Giving thanks in difficult circumstances

1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18

Our text today is from 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and 18. v. 16 says “Rejoice always” and v. 18 says, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Our focus today is on why we can rejoice and give thanks “always” or “in all circumstances.”

Now it’s easy to rejoice and give thanks when God answers prayers and delivers us from our problems, although certainly sometimes we forget to do this. But it’s surely more difficult to give thanks when things are going badly for us. But it is possible.

Let’s look at some –

Examples of rejoicing in difficult circumstances

The twelve apostles did this. They were put in prison for their preaching but were miraculously released. Then whey they preached more, they were taken to stand before the governing authorities where they were beaten and warned to stop preaching. Acts 5:41 says, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

Paul and Silas rejoiced when things were hard. In Acts 16 Paul cast out a fortune telling demon from a slave girl. This made the owners mad because they made money off of her. They promptly caused a stir and got Paul and Silas in trouble with the authorities.

Vs. 23-25 say, “And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison . . . into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them . . ..” They were unjustly beaten, arrested and shackled – but they were singing praises to God.

This happened just before Paul came to Thessalonica, so he knew what he was talking about when he told them “rejoice always . . .  (and) give thanks in all circumstances.”

And the Thessalonians themselves knew about rejoicing in suffering. From the time they first believed they suffered. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says, “you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” They suffered, but they had joy.

Finally, the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. They had undergone persecution and the writer reminds them of this in 10:34, “ . . . you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Can you imagine having all your goods hauled away because of your faith – your big screen TV, your dining set, your couches? Would you be able to keep things in perspective and still be joyful?

They did. And we can too by God’s grace. It’s difficult. But it is possible.

Now let’s look at –

Why we can rejoice in all circumstances

– including when things are difficult. It certainly can’t be based on our feelings, these change all the time. It has to be based on something much stronger and more stable – our faith. So here are four aspects of our faith that show us why we can do this:

1. God is worthy of praise – period. Nothing else needs to be said. Whether we feel like praising God or not – God is worthy. Whether we’re in good times or in bad times, it doesn’t matter. God is still the same – yesterday, today and forever and is still worthy of our praises.

Apart from anything God may or may not do for me; apart from whether God allows me to go through good times or bad, God is worthy of praise for who God is. God is awesome! God is holy! God is good! None of this changes based on our circumstances.

Habakkuk the prophet lived in a difficult time. The people were unfaithful to God. And he knew that judgment was coming – things were going to get worse. But he praised God anyway, because God deserves to be praised. Habakkuk 3:17-18 says, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord . . ..” I believe that this is the purest form of praise to God because it’s not dependent on something that we get from God.

2. God has blessed us in many ways. Even in the worst of times, if we’re able to step back and think about it, we can recognize that this is true.

James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . ..” You have been given the gift of life. Also think about your abilities, your strengths, your family, your friends, your home – whatever good thing you are or have is from God.

And this includes our salvation – God’s grace and mercy to us in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of our sins, new life by the Spirit, a relationship with God, fellow believers who walk with us, strength and peace in difficult times – all these are gifts from God as well.

And so despite whatever else may be going on we can give thanks for God’s blessing to us.

3. God gives us hope for the future. God allows each of us to go through hard times, and a part of this is simply living in this sinful and broken world where evil is normal. But in the midst of this as Christians we have a hope for something better. This life is not all that there is. In fact, we are to live for the life that is to come, not this one.

When Jesus talked about suffering for our faith; being reviled and slandered, he said, “Rejoice and be glad” Why? “For your reward is great in heaven . . .” – Matthew 5:12.

In 1 Peter 1:6 Peter tells his readers that “now for a little while . . . you have been grieved by various trials.” Just before this he said, “in this you rejoice.” Why do they rejoice in their trials? It’s because of what he had just mentioned in vs. 4-5. They have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven . . . a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This hope puts things in perspective for us as Christians. Yes, we will suffer in this life. But we will be blessed in the world to come. And in fact the blessing will outweigh the sufferings. Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” – Romans 8:18. Similarly he says, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” – 2 Corinthians 4:17. Our suffering may well be great, but what awaits us is far greater. God gives up hope for the future.

4. God harnesses trials for our good. We go through fiery trials. This is an image that is used in Scripture (Isaiah 48:10; 1 Peter 1:7). And it makes a point. Fire can consume or it can refine. If we go through the fire in faith we will not be consumed. Rather, God uses the flames to refine and purify us.

God is able to bring good out of pain, suffering and tears. This doesn’t mean that God causes the pain, only that God is greater than whatever evil befalls us.

Paul makes this point in Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is able to work in and through all that happens to us to bring some good to us.

James tells his readers, “Count it all joy” when you suffer various kinds of trials. Why? “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:2-4.

Along the same lines, Paul says, “. . . we rejoice in our sufferings.” Why? “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . .” – Romans 5:3-4.

The world will throw hard times at us left and right. But when we endure them in faith, God brings something good out of them for us. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this.

Complete love. Matthew 5:43-48

We’re looking today at Matthew 5:43-48. In this passage Jesus teaches us to love our enemies.

These verses are a part of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. And in chapter 5 this topic of loving enemies is the culminating example of the six that Jesus gives of how his teaching goes beyond what Moses taught.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 As we begin, I invite you to think about someone who’s an enemy to you. That is, someone who has harmed or hurt you or those you love, who seems threatening, who opposes you, who slanders you, who dislikes you. Now, this may well be someone very close to you, even a family member – and you may not technically classify them as an “enemy” – but this teaching applies nevertheless.

My prayer this morning is that as we look at this passage – God will work in us a deep love for our enemies and bring about in us an ever greater Christ-likeness in this area.

Let me share four things with you from this passage about loving enemies:

1. Jesus teaches us to return good for harm

Moses, of course, taught that we’re to return harm for harm. This comes out clearly in the example just before ours in Matthew 5:38, where Jesus quotes Moses regarding “an eye for an eye.”

But it’s also in our passage. For although Moses taught in Leviticus 19:18 to forsake revenge and love your neighbor – that is, your fellow Israelite, he also taught in Deuteronomy 23:3-6 to hate the enemy who is an outsider, who does you harm, that is, the Ammonite and the Moabite.

These were the descendants of Lot who didn’t give the Israelites food and water in their time of need after the Exodus, but rather tried to curse them by hiring Balaam the prophet. Because of this, Israel is commanded never to act for their well-being. Deuteronomy 23:6 says, “You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.” So you have the harm they did to Israel, and then how Israel is to harm them in return. This is harm for harm or the pattern of an eye for an eye.

Indeed, this is where Jesus gets the phrase in v. 43 – “You have heard that it was said . . . hate your enemy.” But Jesus changes this. After laying out Moses’ position he says in v. 44 – “But I say to you . . ..”  If you have an enemy, don’t hate them – love them. If someone persecutes you, don’t curse them – pray for them. As is the case in all six examples of righteousness in Matthew 5, Jesus is calling us to a higher standard. Even when someone harms you, return good for evil.

This teaching is echoed by the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:9 – “Do not repay harm for harm or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary repay with a blessing.” The apostle Paul says it this way in 1 Thessalonians 5:15 – “See that none of you repay harm for harm, but always seek to do what is good to one another and to all.”

Although returning harm for harm is the standard of Moses and the standard of worldly governments in dealing with evil, Jesus calls us to his higher way. And this is how we are to treat our enemies – even the person you have thought of this morning.

 2. This teaching is packaged in a contrast between incomplete and complete love

In v. 48 the word “perfect” can also be translated as “complete.” This is, at least in part, where I’m getting this idea of complete love from.

  • Incomplete love means loving only certain people – those who are in your group, or those who do good to you.
  • Complete or perfect love means loving everyone: those who do good to you and those who harm you; those who are a part of your group and who are not a part of your group (whether it’s your religious, ethnic, cultural or national group)

It’s complete love because it encompasses all people.

Jesus gives two examples of incomplete love.

  • In v. 46 – tax collectors love only those who love them, a subset of all people.
  • In v. 47 – Gentiles greet only those in their own group, again a subset of all people.

Now these are, obviously, negative examples. You can tell this by reading vs. 46-47 – “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Again, Jesus is calling us to a higher standard than what “tax collectors,” “Gentiles,” or as he says in Luke 6 (vs. 32 and 33), “sinners” live by – the standard of incomplete love.

Jesus also gives us two examples of complete love.

  • In v. 45 – the Father gives sunshine to the good and the evil.
  • In v. 45 – the Father gives rain to the just and the unjust.

And, of course, in an agricultural context, giving sunshine and rain means that God supplies food to all. God feeds even his enemies.

The point here is that the Father’s love is complete. It includes everyone. And if tax collectors and Gentiles are not a model for us, here the Father certainly is, for Jesus calls us to emulate this love of the Father.

Now, we always try to draw boundaries on who we have to love, to make our lives easier. We are often like the lawyer in Luke 10, who, knowing that he’s called to love his neighbor, asked Jesus, “who really is my neighbor?” Does it really include my enemies, like the wretched Samaritans???

We try to tame Jesus’ words. But his teaching is clear here. Our love is to include all people – any enemies we might have. As he says in v. 48 about love, “You therefore must be complete in your love, as your heavenly Father is complete in his love.” And yes, it includes the person you have thought of today, who has harmed you.

3. Loving enemies is about actions that benefit them

Love is not merely an emotion or an inner intention that doesn’t bear fruit in good actions. After all, Jesus teaches us that a tree is known by its fruit. That is to say, what is within our hearts is what comes out in the fruit of our deeds and words (Matthew 7:20; 12:33-34). If we love someone it will show up in our deeds; how we act toward them.

Here are some examples from our verses:

– When Jesus says, “love your enemies,” it can be paraphrased, don’t harm, but care about and do good to your enemies. Right? This is what love means.

– When he says, “pray for those who persecute you,” it can be paraphrased, ask God to be merciful and bless those who persecute you.

– When he talks about the example of the Father it shows us that God feeds his enemies, and so we are to feed our enemies.

– When he says don’t be like the Gentiles who only greet people of their own group he points us to bless all people with the greeting of “peace” or “shalom” which was the standard Jewish blessing, a wish for their well-being.

As a side note here, notice the contrast in these last two examples of feeding and blessing enemies with Moses in Deuteronomy 23:

  • The Ammonites and Moabites did not give Israel food. Instead of returning the same, as Moses commanded, we are to feed our enemies.
  • Also, the Ammonites and Moabites sought to curse Israel. Instead of returning harm for harm, as Moses said, we are to bless our enemies.

If we look further in the New Testament and the example of God, love includes self-sacrifice for enemies. Not only does God give food to his enemies, he gave his Son.

Romans 5:8 says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And Romans 5:10 goes on to say, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God.” God loved us when we were his enemies.

And following the example of God, loving our enemies means that we are to act for their well-being even to the point of self-sacrifice. And this applies to the person you have thought of today.

Now, although this might not be a temptation with regard to the person you’re thinking about, let me say that based on what we’ve just seen, whatever love means, it doesn’t include killing them.

4. There’s a promise here for those who love their enemies

Loving enemies is really hard. When we’re wronged it can make us angry. It can cause us fear and distress. It can deeply wound us. All of these things make us want to strike back. An eye for an eye – if not more. We need strength from the Spirit to overcome the desires of our flesh. We have to give our anger and fear and pain over to God and trust that God will take care of us and help us.

Not that this means you allow people to continue to harm you. It simply means that whatever you do, you don’t resort to the pattern of harm for harm.

Loving enemies is really hard. So, as an encouragement to us, Jesus gives us a promise, which gives us hope.

In v. 45 he says that we are to love our enemies, “so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” To be a “son” here is not about being male. It’s not about gender, but about a certain social status – the status of an inheritor. The son inherits the Father’s blessings.

When we look at the overall context of Matthew 5:17-48 it’s all about “Who will inherit the Kingdom?” “Who will gain the Father’s blessings?” In Matthew 5:20 Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Then Jesus gives us the six examples of the greater righteousness necessary to enter the Kingdom, culminating in the example of enemy love. So what Jesus is saying, is that those who don’t practice enemy love are no better than tax collectors and Gentiles. Their practice of righteousness is no different. As he says in v. 46 – “What reward do you have?”

But, 1) those who love their enemies, by God’s help, imitate the Father. And by imitating the Father, 2) they show that they are true sons of the Father – for like Father, like son. And since they’re true sons or children, they show that 3) they will inherit the Father’s blessings; that is, the kingdom of God.

So in the midst of the difficulty of loving our enemies, we have a promise of blessing and reward. It’s worth it. And we need to remember this in our struggles with our enemies.