If you wrote a loved one a letter—let me stop there for a moment. A letter is a bit like a text or a post on social media, but with literal paper and ink, and generally only read by the person to whom it is written, and you send it through the mail, which takes two or three days to deliver it. Imagine with me that you wrote a letter to a loved one to express the reason(s) you are thankful for that person. What would you write? It could be a sibling or a parent or child or good friend or maybe even a co-worker. What we are thankful for often reveals something profound, both about us and the person for whom we are thankful.
The apostle Paul expressed thanksgiving in each of his letters—well, except for the one to the Galatians. They were compromising the gospel of Jesus and were in danger of corrupting it so there was very little for Paul to express gratitude for, but in every other letter he begins by identifying himself and his co-authors, identifying the recipients of the letter, and then expressing his thankfulness to God for them. Consider this beginning to his second letter to the church in Thessalonica.
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,1 Thessalonians 1:1–3 ESV
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.
He writes to the church of the Thessalonians and blesses them with grace and peace, and then he expresses his thanksgiving to God for them. He says their faith is growing abundantly. As Jesus explained in a number of parables, faith begins small, but grows and grows. Faith must be exercised and challenged and strengthened. Paul thanks God for the church there, for their faith is growing and is growing abundantly. The growth was evident.
He also thanks God for the love they have for one another that is increasing. Like faith, love grows. Their love for one another in the church is evident as it continues to increase. This is the very thing Jesus himself prayed for, that we would love one another. May we all aspire to love one another in ever increasing measure!
If Paul had moved on at this point to the matters he’s writing to address, it would make sense. He’s identified himself and his co-authors (Silvanus and Timothy), he’s identified those to whom he is writing (the church in Thessalonica), and he’s expressed thanksgiving for them (for their growth in faith and love). But he’s not done. The very next thing he writes is,
Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.1 Thessalonians 1:4 ESV
If I were to write to a church that is suffering persecution and affliction, my guess is the first thing I’d write about is how amazing their faith in the midst of suffering is! What would stand out to me is their ability to endure suffering because I don’t like to suffer, and I certainly do not like to exercise patience, which is necessary to endure suffering. That is not what Paul identifies first.
In the midst of persecution and affliction, what stood out to Paul and to others was the growing faith of the Thessalonians, and their growing love for one another. Oh, and they endured persecution and affliction, too. I find this remarkable. So often when things do not go our own way, we turn inward and begin to wallow in self-pity and also in self-interest. We become the focus of our attention. I become the focus of my attention.
It is difficult for faith to grow meagerly, let alone abundantly, when our attention is on ourselves. It is just as difficult for our love for one another to increase if our we focus exclusively on ourselves and our problems. We should, of course, take care of ourselves by pursuing healthy habits and disciplines, both physical and spiritual, but our pursuit of self-care should never be exclusive. In the midst of suffering persecution and affliction, the church in Thessalonica was known for two things: their growing faith and their growing love for one another.
We don’t know the specifics of the persecution they were suffering, but Paul addresses God’s coming vengeance for it, which indicates the severity of it:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.2 Thessalonians 1:5–8 ESV
Whatever the form of persecution they were experiencing, Paul uses strong language to describe God’s response to it. What is remarkable to me is that in the midst of this great suffering, the church’s faith and love for one another were growing. One might even say that it was because of the church’s suffering that their faith and love for one another were growing.
Life can be difficult and painful, but let us always look to the one in whom we hope, for in him we place our faith and as our faith grows, so will our love for one another. The evidence of faithfully enduring suffering is not merely endurance, simply getting through it. The evidence of faithfully enduring suffering is increased faith in the Lord and increased love for one another. Let’s pursue these together.