6 March 2023

Adjusting your sails: How do we build resilience?

Major Nick Hanover

Major Nick Hanover reminds us that resilient faith treats difficulty as an opportunity for growth.

Key text

‘We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.’ Many people, including Dolly Parton, have been credited with this wise observation. Many more can relate to the storms of life that this advice seeks to address. It’s fair to say that, literally, metaphorically, spiritually or otherwise, the apostle Paul certainly knew all about the storms of life and the need to adjust one’s sails. He knew what it took to have a resilient faith.

Pause and reflect

  • How well do you respond to life’s storms?
  • Are you good at adjusting your sails?

Our study passage gives us a fascinating insight into Paul’s response to the challenges he was facing. It’s a moving, tender and personal passage of Scripture that offers a compelling glimpse of how deeply he cares for this fledgling Christian community. And yet, it’s worth remembering that Paul is writing to a community he was with for barely a month. A community he was forced to leave due to the ongoing threats and persecution his ministry was provoking. He clearly loves and wants the best for them.

Throughout the passage Paul exhibits an emotional intensity that betrays the notion of a cerebral theologian divorced from the emotion of everyday life. The image he employs to describe his feeling at being separated from his friends in Thessalonica is that of an orphaned child (see 2:17). These verses grow out of his sense of deep bonding with them, as a mother with the baby she has begun to feed (see 2:7). Like an anxious parent, Paul’s every thought has been how to get back to them. Professing an ‘intense longing’ to see his friends again and frustrated by Satan’s opposition and disruption, he is forced to adjust his sails. He admits it’s all too much to bear, that he can ‘stand it no longer’ (3:1), and so he sends Timothy.

Photo shows a sailing boat on calm waters with hazy mountains in the distance.

1 Thessalonians 3:12

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.

Read the Bible passage

Pause and reflect

  • Think of the last context in which you might have used the word ‘unbearable’. What, or who, did you find unbearable?

So what is it that Paul finds unbearable? Is it the opposition and persecution the Thessalonian Christians were facing? He knows his friends are suffering, he predicted as much: ‘You know quite well that we are destined for [trials]. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted’ (3:3 and 4). So no, it’s not the fact that they are suffering that he finds unbearable – it’s the not knowing.

Paul was fearful that, in his absence, the Thessalonians might have been tempted and tested beyond their limits. He feared they might have lost their faith and that his ‘labours might have been in vain’ (3:5). It’s the thought that it might just be too difficult to be a Christian in Thessalonica and that they might revert back to their idols and settle for an easier life.

Despite Satan’s efforts, Paul is not defeated: he responds positively and actively. He doesn’t allow his frustration or disappointment to fester. Instead, he remains hopeful. He hopes to be reunited with them. He hopes that Timothy will ‘strengthen and encourage’ his friends (3:2). He hopes ‘no one would be unsettled by these trials’ (3:3). He does what he can and persistently hopes for the best.

Pause and reflect

  • How easy do you find it to remain hopeful?
  • Are you ever tempted to linger upon disappointments?
  • What can you learn from Paul’s example?

On hearing Timothy’s report, Paul is once again effusive in his response. He is overjoyed. And what is it that Paul is rejoicing about? It’s not because their trials have ended; Timothy doesn’t say so. Neither is it because his own afflictions have ended; they haven’t. Paul is overjoyed because the Thessalonians are standing firm. They remain faithful.

Paul writes: ‘How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?’ (3:9). What an expression of affection for them! Despite his own ongoing distress and persecution, Paul responds with praise and prayer because his friends still believe in Jesus. There was no better news for Paul.

Pause and reflect

  • When was the last time you were overjoyed?
  • What or who was the source of your joy?
  • Are you more likely to use the word ‘overjoyed’ or ‘unbearable’?

Paul prays to be reunited with the Thessalonian Church. He doesn’t pray, however, for an end to their suffering or trials. His focus is entirely different. His concern is not for their comfort but rather that love should ‘increase and overflow’ (3:12). His desire is not that life would be easier for them, but that they will be ‘blameless and holy’ (3:13).

Paul understands that a resilient faith embraces moments of difficulty and darkness as opportunities for growth. He also expressed this to the Corinthians: ‘Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace’ (2 Corinthians 4:16–18 The Message).

What matters to Paul is that his friends continue to trust in Jesus and that they keep loving one another. The Word on the Street paraphrases Paul’s prayer: ‘May the Boss overload love on you so it’s bursting out of you and on to each other, on to outsiders – like we love you. May he muscle up your deep places.’ Amen to that!

Pause and reflect

  • How do you pray for yourself or others during times of suffering?
  • How would your prayer differ from Paul’s prayer?
  • What, or who, truly matters to you?
  • How does this shape your prayers?

Bible study by

Photo of Nick Hanover.

Major Nick Hanover

Community Chaplain, Elgin

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