Meditations in 1 Thessalonians
Part 3 : 20. Suffering Others
1 Thess 5:14 And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
So in this verse we have considered warning the idle and encouraging the timid, so now let’s move on to consider the weak. Our temptation might be to say, “Shouldn’t we encourage the weak” rather than simply ‘help’ them, but Paul is quite careful with the words he uses. Timidity is an attitude of mind and therefore our input to the timid needs to be at the level of the mind, and that is how encouragement comes. But when he speaks about the ‘weak’ there is a broader dimension to be considered for a ‘weak’ person is one who lacks strength, and that may be physical, mental, spiritual or moral. To cover all these possibilities our input to them should simply be to bring ‘help’ which goes from assistance and all other things that will bring relief and then permanent change to them.
Paul referred to those who were physically weak when he wrote about Communion: “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 11:30) Their physical weakness came from a fracture in their relationship with the Lord from their wrong behaviour, failing to appreciate the body, the other believers there, and so help in this case would be more bringing correction to their thinking and behaviour, and that was what Paul was doing as he wrote to them.
When the writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees,” (Heb 12:12) it appears it could have meant physical or spiritual. The context suggests he is speaking about their ill-disciplined lives and so help in that context would be bringing discipline, which is what God was doing.
Weakness sometimes can be simply in respect of our faith: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” (Rom 14:1). Help in that context was first accepting the weaker brother or sister and then, perhaps, bringing teaching to strengthen them, which is what Paul often did. Another expression of this is the believer whose conscience is weak and so they are not as sure of themselves or their faith as they could be, which is why Paul wrote, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) The context for that was weak consciences.
Weakness, sometimes simply means accepting our human limitations that then drives us into the arms of God. That was what Paul was referring to when he said, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10) Help in such a context is simply reminding the believer that they are not their own Saviour, only God can be, and encouraging trust and perseverance.
But then Paul finishes this verse of mini-exhortations with, “be patient with everyone.” The big danger in the Christian faith is that we look down on those we consider have not matured or developed as far as we have, or we become intolerant of their slow progress and what sometimes appears silly, shallow or immature words or actions, for the truth is that we all grow and develop (or not!) at different rates. Patience is about waiting for others. Proverbs 14:29 declares, “A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly,” which suggests that our lack of patience indicates a lack of understanding of the lives of other people. I believe there is a native American saying, “Never criticize another man until you have walked in his moccasins”. Patience of other is an indication that we understand them and their life and we realise why change is slow.
Paul’s ‘love verses’ of 1 Cor 13 start, of course, with “Love is patient,” (1 Cor 13:1) and of course in the list of the fruit of the Spirit is patience: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness.” (Gal 5:22) Patience should, therefore, be an expression or enabling of the Holy Spirit within us. To the Ephesians Paul wrote, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:2,3) There patience is linked with humility and unity. Humility is the awareness of the reality of who you are, a lost sinner saved only by grace. When we are humble, we will be patient with others. In seeking to establish unity in the body we will not let the slowness of others drive them away from us in our thinking.
Finally a word from Peter might help: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) We should always remember that for any of us the Lord was patient with us waiting while we slowly came to a place of repentance and then slowly worked through (and continue to work through) the process of sanctification which will continue to the end of our lives. He is patient with us and doesn’t write us off for our slowness. In the same way, neither should we write off our brothers and sisters. In some ways this is harder inside the church than outside it. Outside it we know that people are lost sinners and therefore we expect them to get it wrong until they come to Christ, but once people have turned to Christ and have received His Spirit, we often think the changes in them should happen a lot faster! It is at such times that we need to remember this teaching on patience!