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And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
As he wrapped up his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul shared this idea of individualized care, hoping to help his readers as they engaged their community in proper sanctification. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 is vital for any discipler, regardless of the context. Though the ground at the cross is level, each person standing there has a unique makeup that you must discern to help them change and mature.
Every parent with more than one child understands this perspective. What works for one does not work for the other. The way one child responds is not necessarily how the other child will respond. Your tone can call one child to attention; the same technique could crush the other kid. One size does not fit every person or occasion.
It takes spiritual discernment to know your audience if you want to serve them effectively (1 Corinthians 2:14). In this verse, Paul gives us three people types and three individualized approaches to them. Let us look at them in the order that he presented them to see what we can learn and apply to the unique people in our spheres.
His first people group is the idle or lazy person. Of course, you want to distinguish between a pattern of laziness and an episode of laziness. All of us can be lazy at times, but we all are not lazy people. I have had down days where my A-game was absent, which is different from the lazy person who has no A-game. Every day for the slothful is another derivation of the day before. After a while, it becomes clear who the person is (Proverbs 20:4).
Paul says if you encounter this kind of person, you should admonish him (Proverbs 6:6). To admonish is to warn. It is similar to the Savior’s counsel in Matthew 5:30, where He talked about the quick amputation of behavioral sins: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body goes into hell.”
We should not be squeamish with such a person. Warn him. Admonish him. Let him know that he is going down the wrong path and that he needs to stop. As you warn him, you can help him by providing a plan to stop his bad behavior and start a new behavior. The sin he is committing is a behavioral sin, which is key to this discussion.
But you know behavioral sin finds its origin and motivation in the heart. Your counsel must have more depth than behavioral modification. You have to counsel his idol factory to eradicate the roots of his sin. This expectation for change will take time. Paul spoke about this more comprehensive process in other places (cf. Ephesians 4:22-24). For now, there is something he can do immediately: he can cut off his bad behavior to stop the bleeding.
As he is doing this, you can begin a longer and more well-paced process of identifying the ruling motives of his heart so he can be completely free from his sin. The point of emphasis with Paul’s phrase in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 is some people are in patterns of behavioral sinning, and there should be no time delay in trying to motivate them to stop. The use of the word idle could be an implied metaphor for any behavioral sinning.
It is not stretching the text to say you can apply other sins here. You want to warn a person about any behavioral sin because they must cease their sinfulness. Here are a few examples: sexual abuse, forms of anger, drunkenness, pornography, physical abuse, lying, stealing, adultery, child neglect, and relational coldness. I am sure you could add to this list.
One of the fantastic things about the Bible is how a simple turn from one phrase to the next can pack so much information. This one sentence tucked away in the back of the Thessalonica letter testifies to this truth. Paul moves from the person who is behaviorally sinning to the person who has a small soul. He says we are to encourage the fainthearted. A fainthearted person is an individual with a small soul.
This concept should not strike us as odd if we think about it like our physical capacities. The sports world is a regular reminder to us that there are the haves and the have-nots. Guess which people group I belong to; I was that guy in the sixth grade that the two basketball jocks always deliberated whether they should pick the obese boy or me? More times than not, they would choose the obese boy.
At least he could stand in the way. I could not get out of the way of my own two feet on a basketball court. There are different skill levels when it comes to our physicality. It stands to reason there are various capacities for our souls—the non-organic part of us. It would be biblically inconsistent for one part of our dichotomy (the physical) to be nuanced by different gradations and the immaterial part of us to be one size for all.
I listen to my pastor each Sunday and think, “Oh my, I could never do that.” The Lord has given him a gift to be able to dig, search, uncover, process, craft, and preach a sermon. Though there is physical stamina involved, most of what he does has to do with his soul. He has a different soul capacity than I do. It does not make him better than me; it makes him different from me. We are part of the body of Christ, and we have essential and differing roles within that body.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Of course, Paul was not talking about our gifting by his use of the word fainthearted. He spoke about some people having a tiny soul that requires an encouraging response from the rest of us. Everybody is not the same internally. While that can be a positive for someone like my pastor, it can be debilitating for those constantly struggling with soul issues like fear, worry, anxiety, despair, regret, guilt, shame, and insecurity.
For example, if you had a child who wilted each time you raised your voice at him, it would soon become a form of merciless punishment (Psalm 37:8). God wired him to where your harshness has a more profound detrimental effect on his soul. Then you could have another child who shrugs off your acidity. I am not suggesting you be cruel to anyone; my point is we can affect folks differently.
It is imperative to know the internal constitution of a person so you can respond to them appropriately. Encouragement is always good for all people (Romans 2:4), but it’s a nonnegotiable for the small-souled individual. Our primary disposition toward others should be encouragement, as well as gratitude, but if you miss this mark on the fainthearted, you could press them farther down into internal bondage.
Then Paul turns to another phrase to identify another people group—the physically weak. Notice what he did. Paul identified those who are doing identifiable and ongoing behavioral sinning. Then he culls out a strikingly different people group—those who have internal challenges. Then he transitions to the counterparts of the spiritually challenged by talking about the physically challenged.
There are those among us who are physically weak. Paul’s counsel is to help them (James 1:29). The physically vulnerable people could be the aged among us. It could also be the young. I have several friends who are not old but physically challenged; they cannot do some things. Sovereign God has concern for these people. He inspired Paul to drop a word for us to look for those who cannot do what we can do.
This opportunity is for us to count others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). Making food for the elderly in your neighborhood or doing acts of service for those who do not have the mobility or capability are two ways to help the weak. Our outer natures are wasting away (2 Corinthians 4:16). We are all on a death march. Some folks, regardless of age, are experiencing wasting away to a greater degree and even earlier than the rest of us.
One of the beauties of the body of Christ is how Christians have gone to heroic lengths to bring care to those around them. Before we get to where they are, God calls us to help those who cannot help themselves. Perhaps you could share with others about those in your local body who are physically suffering, which is one way you can respond to Paul’s call to help the weak.
Paul powerfully finishes his sentence by making a universal declaration. I have thought how he could have left that tidbit off the end of his wise counsel. But, after more reflection, I knew he was right, and it is essential he reminds us to be patient because few of us are patient. Regardless of the kind of person you are dealing with, you must be patient with all of them.
Paul’s mandate will probably not receive more challenges than when you are trying to help someone. We are all susceptible to blowing it in our interpersonal relationships. Be patient with them all, but there is another complexity to this patience problem. Everybody you meet does not neatly fit into one of Paul’s three distinct categories. As mentioned earlier, the lazy person has soul problems too.
To admonish a behaviorally sinning person without taking in what might be going on inside of him could frustrate him, especially if his laziness ties to his spiritual problems, which it most certainly does. Their complexity may take extraordinary patience from you to help the person captivated by physical sins and soul problems.
You can’t just say, “Stop it!” The problem is more complicated, i.e., a teenager you want to help. In most cases, the teen is struggling internally. They are stuck in different behavioral sinning, e.g., weed, alcohol, sex, or anger, twisting their souls into spiritual knots. Here are a few examples of how it happens:
You want to help them overcome their internal problems, which connects to the behavioral choices. If you expect them to “shape up and fly right” by focusing on the behaviors exclusively, they may stop for a while, only to resurface later because you neglected the soul noise. Never forget the “inside out process of change.”
It would be a mistake to take Paul’s text and turn it into a tight, non-negotiable framework for soul care. People don’t fit categories, frameworks, or sequences. We must have the Spirit’s discernment about those within our spheres of care. Paul said to warn the sinner. He also said to encourage the small souled. Then he asked us to help the physically weak.
As you think about the interweaving and binding of these categories, don’t forget that patience is the fundamental key as you come alongside them. What you don’t want to do is confound the preexisting issues with your impatience. Let them see Christ in you, which has drawing power to lift them from their bondage.
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