The next few Sundays have been designated as the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Convicted by the realization that more people had died for their Christian faith in the 20th century, than all the previous centuries combined, a coalition of Christian organizations met in the late '90's to plan for an international day of prayer to bring awareness of the persecuted church. Currently, the most severe persecution is occurring in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and North Korea, where churches are being burned down and Christians are being beaten and killed for their faith.
I share this as we dive into the passage today because a similar situation is going on in Thessalonica. The church is being persecuted and going through tremendous suffering. One of the themes in the first chapter of 2 Thessalonians is how to suffer well.
Paul tells that that they suffer well 1) by knowing God's perspective; 2) by remembering God's promise and power; and 3) through their perseverance.
In the beginning of this letter, Paul praises the Thessalonians because their faith is growing more and more, their love for one another is increasing and he boasts about their perseverance and faith in the midst of all the persecutions they are enduring (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4).
God's perspective on their suffering is that although it is painful, it has the power to produce good things. Depending upon our perspective, the trials in our lives can cause us to become bitter, angry and isolated or they can cause us to rely fully on God and trust Him and receive love from others even if we don't understand everything.
The mystery of suffering is that God can take something terrible and make something good come out of it (Romans 8:28). Of course, the ultimate example of this is the death of Christ on the cross. Jesus' terrible and undeserved suffering and death brings us freedom from sin, death and hell and secures for us eternal life in God's kingdom.
God's perspective on their suffering is also that suffering makes them "worthy of his calling" (2 Thessalonians 1:11). The word "worthy" here implies "fit for" or "in accord with." Suffering "fits us" or puts us more in accord with the image of Christ. Just as Christ was called to suffer and die, when we suffer we are entering into this holy calling. Suffering makes us more like Christ.
God's perspective on suffering also reminds us that our life on this earth is not our only hope. Suffering has the power to strip us of our self-sufficiency, of thinking we can handle things and figure everything out. It reminds us that being a follower of Christ doesn't mean ease and comfort. When we have God's perspective on suffering, we suffer well.
Paul encourages the Thessalonians to suffer well by remembering God's promise and power. 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 has some very powerful words that aren't very "seeker" friendly. Paul is using vivid apocalyptic language that emphasizes the victory of God over evil. Remember, these people were being severely persecuted and I think that Paul used this language to stress God's power to protect and vindicate them, rather than emphasizing God's right to punish.
We suffer well when we remember the power of God and the promise of His justice.
Lastly, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to suffer well through their perseverance (2 Thessalonians 1:4, 12). The definition of perseverance is "steady persistence in a course of action especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement." In all that they were going through, the Thessalonians didn't give up. And their faith grew.
It is so easy to give up, but when we persevere through our sufferings, Jesus is glorified. The greatness of God is shown to the world. Historians have written that one of the keys to the rise of Christianity in the ancient world is how Christians endured suffering. During times of great sickness or plagues, it was the Christians who would stay and help tend to the ill. Also the peace with which Christians would endure persecution and death pointed a spotlight on the God they worshiped who was worthy of such a response.
How can we suffer well? It helps to know God's perspective on our suffering and to remember God's power to protect and promise of justice and to persevere and bring God glory.
But in the midst of suffering, we can look to the cross and see how Christ suffered.
1) He cried out - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!"
2) He surrendered to God - "Into Your hands I commit my Spirit."
3) He trusted God and held on to the end. "It is finished."
It is my prayer that in all of our sufferings, we may suffer well and know the peace, power. presence and promise of Jesus Christ.