Give thanks in every circumstance

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Last week we spoke about the importance of giving thanks always-to not expect thanks, but rather to give it. Paul breaks a little in 1 Thessalonians from giving thanks always (time) to giving thanks in everything (circumstances). The difference may seem inconsequential, but it is not. Giving thanks in every circumstance is incredibly challenging when storms of life are crashing against us.

Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV). Paul, of all people, knew how difficult life could become. He was routinely beaten, stoned, arrested, and hunted by people who much preferred him to be dead. In addition to the physical harm, there were always people attempting to undermine the Gospel message, spreading lies about Paul and preaching a message counter to the saving message of God. Many people hated Paul and desperately wanted him shut down.

Imagine attempting to preach when you are constantly shouted down, chased out of cities, and hated by the very people you are attempting to save. To say it would be depressing is an understatement. It would be incredibly difficult, if not near impossible, for any of us to go on. At some point, the opposition would take its toll on us. But not only did Paul prevail, he thanked God along the way. Paul knew his blessings, and he urged the church in Thessalonica to know theirs too.

Sometimes it becomes difficult–even tedious–to offer thanks to God when we least feel like it. Some people are plagued with bad heath. Others with financial woes. Still others are grieving immeasurable loss in their lives. But God still blesses those of us who are struggling. In fact, it’s in those darkest moments when we see God emerge victorious. His will for us is to offer thanks in every circumstance. We have much to be thankful for, even when we suffer.

Character Produces Hope

Hope

With the pandemic still at large, many people continue to suffer as a result. The economy has hit people hard, illness and death have taken so much, violence is a reality for others, and on the list goes. In the process, many churches are struggling to find their identity and still others are struggling to pay their preachers and keep the lights on. My best guess is that a lot of missionaries have had their budgets slashed, or have seen financial support be completely cut.

In the middle of all this, there’s a surprising lack of one word among Christians. . . hope. Hope and Change was the campaign slogan for President Obama that allowed him to win the election, twice. People long for hope and meaningful change. Hope is what drives people into the next day and pulls many out of desperation. Hope allows us to see the good that lies ahead. It gives us a reason to make it another day, while cherishing the time we have on this earth. Romans 5:3-5 says, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Hope promises something new and better. Imagine if, instead of churches splitting right now, they focused on rejoicing in their sufferings. What if people were building character–character the produces hope. People deserve a message of hope. They need to know that there is hope in Christ. If we modeled hope for others in the midst of suffering, the light of Christ would shine much brighter.

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Patience In Suffering

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There’s no question that there is a lot of suffering in the world. Many are suffering from poverty, starvation, disease, and thirst. Many are feeling the pain from the recent global pandemic. We’ve been doing a series on navigating the church during COVID. We’re seeing many handle the pandemic well, and many who are not. The Bible has plenty to say about suffering, so we should turn to it for guidance when we experience it.

James says that we should be patient in suffering. In fact, he says, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7 ESV). James calls his readers to be patient and to establish their hearts. Interestingly, he pleads with them to not grumble against each other: “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (vs. 9). This is important because the stress of suffering makes it easy to lash out at those we love. James warns them that they will be judged for doing so. It’s not difficult to imagine the violence and destructive speech that can be seen during times of crisis. James is right.

He continues, “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast” (vs. 10, 11). Yes, much patience is needed in the midst of suffering. When patience and endurance keep people steadfast. The church will survive suffering. It always has, and always will. But we must remain steadfast and remember to treat people with kindness and compassion.

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When Children Suffer

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Nobody knows the pain of watching a child suffer better than a mother. With Mother’s Day around the corner, it is a time to honor mothers. We never want to forget the mothers who struggle on this day. In fact, for me it’s always a special day both to honor mothers and to lament with others who find this day to be a struggle. Some mothers have lost children. Others longed for children and could not get pregnant. Still others are watching their children battle horrific diseases. Whatever the case, we lament with those who suffer.

There’s a poignant story in the Bible where Hagar is thrown out like yesterday’s trash with her son Ishmael. She was a slave of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah, in her jealousy and to the disagreement of Abraham, did not want her son Isaac to grow up with his brother Ishmael. “Get rid of that slave woman and her son!,” Sarah barked. God told Abraham to let them go. They were sent into the brutal desert, where the drinking water would soon run out.

After the water ran out, Hagar put her only son under a shade tree and left him to die. Genesis 21:16 NLT paints the grim story well: “Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, ‘I cannot watch the boy die.’ And as she sat there, she began to sob.” It’s painful to even read. She knew in her heart that her son would die that day. It was too painful for her to watch. Every failure began to creep into Hagar’s mind. She was just the slave woman. She was broke. She was homeless. And now she couldn’t even provide enough water for her son to live.

God showed up that day and spared Hagar and Ishmael. But this story captures the immense pain a mother feels when she is abandoned and when her child is suffering. We need to look on others with the same compassion that God has for people who suffer. We need to extend a helping hand to those in need and lament with those who weep.

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The God of All Comfort

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There is a difference between saying that someone will suffer and saying that someone should suffer. Jesus promises suffering for those who faithfully follow him, but that doesn’t mean that he thinks people should suffer. When Paul was on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Ananias in a dream and said about Paul, “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16 ESV). Jesus was not saying that he hopes Paul would suffer. He didn’t say Paul deserved to suffer. He did, however, said that it was necessary for Paul to suffer.

I’m not so sure that suffering is prescriptive as it is descriptive. In other words, God doesn’t prescribe suffering merely because we follow Christ. But suffering is descriptive of what happens to those of us who are faithful to him. It is necessary for us to suffer as Christians because people will always oppose goodness and righteousness. Evil will always exist. Oppression will always be present. Disease and sickness will always be on the earth.

But how does God respond, and how should we respond to one another? In 2 Corinthians 1, the word “comfort” is used more times than anywhere else in the Bible. Paul was suffering badly, but he was being comforted by God and God’s people. Paul said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4 ESV). Paul says that, just as we share in Christ’s sufferings, we also share in his comfort.

This is a powerful message of hope in the midst of suffering. We should take comfort in the fact that our comfort is contagious. When we are comforted, we are able to comfort others. Paul said, “When we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer” (2 Cor. 1:6).

We have an obligation to share in our sufferings because, when we do, we also share in our comfort! The world would be a more beautiful place if more people were actively comforting one another.

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Enduring Hardships Together

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When Paul was on his very first missionary journey, he endured incredible challenges. It is not surprising, because the Lord told Ananias that he would show Paul how much he would suffer for his name. And suffer Paul did. From the very first step he took on the mission trail, Paul experienced opposition.

When Paul and Barnabas came into Lystra, Paul was stoned and left for dead. Luke records that “when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe” (Acts 14:20 ESV). When they had gone on to Derbe, they circled back and entered Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

In the midst of hardships, Paul and his companions were strengthening the church, encouraging people to remain faithful, and were appointing elders in every church. This is such an example of what the church could and should be doing! Most people shut down when they are discouraged. It is normal to feel defeated. But what happens when we share our pain and suffering and use that to the glory of God? Luke records that, in those same churches, “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5). God will bless the church when we lean into him and endure hardships together!

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