“Addressing Spiritual Problems”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons
There are few things that are more difficult for Christians and churches than when another Christian falls into sin. It’s very easy and straightforward for us to interact with one another when everybody is living faithfully; indeed, the fellowship we share in Christ is one of the great joys of earthly existence!
However, one of the characteristics of sin is that it makes everyone else’s choices more difficult. All of a sudden, that easy camaraderie is shattered. Now, every time we see the Christian who is doing wrong, a host of questions leap into our mind. Should we treat them normally and act like nothing’s wrong even though we know it isn’t true. Should we say something? If so, what? Should we go to the other extreme and avoid them entirely because it ends up being much less awkward for everyone?
These are difficult questions, but thankfully, the Holy Spirit does not leave us without help. There are several contexts in Scripture that probe this subject, and one of them appears in our Bible reading for this week. Let’s turn to 2 Thessalonians 3, then, to see what the apostle Paul has to teach us about addressing spiritual problems.
In this context, I see three main lessons for us, and the first is that we must IMITATE THE APOSTLES. Here, let’s read from 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10. Here, it becomes obvious that the Thessalonian church has a problem. There are several members of the congregation who are refusing to work.
We don’t know why this is. Many commentators have speculated that it’s because they were expecting the imminent return of Jesus, so what’s the point in working? It’s also possible that they thought it was easier to sponge off other Christians than it was to work. Regardless, these Christians who should be productive members of society are idle busybodies instead.
In addressing this problem, Paul first encourages the church to imitate him and his companions. Paul did the Lord’s work during his time in Thessalonica. He had the right not to do secular work. However, he chose to work to show the Thessalonians how important and godly working was. His behavior was their standard.
Today, early Christians aren’t merely our standard when it comes to working. Their behavior is our standard when it comes to everything. It’s vital for us to acknowledge this standard for two main reasons. First, it shows us what’s right and what’s wrong. We can resolve every important spiritual question by referring to what our first-century brethren did.
Second, it shows us how we must live if we want to help Christians who are walking disorderly. They have to be able to see us obeying the commandments that we want them to obey. I guarantee you that if we try to correct a brother or sister, and they know that we aren’t living right ourselves, the first thing out of their mouths will be an accusation of hypocrisy! Sadly, an exchange like that is actively harmful because it gives them an excuse to reject correction even from a brother who is living right. If we want to clean up somebody else’s act, we must clean up our own act first.
Next, we must be willing to COMMAND AND EXHORT. Here, let’s consider 2 Thessalonians 3:11-13. Notice how formally Paul uses his authority here. As an apostle, in the name of Jesus Christ, he tells the busybodies to knock it off and get back to work.
Both parts of this formula are vital. The first is the command part. This is not something that culturally sits well with us. On Facebook, Americans are lions, but in person, we’re a bunch of cowards. We don’t do face-to-face confrontation well at all!
However, experience has taught me that if you want somebody to change, the only way to get them to change is to talk to them face-t0-face. There is no substitute for looking in somebody’s eyes and telling them they need to straighten up for their soul’s sake.
When we do this, though we must be loving, we must be direct too. Too often we’re so worried about hurting a sinner’s feelings that we beat around the bush and couch our message in so many caveats that they easily ignore it. I’m reminded, though, of a brother I know who is a recovering drug addict. He says that what helped him wasn’t the people who tried to coddle him and downplay his condition. Instead, it was the people who loved him who told him straight up that he was doing evil and needed to repent. We too need to have the moral courage to call a spade a spade and a sin a sin.
As we do this, though, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of exhortation either. Exhortation is positive. It’s encouraging. It offers a road map for change and improvement. If we don’t offer this road map, all we’re doing is beating somebody down and making them feel bad about themselves without offering them a way to feel good about themselves. Our goal isn’t to check boxes here. It’s to provoke change, and if we want to see a change, we should tell the sinner what it is.
Paul’s final instruction is to NOTE THE DISOBEDIENT. Look at 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. Though obviously any of us can exhort a brother to do good, this is clearly an instruction given to the whole church. It’s similar to what we read in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. If we go to somebody, and they refuse to listen—other passages lay out the process here in much greater detail—we need to single them out for different treatment.
Interestingly, Paul’s words here are meant to help us avoid two different extremes. The first is continuing in the same relationship with them as though nothing has changed. The temptation here is obvious, isn’t it? We’ve said our piece, they ignored it, so we shrug and move on in our relationship with them as though they didn’t listen to a hot stock tip we gave them.
Of course, the gospel is much more than a hot stock tip. In Hebrews 10, the writer tells us that Christians who fall away have trampled Jesus, regarded His blood as an unclean thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace. It makes God very angry when His people turn their backs on Him, and for the apostate, their meeting with God on the day of judgment poses a deadly danger. When we continue in friendly association with the sinner despite the doom that is hanging over them, we do them no favors!
At the same time, though, neither do we cut off communication with them entirely. That would be regarding them as an enemy, and if we don’t talk to somebody anymore, it’s awfully hard to admonish them as a brother! Instead, Paul is calling us to strike a difficult balance. We need to continue in that relationship even though they have wrecked it, showing them by our conduct both that we love them and that we don’t approve of their actions. This is awkward, and it’s meant to be awkward, but it’s also the last chance we have to save their souls from destruction.