1 Thessalonians 4:13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.
Everyone has affliction. Both Christians and non-Christian mourn. They hurt. They suffer. Loved ones die. Tragedy happens. Everyone grieves. Christians too. We are not immune to suffering. We are not somehow above it all, as if we were promised in this life nothing but success and ease and happiness. We grieve, as much or more than anyone.
But not as those who have no hope.
The Christian cries differently. Our tears are not tears of hopelessness. Death is not the end. There is a hope we have that the world does not have. To be sure, there will be fine sounding platitudes at any funeral you attend. And sadly, the empty, content-less cliches and platitudes show up at Christian funerals too. But we have something more than inspiring words or some vague notion about a place in the clouds or singing with the angels or looking up to grandpa as he watches down over us. We have a firm hope that is grounded in the work of Christ.
1 Thessalonians 4:14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
There’s the difference. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, because Jesus died and yet he lives. There is no more important event in the history of the world than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if you believe that Jesus (Son of God and Son of Man) died for sins and rose again on the third day–if you truly believe that to the depths of your being, it will change everything.
The churches get packed out on Easter because, at least ostensibly, all these people believe in the resurrection. We love magnificent hymns like “See What a Morning” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” where we sing out our faith in the resurrection of Jesus. We recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, where we confess that on the third day Jesus rose again from the dead. We gather for worship on Sunday as a reminder that the stone was rolled away and the women discovered the empty tomb on the first day of the week. When we truly believe all of this, it changes everything.
1 Thessalonians 4:15-18 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
When we are hurting, when we lose a husband or daughter or grandmother, when we face our own mortality–whether in a month or a year or a decade or seven decades–when we gather around the hospital bed to pray with the sick and dying, when we comfort the afflicted, do we talk about the resurrection? Do we talk about Jesus? Do we talk about the empty tomb? Or do we offer empty platitudes and nothing more than the well-meaning sympathy that says, “I’ve suffered too,” or worse, that God suffers with them? Do you tell them in a casual sort of way that everything’s going to be alright? Do you rebuke them for their doubts? Or do we encourage one another with our faith in the resurrection?
We can have hope in the midst of affliction, because our God raises the dead.
2 Corinthians 1:8-11 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessings granted us through the prayers of many.
Burden and Despair
Corinth was a posh city. Certainly many people were poor, but there was lots of prosperity. One of the things it seemed the Corinthians struggled with was accepting suffering as a part of Christian discipleship. The mystery cults, Emperor worship, the whole context of Corinth encouraged a spirituality of triumphalism and pleasure and success. We have many of the same dynamics in this country. We have great prosperity around us (although less than it once was), plus a self-help therapeutic worldview that says we can manage our happiness, not to mention all the voices telling us to dream it and do it, name and claim it, believe and receive.
Yet, into this world of ours speaks the word of God, just like it spoke to the Corinthians. Paul says, “I don’t want to hide anything. I don’t want to sugar coat this. You need to know what following Jesus entails. Count the cost. You can’t be a Christian and be ashamed of suffering. I’m not ashamed. I do not want you to be ignorant of the rough time I’ve been having.”
We often hide our afflictions. Maybe we think real Christians shouldn’t feel the way we do. Or maybe we want to seem stronger than we are. Or maybe we sense that missionary letters about our struggles won’t keep the support checks coming. Or maybe we just don’t want to discourage others. For whatever reason, we are not real with very many people. Where I’m from there’s a saying that everyone has a Dutch front. If you go to these little Dutch burgs in America, you’ll see a lot of stores on main street with these nice looking fronts that resemble what you might see in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, many people in these towns put the same sort of nice looking fronts on their lives too. We are not any different.
But look at Paul. “I am struggling in Asia,” he says. No one knows for sure what he’s talking about. Paul might be referring to the riot that happened in Ephesus in Acts 19. He might be talking about an illness that’s flared up. Or he might be referring to an imprisonment or some other persecution we just don’t know about. Whatever is was, it was bad. He says, “We”–and I think this is the royal “we” although he could be talking others who have suffered with him–”were so utterly burdened beyond our strength.” The RSV says “utterly, unbearably crushed.
Did you know the great Apostle Paul felt that way at times? Psalm 44 says “Our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.” Psalm 88 ends by saying “my companions have become darkness” or “darkness has become my only companion.” Job says very pointedly in Job 10:1 “I loathe my life.”
Do you ever feel that way? I’m not talking about suicide. There’s never any sense that Job or Paul or David thought about taking their own lives-that’s wrong, and if you feel that way get some help immediately. But we do see people in the Bible who felt utterly, unbearably crushed. You can think of reasons why people feel like this as well as I can: depression, chronic illness, death of a friend, abuse, hurt, disappointment. There are a hundred ways in which we can feel burdened beyond our own strength.
And they aren’t always the big ways: cancer, dying, infertility. Those are burdens for sure, bigger than most, but sleeplessness is a burden. Aging parents can be a burden. Feeling overwhelmed with your housework is a burden. Feeling like you have the squirreliest, most disobedient kids on the planet is a burden. Feeling like you are behind in every area of your life and you will never have time to catch up is a burden. Feeling like you have too many responsibilities and you do all of them at a level between mediocre and poor is a burden. Does this resonate with you?
I feel like I have lived to this point an incredibly blessed life. There are a lot of griefs and struggles and bad circumstances that I have been spared. And yet, I’ll tell you there are days where verse 8 resonates with me. I get hurt. I get weary. I get discouraged. I waste my time. I don’t pray enough. I don’t feel like I am doing much of anything the way I’d like to. On some Mondays (though this is less frequent than it used to be) I get post-preaching mini-depression and feel like another Sunday came and nothing changed, nobody was helped, people probably got upset, I don’t know what I’m doing or how to do it. I take off my glasses and rub my eyes and pull at my hair.
I hear the Apostle Paul loud and clear. And so do many of you. You have days, maybe weeks or years, where you are burdened beyond your strength, like a boat weighed with too much cargo, like a traveler whose backpack is overloaded and he can’t take another step. That’s how all of us feel at times and how some of you feel right now.
Paul says he despaired of life itself. This may mean he didn’t think he could go on any more. He wanted to go home to be the Lord. That may be part of Paul’s point. But I think the main idea is that Paul thought this was the end for him. He felt like he had received a death sentence. Whether he was in a riot of persecution and he was sure he was a goner, or he was in prison and actually had been sentenced to death, or perhaps he got sick and was convinced he was not going to better—whatever the situation, Paul didn’t think he was going to live. He didn’t think he was going to make it. He was on death row as far as he was concerned. What hope was there for the future?