Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. 1 Thess. 3:1-5
Early in the last century, a London newspaper carried an advertisement that read as follows:
“Sailors wanted for hazardous journey: small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, and constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” The ad was signed by Arctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, and a few hardy souls answered the call. Bible commentator, Warren Wiersbe writes: “If Jesus had advertised for workers, the announcement might have read something like this: ‘Men and women wanted for difficult task of helping to build My church. You will often be misunderstood, even by those working with you. You will face constant attack from an invisible enemy. You may not see the results of your labor, and your full reward will not come till after all your work is completed. It may cost you your home, your ambitions, even your life.’”
Have you willingly answered Jesus’ advertisement to enter into such a life? Well, in the passage from 1 Thessalonians written above, we learn the truth about the cup of suffering that all believers must drink; the truth, which, if understood and accepted willingly, will help us drink our own cup of suffering with profit. The context of the text is that the Apostle Paul, along with Silas and Timothy, had come to Thessalonica on their 2nd church planting mission, and had founded the church there within a very short period of time; perhaps no longer than three months. But then, persecution broke out, and the new converts of Thessalonica sent the church planting team away for their own safety, yet the persecution then fell upon them. And the newness of the Thessalonians’ faith coupled with this persecution caused Paul and his associates to be greatly concerned for this fledgling church. They had to know if their mission had made a lasting impact, or not. So, Paul and Silas sent Timothy to get a report; which is where we pick up the story in 3:1-2: Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions”.
And it is in this context of these anxieties and afflictions that Paul introduces us to: the inescapable presence of trials. He continues in vss. 3:3b-4: For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.
In describing his own afflictions to the Christians at Thessalonica, Paul tells us that the presence of trials in the Christian life is an inescapable reality for all. And that shouldn’t surprise us since Jesus Himself said in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation.” Peter one of Jesus’ first followers also wrote: Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you. 1 Peter 4:12
The Word of God is clear, and we also know from experience, that the presence of trials in the Christian life is an inescapable reality for all. It is the cup that will not pass. If you’re looking for a heaven-on-earth religion, you won’t find it in the Bible – you won’t find it in Christianity. Christianity is a faith where, more often than not, we take up our cross here on earth.
Now, that doesn’t mean we should wear a sign on our back saying: “I’m a Christian, kick me.” It doesn’t mean we should go around looking for ways to suffer. Not at all! Oswald Chambers, author of the excellent daily devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, says: To choose to suffer means that there is something wrong; but to choose God’s will even if it means suffering is a very different thing. No healthy saint ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.
The truth is, genuine Christian faith is always a faith tested by trial. Faith that isn’t tested isn’t true and doesn’t triumph in the midst of trials. As Paul reminds us in our text; the trial of our faith is an experience in life that believers “have been destined for.”
But in acknowledging our trials, we also must confess that there is no room in Christian suffering for self-pity. Jesus told us to consider it a blessing when we are persecuted for His name’s sake! (Matt. 5:11) Trials are not given so we can feel sorry for ourselves or so others will feel sorry for us. Trials are given to produce the very real product of a proven and productive faith. Peter wrote that being “grieved by various trials” results in “the tested genuineness of your faith.” 1 Peter 1:6-7 And James tells us to: “Consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials…” because as he goes on to say: “the testing of your faith produces endurance.” James 1:2 That is: our trials not only prove our faith, they also equip us to face and endure the continuing harsh realities of living in a fallen world.
So, the two important realities we learn from a tested faith is that it is actual, that’s it is genuine saving faith; and that it is adequate, it will enable us to endure whatever we face in this world, without turning our backs on Jesus. And the only way that our faith is ever proven to be actual and adequate is for it to be tried in the various crucibles of life. This isn’t something we can determine by intellectual exercise or emotional excitement. You have to be jostled by life so that what you’re full of will slosh out!
Now at this point, you may be thinking, “I don’t think I like that idea very much. I thought Christianity was about joy and peace.” It is dear suffering friend, but the joy and peace of being a Christian comes from a faith which we know is real and sufficient, proven so by the trials of life. If your faith is counterfeit, your peace and joy is counterfeit also. You can go through all the motions of the Christian life and be living the biggest lie of all – the lie of a counterfeit faith!
One man who had a real and reliable faith was Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who, prior to the fall of communism, spent fourteen years in prison for preaching the gospel. In an attempt to defeat his faith, his captors smashed four of his vertebrae and either cut or burned eighteen holes in his body. He said, “Alone in my cell, cold, hungry, and in rags, I danced for joy every night.” Wurmbrand had a cell-mate, a man he had led to the Lord before their arrest. He asked the man one day if he had any resentment toward him because he had led him to Christ. The man responded: “I have no words to express my thankfulness that you brought me to the wonderful Savior. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The joy experienced by these two men was real …their peace was real …because their faith was real. It was tried in the crucible of affliction – and it passed the test.
So, will you be imprisoned for your faith in Christ? Probably not. Will you face other trials and tribulations which will put your faith to the test? Absolutely; …we are destined for these things. But don’t whine about it or feel sorry for yourself, because God uses our trials to prove, exercise, strengthen and grow our faith and to produce in us a joy and lasting peace that is real.