When Life Gets Hard, There Is Community

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Instead, we were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
(1 Thessalonians 2:7–12 NIV)

Key Observation: Christian community should be characterized by self-giving love, even in difficult circumstances.

Life has likely presented you with undesirable circumstances at least once or twice and probably more. Perhaps you’ve lost a job or there has been conflict at church. Maybe you’re grieving over a broken friendship or the loss of a loved one. Whatever the situation, it’s easy to stress when things get painful. We focus on ourselves, on getting through, on self-preservation. Paul could have done that. After all, he’d been treated with violence for preaching Jesus. It would have been easy to pity himself. But instead of focusing on his own painful circumstances, he focused on the Thessalonians and their needs. He offered himself to them. He didn’t show up expecting recognition or support. He didn’t ask them to carry his burdens. Paul’s reminder that he could have “asserted our authority” (2:6 NIV) suggests that his role as an apostle entitled him to some provision. But he didn’t insist on his rights. He came alongside the Thessalonians and cared for them. The images of nursemaid and mother combine to magnify the depth of Paul’s love. He wanted to please God; he gave himself to others despite his pain.

Paul’s behavior is an example for the Thessalonians and for us. And he knows it. That’s why he encourages them to “live lives worthy of God.” He’s not simply reminding them about his self-sacrificing love; he wants them to act the same way. We learned in chapter 1 that the Thessalonians had experienced persecution (1:6). Paul’s ministry shows how to respond to that. Whatever they suffered, they had to resist the temptation to turn their attention to themselves. If they did, one of two things would probably happen. First option, the church could become a holy huddle with members focused on maintaining themselves while giving little or no attention to mission and the growth of the kingdom. If they go this route, the church becomes something that exists only to meet their needs. And they become consumers who only show up for what they can get. It would be easy to shift into survival mode, but it would also be detrimental to the community. Second option, they turn on each other. When things get tough, it’s easy to play the blame game. This creates strife and division, and it tears churches apart.

Paul prefers a third option. He wants to see a community characterized by self-giving love. And he’s doing his best to model that. If that’s what we want, we can’t come together to blame or consume. We come to give and serve. We come to cultivate our shared mission. If we do that, then we’ll begin to understand what Paul means when he talks about holiness later in the letter. It’s been said that sin is a human heart turned in on itself. In contrast, the holy life—the life worthy of God—is a life marked by self-giving love oriented toward others. It’s a life that embodies the character of God revealed in the self-sacrificial love of Jesus. It’s a life that only comes with the gracious presence of the Holy Spirit. And as we’ll see later, it’s God’s will for everyone (see 1 Thessalonians 4:3).

Questions for Reflection

  1. What’s your attitude toward church? Do you go for what you get or for what you give?
  2. What’s one area of life in which you need to turn from focus on self to focus on others?
  3. What are two or three specific things you can do to cultivate self-giving love in your community?

Did you enjoy this entry? Discover our OneBook: Daily-Weekly Bible studies, of which this entry is a part. The Letters to the Thessalonians by Matt O’Reilly leads readers through some of our earliest existing writings in the New Testament. As such, they offer a unique glimpse into some of the most pressing issues as the gospel began to spread across the ancient world. In this eight-week study, you’ll be introduced to Paul’s inspired work. Discover how the gospel of Jesus will give you the strength you need as you eagerly await his promised return to make our world right again. Get your videos and book from our store here.

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Matt O’Reilly (PhD) is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice and The Letters to the Thessalonians. Connect at mattoreilly.net or follow @mporeilly.

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