20 February 2023

Suffering and joy: What does it mean to live a countercultural life?

Captain Alice Nunn

Captain Alice Nunn reminds us that the joy of living in God’s love outweighs the suffering.

Key text

Paul’s first letter to the Church in Thessalonica is thought to be one of his earliest writings. He praises them for the way they live their lives following the true God. Paul writes of how he witnessed their lives transformed and that they live in a way counter to that of the reigning culture of the day. There is a cost to this new way of life. Yet, as followers of Jesus, they show that joy outweighs suffering.

In the midst of persecution, Paul is sent away and the Church is left to fend for itself. However, Paul hears that not only do these followers of Jesus continue to be a community filled with the Spirit of God – marked by the characteristics of faith, hope and love – but that their example is also being talked about and has spread into other areas of Greece and Macedonia.

If you’ve ever received an unexpected letter of encouragement or support from someone, you’ll know how much that this can mean.

Pause and reflect

  • How would you feel if someone wrote to you today with such kind and enthusiastic words?
  • Who do you thank God for in your life?
  • When did you last encourage someone else?

Paul may have been disheartened to be sent away from Thessalonica (see Acts 16 and 17). Putting myself into Paul’s shoes, and being the control freak I sometimes can be, I would struggle. I’d worry that the changes I’d seen in these people’s lives would not last. I’d worry that they might turn back to following other gods and idols instead of following the way of Jesus that had led them to be persecuted and rejected by the society around them. Who would blame them? I wouldn’t.

Photo shows a dirt path weaving through a lush, grassy hillside.

1 Thessalonians 1:6

You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

Read the passage

I recognise that the desire to be accepted by others can be so strong. These Thessalonian Christians, however, keep worshipping the one true God alone. It is seen in their way of life with each other, where faith, hope and love are the fruit. What we see here is the Spirit of God at work. He used Paul for a time, but it was the Holy Spirit at work in people’s lives that made transformation possible both with and without Paul.

Pause and reflect

  • When have you seen the Holy Spirit at work in your own life or in the lives of those around you?
  • What difference can small acts of kindness make to you or others?

More than five years ago, as a family, we were sent to the most southerly Salvation Army expression in the UKI Territory, on the Channel Island of Jersey. It is a beautiful place. Having come from a financially poor part of Kent and being sent to an island that is a tax haven, we wondered why The Salvation Army would even need to be here. Within a short amount of time it became clear.

There is so much inequality here and we see the gap between rich and poor getting bigger and bigger. Often in clear ways and sometimes in subtle ways too, money, power and status are the reigning gods. It is hard to fully explain, but when you live and breathe this environment, it becomes inescapable. If you come on holiday, hopefully, you will not have a clue and just enjoy the lush beaches.

Our study passage reminds us of the call to live our lives with God as the number one priority. Following Jesus produces a countercultural way of life that is rooted in love.

Pause and reflect

  • In your community, what are the modern-day gods that society worships?
  • How might you show faith, hope and love to your community?
  • Are there idols in our own Movement that can stop us from worshipping Jesus wholeheartedly?

Take time to consider and reflect upon how we can follow God and his values, rather than idols such as money, power and status. If you feel challenged, confess those things we have put ahead of faith, hope and love.

With God there is always the possibility for learning and moving forward into a way of life that brings life, so be encouraged. We worship and serve a gracious and loving God, who never gives up on us and gives us opportunities to be changed and start again. Praise him!

In our study passage, we recognise that the Christians in Thessalonica pay a cost as they choose to worship only God. It is totally countercultural, and life isn’t plain sailing as a result; as their way of life no longer fits into the way of the world around them, they experience suffering.

You may have experienced this in your own lives. You want to live in the way of Jesus, loving God wholeheartedly, but there is a cost. It can be so easy to see short-term gains in chasing different idols and goals rather than persisting in God’s way.

Following God’s way isn’t easy – we’re in it for the long haul. But what we see from the Thessalonians’ response is that the joy that comes from following Jesus far outweighs the suffering. I am reminded of words from 1 Corinthians 13:8: ‘Love never fails!’


Lord, help us to trust that you are at work in the seen and the unseen. Guide us in each moment of our day, in big and small ways. May we know your love at work in us and, with the Holy Spirit working through us, help us to show others your love through our words and actions. Amen.

Bible study by

Photo shows Alice Nunn

Captain Alice Nunn

Corps Officer, Jersey

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