and Mercy Incompatible by Definition?

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Recently at White Fields we have been studying through the Book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria – a violent and imperialistic nation which posed a clear and present danger to the very existence of Israel. And Jonah was called to take them a message which carried with it the promise of mercy if they would repent of their sins and turn to the Lord.

Archaeologists and historians who have studied the Assyrian Empire report things such as human sacrifice, furniture upholstered with human skin, pyramids of human skulls, how they would put hooks in the faces of captives and leading them around by chains…

So it is not surprising that one of Jonah’s hesitations with going to Nineveh was that he didn’t think it would be fair for God to show mercy to people who did such terrible things. Jonah struggled with the question of how God could still be just if he were to forgive these sins and show them mercy.

This is a question many people struggle with:  If you forgive someone, then what about justice?  Can anyone just do anything they want and then say sorry, and suddenly it’s okay, and there are no repercussions? Where’s the justice in that?

For this reason, some people are hesitant to forgive those who have hurt them: because it kind of feels like in that case, they are getting away with it, or you are saying that it wasn’t a big deal — even though it was. (More on this topic here: Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?)

One of the great promises of the Bible is that God is just, and even if we don’t see it in our lifetime, there will be justice.  Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God, and He will deal justly with every hurtful action and every wrongdoing. This gives us great comfort in the face of injustice, corruption and unfair and unethical behavior that we see or which touches our lives.

In the Psalms, the Psalmist often bemoans the injustice that he sees in the world: that those who lie, cheat and steal get ahead, at the expense of those who are fair and honest. Nice guys finish last. Good doesn’t always defeat evil. However, the Psalmist then goes on to comfort himself with the knowledge that, in the end, God will bring about justice: there is no wrong deed that will not go unpunished.

There’s only one problem with that:    ALL of us have done wrong things. Without exception…

So the problem with justice is: if God is totally just and judges every wrong deed, then that means that He will have to not only judge those who have sinned against us, but He will have to judge us as well.

But then, the Bible gives us the good news: for those who turn to the Lord, He will give them mercy!

But here’s the thing:   The definition of Justice is:  Giving someone what they deserve. On the other hand, the definition of Mercy is:  NOT giving someone what they deserve.

So, by definition: if you show someone mercy, then you are no longer being just! The two are diametrically opposed. So, if God shows mercy, doesn’t that mean He is no longer being just? Does one of God’s attributes therefore contradict another one of His attributes?

Isn’t mercy therefore a travesty of justice?

One of the great tensions of the Old Testament is the question of how God can be both Just and Merciful at the same time.

In my last post I wrote about another one of these great tensions: the question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional.

Neither of these tensions are actually resolved in the Old Testament. They only find their resolution in the New Testament – in Jesus.

The way that God can be both just and merciful at the same time, is because Jesus took all of the righteous judgment that we deserved, so that God could show us mercy. In this way, God remains completely just, and yet is able to show mercy without compromising his justice. In this way, He is both just and the justifier of the one who trusts in Jesus by faith. (Romans 3:26)

In Jesus, the Judge of all the Earth came to the Earth and took our judgment HIMSELF, so that we could be saved. It was the ultimate act of grace. 

Whereas justice is giving someone what they deserve, and mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve.

Jesus is the answer to all the riddles.