Persevering Faith

Dr. Brian Allison

It is possible to suffer to the point of giving up your faith. It is possible to be so overwhelmed with the pressures and pains of life that you abandon God. I think of the Christian mother who loses her four year old son in a tragic car accident, who subsequently becomes embittered and filled with confusion; and she cries out to God for an answer. Accordingly, in her bitterness and confusion, which slowly simmers into resentment and hatred, she questions the goodness and grace of God, and concludes that she cannot worship a God Who appears to be so capricious, insensitive, and uncaring, Who has been so cruel as to take away her young child. Emotional suffering can result in one giving up his or her faith. I think also of the young man who falls prey to malignant lymphatic melanoma. The cancer slowly ravages his body and the pain becomes excruciating and unbearable. Accordingly, he just cannot figure out why God would allow this misery to come into his life, having reached the prime of his life, wanting to serve God. In his disillusionment and darkness, he decries, "There cannot be a God. I have believed a lie because no God Who is loving and caring would allow this to happen to one of His children." And, as a result, that young man rejects God. Physical suffering can result in one giving up his or her faith. I also think of the young lady who for years has sought the Lord with diligence, earnestness, and integrity, continually petitioning the Lord to deliver her from a besetting, nagging, tormenting sin, as well as to empower her to live a holy and godly life. But her prayers apparently continue to go unanswered, and she despairs. She believes that God cannot be trusted; and after a few years of deep soul struggle, she concludes, "This whole Christianity is not real. Who am I kidding? No one hears me because no one is there." Consequently, she turns her back on God. Spiritual suffering can result in one giving up his or her faith. It is possible to suffer to the point where you give up your faith.

Deep affection

Are you suffering, my friend – economically, financially, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, socially? If you are suffering, you may have raised some questions concerning the goodness and grace of God. I suspect that some may be wondering where God is, and maybe have felt negative emotions toward God Who is supposed to be so loving and kind. And perhaps you find yourself wrestling with bitterness, resentment, and anger, saying, "Where are You, God, when I need You? Where are You now?" Is that your present situation? Consider 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5, "Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone; and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith, so that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this [suffering]. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know. For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor should be in vain."

Considering the immediate context, recall that the apostle Paul has made reference to his affection and love to these believers. Paul loved believers in general and the Thessalonian believers in particular. He had a high evaluation and esteem for them. As he thought about his ministry to these believers, anticipating standing at the judgement seat of Christ, there was an outburst and outflow of deep affection, and he writes, "For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy" (1 Th. 2:19,20). Paul's hope is that when Christ returns there will be the realization that his ministry was not in vain, that these believers had indeed run well.

As Paul expresses his deep affection, he says that on more than one occasion he desired to be reunited with them – "For we wanted to come to you – I, Paul, more than once – and yet Satan thwarted us" (1 Th. 2:18). Now, moving into chapter 3, we realize that there is a connection between 2:17-20 and 3:1-5. We continue to perceive intense emotion in the writing, a deep affection towards these believers. We read, "Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone; and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith" (3:1,2). Paul says, in effect, "Having been absent from you, after being chased out of town and leaving you behind, it was unbearable for me. As I thought about what you may have been enduring, I had an intolerable suspense about what may have been taking place in your life; and I could not stand it." Can you appreciate this language? Think about it. Paul says, in effect, "I was 'bursting at the seams'. It was overwhelming to me, as I was considering your difficult situation, and what might have been happening to you. Therefore I had to dispatch Timothy to you in order to allay my fears."

Great suffering and deep affection

Keep in mind that these believers were undergoing intense affliction; they were enduring a great deal of suffering. So, we read in 1 Thessalonians 1:6, "You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit;" again, 2:13,14, "And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God's message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews." So, this church was undergoing intense suffering. These believers were in the middle of incredible affliction, being persecuted, ridiculed, and abused. They had just received the Gospel. They were new converts, and their spiritual father, Paul, had been taken away from them; and now they were on their own. Paul, being agitated about their suffering and about how the suffering would affect their faith as new converts, became emotionally distraught, and says, "I could not endure it any longer, it was too emotionally painful for me, imagining and anticipating what you may have been going through."

As spiritual leaders, we ought to emotionally identify with believers and enter into their struggle and pain, wanting the best for them; and when their faith seems to be threatened, we ought not to turn a blind eye or be indifferent, saying, for instance, "Well, they will make out okay on their own. I am too busy. I have my own concerns. Let them fend for themselves." That attitude is unbiblical and unchristian. Christians ought to weep with those who weep, especially if they are spiritual leaders. You ought to be intensely concerned about God's people, especially during their times of struggle, during their times of suffering, regardless of how many times they find themselves in a particular predicament. Love demands the response of concern and mercy.

So, the heart of the apostle Paul was broken here as he considered the possible state and predicament of these believers, so much so that he was willing to sacrifice his own comfort in order that these believers might be ministered to. Thus, 1 Thessalonians 3:1 reads, "Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone." You might not think that Paul's decision to remain alone in Athens was much of a sacrifice, but it clearly was, especially as we consider other writings of the apostle. Paul was a man who needed the support and fellowship of other believers, especially from such friends as Timothy; and to be left alone was a very difficult situation for him. Paul deeply appreciated and valued Timothy's company. Timothy was an inestimable source of human and spiritual strength. Hence, in his second epistle to Timothy, Paul wrote, "I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day, longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may be filled with joy" (vv. 3,4). So, Paul sacrificed the comfort of friendship and fellowship for the sake of these believers; and, no doubt, he was willing to do much more than that, if it was required.

Partners with God

As spiritual leaders, we need to sacrifice our comfort in order to minister to those who are in pain, need, or suffering. We may have to go without our family time, our 'down time', and our physical rest in order to minister to those who are suffering. God calls us to sacrifice for the sake of others. That is what Paul did. So, he sent Timothy. Now, notice how he refers to Timothy. He says, "our brother," a term of endearment. But the next designation is somewhat astounding, a rather high description. He says that Timothy was "God's fellow worker in the gospel of Christ" (1 Th. 3:2a). Paul, of course, is here presenting Timothy's spiritual credentials in order to inspire confidence in these believers. Paul was sending his best, as it were, to minister to them. God is pleased to allow us to work with Him, alongside Him, for the sake of the kingdom. We are (I say this reverently) partners with God, by His choosing, in bringing in His kingdom. What an awesome and humbling privilege!

Recall, for instance, that when Paul returned with Barnabas from their first missionary journey, he reported to the Church, "And when they had arrived and gathered the church together, they began to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles" (Acts 14:27). This truth is such an encouragement to us as believers. God calls us not only into His kingdom, but also into His service; and we not only have the privilege of being called servants of Christ, but we are also given the title of God's fellow workers. Sometimes in my weaker moments, I think about the possibility of having a wider sphere of influence and having a bigger congregation, and being used more mightily of God. As I have thought about the fruit that the Lord has given me over the past 8 to 10 years as a pastor in a small, obscure place, I have said, "Lord, more fruit, more fruit." Also, others have encouraged me to actually move in other ministry directions. Accordingly, one is tempted to think of other ministry possibilities and opportunities (especially in moments of fleshly reflection). But then the Spirit speaks to the heart, "It is enough just to wear the uniform;" and I am humbled. Even serving in a small, obscure place, I am a fellow worker with the Almighty God; and His purposes will not be frustrated, His plan will be accomplished, even for this part of His vineyard.

The integrity of faith

My friend, if you think great things for yourself, think them not. It is enough just to wear the uniform. So, Paul sent Timothy to find out about this group of believers; and he sent him as a teacher of the Gospel of Christ. He sent him "to strengthen and encourage [these believers] as to [their] faith" (3:2b). That is the critical issue – the integrity of their faith. Paul knew that it was a matter of spiritual life and death. He knew that their perseverance and salvation (from the human side) all hinged on their faith. The crucial question was: Would they continue to believe in the midst of their suffering? Again, it is possible that suffering can cause one to give up his or her faith. Paul knew that, and being concerned, agitated, and troubled in thinking about their condition, he sent Timothy to them with the goal of strengthening and encouraging them in their faith. Paul, in effect, says, "Timothy, I dispatch you. Do not be sidetracked, for the issues are too high here. It is a matter of life and death, heaven and hell. Timothy, I want you to go to Thessalonica and the first thing I want you to do is to strengthen those believers in the faith; that is, minister the Word to them. It is the Word that will feed their faith and establish them in it. Teach them the truth. And not only that, Timothy, I want you to encourage them in their faith; that is, show them pastoral care and support them. You have a high calling, you fellow worker of God."

Now, notice what was to be the result of Timothy's ministry, "So that no man may be disturbed [upset] by these afflictions" (3:3a). Again, suffering can cause one to be disturbed, to question God, to doubt the truth of Christianity. Paul says, in effect, "Timothy, you strengthen them, you establish them in their faith; and you encourage them, so that they may not begin to think twice about the truth of their salvation and their relationship with God through Christ; so that they may not see this present time of affliction as some strange thing that is taking place, perhaps feeling 'the crunch', and even wondering where God is. Timothy, you strengthen them, that they might not abandon this God who has been pleased to save them."

Perhaps some who are reading this message have been experiencing incredible affliction over the last little while, or over the past few years; and if the truth were known, you know that those afflictions have deeply disturbed you; you know that those afflictions have called your faith into question because it has called God into question. It was at these times that you needed to be strengthened and encouraged. God's people need to be strengthened and encouraged, especially during the times of suffering. Suffering has a way of unraveling the soul. We read in Ecclesiastes that oppression makes a wise man mad (Eccl. 7:7). It does not necessarily matter how much knowledge and wisdom you have, when the crunch comes, it often has a way of unraveling you; and to suffer alone may be an incredibly painful and dangerous situation. My brothers and sisters, when you see a fellow believer suffering, do not be indifferent, do not be complacent, because for them it may have become a faith struggle. On the other hand, the last thing that you who are suffering should do is to isolate yourself, saying in your pride, "I will get through this on my own." Will you? Have you? Has your faith suffered? Are you further away from God now than you were before the suffering came?

Suffering is normal

Suffering has a way of humbling us, and that is where God wants us – in a state of humility. Suffering is not designed to destroy us (though that may be the unfortunate outcome), but rather to transform us. We, as Christians, should expect to suffer. It is part of God's wise design. Paul continues to write, "For you yourselves know that we have been destined for this" (3:3b). Destined for what? Suffering, affliction; it is essential to the Christian life. You should not think it some strange thing that you are suffering, that you are going through pain, that you, for example, are mourning the loss of a loved one, that you are bemoaning the fact that your whole financial empire has crumbled, that you are weeping over the fact that you cannot seem to think straight, and that you are overwhelmed with fears. Suffering is by God's holy appointment – "For you yourselves know that we have been destined for this" (3:3b). Get a hold of this truth, my brothers and sisters. God has ordained that you, as a believer, will suffer; and He has ordained that some will suffer more than others. To know this fact should help us when we actually experience suffering. Now, you may say, "Well, that is not going to help me. How is knowing this truth going to help me? Rather, I can see myself becoming more embittered, saying, 'Lord, why do I need to live with this particular spouse?' or 'Why do I need to put up with this particular son?' or 'Why is my work situation like a hell on earth?' It makes me more angry knowing that God has ordained this."

Suffering is sent to us for, at least, two reasons, to sanctify us and to make us more dependent on Him. It is when someone receives the rod that he or she is more likely not to sin; and it is when someone is suffering that he is confronted with his appalling helplessness, and that he must cast himself on God. Some reading this message know exactly what I am talking about. Prior to your suffering, you did things your way, you were able to look after that situation on your own, you always had the answers, you always pulled the strings, you could always get out of the mess; but then real suffering came and you found that you had no answers, that you were just as weak as the next person.

My friend, we are too proud, and that is why the Lord is pleased to break us. He wants to break your will, not your faith; but in the process of breaking your will, you may have your faith broken. Accordingly, it may take a long time for that faith to be repaired, if at all. We should see the suffering that God sends us as an expression of His love because He is bent on my salvation; He is bent on us reflecting the character of His Son, and for us to realize that He and He alone is our all in all. It ought to be a comfort for us to realize that God has ordained the suffering. He will not tempt us beyond the point of what we can endure; but with the temptation, He will give a way of escape in order that we may endure it (1 Cor. 10:13); and we will take that way of escape if our minds do not become blinded by our sin through anger and resentment, or even depression, so that we question the goodness of God.

With respect to the normalcy of suffering, the apostle further says, "For indeed when we were with you [just a short while ago; it ought to be fresh in your mind], we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction" (3:4). He says, in effect, "We did not deceive you, we did not tell you half truths, we did not say, 'Come to Jesus and everything will be fine.' We did not say, 'Come to Jesus and you will simply experience happiness and bliss, and all your desires, all your wants, would be fulfilled. Simply name it and claim it.' No, we were honest with you. We told you from the beginning that in receiving the Gospel, you were going to suffer, and maybe suffer badly. We tried to prepare you for that. You know that."

My Christian friend, when you share the Gospel, do not water it down, but rather be up front with it. Be honest, and tell the unconverted that in receiving the Gospel, they will most likely suffer, if not through persecution, then certainly through affliction. Tell them that God may throw their whole world into turmoil, if not through persecution, then certainly through affliction; that sickness may hit their home, that finances may become incredibly tight. Tell them that, because God will be bent on their salvation, weaning them from pride and sin. Tell them that God may come and divide their home, that they may have a rebellious son or an anorexic daughter. Tell them that suffering most likely will come, to a greater or lesser degree.

Paul said to these Thessalonian believers that suffering was inevitable, and that believers should expect it. Whom the Lord loves, He chastens; He scourges every child whom He receives (Hb. 12:5,6). Of course, some will receive more scourging than others; but God is pleased to scourge all His children. You do new converts a disservice to simply give the good side, the positive side, of the Gospel, so that when the suffering comes, they are thrown into confusion and they question the goodness, the love, and the beneficent character of God. So, Paul says, "We kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know" (3:4).

Persevering faith

In verse 5 of this chapter, we have a resumption of the language in verse 1. Paul says, "For this reason, when I could endure it no longer [he repeats himself, and love does that], I also sent to find out about your faith [why Paul?]" (3:5a). Paul says, again, "For this reason, knowing the reality of suffering, and what suffering can potentially do – suffering can either mature you, and bring you into greater fellowship with God, or it can destroy you and cause you to abandon God – I also sent to find out about [the integrity, the reality, the strength of] your faith." That is the issue; and the enemy of the soul knows that. Notice what Paul proceeds to say, "For fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor should be in vain" (3:5b). Though suffering is ordained by God, Satan is often the agent and instrument by which suffering actually comes, whether it be emotional, physical, or spiritual suffering. He orchestrates the circumstances; he arranges the factors, he brings those individuals into your life. Satan is the diabolical force, engineering most of your affliction, and you need to understand that. He has one goal in view: He wants you to mistrust God and to give up your faith. That was his goal with Job. "Does Job fear God for nothing?" he asked, "Give him into my hands for a moment, and he will curse You to Your face, he will question Your goodness and love, and he will turn his back on You." Yet through the darkness, Job exclaimed "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him" (Jb. 13:15). Job persevered, he passed the test, his faith was not broken. Satan will come to you to test you. He may arrange that you, or someone else in your family, be raped or sexually abused. He may cause that business deal to go belly up, or that investment to go under. He may be instrumental in your contracting of cancer. You need to understand that Satan is the agent and instrument of the suffering, and that his goal is for you to mistrust God and to give up your faith; but let your response be one of perseverance.

You need to see that your suffering is a faith issue; but here is the tragedy, as verse 5 further states, "[Lest] the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor should be in vain" (3:5c). It is possible, from a human perspective, to spend hours and days ministering to someone in his or her suffering, giving yourself emotionally, spiritually, and physically, even to the point of your own health being broken, only to find at the end of the day that it was all for nothing. That is not only a painful experience, but may also be a frustrating one. The possibility of labouring in vain is enough to make a pastor's heart sink.

Where do you stand today, my friend? How goes the spiritual battle? Have you begun to question the love of God? Maybe you have lost a loved one within the past couple of months. Maybe you recently lost a job. Maybe your marriage is hovering on the rocks? How are you interpreting this suffering that has come into your life? What is the emotional response that it is generating? How are you thinking about God? It is a faith struggle. How are you doing? God is not bent on your destruction, He is bent on your perfection, but let suffering have its perfect work; let the testing of your faith have its perfect end. Count it all joy when you fall into various trials and tribulations, knowing that the trying of your faith works patience (Jas. 1:2-4). Only in your perseverance will you make it to glory. And if you do not understand everything about suffering now, my friend, you will understand everything then; and you will eventually say, along with the other saints who have persevered, "Worthy is the Lamb Who was slain" (Rev. 5:12). In our perseverance, we shall one day stand before the throne in glory, and proclaim, "It was worth it all."