Growing Out: Redefining Love
I Thessalonians 2:17-3:13; 4:9-12
February 16, 2014

You will no doubt remember that incredible Tsunami that hit Japan back in March of 2011 following a 9.0 earthquake. The two punch natural disaster caused devastation and death in an unimaginable way. The events also led to another disaster with far reaching implications when the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant was also damaged and emitted radiation into the atmosphere. The effects of it all will no doubt continue to be felt for years and years to come.

Equally amazing was the Japanese response to the disaster. Rather than exhibiting a survival of the fittest mentality, which often accompanies such events, the Japanese responded with order, patience and a remarkable attentiveness to their neighbors. In the days after the earthquake and Tsunami, the people there stood in line for hours for a few bottles of water or a little rice with no incidents, animosity or hostility.

Maybe even more impressive was the fact that the Japanese people reportedly returned over one hundred million dollars in cash and valuables that they found in the rubble and debris. Rather than saying “yes” to the immediate tendency to care for themselves, pad their own pockets and to do what seemed most convenient for their own sake in the moment, they said “no” to their initial urges in order to pay attention to the greater good and needs of others. (Philip Yancey, The Question That Never Goes Away—Why, Zondervan, 2013, page 52).

Quite often, our human tendency is to do the first thing that comes to our minds in the midst of the numerous situations that life brings our way on any given day. This is true not only as it relates to our reflexive response to life in general but it is also true when it comes to our immediate sense of what it means to love others or what it means for others to love us.

What I am suggesting is that in any given situation, we are quick to define for ourselves and for others what it means to show love and to be loved in each experience. Yet, as was the case in Japan where people resisted their immediate urges, our natural and immediate tendencies are not always what are best. Sure, they may provide quick solutions, immediate fixes or instant relief for us, but long term, they may be the worst way for us to respond or to be responded to by others.

We see this truth lived out in the scriptures as well and Paul’s writings to the New Testament churches provide us with plenty of examples of this truth. In fact, in our text for today from I Thessalonians chapters 2, 3 and 4, we see at least two examples as Paul helps the people in Thessalonica to gain a good perspective on two different issues that they were facing. In one, Paul redefined for the Thessalonians what it meant for God to love them. And, in the other, Paul redefined for the Thessalonians what it meant for them to love each other.

On the one hand, in chapter 3, Paul responded to the Thessalonians and their feelings about the persecution that they were experiencing. As we mentioned last week, the early church regularly dealt with criticism, threats and violence as society tried to get its arms around the growing movement of Jesus followers. This persecution came from family, neighbors and from friends.

Without question, it was painful for the early church to deal with not only because of the dangers and physical threats that occurred but also as these same believers struggled with hateful behavior from those that were supposedly their own family and friends.

When the persecution came, their initial sense was that they had displeased or angered God. After all, if God loved them or was pleased with them, wouldn’t God have alleviated these dangers and their suffering? And, wouldn’t God have seen to it that others would treat them differently?

Paul’s response was likely very different from what they had hoped for or expected. Rather than agree with them, Paul challenged their initial feelings. Sure, it was human nature to jump to the conclusion that pain, suffering and difficulty was a sign that God was displeased or that God was unsympathetic toward them. But, Paul challenged them to see persecution as a reminder that they were doing the right things not the wrong things. Paul also challenged them to believe that rather than displeasure God was actually pleased with them.

What Paul wanted them to see was that their initial feeling about God’s love for them was a natural response but at the same time a wrong response. He also wanted them to appreciate that in faith, God often loves us by supporting and being with us in our suffering not through taking our suffering away.

On the other hand, in chapter four, Paul deals with a very different type of situation yet with very similar underlying issues of redefining love. The issue here was not God’s love for them but their love for each other.

Evidently in Thessalonica, there were those within the early church who were freeloaders for lack of a better term. They knew that the call of Jesus was that as followers they were to care for one another and help those who could not help themselves. In turn, they were taking advantage of this teaching by not working while at the same time expecting and gaining help and support from the rest of the congregation. In their mind, as fellow believers in need, others were required to love them and to care for them.

Again, Paul, however, was quite clear that their initial compulsion to show care and to provide for needs was the wrong emotion to follow. He challenged the believers in Thessalonica that everyone was to help carry the load. He also challenged them that in this situation saying “no” to the requests they were receiving was far better and more appropriate than saying “yes”. Certainly their initial feeling might have been to do whatever they could to help but here in this situation it that was a wrong path to follow.

Holistically, what Paul was challenging the Thessalonians to do through both of these situations was to redefine what it meant to show love. With their relationship with God, God’s love didn’t mean they would always have it easy or that difficulty would never come their way or that God could only love them through taking away all of the difficulties in their lives. And in their relationship with each other, showing love didn’t mean that they needed to automatically do whatever the other wanted them to do. Sometimes the most loving thing to do was to say “no”.

Last year, an interesting article appeared in The New York Times that came to similar conclusions. The article was entitled “When Helping Hurts” and it reported on recent studies done that all show that our best intentions are not always what are actually best.

One of the studies focused on parents and the funding of their children’s college education. What it found was that the more parents pay for their child’s education without the student themselves helping to share some of the costs, the more likely the student was to perform poorly academically. In other words, the most loving thing was not to simply take care of the tab. Rather the most loving thing to do was to involve their children in sharing in the financial responsibility. The more responsible they felt, the better they actually did in school.

Another study included in the article mentioned husbands and their support of their wives in their health and fitness goals. The more involved the husband became in achieving the goal, the less their wives felt personal responsibility or motivation toward the same goals. Even though it was their goal, their spouses quickly moved from supportive party to being the more responsible party the more involved they became.

The article came to similar conclusions with these and other similar studies. In each case, researchers found that there is a fine line between supporting those that we love and becoming so involved that we do more harm than good. (“When Helping Hurts”, Eli J Finkel and Grainne M. Fitzsimons, The New York Times, May 10, 2013)

Sure, we all have in our minds what it means to be loved. And, those important people in our lives also have in their minds what they think it means to be loved. But, the truth is that often times we are wrong and often times the important people in our lives are wrong too.

Quite often our first instincts fail us when it comes to what it means to do the loving thing. When we are not alleviated from our suffering, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us. And, at the same time, when we fail to alleviate all of the struggles of others it doesn’t mean that we don’t love them either. Rather, at times, when we want God to say “yes”, God in God’s wisdom says “no”. And, at times, when others want us to say “yes” the best thing that we can do is say “no” too. Sometimes love needs to be redefined for us and at other times, we need to redefine what love is for others.

Thankfully God doesn’t always love us the way we want to be loved. And, thankfully too, God also offers us the wisdom of knowing the way that others want us to love them isn’t always what is best either. Amen.