Living in Hard Times

1 Thessalonians 3:1-8

“You’ve heard the news, haven’t you?”

It was a question about a young man I hadn’t seen in 13 years. Back then he was a very active 10-year-old.

The question came from his mother. I hadn’t heard from her in years either. She got the name of our church from the back cover of one of my books, called information, got the number and gave me a call. We had a great time renewing our acquaintance and catching up on family news.

The intervening years had been difficult on her son. Since last December he has been in prison. Would I write him? I did, and within a few days I received a long, handwritten letter back. Here are some excerpts:

I’m 23, been married for going on 4 yrs. I’ve got 2 kids. My wife found out after 15 months that waiting for me to get out of prison was too boring and started her own affairs and abandoned me 2 days after my B-day.

Then he described his crime at length. He and a friend picked up a drug dealer, an argument ensued, and his friend shot and killed the dealer.

I was charged with Malice and Felony Murder, Armed Robbery and Possession of a Firearm in the Commission of a Felony. I was facing 2 life sentences + 5 ½ years. I got on my knees and cried out to God.

After the smoke cleared I had 15 yrs probation with the first 5 to serve in prison. I’ve got 17 mos down already. I’ll probably do a couple yrs if not all of it. God didn’t bring me this far to give up on me now.

After a few more paragraphs he summarizes his situation this way:

My last 12 pack of beer cost me $4007 plus everything I own and now my marriage. I’ve learned a lot about myself and made a change for the better. I have dedicated my life to helping people but first I must help myself. The blind cannot lead the blind.

I want to be able to help teenagers. I’ve been there, done that. God gave me a miracle. I’m very fortunate. Some call it luck, I call it a miracle. I can no longer run from God. I owe too much.

He signed his letter, “Your brother in Christ.”

Years ago I baptized him when he was about 8 or 9 years old. He was a church kid, a Sunday School child. I also baptized his parents. I knew the whole family well. What happened? I don’t know and I don’t think it would be useful for me to speculate since I lost contact with the family for many years. But somehow he got on the wrong track and now it’s landed him in prison.

What do you do when your world caves in? How does a Christian respond when hard times come? All of us will face those questions sooner or later. It may not be from behind prison bars, but we will all go through deep trials eventually. When that happens, everything we believe will be put on the firing line.

In 1 Thessalonians 3:1-8 Paul wrote to some new believers who suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves in great difficulty. They were being persecuted for their new faith in Jesus. Our text shows how Paul reassured them. From this passage I want to share with you six truths about hard times.

I. Our Trials are unsettling. 1-3a

“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials.” Please note the two words in the last phrase. The Greek word for “unsettled” actually means to “wag the tail.” It has the idea of being shaken by circumstances so that you fall away from the right path in life. The word “trial” is the Greek word thlipsis, which has the idea of being “under the thumb” because of pressure from above. Many of you know from experience what that feels like, that unrelenting pressure from circumstances that keeps you awake at night and weary during the day. Sometimes the pressure can literally make you walk with stooped shoulders.

As I survey the New Testament teaching regarding trials, two truths pop out before my eyes. First, trials are the common lot of every Christian. No one is exempt, no one gets a trouble-free ride to heaven. If you don’t need this sermon today, take good notes because you will definitely need it tomorrow!

Second, your particular trial doesn’t matter as much as how you respond to it. That’s a revolutionary thought to some people. Often we focus intently on the details of our difficulties as if the difficulty itself were the most important thing in the world. It may seem so at the time, but it’s not really. God is much more concerned with how you respond than with the trial itself.

Why? Because most of the time you don’t have a choice about the bad things that happen to you. Usually they just happen without any rhyme or reason. But you can control how you respond—in faith or unbelief, in humility or arrogance, in forgiveness or in anger, in hope or in despair.

James 1 reminds us to “Count it all joy” when you encounter various trials. That’s not possible as long as you focus on the trial itself. But if you shift your focus to God, then you can find joy even in the worst moments of life.

II. They are also appointed. 3b

“You know quite well that we were destined for them.” Again, the Greek is very helpful in understanding the meaning. The phrase “we were destined” comes from a verb that means “to put or to place.” The verb is a perfect tense and passive voice, which is a very strong way of saying “these hard times were placed here by God.” They didn’t happen by accident. In fact, this is the opposite of chance or circumstance.

A few years ago the daughter of one of my seminary professors suffered a terrible automobile accident. For many days she was in a coma with little hope of recovery. But God intervened and raised her up in a miraculous way. Afterward her father wrote a little book about what he learned from his daughter’s experience. In it he penned a phrase that I’ve never seen anywhere else: “For the child of God, there are no accidents, only incidents.” That may be the best one-sentence summary of Romans 8:28 I’ve ever seen.

No accidents! Incidents—yes. Troubles—yes. Heartache—yes. Difficulty—yes. Disappointment—yes. Death—yes. Loss—yes. Failure—yes. But accidents? No!

There are no accidents with God. Only incidents that are appointed by him for our good and his glory.

With that important understanding, we pass on to the third great truth regarding hard times.

III. They should therefore be expected. 4

“In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.” Some people may regard this as a negative, but to me it is a positive. I personally have much more confidence in someone who expects trouble and prepares for it than in someone who goes through life singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” The truth is, every rose has its thorns and the sooner we understand that the happier we will be.

This week I spent some time talking with a couple in our church who are living right on the edge. It has happened not because of anything bad but because they have determined to follow God’s will. In this case, following God has meant striking out in a brand-new direction. It means living their security for something very uncertain and indefinite. For them, it also involves making some decisions that others will not fully understand. The last few months for them have been filled with stress and tension. As we finished our meeting I told them, “Watch out. Trouble is probably about to come flying in from left field. The devil will do anything he can to get you off track.”

We need to remember that trials are not entirely negative. They may in fact be a sign that we are in the will of God. On one occasion when John Wesley had had no rotten eggs thrown at him for several days, wondered in his diary if he had failed to preach the gospel!

Tom Constable has a very helpful word at this point:

When trouble comes, Christians often react by doubting that they are where God wants them to be; they often think that they have done something wrong and that God must be displeased with them. Even some mature Christians react this way, as evidenced by Paul’s words of reassurance to Timothy many years later. “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Yet storms often come to believers to make them able to stand firm, rather than to blow them away (cf. 2 Cor. 4:15-16). (From the Bible Knowledge Commentary).

There is a fourth truth we need to remember when hard times come.

IV. They may also lead to temptation. 5

“For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent 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.” Did you know that Satan has a “ministry"? That’s right. His special “ministry” is tempting believers to fall away during hard times.

How does the devil tempt us in hard times? I can think of three obvious answers to that question. First, he tempts us to doubt God’s goodness. He whispers in our ear that God has forgotten us, that he doesn’t care, and that he isn’t good. Second, he tempts us retaliate against others with anger and resentment. This is one of his favorite tools when the hard times involve problems with friends and family members. Third, he tempts us to give in despair and discouragement. Perhaps we’re sick and feel as if we’ll never get better again. Or perhaps we’ve just gone through a divorce and we feel rejected and alone. Perhaps we’ve lost a job and feel that we’re not qualified to do anything.

All these things lead to the ultimate act of desperation where we give up our faith in God altogether. That’s what Paul feared for the Thessalonians. He worried that under pressure these new Christians would crumble and give up on God.

Losing your faith is a huge possibility because hard times eventually wear us down. Little by little we lose the joy we once had. Under pressure we begin to give in to bad habits, wrong attitudes, and then we begin the long slide in the wrong direction.

A woman sat in my office and told me the most horrific story I have heard in many years. She was raised as a Christian and at one time had a strong faith in Jesus Christ. But during a period of loneliness, she fell in with a bad crowd and began to dabble in sin. A little here and a little there and eventually she began to experiment with drugs. Today she is utterly and totally and completely hooked on heroin, so much so that she has resorted to terrible extremes in order to finance her drug habit. But when she is high, do you know what she does? She begins to talk about God. And in my office we quoted Bible verses together. She wants to be free but the pain of coming off heroin is so great that she cannot face it. At one point I told her that if she didn’t make the decision to come clean, it wouldn’t be long before I spoke at her funeral. Then I challenged to become a woman of truth because the truth will set you free. My parting words were the words of Jesus, “Go and sin no more.” She smiled and thanked and said she needed to go and get some heroin or she wouldn’t make it through the day. Then she walked out of my office.

I don’t know what will happen to her. In the end, no one can make her decisions for her. Her story illustrates many truths, including the fact that simply having Bible knowledge cannot save you from the consequences of wrong decisions. A few years ago she gave in to Satan’s temptations—first in small ways, then in large ones—and now her life is almost destroyed. She is not yet 30 years old.

What happened to her can happen to any of us if we respond wrongly to hard times. Let no one condemn her, but instead let us consider our own lives and realize how vulnerable we are to Satan’s attacks.

V. We can overcome by faith. 6

“But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you.” Here and in verse 7 Paul plainly says that we can overcome our trials by faith. What kind of faith does he have in mind?

Faith in God’s Character—that he is good and makes no mistake

Faith in God’s Word—that it is true no matter what happens to us

Faith in God’s Purpose—that he is conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ

Faith in God’s Promise—that he will never give us more than we can bear

Faith in God’s Presence—that is with us in the darkest moments of life

Faith in God’s Power—that he can deliver us from every temptation

There is one other kind of faith that will help us in hard times. That is the shared faith of God’s people. So many believers struggle because they try to handle their problems alone. But God never meant that you should walk through the lonely valley by yourself. Hebrews 10:24 says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”

In my sermon last Sunday I read a letter from a woman who recently came back to the Lord. This week I received a short note from someone who had a similar experience.

Dear Pastor Ray,

I felt I should tell you a little bit of a story in hopes it might help someone else.

Whenever I tell others about my rough road back to Christ from non-Christian relationships, the one question I am always asked is, “What would have helped make my road back a little easier?” My answer is, during my time of spiritual loneliness, if I had had a sister in Christ seek me out and tell me, “I’ve been there, I love you, and I can help you find your way back to Jesus,” perhaps I could have been spared a lot more pain than having to discover the answers on my own.

She then adds this P.S. “Jesus is never tolerant of sin, but always willing to forgive it.” If my experience can help someone else, feel free to use this information.”

I certainly am glad to share it because it is truly encouraging. And it reminds us again that we will all grow stronger as we lean on each other. If you’re having a hard time this morning keeping your head above water, tell someone else. Don’t fight the battle all by yourself. Let the Lord minister to you through the resources of the body of Christ.

VI. Others will be encouraged as we stand firm. 7-8

“Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” Here is the final truth about hard times you need to know. Someone is watching you right now. Even though you probably don’t realize it, others are watching how you go through this trial and they are drawing conclusions about you and about your faith.

In the case, the great Apostle himself drew strength from the courage of these new believers. Although he had come to minister to them, by standing firm in hard times they were ministering to him. Paul is saying, “I can face my trials because I see how well you are facing yours. Don’t Feel Sorry For Me.”

A few weeks ago I received a second letter from the young man I mentioned earlier. He writes as follows:

Prison has been a place to grow spiritually. Everything Satan does against me God can and will use to his glory. “For we know that all things work together for good to them that love God who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

God has brought several people into my life to help tear down barriers in my life. I used to be racist but with the help of some dear friends I have overcome that, too. Nathan is a black man who has been in prison for 20 years this month. He got off death row in 1989. Some people (most people for that matter) in that situation would normally sit up on death row mad at the world for their penalty. Not Nate. He found some promises to stand on and God delivered him. He is probably my best friend and an awesome prayer partner.

Today the chaplain called me up to his office. When I got there he said he wanted to start an intense discipleship program and wants one or two people from each dorm to help disciple others. Me and Nate were chosen out of 96 in our dorm. He wants us to let our lights shine here in the dorms.

Then a few sentences later, he mentioned that the parole board has decided he must serve at least two more years in jail. He added this comment:

Please don’t feel sorry for me. Rejoice with me. Remember God created the earth in six days. Just imagine what he can do in my life in 2 more years.

I’m going to take his advice and not feel sorry for him. As bad as it is to be in prison, it’s good to be there if it brings you back to God. And it’s better to be in prison in the will of God than to be on the streets and far from Him. There are many kinds of freedom in the world and many kinds of bondage. Those my friend is not a free man legally, he is freer today than many people I know.

After I preached this message, a man I hardly know in our congregation came up to speak with me. He is young, very well-dressed with a lovely wife by his side. Speaking with deep emotion he said, “Pastor, you don’t know this, but I’ve spent time in prison. I’ve been exactly where that man is today. And what you said is true. It doesn’t matter what got you there, it only matters how you respond.”

I Wouldn’t Take Away the Pain

I close my message with this thought. Many people in our congregation are going through hard times right now. I wish it were not so, but it is true. Every week I hear new stories of distress. As I have thought about the matter, I have concluded that even if I had the power (which I don’t), I wouldn’t take the pain away or make the hard times disappear. God has ordained that your trials are part of his plan to make you like Jesus. There are no short-cuts to spiritual maturity. Were I to take away the pain, I might move too soon and block God’s work in your life. Because I see things from a human perspective, I might actually hurt you instead of help you even though my motives would be good.

It is not “good” to suffer, but suffering is good if it leads us back to the Lord. The Bible tells us that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Let us therefore endure our trials with grace and even with joy, knowing that in the end the clouds will part and the sun will shine again.

1996-09-22-Living-in-Hard-Times

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