July 15, 2023

When the Going Gets Tough

For those of you who may not know me, my name is Chris Absher. I'm one of the campus pastors here at Grace. This weekend, we're continuing on a sermon series that we started last weekend, and that sermon series is called “In the Valley.” Anytime we start a new sermon series, we want to make sure everybody's caught up to speed. So, before we get into this week's message, I want to take a second to pause and get us all up to speed on what we're doing in case you missed last weekend or kind of need a refresher.

So, here's the big idea that we're trying to talk about in this series: Sufferings and difficulties are part of the Christian life. You know this. I know this. It's not a matter of if we'll suffer, it's a matter of when. They’re part of the Christian life. If they are, then we have to ask ourselves the question, “What are we to do as believers when we find ourselves in the valley? How am I supposed to do this Jesus thing when my family's falling apart? How am I supposed to follow after Jesus when I've got struggles financially? How am I supposed to follow Jesus when tragedy strikes, and I don't know what to do, what to think, and what to believe anymore?”

So, we're trying to take some different perspectives on how we answer that question. So, now that we're caught up to speed, I want to start this weekend with a question. Here’s my question for you: How many of you have somebody, or maybe multiple people, in your life who loves to give you advice about things, but you know, deep down in your heart, they know nothing at all about what they're talking about? Does anybody have those people in your life? Oh, yeah. We’ve all got those people here. Here's my favorite one of those people. It's somebody who doesn't have any kids, who’s never had a niece or a nephew, and they love to tell parents everything that they should or shouldn't do. If you are a parent, you're cringing, right now, thinking about how angry you were last week at that thing that happened.

The reality is — and you know it if you're a parent or if you have other circumstances this happens in — you know that they don't have the perspective that you have, right? They've not been up at 3:00 AM changing the diaper, so tired that they don't know what to do. Perspective is incredibly important, and that's true in any area of life. Our perspective on things can really change what we see around us, how we interpret it, and how we make sense of it. So, what I want to do this weekend is talk about a passage of scripture that's in 2 Thessalonians, and it's where Paul's talking to a church that's suffering. What he's going to do is, in the midst of their persecutions and difficulties, try to change their perspective. He’s going to help them see there's maybe more going on than they realize.

But before we go to that passage of Scripture, I want to do two things. The first one is I just want to talk to some people that may be in the room, and here's who I'm talking to: There may be people in this room that are going through some of the most difficult times of their whole life right now. Maybe you walked in here, and you're like, “It took everything I had to come here. I feel like this wound in my life is still wide open and it's bleeding.”

Maybe you're here and you just need to be reminded that God is with you, that we love you here at Grace, that we're glad you're here, and we want to walk alongside you. I want to be sensitive to all of those things. So, I want you to know that this weekend. If that's you, we are so glad you're here. We want to walk alongside you. But I also want to get to the text and see what Paul would say to somebody who's going through suffering. What would he say to them? The second thing I want to do before we go to the text is just tell you a story. This is a story that I rarely have shared with anybody that I know, but it's a valley that my family and I are walking through and have been walking through for many years. I want to share the story with you to help you see that God has worked in me to change my perspective on a really, really challenging situation.

So, here's the story. I've got multiple older siblings, and one of my brothers-in-law — I can't tell you his name because of the sensitivity of the story, but let's call him Joe. So, if your name is Joe, I’m not picking on you. Joe just seemed to make sense. So, let's call him Joe. Joe is a rockstar Christian. Everything about the guy is everything I think a Christian should be, stand for, and believe. It's a guy who loves God and loves his family. I've literally watched him take a whole family into his house, feed them, clothe them, and house them. He had no idea, in the midst of that, financially, how he would make that happen. He just trusted God and said, “I’ve got to do this,” and God provided. It was amazing. I've watched him give the shirt off his back, literally, to somebody in need because he said, “This is what we do. I'm a Christian. I follow Jesus.”

He is just everything I thought, and think, a Christian should be. So, I get a phone call. All of this story is happening about seven or eight years ago. I get a phone call one day, and I learned some news about my brother-in-law, Joe. He had woken up one morning and couldn't see anything. All of a sudden, overnight, we learned he had a tumor on his optic nerve. Overnight, 90% of his vision is gone. How could this happen to this rockstar Christian? How could this happen to someone who I love and respect so much? How is he going to provide for his family? What are they going to do? What are we going to do to help? It was a really challenging time for our family. But then — and this is about a year removed — I get another phone call, and it was so much worse than the first one. I get a phone call that, at about two in the morning, the police had shown up at Joe's house, and they had arrested him for the murder of a mother and a daughter, and he's taken to prison. I remember, in that moment, trying to figure out, “I can't make sense of any of this. I can't tell what's going on, what's up, or what's down? I have no idea because this is rocking my world.”

I remember we were at the trial, I was there day in and day out, in the courtroom from early in the morning to late at night, trying to make sense of all this stuff. The time comes that the verdict would be pronounced, and he's pronounced guilty. I just couldn't believe it. I do know, and I have some encouragement — there's an organization actually working on his case because they think a bunch of things are amiss, but I don't know. But that’s the situation, and it's hard. I remember standing up and walking out of the courtroom. I remember everything I saw. One of his kids — he has four kids — walked to a corner of a room and was visibly shaking. He was so upset, so hurt, and so angry. I remember being worried that he would do something to hurt himself, hurt somebody else, or get him in trouble. So, I just walked over and bear-hugged him as tight as I could, and we just walked out of the courthouse, together, as he was sobbing and weeping. So was I.

I tell you that story because this has been an eight-year valley. Sometimes valleys aren't measured in hours, they’re not measured in days, weeks, or months. Sometimes they're measured in years or lifetimes. Maybe you're in one of those, even right now, in your life. But I've watched as God, over the course of that period of time, has shown up in ways I never would've thought possible, has been there in ways I never could have imagined, and has slowly but surely, over eight years, shifted our family's perspective. Not that it's all good and we don't have pain over it, but that God has shifted our perspective to see what he might be doing.

So, what I want to do now, now that you know that story, is go to this passage of Scripture where Paul is talking to the church in Thessalonica, they're suffering, and they're being persecuted. We don't know everything that was going on, but here are some things we know were happening. In Acts 17, Paul and Silas are in Thessalonica, they're proclaiming the Gospel, they get arrested, and they've got a huge fine put on them.

The church pays the fine, and then, that very night, the church sends them secretly out of the city because they know when the day comes, it's going to be too dangerous for Paul and Silas to stay there.

So, what kind of suffering was going on? We don't know everything. Scholars don't know everything that was happening, but we can speculate. Somebody's brother was maybe thrown in prison because he talked about Jesus just a little too loudly, and now he's in a horrible condition. The fine is so high that nobody can pay it. He's sick and dying in prison. There's nothing the family can do. This is the church there. Somebody's business maybe got shut down because they talked about Jesus to the wrong person, and the authorities came, shut down their business, and imprisoned some of them. The family's broken apart. No way to provide financially. We don't know what all was happening, how many were killed, or how many in prison, but we know the church was suffering. What Paul's going to do next is talk, in these couple verses, to help shift their perspective on what's really going on in their suffering.

So, I want to encourage you. If you're in a valley now, I want to ask you to lean in and hear what the Apostle Paul would say to this church that's suffering. So, let's go to the text together, and then, once we've gone through it, we’ll talk about some take-homes, and some questions that we can ask ourselves when we find ourselves in the valley. So, this is the text.

It says, “We ought always to thank God for you,”

I love this. 2 Thessalonians 1:3, just at the beginning of the letter, he starts everything by saying, “I thank God for you,” but I want you to notice this is 2 Thessalonians. Okay? This is the second letter that Paul has written to this church, and Paul writes, usually, because a church has gotten stuff wrong. They’ve messed up theologically, they're divisive, or there are problems — and there are plenty of problems in the Thessalonican church, so much so that now he's writing a second time. He says, “I thank God for you. You’re full of problems, full of difficulties, but I thank God for you.”

I don't know about you, but in my own life, if there's somebody that I'm like, “Man, I’ve got to meet with them again because they misunderstood me, and I’ve got to correct this one more time because we're not on the same page,” I don't usually walk around saying, “God, I'm just so thankful for the person who just can't understand what I'm trying to get them to understand.”

Maybe you do. I don't. But Paul starts everything by saying, “I'm thankful for you,” and then he tells us why.

“We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing…”

In the middle of the struggle, in the middle of the valley, in the middle of the difficulty, your faith is actually growing. It's not just growing, but growing abundantly. And — and I wish they hadn't have put a comma there in the translation because these two clauses go together. “Your faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”

What Paul's doing is making a direct correlation between faith and love. When faith is growing abundantly and increasing, so the love of every person for one another is growing and increasing. As they're believing God and trusting God, they're loving one another more and more and more in the middle of the suffering. We say that at Grace this way: You can't be right with God and wrong with people. Paul's making that same point. As you guys are growing in your faith, as you're loving one another, those two things go together. You can't be right with God and wrong with people. So, they're growing in their faith, their love for one another is growing, and so he continues on.


Because their faith is growing, because their love for one another is growing.

“Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith…”

He says to them, “You guys are so good at being steadfast,” which literally just means to stand up under the persecution and the difficulty. Not to run away, but to just stand firm.

“You guys are standing so firm, you've got so much faith that's growing, and you're loving one another in the midst of the difficulty and trial. You’re doing it so well that we're bragging about you to all the other churches. You're doing it so well that we're telling your story to the other churches to encourage them to be steadfast and to encourage them to have faith.”

But notice that the steadfastness and faith is not when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and everything's going great. This steadfastness and faith is happening in all your persecutions and in the afflictions. As you're in the valley, as people are being drug off to prison, and who knows what else is going on, families are being torn apart, you guys are standing fast and having faith. It’s in those persecutions and afflictions that your faith is growing and your love for one another is growing. But those persecutions are not things that were happening back in the day or that will happen later. Paul makes a point to say, “These are the things that you are enduring right now.”

Imagine getting the letter from Paul. 2 Thessalonians comes to the church in Thessalonica, they're enduring these persecutions right now, and he says, “In the midst of all of that, your faith is growing, your love for one another is increasing,” and now he's going to start to shift their perspective about what they're going through.

This is what he says: “This is evidence…”

What is evidence? That they're going through persecutions and difficulties, and in the middle of it they're standing firm, having faith, and loving one another.

[All of that] is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God,”

He says, “Guys, your suffering is not meaningless and purposeless. As you're going through it, as you're standing firm, as you're having faith, as you're loving one another, it's actually evidence that you've been considered worthy of the Kingdom of God. Something about your suffering,” he says to this church, “is advancing the Kingdom.”

He says it super directly in the rest of the verse.

“…the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering…”

That doesn't make sense to us. How can my suffering be part of the kingdom of God? We'll talk more about that in a minute.

He says to them, “Guys, shift your perspective. What you're going through, as you stand firm, as you have faith, we're testifying and sharing your story with the other churches. They’re standing firm and having faith because of you. As you stand firm, have faith, love those who persecute you, pray for them, turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, people are coming to know Jesus because they see Him in you. It's this Kingdom of God for which you are also suffering.”

Then he goes on and says, “Since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,”

He says, “Guys, don't break out the pitchforks and shovels, try to go after the people in Thessalonica and run them out of town. God's the one who's going to repay. God's going to make all these things right. Don’t worry. But not only is He going to repay, He’s also going to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us.”

God's going to be the one who comes through. God's going to be the one who says, “It’s not always going to be this way. Something better is coming. A day's coming when all the tears get wiped away and God sets everything back to right. He's the one who's going to repay. He's the one who's going to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us.”

The problem is that, for all of us here and now, that doesn't always happen the way we want it to, right? I'm a now guy. I like things now. I want the drive-thru to be fast. I want the food to be hot. The second — the millisecond — the light turns green, we should be stomping the gas to get where we're going. I'm a now guy. When I hear things like this, “Repay, grant relief,” I want it now. You’ve got to imagine the church in Thessalonica wanted it now, but Paul says, “It’s not coming, necessarily, now. Some of it might, but it's actually going to come when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels. A day will come where it's all set back to right, but it might not be right now.”

But what is this day when Jesus is revealed going to look like. Paul tells us in the next verse.

He says, [He’ll be revealed] 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. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,”

I don't know about you, but I'm not exactly in line to get this on my car as a bumper sticker. I'm also not in line to get it on my coffee cup Scripture verse reference because this is challenging. We don't always like the way that something like this sounds. Like, “What do you mean ‘eternal punishment?’”

The reality is it's here in the text and we’ve got to talk about it. What's Paul saying? He's not trying to scare anybody or strike fear into them. He means this as encouragement. The day is coming when God will execute justice. Those who have done wrong will be repaid for that. Those who have done right will be rewarded. The day is coming when God will set things back to right because He’s a just God. But I remember when I was growing up, I would read something like this, and it scared me to death. It was like on Sunday mornings and, at the church I grew up in, Wednesday nights, we were all good, everything was great, but other days of the week I was scared of this stuff. But that's not how Paul means it at all. He’s going to tell us in the next verse the one thing that's required to avoid this. To be on the other side, there’s only one thing required.

“…when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”

He says to this church who’s suffering, “The only thing it takes to be on the side of glory rather than punishment when Jesus comes back and sets everything to right is one thing. It’s not how good you were, it’s not how many Bible verses you knew, and it’s not any of those things. It all depends on if you believed. Did you believe that Jesus was the Son of God, that He died on a cross for our sins, that He rose again on the third day? That's the only thing that's required. The only thing.”

So, if you're here this weekend, and you're much like I was growing up, always worried — “Is my eternity settled? Is it not settled?” — there's only one thing that you need to ask yourself. Have you believed? That settles everything. Then he continues on. He starts to wrap up this little section of Scripture.

He says, “To this end we always pray for you,”

I love that. Paul is suffering himself. He lumped himself in, a couple verses ago, with the ones who are suffering. He says, “As I'm suffering, I'm taking the time to write a letter to you to let you know I'm praying for you.”

That should tell us something. How willing are we to say, “I need some prayer, I need some help, and I need some people to come alongside me when I'm suffering.”

He says, “To this end we always pray for you, that our God…”

I highlighted that word and put a circle around it to draw our attention to it because everything else that's about to happen in the rest of this verse is God's doing. It's God's initiative. It's God who's going to take care of this stuff.

He says, “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power,”

“God's calling is on you, church at Thessalonica. It's God's power working in you. It’s God sustaining you to stand up under the trials, to have faith, and to love one another. God is the one who's working all of this out.”

Then he goes on and says, “All of this is so that…” — that’s very important. All of this is happening for a purpose, and here's the purpose.

“…so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you,”

Isn’t that strange? As you suffer, as you endure, as you have faith that's growing, as you love one another, as God's calling is on you, as He’s working in you for good works of faith, and all of this is happening, God gets glorified in you because people start to realize it has to be God because He’s working in our weaknesses. Jesus is shining through in the midst of their weaknesses and in their difficulties. He's glorified in you, and you and Him. This is what I love as Paul wraps up this section of scripture. Everything happens according to, by means of, because of, or through.

“…[everything happens] according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“This whole thing,” he tells the church, “shift your perspective, guys. Everything that's happening is under this umbrella of the grace of our God. He's the one sustaining you. He's the one growing your faith. He's the one helping you love one another. He's the one doing all of these things in you according to His grace because He’s God and because He’s good.”

He wraps all of this thing up to say, “It’s the grace of God.”

So, having looked at this passage of Scripture that Paul writes to a church that's in the middle of a valley, I want to come back to the question we're trying to answer in this series. What are we to do, as believers, when we find ourselves in the valley? What are we supposed to do? What was the church in Thessalonica supposed to do when they found themselves in the valley? I want to give you three things I think we can do, but I also want to give us questions with each one that help us to hopefully move some of what we learned down from our head and into our heart so we can reflect on these things. Some questions we can ask to help us with this.

So, here's the first one: When we're in the valley, we should be extremely thankful for the people around us and get connected. When we're in the valley, we should be extremely thankful for the people around us and get connected. Paul starts this whole thing with thankfulness. He says, “I ought always to thank God for you.”

I'm thankful I've got some people that are suffering along with me. I'm thankful I've got some people in my corner. And he says why he’s thankful for them. “That the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. I'm thankful that you're loving each other, that you're coming together. Rather than being divisive and getting siloed off in the middle of the difficulty, you’re loving one another, and I'm thankful for that.”

So, to put it another way, when we're in the valley, we should not do life alone. Let me encourage you. If you're here this weekend and you just feel alone, that's not what we want. We want to do this thing together. When we're in the valley, we shouldn't do life alone.

So, here's the question that we can ask ourselves: Who are the people in my life who can go through this with me? Who are they? Do we have a family member we trust? A friend? Somebody here at the church? Maybe you're here and you say, “Chris, I have no idea who that person is. I'm estranged from most people. I just moved here. I don't know anybody.”

If that's you, let me tell you that’s why we're here. That's why Grace is here, to be that church that comes alongside you, comes alongside me, when we're going through the tough stuff. So, let me tell you how we do that. You may not know it, or maybe you do, but Grace will pay for your first three counseling sessions. If you need to talk to somebody, if you need somebody to do life with you, if you need somebody to walk alongside you in the valley, we’ve got you covered. We can set you up with a counselor, and we’ll cover everything for your first three sessions. Or maybe you say, “I'm going through the biggest tragedy of my life. I've lost a loved one. I just don't know where to turn.”

We have grief share groups that give you a chance to be together with people who have lost, and to walk this thing out together because that's a valley that's not measured in days, weeks, and months, but it’s measured in years and lifetimes. We’ve got to come alongside one another. Maybe you have marriage issues, and you don't know what to do. We've got marriage mentoring here. Or maybe you say, “I just need somebody to pray. I just need somebody to say, out loud, the things to God that I can't bring myself to say.”

We’ve got prayer after service. I want to invite you, come. Let's pray. Let's do this thing together. You can call the church. We'll visit you, we'll pray with you, and we’ll do all of those things. Don't do life alone.

The second thing: When we're in the valley, we should remember that spiritual strength and maturity is built most during times of affliction. Spiritual strength and maturity is built most during times of affliction. It's not only built there, but it's built most in those seasons. It's built most there. I think Paul makes that clear. He says to us, “We are boasting about you because of your steadfastness in your faith, but it's not when the sun is shining, everything's going great, and you’ve got no problems. We’re actually boasting about you because your steadfastness in faith is happening in, during, in the midst of, simultaneously with persecutions and afflictions. They’re ones that you are actively, as you are getting this letter, enduring.”

Spiritual strength and maturity is built most in the difficult times. So can say when we're in the valley, while the pain is there, and some of that pain is just because the world is broken and messed up, we might actually, also, be experiencing growing pains. Maybe some of the pain is just because there's pain, so don't hear me minimizing that, but some of it might be growing pains. Our faith in God is growing. Our love for one another is increasing and growing too. So, the question that we can ask ourselves, to move it from our head to our heart, is, “What is God trying to teach me through this? What is God trying to teach me through this?”

The answer might be different for everybody. I want to tell you, going back to the story in my life that I shared at the beginning, if somebody had told me I should ask this question weeks after what had happened in my family, I never could have asked this question. So, let me just assure you I'm sensitive to that. If you're here this weekend, and you're like, “I can't even ask that question. No way. I can’t even think about it,” and you just need somebody to say that God's with you, we hear that. We’re here with you. But if you can ask this question, it's a great question to ask: “What is God teaching me through this?”

The third thing I would tell us is when we're in the valley, what can we know? We can remember that our suffering can actually advance the Kingdom of God. Our suffering can actually advance the Kingdom of God. That was the perspective shift that Paul was trying to tell the church in Thessalonica. He said to them, “This is actually evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you're suffering but you're being obedient, your faith is growing, and that you've been considered worthy of the Kingdom of God.”

He tells him, “Guys, your suffering is not meaningless and purposeless. God is using it because it's the Kingdom of God for which you're suffering.”

So, the question that we can ask ourselves when we find ourselves in the valley, knowing all of these things, is, “What can I do to further the Kingdom through this? What can I do? In the midst of my valley, in the midst of my pain, in the midst of my difficulty, what can I do to further the Kingdom through this?”

I want to come back to the story I told you at the beginning about my brother-in-law, Joe. Every once in a while, he gets to call me from the prison. He only gets a certain number of minutes. He has lots of people to talk to, but when he can, he calls me. Of course, I would expect to hear complaining, bitterness, anger, and, “My life was stripped away from me, and my family's been impacted in so many ways,” but I never hear any of that. In fact, every time he calls, he has news to share with me about the church that he started in the prison. Not only did he start a church, but he realized that when they started holding services, everybody knew nothing about the Bible, Jesus, and Scripture, so he started Bible studies that they could come to and ask their questions. Then he said, “Man, let's start a worship band.”

He worked to get instruments in the prison, and these guys are playing bass, drums, and keys, and they have no idea, yet, what they're singing about, but he knows they will. And that's not to minimize the difficulty, it’s not to minimize the valley or minimize the pain, but it's just to say that he asked himself the question, “What can I do, through this, to advance the Kingdom of God?”

I can tell you he is getting it done every single day. Again, I want to be sensitive to the fact that maybe somebody's here this weekend, and you are so in the middle of the pain, the wound is open and bleeding, and you're like, “I can't ask any of these questions. I can't even think about what you said.”

That's okay. Maybe you're here this weekend, and you just need somebody to stand up and remind you that God is greater than what you're facing. Maybe you just need to hear the fact that God is with you in the valley. Even when you're walking in the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil because He is with us. Maybe we just need to be reminded of that too. So, we're going to sing a final song. It's called “Greater Than,” and it's our anthem to remind ourselves and each other that God is greater than the mountain, He's greater than the valley, He’s greater than the pain, and He’s greater than the difficulty because He’s with us through it and a day is coming when every tear gets wiped away, when we meet Him face to face, and that is our hope, as Christians.

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