A single mother struggles to pay for a college education for her only child. She hates her job but knows she can't quit. What's also unknown to her child is a chronic illness that racks her body with physical pain. At her breaking point, she receives a letter from her child thanking her for it all, with a grade report enclosed. The semester's discipline has manifested in straight A's. Her heart is quickened, and her spirit is encouraged to stay in the fight and keep doing all that she can. This is the love reaction: when you experience encouragement because of the well-being of someone you love.
This story is the perfect window into this passage. Paul is distressed and depressed, but the report about his beloved congregation in Thessalonica causes him to rejoice in the faithfulness of God. He moves us forward in time, from the past to the present, with the words of our text. Paul goes from apologetically explaining his love to enthusiastically responding to their faith. Today, as we consider the love reaction, we can't afford to miss any encouragement God sends our way, because it's all vital to our survival. When things get hard—and they will—God knows how, when, and where to strengthen you in the faith.
God's love causes personal encouragement in turbulent times through faithful belief. The spiritual condition of those we love can inspire us to keep going when things are difficult. What can we learn about personal encouragement from Paul's loving reaction?
Comfort in our crisis
The love reaction causes comfort in our crisis. Timothy returns to Paul with good news: This news reaches him in Corinth since he's left Athens by now. But it's so moving that he responds by immediately authoring a letter. Paul uses the same word for Timothy's report that is employed throughout the New Testament for the gospel. This speaks to the fact that the condition of these believers solicited within this loving pastor the same response as the gospel. Because he loved Jesus, he also loved them.
Timothy outlines a detailed report to Paul concerning their faith in God, their growing love for all, their unmoved affection for him, and their desire to be reunited with him, which paralleled his own. This, friends, is a church worthy of imitation, because they didn't allow external difficulties to shift their focus, alter their feelings, or endanger their faith. Even under attack from the Roman authorities for the demonstration of their faith, they still believed in Jesus to the saving of their souls. While surrounded by hateful treachery, they continued to allow their love to grow: for God, for each other, and for those around them. This church didn't allow trouble or gossip to alter their affection for these preachers. Paul's concerns are abated, and his worries are retired. The Thessalonians wanted to see Paul as much as he wanted to see them.
It is from this report that Paul declares "we were encouraged" in verse seven. He's honest here about where he was, how he was helped, and what he was dealing with. Paul's transparency reveals something that we can miss if we read too fast. He was down, but the good news of their well-being lifted him up. Paul was under constant pressure: pastoring, evangelizing, and starting churches at the same time. While he was buffeted by outward trouble with inward consequences, here he receives a piece of needful encouragement from the faith of the Thessalonians. "The testimony of your resilience to persecution has blessed us beyond measure," Paul says in essence. "Because you are holding on, so can I!"
This, my friends, is the love reaction. Because he was connected to them by God's love, because he expressed his love for them through Timothy's ministry, he is encouraged by their faith. Here we learn that pastors need encouragement, churches need to be sensitive to their leaders, and a little bit of good news can keep you going throughout the difficult seasons in life.
Gratitude to our God
The love reaction also grows gratitude to our God. Can you see Paul with your spiritual imagination? The head of a pastor—which was once hung down, slumped over in concern and ignorance—has now been lifted and reassured because of the faith of this congregation. Paul says, "I've only been existing since I was torn away from you. It's been like blood leaking from a punctured heart as I longed to know if you were all right. But now that I know you're okay, now that I'm assured you are still standing for Jesus in the midst of it all, I'm alive, inspired, and determined again to keep making a difference for God."
Please consider the condition that gave Paul life again. It was the report and the promise that the Thessalonians would continue to stand. This word "stand" is a military term used in antiquity to describe an army that didn't lose ground under enemy attack. Paul knew that in the battle for kingdom expansion, the church at Thessalonica was an indispensable station for Christian progress. So as he celebrates their perseverance, he also reminds them that they must continue to stand against all odds.
Can I tell you that the assignment hasn't changed? Even now we are expected to stand—to hold the line and ensure that no ground claimed for Christ is ever reclaimed by the Devil. Hold the line when trouble comes. Hold the line when people persecute. Hold the line when sickness afflicts. Hold the line when desertion separates. Hold the line when gossip slanders. Hold the line when death subtracts. Hold the line when misunderstandings hinder progress. Make sure you don't give up because things get difficult, severe, or pressurized.
Because Paul got word that they were still standing, he could stand, too. Their condition positively affected his disposition. Here he tells them, "Now that I know you will stand, I can suffer with joy because my ministry is making a difference." His assertion is made on behalf of the entire ministry team as he announces, "We are thankful to God and filled with joy because your faith is still intact."
Paul's reassurance of their faith leads to him glorifying God for his work in them. This is critical: Paul and his team could have foolishly taken credit for the well-being of the Thessalonians and celebrated their spiritual health as a direct extension of the team's ministry efforts, but they do not. Instead, Paul recognizes that he and his companions were only instruments and that the power and the honor belonged to God. Here in verse nine, he asks, "How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?" Paul reasons here that his words are not enough to satisfy the invoice of praise he owes to God for the Thessalonians. In other words, when he considered Timothy's report and their faith and love, he concluded that he was in the red and could never thank God enough for what he had done and was doing in Thessalonica.
Two valuable truths grip us from Paul's testimony of the effects their continuing faith had on him as their spiritual leader. First, we learn that we owe God a debt of gratitude for the relationships he sustains between us and other believers. Second, we learn to praise in God's presence because of what he's done for others in our absence. The love reaction demands that we give God thanks for all of the great things he has done. Thank him for every sin he has pardoned. Thank him for every resource he has provided. Thank him for every life he has protected. Thank him for every act of ministry he has allowed us to participate in.
Prayer for our people
The love reaction promotes prayer for our people. There is a grammatical connection between verses nine and ten that highlights the fact that thanksgiving and prayer go together. Paul is careful to express the insufficiency of his ability to thank God for what he's doing with, in, and through the Thessalonians and to declare the intensity with which he begged God for help in this situation. Here we learn that since our praise can never be enough, our prayers must never cease. God gets the glory in every situation, and God is our help for every circumstance.
Paul deliberately tells them of his every effort to return to them. With a final note from the strings of his heart, he says, "I tried to get back; I longed to get back; I'm praying to get back to you. We are praying for you and for another opportunity to finish what God started with us. Both night and day, when we talk to God, we mention you to him. We keep you before him in prayer, as we ask him to let us return to complete what weren't able to teach you. Your fellowship and your discipleship are two things that keep us asking God for help."
Paul's untimely departure had left them like an unfinished puzzle. When children need assistance with puzzles, it becomes the caretaker's responsibility to help. Several years ago, I ran into this exact situation with my oldest son. He was given a 100-piece Superman puzzle for Christmas. I noticed it was unfinished and decided to use the encounter as a teachable moment for him. These are the simple instructions I gave him. I said, "Count the pieces, find the corners, then fill in the middle." This is effective advice for both puzzle assembly and Christian discipleship. The Thessalonians had the pieces, but they still needed Paul to help put them together. This is true of everyone born again through faith in Christ. At conversion, God gives us what we need to persevere, but in discipleship, others help us piece the journey of faith together.
He says, "I've told you about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Satan, love, prayer, suffering, evangelism, repentance, election, service, and praise. But that's not the whole story. There are still numerous topics that we must address in order to bring validation, completion, and maturity to your faith." This is a critical place in Paul's letter, because beyond his statement about the intent of his prayers and his disclosure of the content of his prayers in the next passage, he will spend the remaining practical portion of his communication addressing the issues that needed to be completed in their faith. Paul's example is noteworthy because his joy in God over them has not eclipsed an honest assessment of them. As a spiritual parent, he is keenly aware of their progress, but he's still deliberately sensitive to their needs. It takes spiritual maturity to be thankful for people's strengths and to still remain prayerful about their weaknesses without giving up on them.
Prayer is always in order. We must pray for each other. We must pray for ourselves. We must pray for God to renew our fellowship. We must pray for God to complete our discipleship. We must pray for the strong and the weak. We must pray for the well and the sick. We must pray for those who are standing and for those who have fallen. We must pray because love's reaction to God's intervention is to ask him to do it again.
Love provides encouragement, cultivates gratitude, and motivates prayer. Now I understand Jesus a little bit better. Love provided him with the courage to suffer. Love cultivated his thanksgiving to the Father. Love motivated him to pray for his own. At the cross, they tried to defeat Jesus, but the actions of his love that dark Friday have solidified the reactions of our love every day. He suffered because he loved us. He prayed because he loved us. He died because he loved us. He got up because he loved us.
Romell Williams is the senior pastor of Lilydale Progressive M.B. Church in Chicago, Illinois.