Friday, January 23, 2015

The fruit of loving (Ministry in Thessalonians, #10)

"As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you. But we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship: We worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous, and blameless we were among you. For we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory."
- 1 Thessalonians 2:6b-12

When I started this series, I wrote that I wanted to discover the heart of ministry. I wanted to meditate on the truths of these two books that were richly laced with insights about how Paul and his team ministered in Thessalonica. The passage we are considering today is one of the key sections that God kept bringing up in my heart and mind to lead me to this series. It's funny though. Preparing to write about this, I kept focusing on the idea of "how not to be a burden", since Paul mentions that concept twice in these verses. I even made a list from my observations. But God - as He so often does - reshaped my understanding just as I sat down to write this post.

Paul's ministry, not only to the Thessalonians but overall, cannot be understood apart from the deep love that God gave him for people. What else but love can prompt such a longing for another's salvation that a person would want to give up his own if possible?
I am speaking the truth in Christ--I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit--that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1-3 ESV)
Paul made it clear to a later congregation that love was the motivating factor in his ministry:
If we are "out of our mind," as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. (2 Corinthians 5:13-14)
And one of the most beautiful chapters in all of Scripture, loved by believer and unbeliever alike, extols the virtues of love above other spiritual gifts, even saying it is greater than hope and even than faith!
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
But in 1 Thessalonians, one of the earliest books of the New Testament to be written, Paul isn't teaching on the theology of love. Instead, his emphasis on love appears suddenly, sandwiched between his words describing how he and his team approached ministry in Thessalonica. To me, that makes his example all the more powerful. Rather than providing us a list of ministry do's and don'ts, he just peels back the curtain of transparency and lets us see what happens when ministry is fueled by genuine love. Join me in this glimpse into Paul's heart:
  • The intensity of authentic love. "We loved you so much". The word translated as " much" is only used here in the New Testament and is defined by Strong's concordance as "to desire, long for, especially the longing of love." We often rightly emphasize the "doing" aspect of love as described in 1 Corinthians 13. It's good and even wise to remind ourselves that love doesn't depend on feelings. But it's wrong to keep love locked into a category of duty. There is an intensity of authentic love, especially for those God calls us to minister to, that brings with it a deep desire. It transforms duty into delight.
  • The joy of authentic love. "that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well". In a ministry situation we should never lose sight of the importance of joy and delight. Let's face it - ministry is hard. Anyone who chooses to spend time developing her spiritual gifts, practicing the spiritual disciplines essential to exercise those gifts effectively, and living out the exercise of those gifts in consistent ministry is giving up something to do so. It's not just this thing we do on the side, on par with attending local sporting events or visiting art galleries. And if that weren't enough, the minute we step out in the obedience of faith, Satan increases his attacks to stop us (we'll see more on that in a future lesson). But in the middle of this tough job and spiritual warfare, God does something beautiful. He gives us joy. He makes us delighted to do His will - to share the gospel and our lives. 
    • If you think delight is not important, consider this: Imagine your husband coming home one night and announcing that he is taking you out for dinner, then when you get home will clean the entire house while you prop up your feet and watch your favorite show. The next day he will take care of the children while you sleep in. When you thank him for it he says, "Don't thank me, it's my duty. I'm supposed to do that as your husband." I don't know a woman who could hear those words and not have some of the excitement taken out of the plans. But if that same husband took his wife's face in his hand and said, "Darling, I love you so much, I am delighted to do something for you to bless you. In fact, I cannot wait to find ways to show you love" - the woman would sense his delight.
    • Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. When we are filled with the Spirit, there is a joy that underlies everything we do. We can consider that Biblical permission to fight for joy and to come against the enemy's efforts to steal our joy. In fact, we can often discover what ministry God wants us involved in when we find something that causes us to overflow with joy and delight!  
    • The word "delight" is a word meaning "well-pleased". It's used by God for Jesus upon His baptism - "This is my Son...with Him I am well-pleased" (Matthew 3:7).It really means just like it sounds - it's a sense of pleasure that goes along with someone or something. It's a word that describes when you are doing exactly what you want to be doing at a given moment. Paul's team was "delighted" - "well-pleased" - to share the Gospel AND their lives. Let's face it - most of us might share the Gospel out of duty, but we aren't likely to share our lives apart from a sense of delight. There has to be some level of "want to" in order to open up our hearts and homes.
  • The nature of authentic love. "because you had become so dear to us." "So dear" is "agapetos", a form of the word "agape" which is sacrificial, Godly love that focuses on the good of the one loved. The same form of the word is used at Jesus' baptism when God speaks, "This is my beloved (agapetos) Son" (see Mark 1:11). John tells us "We love, because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Any measure of love we have for someone comes from the heart of God. When God gives us love in our hearts for someone, or a group of people, and gives us a delight in sharing our lives with them, we walk that out in sacrificial love and along the way, they become increasingly "beloved" to us.
So we are back to our starting point. Paul and his team had this deep, genuine love, placed in their hearts by God. This love defined their ministry. What is the result of this type of love? The passage outlines a few aspects of their ministry that could only come from hearts of love:
  • Parental care
  • Gentleness
  • Willingness to work hard
  • Holy, righteous, blameless
  • Encouraging, comforting, urging 
  • And of course, not wanting to be a burden
After going through this passage, I'm convinced that a Godly ministry cannot start with a desire to not be a burden. Frankly, that can easily become false humility and lead to pride and a "martyr's complex". Godly ministry has to start with authentic love. If I am to see any kind of fruit at all, I have to first be filled with love for the people God calls me to. Whether that be a one-time conversation, an extended Bible study group, or a long-term relationship, I cannot escape the priority of love. If I sense the love waning, I have to go back to the source of Love Himself, and ask for a new infusion. The beautiful thing is, when I am compelled by love, the fruit is evident. People might reject the message, but they can never deny the love behind it. 

So that's my ministry challenge tonight: Seek God for the people He's given you a deep love for. Ask Him to make that ministry a delight. And watch the type of fruit He brings forth as you love and serve those you find "so dear".

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