Over the years I have listened to sermons and ‘testimonies’ from Western Christians, and the impression created in my own mind, especially in my more youthful days, was that conversion and serving the Lord is really all quite simple, straight forward, logical, exciting and successful. Is it really so in the light of Scripture, reality and experience??
The last few weeks I’ve been munching my way slowly through Paul’s First Letter to the church in Thessalonica. Reading from The Message, I was struck by v. 6 of chap. 1: ‘Although great trouble accompanied the Word, you were able to take great joy from the Holy Spirit! – taking the trouble with the joy, the joy with the trouble.’
Now the background to all this was that the Thessalonian church, in spite of Paul’s stay of less than a month with them, was flourishing and enthusiastic in their new-found experience of the Gospel and witness to it [as the ‘Gospel’ seems largely lost on Western Christians these days, maybe re-visit Paul’s definition thereof in 1 Cor. 15:1-34]. Paul heartily commends the Thessalonian community for this. However, these relatively new believers were being pressured by a number of things. On the one hand the Jewish opponents of the Way were engaging in a whispering campaign against Paul and his co-workers, questioning their integrity, motives and the potency of their message. On the other hand, these new believers were constantly surrounded by their pagan and hedonistic fellow-citizens and the temptation, when the way became difficult, was to revert to their easy-going pre-conversion morals and lifestyle.
My particular interest here is Paul’s statement that these Thessalonian believers received the Word with ‘trouble’ (NIV, ‘severe suffering’) and yet with ‘joy.’
From my personal experience of following Jesus for over fifty years now (by grace alone, be sure of that), I can testify that most times the reception of the Word was accompanied by ‘trouble,’ whether it has come amid poor teaching, legalism in the church with the resultant lack of assurance, misunderstanding by family and peers, criticism and slander from ‘mature’ fellow-believers in one’s church (who should have known better), intellectual doubts, fears, worldly temptations, etc.
The other side of the coin has been the experience of colossal and inexpressible joy, amid those very troubles – a joy certainly not natural to us, but supernaturally and unexpectedly given by the Spirit of God [the apostle Peter writes of such joy amid ‘grief in all kinds of trials’: 1 Pet.1:8-9 (NIV), ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him… you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls’]. I am sure we can all recall times when we experienced, amid our troubles and perplexities, God’s love and joy in such measure it felt like our body and spirit would burst!
I can identify with Swedish pastor and theologian Anders Nygren when he stated, ‘The gospel is not the presentation of an idea, but the operation of a power. When the gospel is preached… the power of God is at work for the salvation of men, snatching them from the powers of destruction… and transferring them into the new age of life.’ [I love JB Phillips’ rendition of Eph.6:12-13 because it reflects the realities of the Christian life: ‘For our fight is not against any physical enemy; it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil. Therefore you must wear the whole armour of God that you may be able to resist evil in its day of power, and even when you have fought to a standstill you may still stand your ground’]
My friends, don’t be surprised at this ‘mixture of trouble and joy’ whenever you receive the Word (written and incarnate). We need to make peace with the fact that ‘trouble’ has always been part of the lot of the true disciple, as Jesus himself foretold: Jn.16:33 (NIV), ‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ The Reformer Luther once asked, ‘If Christ wore a crown of thorns, why should His followers expect only a crown of roses?’ It’s a little known fact that Mother Theresa of Calcutta served the poor sometimes for lengthy periods of many years without any sensible experience of God’s presence.
If you as a serious believer are going through a season of ‘great trouble’ at the moment, with seemingly no light at the end of tunnel, may I assure you that you are on the right road, my brother/sister, no matter inward emotions or outward appearances. Sooner or later, the Spirit will mix that ‘great trouble’ with ‘great joy.’ Your weeping will yet turn to rejoicing! (Ps. 30:5)