When in Trouble, Pray!
II Thessalonians 3:1-5
April 6, 2003
On the day when the war in Iraq broke out, Channel 5 in Chicago sent a news team to cover our special prayer meeting that night. Hoping to get some good sound bites, they interviewed several people, including Soo Ai Kudo. When the reporter asked her why we were having a prayer meeting at the very moment when the 48-hour ultimatum was coming to an end, Soo Ai gave a simple answer, “We believe our most powerful weapon is prayer.” There is a world of truth in her words. The psalmist declared, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7). In the last two weeks we have seen the marvels of modern technology: laser-guided bombs, missiles that can hit a tank under a bridge and leave the bridge standing, bombs guided by satellites, goggles that enable you to see at night, and planes that cannot be seen by radar. Fifteen years ago this was the stuff of science fiction. Now we sit at home and watch the war unfold in real-time on television.
As amazing as those things are, they only touch the physical realm. There is a weapon far greater than anything we have seen in the war. It is a weapon that is supernatural in power. It is the weapon of prayer. I hope in this sermon to encourage you to pray when you are in trouble. One of the men who prayed in my office before the first service said, “Lord, it’s easy to get into trouble but it’s hard to get out of trouble.” Heads nodded in agreement when I mentioned that to the congregation. Psalm 50:15 offers this wonderful promise: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” When we are in trouble, God wants us to cry out to him. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Our God delights to rescue his children when we are in desperate straits. “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles” (Psalm 34:17). God invites us to turn to him when everything in the world has turned against us. When in trouble, pray! That may seem obvious, but sometimes we forget to pray. And sometimes we don’t know how to pray. Second Thessalonians 3:1-5 gives us five requests that are always appropriate when trouble comes our way. Here are five ways to pray when our backs are against the wall.
The First Request: Effective Proclamation
“Pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you” (II Thessalonians 3:1). The first thing he asks is that people would pray for the proclamation of the gospel. In Greek the request is literally “that the Lord’s message might run.” Those of you who like to jog will appreciate this word picture. May the message of the gospel go quickly from city to city, from house to house, from one heart to another. His desire is for the gospel to have free course as it hurries into the hearts of hurting people. He also wants this message to be “honored,” which means to “be magnified” or “to be rendered glorious.” “Lord, let your Word be received with the honor that it deserves.” So we ought to pray, “Lord, let your Word run through Oak Park. Let it run through the high school. Let it run down Lake Street. Let it run through River Forest and Elmwood Park and Forest Park and Cicero and Berwyn and Riverside and into Chicago and in Hazel Crest and Harvey and Elmhurst and Oak Brook. O Lord, turn your Word loose and let it run from Oak Park to the ends of the earth!”
The Second Request: Speedy Deliverance
This request may seem unexpected: “And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith” (II Thessalonians 3:2). Some people will do anything to stop the good news of Jesus Christ, even to the point of violence. Think of it this way. Not everyone is happy that you are a Christian. Not everyone is glad that your life has changed. Not everyone applauds when you speak up for Jesus. Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to “Stand up, stand up for Jesus.” Some people want you to “sit down and shut up.”
The “wicked and evil men” were the opponents who chased Paul out of Thessalonica and hounded his steps in every city he entered so that he was hindered from preaching the gospel. Later they would succeed in having him thrown in jail in Rome. Paul cared little for his own safety or comfort but he was passionately concerned about the progress of the gospel. That’s what mattered to him.
These first two requests often go together. When we commit ourselves to be bold for Jesus, we are bound to face opposition. If you ever decide to become bold about your faith, someone is bound to object. “A great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me” (I Corinthians 16:9). Open doors and adversaries generally go together. This week I was in Winnipeg and in Pittsburgh doing some TV interviews. Wednesday night about 6:45 p.m., I was standing in front of the hotel in Pittsburgh, waiting to be taken to the TV studio. A man I did not know came out of the hotel and asked, “Are you going to Cornerstone TV?” “Yes, I am.” He was a pleasant fellow and we chatted for a bit. He said, “My name is Bob Harold.” So I introduced myself. Turns out he is from Urbana in central Illinois. He owns a company that sells satellite dish systems. We talked a bit more but I wasn’t paying much attention because I was looking for the man who was supposed to pick us up. Then he said, “My daughter is Miss America.” That got my attention. It turns out his daughter is Erika Harold, the reigning Miss America. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois and has been accepted into Harvard Law School. Well, that got my attention. I told him, “You could live a lifetime and never have anyone say to you, ‘My daughter is Miss America.’” That’s a great line because you don’t know exactly what to say next. And in this case, it’s the truth. A few months ago, I had read some stories about Erika Harold having some trouble with the Miss America organization because she wanted to speak out in favor of abstinence, but some powerful officials didn’t want her to do that. Too controversial, they said. Is that true? I asked. Absolutely. The pressure on Erika to compromise her values has been incredible. She is also an outspoken Christian who stands up for what she believes. “I could tell you some stories that would shock you,” Bob Harold said. During the interview process before she was chosen, she gave an answer to a question that emphasized her Christian faith. There was a woman who declared, “If you keep on answering questions like that, I promise you that you’ll never be Miss America.” To which she replied, “It doesn’t matter whether or not I’m Miss America. This is what I believe and no one is going to silence me.” The woman didn’t bother her anymore. Her father told me that despite the opposition, the outpouring of support from young people has been incredible. They want to hear about abstinence. And they want to hear her talk about her faith. Not long ago, Erika was in a high school in Gary, Indiana. At the end of her presentation, they asked her to sing a song. She asked if they would like to hear the operatic aria she sang in the competition or would they prefer “Amazing Grace?” They wanted to hear “Amazing Grace,” so she sang it. When she finished, students and teachers joined in a standing ovation.
It hasn’t been easy and the pressures are enormous, but Erika Harold has not let being Miss America keep her from standing up for Jesus. Don’t overlook the phrase in verse 2: “not everyone has faith.” This explains so much that happens to us. Not everyone loves Jesus. Not everyone believes in him. Not everyone wants you to speak up about your faith. Some people hate it when Christians talk about Jesus. And a small minority will go to almost any length to keep us silent. That’s why we pray for effective proclamation. And that’s why we pray for deliverance for those who oppose our message.
The Third Request: Growing Confidence
“But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command” II Thessalonians 3:3-4). This request is very simple: Growing confidence in God that he will give you everything you need when you need it. And growing confidence in God’s people that the Lord will be faithful to them just as he has been faithful to you. It all goes back to your view of God. A while back someone asked me what I would preach on if I had ten sermons and only ten sermons left to preach. I thought about it for a moment and said, “I don’t know about all ten but I think one of them would be about God’s sovereignty.” The person who asked the question gave me a look that said, “That’s an odd comment,” but I don’t think it’s odd at all. Nothing is more basic than the confidence that our God is sovereign over every detail of the universe. You will have what you need when you need it. Why? Because God is faithful. Pray for growing confidence so that when trouble comes, you will still believe that God is faithful even when the circumstances aren’t going your way.
The Fourth Request: Undiscouraged Love
Paul says it plainly in verse 5: “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love.” As I thought about the love of God, I wondered what adjective should go with it. As I pondered that question, the “un-” words kept coming to mind. Pray for undiminished love. Pray for undivided love. Pray for unhindered love. Pray for unconditional love. Finally, my mind settled on a word I don’t think I’ve ever used before. Pray for undiscouraged love. When trouble comes, it is so easy to become discouraged. And it’s easy to become selfish and self-centered. If you are sick, it’s hard to think about anything else or anyone else. When you have a family crisis or a crisis at work, it’s natural to spend all your energy focused on the crisis and to spend little time or energy thinking of those around you. In moments like that, we can all become inward and extremely selfish so that all we want to do is talk about our own problems, our own issues, our own struggles. But what a blessing to have undiscouraged love that reaches out to others when it might be easier to crawl into a cave and have a pity party. God’s love never gives up, never gives in, never loses hope, never stops reaching out. In the time of trouble, pray that his love will fill your heart.
The Fifth Request: Cheerful Perseverance
This is the last part of verse 5: “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.” Fascinating phrase: Christ’s perseverance. In what sense did Christ persevere? How about this from I Peter 2:23: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” But what about the “cheerful” part? Where does that come from? Listen to the words of Hebrews 12:2, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” In case that isn’t clear, here’s how Eugene Peterson (The Message) translates it, “Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God.” I like that phrase: “he never lost sight of where he was headed.” He knew he was bringing salvation to the world and would soon be with his Father in heaven again. Therefore, he could put up with anything along the way. To pray for cheerful perseverance means praying that you will never lose sight of the big picture, that you will always remember where you are going. If you have that perspective, you can endure anything.
This week President Bush spoke to the Marines at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. He ended his talk with the words, “Semper Fi,” the shortened version of the Marine Corps motto: “Always faithful.” That should be our motto as well: “Semper Fi,” “Always faithful to the Lord.” “Always faithful to our calling.” “Always faithful to our family.” “Always faithful to Jesus.” When you know where you are going, you can be “always faithful” to the very end. Hugh Latimer was a Protestant preacher in England in the 1500s. When Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”) came to the throne, she attempted to return England to the Roman Catholic Church. Latimer protested and he was thrown into jail along with his friend Nicholas Ridley. Convicted of heresy, they were sentenced to be burned at the stake. The sentence was carried out on October 16, 1555. As they approached the stake, Ridley drew back in fear. Latimer comforted his friend with words that have echoed across the generations: “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out.” And so they did light a candle for God by their fiery ordeal. This is cheerful perseverance. Semper Fi—Always Faithful.
In You and Through You
As I thought about this passage and what it means for us today, two application statements came to mind. These help us understand why Paul prayed as he did. First, what happens to you is not as important as what happens in you. We can’t do much about what happens to us. Sometimes bad things happen no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Sometimes they just happen. Sometimes people turn against us for no reason at all. And occasionally evil people try to destroy us. In a fallen world, bad things happen to good people all the time. This passage reminds us that God is not nearly as concerned about what happens to us as he is with what happens in us. When hard times come …
Will we be courageous?
Will we trust in God?
Will we reach out in love?
Will we hold on cheerfully?
This week someone sent me an article about the devastating forest fires that swept through Yellowstone National Park in 1988. Tens of thousands of acres were transformed into blackened ashes. Whole forests disappeared overnight. The Forest Service has a policy of letting fires started by natural means burn themselves out if at all possible. Critics said the Yellowstone forests would take too long to regenerate. Fifteen years later, the new growth is flourishing and the signs of the fire are disappearing. This is a parable of the Christian life. We all must go through the fire sooner or later. God allows hard times to come so that we might flourish with the new growth of Christlike character. If you are in the fire right now, ask God to do his work so that you will be more like Jesus when the trial is finally over.
Second, what happens to you is not as important as what happens through you. I have noted before that Paul does not always pray that our troubles might cease, but he does pray for strength on the inside, growing love, increasing discernment, and a fruitful life that brings great glory to God. But in this passage he did pray for speedy deliverance from his adversaries. Why is that? Paul’s concern was not for himself. He was totally committed to sharing the gospel with as many people as possible. He didn’t care whether he lived or died, he only wanted to make sure that others heard about Jesus. Since they were opposing his gospel preaching, he asked God to put a stop to their opposition.
This brings us to a huge point: What happens through you has a powerful impact on those around you. The people of the world watch Christians to see how we will respond when hard times come. Unsaved people pay attention to our response to trouble. They want to know if what we believe makes any difference when hard times come. Let me apply this personally. Parents, your children watch to see how you handle the problems in your marriage. They watch to see how you handle financial difficulties and trouble with other people. Your children may not say a word but they watch and listen and learn from everything you do and say. You preach a sermon by the way you respond in a crisis.
Christian, your friends at work are watching you. Your students are watching you. Your colleagues are watching you. Your close friends are watching you. People you barely know are watching you. Your neighbors are watching you.
And from the shadows of sin and the darkness of life without Christ, lost people are watching you. They form lasting judgments by the way you handle yourself when trouble pays a visit to your home. Will you give in to bitterness? Will you lose your temper? Will you become selfish, moody, withdrawn? Will you drift away from your faith altogether? Or will you respond with courage, hope, faith, love, and God-inspired cheerfulness? The words of Edgar Guest come to mind:
I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear;
And the best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds,
For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.
You preach a sermon by the way you respond in the time of trouble. Paul knew that and that’s why he asked others to pray for him and that’s why he prayed like this for others. I end where I began. Prayer is our greatest weapon, our most powerful resource. Use it and you can change the course of history. Use it and God will open blinded eyes that they might see the light of the gospel. Use it and God will raise the spiritually dead and give them new life in Christ. Use it at 1:00 p.m. each day this month to pray for the lost. Use it and your children will grow strong in the Lord, your friends will find new courage, your church will gain new power, your pastor will be given new blessing, and you will grow in Christ. Let us pray for—
Let us pray like this every day. And then let’s stand back and see what God will do. Amen.