Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Persevering or idle? (Ministry in Thessalonians #29)

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you we gave this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." We have heard that some among you are idle. They are not busy, they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.
And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right. if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
- 2 Thessalonians 3:7-15
My mom is a wonderful, sensitive person with a tender heart. It is very easy to hurt her feelings, but as her daughter I found that she rarely got mad at me. Disappointed, yes, Hurt, yes. Angry - so rarely that every time stands out in vivid detail.

One of those few times was during high school. With my newfound freedom of "open lunch period" I enjoyed going off campus with my friends for an hour. In our small town every eating place was within driving or walking distance so we had a variety of options (okay ... 4). One day my mom, hoping to get to know my new high school friends and be part of my world, surprised me at lunch. After we ate she drove us back to school and that's when it happened. In the parking lot of the drive-in, my friends and I made fun of another student.

My mom did not for one second wait until I got home to deal with that. She slammed on the brakes, turned around in her driver's seat, and gave me "what-for" -- something every Southern girl does not want to get! She made clear what she was most angry about: "You know I raised you better than that."

And she had. Every bit of tolerance and respect for humanity that I have I first learned from my parents, whose disabilities had made them sensitive to other differences in a way that many of their generation learned much later. Behind her anger was disappointment and a great deal of love for the person she hoped I would become. I resolved that day to live up to her example.

Paul's words in this passage remind me of my mom. Not that he is angry - but he is very direct in dealing with idleness. He essentially tells the Thessalonians, "You know we raised you better than that." Paul and his team had set a model of hard work and perseverance. His example gave him the authority to give them "what-for" over being idle.

Paul's prayer immediately before this passage included asking God to fill their hearts with "Christ's perseverance". This extended section on idleness is a contrast to what Christ's perseverance looks like. His admonition to them to "never tire of doing what is right" underscores the contrast.

We tend to think of perseverance in primarily spiritual terms, and it is definitely a spiritual act. But it plays out in lots of practical ways as well. Think of everything you know about the character of Christ. Do you think His perseverance only applied to the cross or to his ministry? Didn't it take perseverance to keep walking in the dust around Israel? What about perseverance to get up early after a late night of ministry? And what about all those years as a carpenter - don't you think he was a hard and diligent worker? We all know from experience that it takes perseverance to give a full, hard day's work.

Just as Christ's perseverance should play out in our lives in both spiritual and practical ways, idleness cuts both ways as well. Someone who is lazy tends to be lazy in more than one area. Physical laziness breeds intellectual laziness - hence the term "couch potato" for those who sit, eat, and watch TV. Emotional laziness is a temptation for anyone in any kind of relationship. It's easy for spiritual laziness to follow any of these types of laziness.

The great and beautiful news of grace is that we never stop having chances to turn things around. Filled with God's love and Christ's perseverance (v. 5), we are empowered to "never tire of doing what is right" (v. 13). As we start in one area, we will see benefits spread to other areas. Personally I know that when I am faithful in my quiet time and Bible study, it becomes easier for me to eat right. When I eat right, I am more consistent in exercise. When I exercise, I have more energy to take care of my home and do a good job at work. The perseverance of Christ works it way into every aspect of my life, pushing out idleness.

Certainly there is a need to balance our lives, which is why God gives us the principle of Sabbath and blesses our times of rest. But Paul rightly identifies a temptation that often can come as we embrace the hope of heaven which filled 1 Thessalonians. He admonishes them that being heavenly minded should result in earthly good. We should fill our days and hours with things that matter, that are eternally good and practically important. Then when the times of rest come, we can enter in fully, knowing that we followed the good example of those who went before us. Rather than getting "what-for" we will hear, "well done".

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