This passage is the answer to all the pleas in the Psalms for rescue from the hands of evil men. There is a fervent purpose in all of the sufferings of the people of God. The suffering faced by the Thessalonian believers drew them closer to one another as they were able to witness and participate in the grace of God as it shone forth in the midst of their afflictions. Their faith was enlarged because of their trials. And how else can faith be enlarged other than for it to be taken beyond its previously supposed limits and proven to be made of much more steel than thought? Trials prove that the limits of faith are not limits bounded by the person of God, but rather bounded by the smallness of my picture of God.
The champions of the faith are men who suffered much. Christian history does not celebrate those who lived in comfort and ease. Spurgeon and the Down-Grace controversy, Athanasius and Arianism, Luther and the Roman Catholic Church, Eliot and the Aucas. Edwards and the communion compromises. No, the men to whom Christians look for encouragement and wisdom are men who suffered much. Suffering proves that everything other than God is a poor choice of foothold. When the cost overwhelms the comfort, when there’s no reason to fight against discouragement and pain apart from the all-pervading, all-persuasive biblical confidence that God is on the throne and will be glorified, that is when God is displayed to be stunningly above what I thought Him to be. And the Bible is so clear to teach that every thorn in life is intentional, storing up for me the greatest amount of eternal joy possible. God is not only working everything for His glory, but also that I might have the greatest joy. These two are never in conflict.
Release from affliction only comes once the end arrives, no sooner. David Crowder’s Church Music has been in my CD player for the last couple of weeks. The last song on the disc announces: “To the end there is hurting/To the end there is yearning/To the end there is suffering.” Paul doesn’t comfort the Thessalonians–who understood cost far better than I do–with promises that their sufferings would soon be over. Rather he reminds them of their hope in the second coming of Christ. There will be suffering until the end. Indeed, the greatest suffering that will befall believers is still yet to come. Paul didn’t see it. The Thessalonians didn’t see it. The tribulation still awaits. But after suffering comes a joy and a justice so great that it makes all the suffering of no consequence. Paul took no prisoners in his quest to crucify the world to himself because the great weight of eternal joy demanded it.
Eternal quality and quantity of joy is not the only comfort Paul gives the Thessalonians. He also reminds them of the eternal punishment of their oppressors. God says that vengeance is His. The Lord is in the business of revenge. God is angry over the way wicked men have treated His children. His wrath burns against those who persecute the righteous because they are righteous. The time is coming when mercy will be over and wrath and sinners will collide.
In the meantime, we pray and hope and take refuge in the knowledge that God is all about our glory and our joy. Bunyan wrote well when he said,
[B]e not offended at God or man: not at God for thou art his servant, thy life and thy all are his; not at man, for he is but God’s rod, and is ordained in this to do thee good. Hast thou escaped? Laugh. Art thou taken? Laugh. I mean, be pleased which way soever things shall go, for that the scales are still in God’s hand.
I don’t know much about suffering. I don’t know much about tribulation or pain or grief. But I do know that suffering in the Bible is not seen as possible, but probable. If so, then it is my aim to prepare myself by seeking to learn much of who God is, for that is how the firm steel of sustaining faith is enlarged.
There’s nothing safe in doing right
Or being used by God to fight
For His renown while in the midst
Of those who love ignorant bliss
Of things eternal, piercing, true
And their own lack of real virtue.