Standing Firm In Trials

1 Thessalonians 3:1-13

October 6, 2002 | Brian Bill

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 line.  

In the first 9 verses of 1 Thessalonians 3, Paul wrote to some new believers who suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves in great difficulty.  They were being persecuted for their faith in Jesus.  Our text shows how Paul reassured them and encouraged them to stand firm in trials.  I see 6 truths about trials that can help us hang in there when difficulties come.

Truths About Trials

1. 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.  As we learned last week, Paul desperately wanted to go back and visit this young church but Satan had blocked him.  Even here, he says that it was “best to be left by ourselves,” which is a very strong phrase.  It literally means, “to be forsaken,” or “to be left behind.”  Paul felt orphaned from his fellow believers and so he did the next best thing.  He sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage them in their trials.

The Greek word for “unsettled” actually means to “wag the tail.”  It has the idea of being so shaken by circumstances that you flop back and forth.  The word “trial” means to be “under the thumb” of pressure.  Many of you know from experience what that feels like.  Some of you are going through some unrelenting pressure right now that keeps you awake at night and makes you feel wiped out during the day.  

Your particular trial doesn’t matter as much as how you respond to it

Remember this: Your particular trial doesn’t matter as much as how you respond to it.  Often we focus intently on the details of our difficulties as if our problem was 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 we respond than with the trial itself.   Someone has said, “God will take care of what you go through; you take care of how you go through it.”

Are you unsettled this morning?  If so, you’re not alone.  But, you don’t have to stay that way.  It’s helpful to remember the next truth.

2. Our trials are appointed by God (3b). 

“You know quite well that we were destined for them.” The phrase “we were destined” comes from a verb that means “to put or to place,” which is a very strong way of saying “your hard times were placed here by God.”  Persecution doesn’t happen without a purpose because suffering comes with the territory.  This verse teaches that trials are appointments, not accidents.  

That means that whatever trial or difficulty you are going through today has been tailor made for you by a loving heavenly Father.  He appoints tough times for our good and His glory.  Listen carefully.  Everything that comes to you has already passed through the hands of God and has received His stamp of approval. 

3. We should expect difficulty (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.  It’s better to expect to be stretched than to think that life will always be a bed of roses.  It reminds me of the guy who said that he doesn’t mind obstacles as long as they don’t get in his way.  

Trials are the common lot of every Christian.  No one is exempt; no one gets a trouble-free ride to heaven. Jesus put it this way in Matthew 24:9: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”  1 Peter  4:12: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”  Suffering is a mark of discipleship, something that is guaranteed for the follower of Christ.

The Christian life is not a quick fix.  New Christians are sometimes confused when they think that everything should go perfectly, that there should be no more difficulties.  Some believers may even wonder if they’re at fault, that maybe if they just had more faith, the hard times would go away.  When you put your faith in Christ you will experience pressures and persecution.  Paul told the Thessalonians ahead of time that problems would come.  

Notice that he “kept,” telling them.  This verb is in the continuous tense, meaning we could translate it this way: “the warning was often on our lips.”  He wanted them to be prepared so he kept telling them that persecution was inevitable.  Acts 14:22 puts it succinctly: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”  A South American saying hits it on the head: “To live without suffering is to die without glory.

4. Tough times can tempt us to give up (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.” One of Satan’s main tools is to “tempt” us to bail on God.  We are tempted in at least three ways.  

  • To doubt God’s goodness.  The tempter whispers in our ear that God has forgotten us, that He doesn’t care, and that He isn’t good. 
  • To retaliate against others with anger and resentment.  This is one of his favorite tactics when our hard times involve problems with friends and family members.  
  • To give in to despair and discouragement.  Maybe you’re sick and you feel as if you’ll never get better again.  Perhaps you feel rejected and alone.  Maybe you’ve lost a job and feel that you’re not qualified to do anything.  

Paul was so worried that these new Christians would crumble that he sent Timothy to find out if they were still standing strong.  Trials can cause causalities even for the most courageous of Christians.  Let’s admit that under pressure we can begin bad habits, develop wrong attitudes, and slide down the slippery slope of despair.  But, we don’t have to let problems prevail in our life.

5. We can overcome our trials 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.” This is the only time Paul ever used the term “good news” outside of its regular meaning of preaching the good news of the gospel.  The message about their spiritual status was so pleasing to Paul’s ears that it was like listening to the Gospel all over again.  

I want you to notice that Timothy was sent to find out about their faith.  He returns with a positive report about their faith and love.  Their faith was strong and sure.  Their love for one another and for the lost was evident.  Faith has its focal point toward God, while love is exhibited to those around us.  These believers loved God with everything they had and they loved their neighbors as themselves.  They were living out the truth of Galatians 5:6: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

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 mistakes
  • 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 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.  As I mentioned last week, so many believers struggle because they try to handle their problems alone.  But God never meant for you to walk through the lonely valley by yourself.  Hebrews 10:24: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”

6. Others will be encouraged as we stand firm (7-9). 

“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 trials: Someone is watching you right now.  Even though you probably don’t realize it, others are scrutinizing how you go through your trial and they are drawing conclusions about you and your faith.  It was A.W. Tozer who said, “Seldom does God use a person greatly who has not been hurt deeply.”

Paul himself drew strength from the courage of these new believers.  Although he had wanted 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.”  In verse 9, he thanked God for all the joy that the Thessalonians gave to him.

Before we move to the last part of chapter 3, let me make a couple observations.

  • Paul cares deeply for believers in other churches and in other countries.  This is a good word for us because American Christians, for the most part, are focused almost totally on themselves.  Since God is a global God, we need to become world Christians.  
  • Paul doesn’t pray for trials to go away.  Someone has said, “In this country there is much complaint with little suffering; in some countries there is much suffering with little complaint.”  Since problems are often part of God’s plan, Paul directs his prayers to other things.  As we focus on the persecuted church today, it’s amazing that when believers going through trials are asked for their prayer requests, they do not ask God for immediate rescue from their suffering.  Instead, they ask for boldness, grace to forgive, open doors, wisdom for ruling authorities, growth of church leaders, and unity in the church.

This is a good lesson for me.  When I’m going through something tough, I often pray that God would just take it away.  While it’s good to pray in faith that God would deliver us from difficulty, I want to learn to pray that God would teach me what He wants me to learn through the trial, especially if its something that He has designed just for me to experience.  

How then, does Paul pray for the Thessalonians?  How should we pray for others?

How To Pray

1. Pray frequently. 

Look at the first part of verse 10: “Night and day we pray…”  Effective prayer takes place in the morning, afternoon, evening, and even in the middle of the night.  He puts it this way in 5:17: “Pray continually.” He didn’t just sit down once in a while and pray, “Bless my friends over there in Thessalonica.”  Corrie Ten Boom, who was held in a concentration camp, writes this about prayer: “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.”

2. Pray earnestly. 

Weak, shallow, half-hearted prayers produce weak, shallow, half-hearted results

Paul uses a very unusual expression when he writes, “…we pray most earnestly.”  It has the idea of going above and beyond all normal measures.  It can be translated, “super abundantly.” Prayer must be earnest to be effective.  Weak, shallow, half-hearted prayers produce weak, shallow, half-hearted results.  God says in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” and James 5:16 reminds us that “the earnest prayer of a righteous man has great power and wonderful results” (New Living Translation).

3. Pray specifically. 

One of Paul’s requests, which hadn’t yet been answered, was very clear in verse 10 and in verse 11: “…that we may seen you again…now may our God and Father Himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.” Paul had been blocked from coming but that didn’t prevent him from praying.  He knew that God could clear the way and He prayed that He would do it.  Friend, don’t be afraid to be specific in your prayers.  Tell God exactly what it is you’re hoping for.  Some of our prayers are not answered because we are not precise enough in our requests.  James 4:2: “…You do not have, because you do not ask God.”

After revealing how to pray – frequently, earnestly, and specifically, in verses 10-13, Paul concludes by telling us what to pray for others.  

What To Pray for Others

1. For faith to mature. 

The reason Paul wanted to visit these new believers was because he wanted their faith to increase.  Look at the last part of verse 10: “…and supply what is lacking in your faith.” The idea of “supplying what was lacking” 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 believers for the work of ministry.  Paul was committed to do all he could do to help Christians become more committed.  God evidently answered this request, because when Paul wrote his next letter to them several months later in 2 Thessalonians 1:3, he expresses his thankfulness “…because your faith is growing more and more…”

2. For love to increase. 

It’s easy when we go through trials to become focused just on ourselves, so Paul prays in verse 12: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” Love is the mark of a successful church, and the only way to love is to know the love of God.  Paul’s concern is that their love for each other would be so evident that it would splash over into others as well.  Notice that this love was not only to be directed to believers, but to “everyone else,” meaning that we must love lost people as well.  This request is also answered in 2 Thessalonians 1:3: “…and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.”

3. For lives to be holy. 

Pray that faith would mature, that love would increase, and that hope would lead to holiness.  Here we see Paul’s favorite trifecta again – faith, love and hope.  Look at verse 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.”

We’re to pray that believers would live sanctified lives, that they would be blameless, even when persecution becomes pervasive.  The second coming of Christ should have a purifying affect on our lives.  Since He can come at any moment, we certainly want to be ready!

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?