This is the last week of our series on Kyle Idleman's book, Grace is Greater. Today we see that grace is greater than our circumstances. Bad things happen. But God can work through those things to bring good, because God's grace is greater.
This message is based on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.
This is the last of our series based on Kyle Idleman’s book, Grace is Greater. In that first week we saw that Grace Is Greater Than Our Mistakes and our past sins, that no matter how bad we’ve messed up, no matter how big our list of sins might be, God’s grace is greater. And when we realize that, we can begin to use those past sins as trophies of grace. I can tell you how bad I’ve messed up, but God’s grace is big enough to save even me.
Last week we saw that Grace is Greater Than Our Hurts, and we’ve all been hurt, we’ve all got those people we would just as soon not talk to, those people we could never be friends with, because of what they’ve done to us, they’ve hurt us bad. And because of those past hurts, we all have a certain amount of baggage that we carry around with us. Stuff that we try hard to get past, to bury, to get behind us, but it keeps coming up again and again. As hard as we try, we just can’t seem to get past the hurt. We saw that the only way to heal from that hurt is to forgive the other person – really forgive them. And we saw how to forgive – the three steps required to forgive like God forgave us.
This week we look at how Grace is Greater Than Our Circumstances. Sometimes things happen that can rob us of our joy and drain God’s grace from our lives. Things totally outside our control happen that we’re powerless against, but they have negative impact on us. Maybe a loss of a job, a bad diagnosis from a doctor, a child in trouble. You can fill in whatever applies to you, whatever just came to mind as I was giving my list.
Our reading this morning was some concluding comments from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica. His final instructions go on for about 22 verses, so we only looked at a couple, but it said, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” On the surface, that sounds like great advice. But how do we do it? How do we get there?
Be joyful always? But what about when… Pray continually? What would that look like, we’ve got jobs, families, friends, a social life… Give thanks in all circumstances? Even when bad things happen… This morning I want to look at three things that we need to keep in mind if we’re going to be able to follow these commands.
1. Thankfulness helps us trust God. This is an interesting one. The more thankful we are, the more we can trust God to help us. In fact they actually did a study that on that. The Harvard Mental Health Letter published an article titled In Praise of Gratitude that found that the more we complain, the more we find things to complain about.
One study separated participants into two groups. The first was assigned to keep a daily “irritation journal” of things that annoyed them. The second group were told to keep a “thanksgiving journal” of things they were grateful for. They found that those who kept the thanksgiving journals had more energy and enthusiasm, slept better, and were less depressed. They also discovered that what each group was assigned to do intentionally, they started doing unintentionally. People who had to list annoyances became increasingly discontent. People who had to list positives became increasingly grateful.
Here’s the thing to remember: The more we grumble and complain, the easier it is to find things to grumble and complain about. The more we find the positive, and the more you show gratitude, the easier it is to find it again. Grumbling, like grace, has a way of becoming the lens through which we look at life.
Here’s how that applies to our daily life. Bad things sometimes happen, it’s unavoidable. How do you respond? Do you grumble about them? Or can you usually find for the positive in them? Do you default to annoyance? Or do you default to gratitude.
Sometimes it’s hard to stay positive when bad things happen. But we can condition ourselves, to a certain extent, by finding the positive daily, by keeping that “thankfulness journal” for ourselves. Because the more we find the positive, the easier it is to find the positive next time.
Here is another reason this is important. If we believe that God provides for us, and I hope we do, have you ever thought that when we gripe and complain, we’re griping and complaining about how God is providing for us? Idleman points out in the book that “God takes complaining personally, because complaining overlooks the greatness of the grace we have received.” Our complaining is a way of saying, “I don’t believe God is taking care of me. I don’t believe he will keep his promises.” When you strip it all down, complaining is a refusal to trust God and acknowledge His grace in your life.”
2. We Receive God’s Grace to the Extent We Recognize our Need for It. Here’s the truth we need to remember, if we think we’ve got it all under control, we can handle it ourselves, God will honor that. He will take a step back and let you figure it out your own way. When you feel overwhelmed, and you fall to your knees and beg God to help, He will show Himself, and will help.
In 2 Corinthians 12, we saw Paul talking about his thorn in the flesh. Let me give you the context on this. Starting in the previous chapter, Paul boasts about how good he was in the people’s eyes. He was of Hebrew descent, an Israelite, a servant of Christ, he’s worked harder than anybody, he’s been in prison more frequently than anybody, he’s been flogged more severely than anybody. And he doesn’t stop there, he goes on another ten verses.
But he shared these things to show his weakness – they were all weaknesses. He was allowed to suffer these weaknesses so God could show His strength through him. And then he tells of this “thorn in the side” to show what he means by this. We don’t know what this thorn might be. A lot of folks have guessed. Perhaps his eyesight was his ailment, perhaps that he wasn’t a good speaker, wasn’t particularly good looking – short and stocky, not exactly exuding confidence. Perhaps it was a physical ailment, an actual sore, a broken bone that never healed right and gave him a great deal of pain, maybe a chronic illness that caused issues. Maybe even a spiritual issue, guilt from persecuting the church for so long, maybe he could never quite forgive himself for what he did. For the saints he killed. Nobody knows.
And we’re not supposed to know. Because if we knew, we’d be tempted to say, “that doesn’t apply to me,” and skim through it without seeing the lesson here. If he keeps it broad enough, we can relate to it in our own lives, and we’ll be able to see the lesson he’s teaching here.
And the lesson is in what God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” When I admit my weakness, and my need for grace, God shows up. The more we’re able to admit our weakness, the greater our opportunity to experience God’s power in our lives.
So as we try to apply this one, understand that we live in a culture that celebrates strength. We’re conditioned to always show our strongest side, and to downplay our weaknesses. But that’s wrong. Idleman wrote, “If God’s power works best in weakness, then recognizing ‘I don’t have what it takes’ will enable you to receive God’s grace, which enables you to celebrate your weakness, which makes more room for more grace to pour into your life.” It’s like a cycle, the more we confess our weakness, the more grace we receive. So don’t hide your weakness, be willing to talk about them, because it’s in our weakness we’ll find God’s strength.
3. Trust God’s Goodness, Even When Life is Difficult. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Paul tells us that God is trustworthy and He is going to bring a good ending no matter how bad the chapter we’re current in might be. God promises his grace.
But sometimes when you’re hurting, or your health is failing, or your marriage is falling apart, or your child is struggling, or job is eliminated, and the pain is just too much, the idea that God’s grace will work things out for the good seems at best naïve, if not outright offensive.
But when you’re struggling, know that when Paul wrote this, he wasn’t just trying to be optimistic, he wasn’t just trying to find the positive. He isn’t saying, “And we think that in all things God will work for the good.” He isn’t saying, “We believe, we hope, we think, we’re pretty sure…” He says, “We know God works for the good of those who love him.” Paul says this with an unshakable confidence. Paul is speaking with the certainty of a man who has seen this play out over and over in his own life.
In other words, there are two things Paul wants us to know. Life is hard, but God is good. Paul is confident about both of these. And he knows that sometimes the space in between them feels like an eternity.
Let me give you an example from the book. It’s the story of David and Svea Flood, a missionary couple from Sweden. They had a two year old son when they were called to the heart of the Belgian Congo in Africa to be missionaries. With one other couple, they tried to take the gospel to a remote area where people had never heard about Jesus.
Unfortunately, the chief of the tribe wouldn’t let them live in the village. They had to live at least a mile away. So they set up a very primitive camp a mile outside the village. Their only contact with the village was a young boy who the chief allowed to come sell them food. But the two couples were faithful, and spoke to the young boy about Jesus every time he came to visit them.
Eventually, they led the boy the Christ, but that was their only progress, and they were getting extremely discouraged. It’s been two years and they were beginning to give up hope they would ever be allowed into the village, that would never see any more progress than this one young boy.
Then the other couple contracted malaria and left Africa. Then Svea, who was pregnant and rather late in her term, gets malaria, too. She dies just days after giving birth. David kind of snapped, he gives up. He buries his wife in a shallow grave, and goes back to the closest mission station, and gives up his newborn daughter to some missionaries there. He said, “I’m going back to Sweden. I’ve lost my wife. I obviously can’t care for this baby. God has ruined my life.”
Back in Sweden, he turns to alcohol to numb the pain of loss, totally giving up on God, and blaming God for all the bad that happened to him. It’s easy to do. We probably all know someone who has done the same thing. I’ve seen it several times myself, especially after the loss of a child. A parent blames God, and walks away from his faith.
But here’s the rest of the story. The missionaries David gave his daughter to were from America. After David leaves Africa, they do too, returning to America, bringing her back to raise her here. She is given the name Aggie. One day out of the blue, she gets a Swedish Christian magazine in the mail. She begins paging through it, and happens to see a picture of a crude white cross with the name Svea Flood.
She knew that was her mother’s name. So she took the magazine to a nearby university to find someone who could translate it for her, and that’s when she heard the entire story. After some time passes, she’s able to travel to Sweden and look up her father. She finds him near death from all the drinking, hostile to even the mention of God.
When he sees her, he begins crying. But she said, “It’s okay, Papa. God took care of me.” When he cursed her for mentioning God, she shared the rest of the story. The young boy that he and his wife had led to Christ grew up and led the entire village to faith in Jesus. The one seed they planted just kept growing and growing. Today, more than 600 African people are serving the Lord because they were faithful. They didn’t go to Africa in vain. Svea didn’t die in vain.
By the end of the day, David came back to the God who loved him. He died just two weeks later. Today’s message deals with the difficulty of holding onto grace. Circumstances happen that push us to complain. Our pride can push us from admitting our need for God’s forgiveness. Sometimes we deal with our pain the way David Flood dealt with his. By giving up.
But when we can stand firm in the grace of God, when we can trust in God for good, even in the bad, we’ll find that Grace is greater than the bad things that happen. Grace is greater.