Paul is writing to a church that, even though it has grown in faith and love, it is suffering. It’s not suffering like a church in the English-speaking world “suffers.” It’s not suffering because it doesn’t have a full pastoral staff, or because it lacks faithful leadership, or because it has a large mortgage or needs a bigger building. It’s not suffering from the lack of teachers, or because the teachers are competing for attention. It is suffering because this church is actually being persecuted, harmed by outsiders. Paul says:
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. 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.Just think about this for a minute: the Apostle Paul says that he “boasts about you in the churches of God.” Whatever it is that’s happening there impresses the man who first evangelized the Gentile world. And what impresses him is not just that they love one another: it is that they are “steadfast” in these things even though there are legitimately-bad things happening to them.
This, I think, is a challenge for the rest of us. Let’s face it: there are not many of us who have true afflictions and persecutions for the faith. We are not imprisoned for our beliefs. We are not deprived of property or employment because we are followers of Christ. We are not people accused of all manner of depravity because we are hated by those who see us as a threat. But as we see it, when we suffer under affliction and persecution, either we simply paste on our stoic and staid face to gut it out, or we hope for others to be extra-sensitive toward us so that our burdens aren’t any heavier. We want to weather it out, and hope it passes. But as Paul looks upon the Thessalonians, he says, “Listen: I already boast about your faith and love to everyone I meet, but when I see your faith and love as it is demonstrated under the worst of circumstances – when it is actually made the reason other people seek to harm you – Wow! It’s something to boast about to all churches.” The King James translates it: “We ourselves glory in you.” Paul means it is a reason to rejoice.
We should think about this carefully, because this is the boast Paul is making about these people: “I taught them that God loves them enough to sacrifice his Son for them – to sacrifice his righteous son for their sinful selves – and these people really got it. They started loving each other as if the offenses they might have had against each other were forgiven in a final way, an authoritative way. But the more they love each other, the worse people outside of their camp considered them – it only made outsiders hate them more. And that hatred caused them a lot of hardship – a lot of suffering for the sake of believing that God loves, and that God’s love can be real to people. So I think they’re doing a great job of loving even though it only brings them shame and pain.”
I’m not sure that would be received as boasting by a lot of people – it sounds like one of the major complaints about the world as we know it: no good deed goes unpunished. It certainly couldn’t be spun into a best-selling book about what your best life will look like, or what the purpose in your life will look like.
When you put it that way, it actually seems like God may be a little unjust – that maybe he has a dark sense of humor, or maybe he’s a cruel god who is really detached from your personal concerns. It may actually seem to deny the idea that God is love and loving.
But Paul is not insensitive to this concern. We can see this immediately as he continues:
This [your suffering] 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 …That is: you Thessalonians are loving each other, and suffering for the sake of your love.