Living in Hard Times
1 Thessalonians 3:1-8
September 6, 2016
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What do you do when your world caves in?
How does a Christian respond when hard times come?
What can we do to keep our faith strong?
All of us face those questions because we all go through deep trials eventually. When that happens, everything we believe will be put on the firing line.
Many years ago I learned an important truth from my friend Jim Warren. One day I joined him on Moody Radio for Primetime America, the program he hosted each weekday afternoon. While we were preparing for the broadcast, he told me, “Ray, I heard something today that really helped me. When hard times come, be a student, not a victim.” Over 20 years have passed since that day, and I still regard that simple sentence as one of the most profound things I have ever heard.
Be a student, not a victim
Some people go through life as professional victims, always talking about how they have been mistreated. But perpetual victimhood dooms you to a life of self-centered misery because you learn nothing from your trials.
What a difference it makes to be a student and not a victim:
A victim says, “Why did this happen to me?” A student says, “What can I learn from this?”
A victim blames other people for his problems. A student asks, “How much of this did I bring on myself?”
A student learns from hard times
A victim looks at everyone else and cries out, “Life isn’t fair.” A student looks at life and says, “What happened to me could have happened to anyone.”
A victim believes his hard times have come because God is trying to punish him. A student understands that God allows hard times in order to help him grow.
A victim would rather complain than find a solution. A student has no time to complain because he is busy making the best of his situation.
A victim feels so sorry for himself that he has no time for others. A student focuses on helping others so that he has no time to feel sorry for himself.
A victim feels sorry for himself
A victim begs God to remove the problems of life so that he might be happy. A student has learned through the problems of life that God alone is the source of all true happiness.
That’s the true Christian position. We believe so much in the sovereignty of God that when hard times come, we know that God is at work for our good and his glory.
In 1 Thessalonians 3:1-8 Paul writes to some new believers who suddenly found themselves in great difficulty. They were being persecuted for their faith in Jesus. Our text shows how Paul reassured them. From this passage I want to share with you five truths about hard times.
#1: Our Trials Are Unsettling
“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” (vv. 1-3a). Note two key 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” comes from a Greek word that has the idea of being “under the thumb” because of pressure from above. Many of you know from experience the unrelenting pressure from circumstances that keeps you awake at night and saps your strength during the day.
No one is exempt from suffering
As I survey the New Testament teaching regarding trials, two truths stand out. 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, put it in your back pocket 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 true. 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.
How do you respond to trials?
Our trials often come with very little warning. A few days ago we interviewed Nabeel Qureshi on American Family Radio about his new book No God But One: Allah or Jesus?. Raised in a Muslim family, Nabeel became a Christian after reading the New Testament and encountering the claims of Christ. (He told his conversion story in the bestseller Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus.) For the last few years, he has served as a speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. During our interview with him, he sounded very strong and confident in all his answers. That was on Thursday. The following Tuesday he announced that he has been diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer and the prognosis is grim. But that’s how life is sometimes. One day you are announcing a new book; a few days later you are fighting for your life.
James 1:2 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.
#2: Our Trials Are Appointed
“You know quite well that we were destined for them” (v. 3b). The phrase “we were destined” comes from a verb that means “to put or to place.” It’s 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.
Consider these words by Roy Zuck: “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.
But accidents? No!
There are no accidents with God, only incidents that are appointed by him for our good and his glory.
As Tony Evans has pointed out, everything that happens in the world is either caused by God or allowed by God, and there is no third category. Nothing ever “just happens” and nothing is caused by someone or something outside of God’s control. That means there is no such thing as chance or fate or luck.
With that important understanding, we pass on to the third great truth regarding hard times.
#3: Our Trials Are Necessary
“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” (v. 4). 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.
Romans 5:3-4 spells out how this process works: “We also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.” We all want hope, but we don’t want affliction. If you want hope to flood your heart, it starts with affliction that leads to endurance that produces proven character that results in the Holy Spirit filling us with hope.
We want the hope but not the affliction
Let me return for a moment to Nabeel Qureshi. When he announced his cancer in a Facebook post, he went on to give this testimony:
In the past few days my spirits have soared and sank as I pursue the Lord’s will and consider what the future might look like, but never once have I doubted this: that Jesus is Lord, His blood has paid my ransom, and by His wounds I am healed. I have firm faith that my soul is saved by the grace and mercy of the Triune God, and not by any accomplishment or merit of my own. I am so thankful that I am a child of the Father, redeemed by the Son, and sealed in the Spirit. No, in the midst of the storm, I do not have to worry about my salvation, and for that I praise you, God.
This is the sort of faith that Paul has in mind in Romans 5. I don’t know what the future holds for Nabeel, but as I pray for his healing, I also pray that his faith might remain strong.
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. Thomas 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.
#4: Our Trials Are Dangerous
“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” (v. 5).
Satan tempts us to fall away during our trials. Paul knew that was a possibility, which is why he was so worried about these young Thessalonian believers.
The devil tempts us to doubt God’s goodness
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 to 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 to 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. 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.
Under pressure we begin to give in
A woman sat in my office and told me a very sad story. 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. Her addiction led her to terrible extremes in order to finance her drug habit. But when she is high, she begins to talk about God. 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 her to become a woman of truth because the truth will set her free. My parting words were the words of Jesus, “Go and sin no more.” She smiled and thanked me 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.
Her story demonstrates that simply having Bible knowledge cannot save you from the consequences of wrong decisions. 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.
#5: Our Trials Are Productive
“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” (v. 6). Here Paul plainly says that we can overcome our trials by faith. What kind of faith does he have in mind?
God makes no mistakes!
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 leave us or forsake us.
Faith in God’s Presence—that he 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 intended that you should walk through the lonely valley by yourself. I received a note from someone who found her way back to God after a long time in the wilderness:
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 am glad to share it because it is truly encouraging. It reminds us again that we grow stronger as we lean on each other. If you’re having a hard time keeping your head above water, tell someone else. Don’t fight the battle alone. Let the Lord minister to you through the resources of the body of Christ.
We never suffer alone
Verses 7-8 reveal another way in which our trials are productive: “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. We never suffer alone. Our friends watch to see how we will respond to tragedy. They want to know if what we say we believe is really enough for us in the hard times. And further in the distance, others watch what we go through. Many of them are unbelievers who wonder if Christ is real. They don’t know, they aren’t sure, maybe they’ve read the Bible, maybe they haven’t, but they’re watching how we respond to mistreatment, malicious accusations, sickness, the loss of a job, the end of our marriage, a career setback, or a financial collapse. From the shadows they watch us as we suffer to see if what we have is real or not.
In this 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.”
I Wouldn’t Take Away the Pain
Many people reading this message are going through hard times right now. I wish it were not so, but it is true. In the last few days, I’ve heard about prodigal children, aging parents, worries about the future, divorce, breast cancer, an infant with a serious medical condition, children far from God, Christians dealing with doubt, others with fear, and still others dealing with lingering bitterness.
There are no shortcuts to spiritual maturity
As I thought about the matter, I 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 shortcuts 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.
“He knows the way that I take. When he has tried me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). You can have an easy life, or you can have a deep faith. You can’t have both. There is no gold without the fiery furnace.
Fear not, Christian friend
Our hard times are designed to bring us closer to the Lord. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Let us therefore endure our trials with grace and courage, knowing that in the end the clouds will part and the sun will shine again.
Fear not, Christian friend. We have a great God who loves us more than we know. Look to Jesus and you will find the strength you need. When your trials are over, you will come forth as gold.