Lucky to Love
I Thessalonians 3:10-13
March 16, 2003
“Prayer is not everything but everything is by prayer.” So said Ray Ortlund. All Christians would agree with that statement. No matter what our background, instinctively we know that prayer is central to the Christian life.
Most of you are familiar with Corrie Ten Boom. Her family hid Jews in Holland during World War II. After being released from the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp near the end of the war, she had a vital ministry for Christ around the world for four decades. Her story is told in the movie The Hiding Place. How important is prayer? Let Corrie Ten Boom answer that question:
When a Christian shuns fellowship with other Christians, the devil smiles. When he stops reading the Bible, the devil laughs. When he stops praying, the devil shouts for joy. (cited in Prayer Powerpoints, Victor Books, p. 109)
On the Brink of War
I am writing this part of the sermon after the fact. On Sunday I commented that we were on the brink of war. At the moment we are about 20 hours away from the end of the 48-hour deadline President Bush gave for Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq. War seems inevitable, perhaps today or tomorrow or the day after. Very soon the tanks will roll, the troops will move out, and the bombs will fall from the sky. When war happens, the killing won’t be all on one side. Soldiers and civilians will die on all sides of the conflict. That’s the nature of war. It’s never as clean or antiseptic as the neat drawings of the experts on the TV programs.
There is a bigger picture here that we should not miss. Many Christian leaders agree that the world is on the brink of a spiritual battle of monumental proportions. I am not referring to the clash between Iraq, the terrorist network, and the forces led by the United States and England. That is only one part of the larger perspective. The real battle is between light and darkness. It is a spiritual battle, a clash of kingdoms, a war that stretches back almost to the beginning of the universe. It is a religious battle but it is not exclusively a battle of religions. It is part of the invisible struggle for the hearts of men and women that has gone on for thousands of years. We should not be surprised that the epicenter of this struggle is the Middle East. After all, this is where history began and this is where it will end.
How should we pray in these perilous times? First, we should pray that the armies of heaven will overcome the powers of darkness in the Middle East. Second, pray that even at this late hour Saddam Hussein will leave Iraq so that war might be averted. Third, pray that war, if it comes, will be swift and with a minimum of casualties. Fourth, pray for the members of the Armed Forces scattered around the world. Fifth, pray for President Bush who has momentous decisions to make. Sixth, pray for spiritual awakening in the body of Christ that would lead to true revival in our time. It is a sad fact of history that war does not usually lead to revival but to a further secularizing of society. Perhaps God will reverse that trend and cause the hearts of millions of people to cry out to him in true humility.
Prayer is the Key
Twelve years ago God impressed on my heart that if Calvary was going to go to the next level, we would only get there through prayer. The Lord clearly said that we wouldn’t get there by preaching, finances, programs, buildings or publicity. Prayer must be the key. It was at that point that we began to organize the Prayer Warriors movement. Since then we have seen great blessings from the Lord. Yet we all know there is much more God wants us to do and much more he wants to do through us. I want to say that what I believed 12 years ago, I believe even more fervently today—prayer is the key. It is not simply one of the keys. It is the key. Acts 2:42 tells us that the early disciples devoted themselves to prayer. Is it any wonder that as a result God gave them unity, miracles, and thousands of people coming to Christ? All things are possible when a church prays.
Our text records a prayer by the Apostle Paul for the young church in Thessalonica (part of modern-day Greece). If you read all of chapter 3, you discover that the church had been going through a time of severe testing and spiritual opposition. The situation was so grim that Paul worried that perhaps the Thessalonians would give up their faith altogether. Listen to what he says in verse 5: “For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent [Timothy] to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.” Paul actually feared that under such unrelenting pressure, these new believers would cave in and give up on Jesus. Tom Landry, longtime coach of the Dallas Cowboys, was fond of remarking, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Most of us can handle a little bit of adversity, and some of us can handle a lot of adversity, but everyone has a breaking point. In my last sermon to the congregation I said something like this: “You’re not as strong as you think you are, and neither am I.” That was almost a month ago. Little did I know how true those words would prove to be. A few days later I spent a week preaching in Florida. I wasn’t feeling that great before I started and I more or less collapsed after my last sermon. Since I have been sick only once in the last 30 years, I was unprepared for what happened to me. There was a fever and what seemed like the flu that morphed into a serious infection that caused me to miss my first Sunday in 17 years because of sickness. In the midst of the illness, my mother died at the age of 81. Although she had been declining, the timing of her death was a surprise. And like so many people before me, I can testify that even if you expect it, you’re never really ready for the death of a parent. So we rounded up the boys and made a quick trip to Alabama where I had the privilege of speaking at my mother’s graveside service. We buried her next to my father who died 29 years ago. The whole experience was like a blur in my mind, a “wrinkle in time” where the past, present and the future seemed to come together for one fleeting moment. Then it was home and a slow recovery that is still continuing. The following picture came to mind as I thought about the breaking points of life. The mightiest oak tree in the forest looks invincible, but if you hit it in just the right place with a tiny ax, it comes crashing down. The ax may be small but it can bring down a tree in just a few seconds.
Paul knew the Thessalonians were near the breaking point and that’s why he sent Timothy to check on them. When Timothy came back with a good report that the believers were standing firm under the pressure, Paul’s joy knew no bounds. He was encouraged (v. 7), the news was like a new lease on life to him (v. 8), and he couldn’t stop thanking God for them (v. 9). And that brings us to Paul’s prayer in verses 10-13. Here is an excellent way to pray for those going through a hard time. It’s worth pondering because every week we’re asked to pray for people in difficulty. Very rarely does anyone say, “Things are going great. Pray for me.” In this prayer there are three petitions that are always appropriate to pray when our friends are going through hard times. And these petitions are really three things we all need when the heat is on and we feel like giving up.
Request #1: Faith without Holes v. 10
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith” (I Thessalonians 3:10). His prayer was constant. Paul says he prayed day and night. When was the last time you lost sleep because you were praying? I remember Len Hoppe often talked about how God would wake him up in the middle of the night to pray. I don’t often wake up at night to pray, but this morning I was awake at 3:00 a.m. praying for someone who was on my heart. Effective prayer engages the heart and mind at all hours of the day and night. His prayer was earnest. Paul uses a very unusual expression, a double Greek compound. It has the idea of going above and beyond all normal measures. You might translate it with the phrase “super abundantly.” Prayer must be earnest to be effective. Weak, shallow, half-hearted prayers produce weak, shallow, half-hearted results. God says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13) and James 5:16 reminds us that “the earnest prayer of a righteous man has great power and wonderful results” (New Living Translation). In an earlier sermon I mentioned that “fervent” or “earnest” prayers are “boiling” in their intensity. Boiling prayers get God’s attention because they bubble up from a heart wholly focused on the Lord.
His prayer was practical. He said he was praying “that we may see you again.” Do you pray about your everyday affairs? If you are a salesman, you should pray about your appointments. If you are a doctor, you should pray for your patients. If you are a teacher, you should pray for students. If you work in an office, you should pray about your projects and also for your fellow workers. Paul understood that all of life is to be lived under God’s watchful eye. Nothing is too small to bring to his attention. If it matters to you, it matters to him.
His prayer was purposeful. “And supply what is lacking in your faith.” Paul had a particular goal in mind. He wanted to supply what was lacking in their faith. The word “supply” was used for mending torn nets and setting broken bones. He used the same word in Galatians 6:1 for restoring sinning saints and in Ephesians 4:12 for equipping all the saints for the work of ministry. It’s what an equipment manager does before the start of a football game. He makes sure the players have their helmets because if they go into the game without a helmet, they are going to get clobbered in the head.
For the last few days I’ve been watching news reports about the preparations our troops are making for the war with Iraq. This time around there is the very real threat of chemical and biological warfare. Our soldiers have been issued special equipment to protect against the danger of anthrax, nerve gas, and other invisible agents of death. These days it’s not enough to have your gun, your ammo, your flack jacket, your boots, your water, your helmet and your goggles. You’ve also got to have the special gas mask and the other bulky paraphernalia. And you better have it on when the battle begins because if you go to war without the proper equipment, you’ll probably come home in a body bag. This is the sober reality of modern warfare.
The same is true in the spiritual realm. This request is just a shortened version of the spiritual armor passage in Ephesians 6:10-17. In that passage Paul prays that the believers would be fully equipped so that they could stand in the evil day when the devil attacks with all his might. So here’s the prayer: “O God, my brothers and sisters are in a great spiritual battle. I pray that they will be fully equipped for whatever they might face. Grant them strong faith—with no holes!—so that they can stand and fight victoriously no matter how hot the battle may be.”
Request #2: Love without Limits v. 12
“May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you” (I Thessalonians 3:12). I think we all understand these words. Love is the supreme grace. You can never have too much of it. You can never have enough of it. Paul is saying, “I pray that God will make you an overflowing fountain of love.” He is praying that they might become “Super Lovers.” There is an amazing scene at the end of the 1996 movie Marvin’s Room. Bessie, played by Diane Keaton, has cared for her ill father and her aunt for 20 years. After learning that she has leukemia, she receives a visit from her estranged sister Lee, played by Meryl Streep. Bessie tells Lee, “I’ve been lucky to have had so much love in my life.” Lee says yes, her father and her aunt really do love her. Bessie seems taken aback for a moment. Her sister doesn’t understand. Bessie doesn’t mean she’s lucky to be loved, she means she is lucky to have had so much love to give to others.
Lucky to love. What an amazing perspective. If we are full of God’s love, it will overflow to others. It’s not enough to be kind and polite. Our love must constantly be growing. So I ask a question at this point: Why does Paul pray for overflowing love for the Thessalonians? How is that relevant to their suffering? The answer is that when hard times come, we naturally start to pull away from other people and start focusing on our own problems. It’s so easy to be self-centered and myopic so that we only talk about our own struggles. If our marriage is in trouble, that’s all we talk about. If our children are not doing well, that’s all we talk about. If we have health problems, that’s all we talk about. If we have lost a job, that’s all we talk about. It’s all about us, our problems, our struggles, our hardships. We hardly have time or energy for anything else. And sometimes our distress is so great that we become vicious, turning on those we love the most. Sometimes Christian love is the first casualty of hard times. Suffering believers can become very demanding and very self-centered. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some people build walls in trials to keep people at arm’s length. Others build bridges so they can connect with God’s people.
I received a wonderful note from a friend who writes:
Life is so good with God in the center. Now problems turn into solutions, fear turns into hope, anger turns to love. I’m free in God and it’s the best place to be. I’ve learned to take risks and face challenges. I take no credit for any of this. To God be all the glory. He never let go. He took me from a bitter, unhappy, depressed alcoholic and gave me the wings of eagles, soaring to heights I never dreamed possible. He’s given me his words to share with other alcoholics, he’s restored my family, and has filled me with His love each day.
That testimony is wonderful in many respects, not least because it perfectly illustrates what it means to have love overflowing in your life. Only God can do that … and he does it whenever he can find a willing heart.
Request #3: Strength without Flaws v. 13
“May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” (I Thessalonians 3:13). First there is love and from love comes holiness. Love and holiness go together so that you can hardly have one without the other. Love leads us away from ourselves and on toward holiness. And holiness is the child of love. As God’s love fills your heart, it will burn out the dross of sin. Said another way, love is the Drano of the soul, unclogging the arteries of your heart.
The word “strengthen” means to buttress something, like the famous “flying buttresses” of cathedrals in the Middle Ages. If we are going to stand strong in the time of trial, our hearts must have a strong foundation, one that is free of cracks, flaws, and weak areas. Nothing reveals the true condition of the heart like difficulty, setbacks, opposition and hardship. Most of us can be strong while the sun is shining and life is good, but when the thunder clouds of trouble rumble overhead, all the inner flaws are likely to be revealed. Whatever is in the heart must come out eventually. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45 KJV). If there is anger in the heart, it will eventually come out. If there is greed or lust, it too will come out. And if there is love and kindness and forgiveness and mercy, that will also be revealed. And nowhere will your heart be on clearer display than in the trials of life.
After I preached this sermon, a friend commented that we have a tremendous evangelistic opportunity during hard times if we will respond with grace and dignity. The world watches closely to see if our religion works as well in the darkness as it does in the sunlight. Many people have been converted not by a sermon but by the testimony of God’s grace shining through the pain a believer endures.
So when you pray, ask God to make you strong in your weak places so that you will be like the house built on the rock. Though the rains come down and the floodwaters rise, your house will stand firm because it is built on a solid foundation (Matthew 7:24-27).
Two weeks ago my friend Bruce Thorn called to say hello. Bruce and I grew up together in Alabama and have been friends for almost 40 years. Every time he calls me, he shares something that comes right from the heart of God. This time he started talking about smoke and mirrors. To most of us, that phrase brings to mind magicians like Penn & Teller who use smoke and mirrors to conceal reality. But Bruce said that God uses smoke and mirrors to reveal the truth. The “smoke” is like the cloudy pillar that led the children of Israel through the wilderness. And the “mirror” is like the mirror or glass of I Corinthians 13 that describes the day when we will all stand before the Lord. Now we see things dimly and today we can conceal things from each other. But when we stand before the Lord, all will be revealed and the total truth about each one of us will be fully known. Bruce said that lots of people prefer smoke and mirrors because they don’t want to know the truth about themselves. They would rather cover up than confront their flaws. I think the prayer here is, “Lord, let me live with nothing hidden because there is nothing to hide. Bring to the surface any hidden flaws in my life. Give me a strong heart and a good foundation so that I can survive hard times with my faith intact.”
Here, then, is a prayer to pray when you feel like giving up. Pray for …
Faith without holes
Love without limits
Strength without flaws.
Think about this way. When your faith has holes, you are easy prey to every temptation that comes your way. You make foolish decisions under pressure because you are not well equipped for hard times. When your love has limits, you become self-centered and prone to outbursts of anger. When your strength has flaws, you look good when times are good but your life collapses when the storm clouds gather overhead.
The Chief Thing
I close my message with the words of S. D. Gordon:
The greatest thing anyone can do for God and man is to pray. It is not the only thing. But it is the chief thing. The great people of the earth today are the people who pray—not those who talk about prayer; nor those who say they believe in prayer; nor those who can explain about prayer; but those who take time to pray. (Prayer Powerpoints, p. 184)
Think about this for a moment. You are where you are today because somebody prayed for you. Somebody prayed and you came to Christ. Somebody prayed and you found a job. Somebody prayed and you were healed. Somebody prayed and you won a game. Somebody prayed and you were rescued in the middle of the night. Somebody prayed and your marriage was saved. Somebody prayed and you didn’t give up. Somebody prayed and you made the right decision. Somebody prayed and you experienced God’s power. No one knows how much sin and sorrow we’ve been saved from because somebody prayed for us.
I can only add my own testimony at this point. Since coming back from Alabama, I have been overwhelmed by the number of calls and cards and letters we have received from people in the congregation who know that the last few days have been difficult for us. People have simply said, “Pastor Ray and Marlene, we love you and we’re praying for you.” I can’t begin to say how much that has meant to us. Your words have been strength to us in our time of need.
What is the application? Pray! Pray, pray, and keep on praying. Do for others what others have done for you. When we can serve people in no other way, we can pray for them.
May God make us a praying people and may he make this a praying church. Amen.