Teaching series from 1 Thessalonians

Christian Discipleship Relationships Pt. 2

1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13

Teaching t22464


Brief reminder of the setting. In 2:1-12, Paul reminded the Thessalonians how he related to them so as to intentionally help them toward spiritual maturity (review of 4 aspects).

Why did he do this? Not to blow his own horn, but to encourage them (and us) to relate to one another this way and for this same reason. We sometimes call these relationships Christian discipleship relationships because we are helping one another to become better disciples (learners; apprentices) of Christ (explain “mentor” and “peer” discipleship relationships).

Now in this next long section, Paul describes the ongoing concern he had for their spiritual well-being after he was separated from them—read 2:17-3:13 (spiritual maturity described in 3:12,13). This passage provides us with two more key elements in Christian discipleship relationships. Let’s look more closely to see what they are...

Face-to-face relating is a major priority

The first element we learn from Paul is that face-to-face (FTF) with our Christian friends is a major priority (re-read 2:17,18a; 3:1,2,6,10,11).

Because Paul could not see them FTF, he wrote them a letter. Because he was an Apostle, this is an inspired letter (LAST WEEK)—and we are very grateful for its contents. But for Paul, a letter (even an inspired one!) was a distant second to actually being with them. If he had access to telephone, email, Skype, etc., he would undoubtedly have used them (as we should)—but the Thessalonians’ spiritual development required Timothy’s (3:2) and Paul’s (3:10) FTF presence.

Notice also what a sacrifice it was for Paul to lose FTF interaction with Timothy (3:1). He was a very spiritually mature Christian—yet only a spiritual crisis with them could induce him to give this up. Is being without FTF interaction your last resort?

Why is FTF so essential for Christian discipling relationships (or any close relationship, for that matter)? The answer to this question is not: “Because Paul was old-school, pre-technology, etc.” The answer flows from what it means to be a human being. God’s Word tells us that we are not merely data nodes capable of “connecting,” nor products of time and chance evolving to the point that we transcend the limitations of our physical bodies. We are embodied persons, flesh and spirit beings—so that fully human (and therefore fully spiritual) interaction requires bodily presence.

This is why communication researchers consistently say that 80%-90% of human communication is non-verbal (e.g., facial expression; body language; voice volume, pace, intonation, etc.)—most of which can only be fully received in FTF encounters.

This is also true of spiritual communication. This is why God’s fullest revelation of Himself came not through a Book (though this book is the very Word of God, as we saw last week), but through the incarnation of Jesus Christ (read Jn.1:1,14).

This is why the most in-depth spiritual formation (e.g., biblical knowledge and values) requires FTF relationships/interactions. Recorded teachings, Skype conversations, encouraging texts, etc. can be great supplements, but the main medium must be FTF. Paul also says this Rom.1:11,12, and John says it in 3 Jn.1:13,14.

So here is a very important question: Are FTF spiritual interactions (praying with; reading and discussing biblical truth; sharing current struggles & past spiritual lessons; rejoicing together; etc.) a major priority in your life? Without this, we will never mature spiritually beyond a primitive level. To make progress here, we need to do two things:

Negatively, we need to resist our culture’s excessive use of information technology (IT). I’m not talking simply about misuse of IT (e.g., porn; chat-room stalking)—but about excessive use of IT.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I am not a technophobe. I own a cell phone, I access the internet, I send and receive emails and texts, I watch TV and movies occasionally, etc. I believe that IT, used properly, can enhance personal relationships and spiritual development (e.g. encourage texts; Kindle).

But most Americans are naïve consumers in their use of IT. We think: “If a little is good, more is better.” But IT is like many prescription medicines: The right amount (usually very little) is helpful and even life-saving, but too much is harmful and even life-threatening. When we use IT excessively, we are used by it and dehumanized by it and stunted by it relationally and spiritually.

Some of the best research on this has been done by a non-Christian professor at M.I.T., Sherry Turkle. Her book, Alone Together, is a block-buster. And her N. Y. Times article, “The Flight from Conversation,” is a great short read on this subject. Her thesis is: “We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.” In what ways does this happen?

Excessive IT usage seduces us from spending precious time and energy that should go into FTF relating (4-6 HOURS/DAY ENTERTAINMENT; FAMILY ON VACATION AT COFFEE HOUSE; HUSBANDS GAMING). “In today’s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens.”

Excessive IT usage distracts us when we are relating FTF, thus making our relating much less meaningful than it could be (SMART PHONES AT BIBLE STUDIES & DURING CONVERSATIONS). “My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it’s hard, but it can be done... In conversation we (must) ... attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view. Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. (But) when we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits.”

Excessive IT usage encourages narcissism. Instead of being forced out of our self-focus to focus on truth and other people, we often use IT to make ourselves the center of our universe (GAMING LIFE; TWEET CELEBRETYISM). “We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party... Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. (But in) the move from conversation to connection... we short-change ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring.”

Excessive IT usage deceives us that we are relationally healthy when we may actually be profoundly hollow (FACEBOOK “FRIENDS”). “We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship... Our new devices have turned being alone into a problem that can be solved... But in our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves. We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely.”

So we need to be counter-cultural here, and choose discerningly to limit our use of IT. But it is never enough to merely resist/flee; we must also replace/pursue. We also have to cultivate a rich FTF relational life that becomes more enjoyable than the above—or we will be sucked back into this vortex, and miss this great blessing and the opportunity to be God’s light in an increasingly dark relational world (Jn. 13:34,35). How do we do this? It mainly involves two things (covered in recent series on casual & close CCF’s):

We commit to frequent, regularly scheduled FTF relating (& without IT devices) —with our spouses and children, and with Christian friends (not just “on the fly”).

We commit to actually speak the truth to one another in love during these times—not just superficially “hanging out,” but personally using the Bible to remind, exhort, correct and pray with one another. This leads to real, solid enjoyment!

Healthy concern about one another’s spiritual welfare

You can see this element from these verses (re-read 2:19,20; 3:5-9). We see two things here that must be present for an emotionally healthy life.

On the one hand, Paul was not emotionally self-protective. He allowed his emotional life to be affected by their spiritual condition. Notice his distress and anguish while their spiritual welfare was in doubt (3:1,5). Notice his emotional relief and comfort and joy when their spiritual welfare was confirmed by Timothy (2:19,20; 3:6-9). How different this is from the emotional self-protection that characterizes so many of us. Some of us have been hurt deeply or neglected/abandoned in the past, so we don’t want to risk the pain of rejection or disappointment. Family dynamics taught some of us to be nice—but keep our distance. Materialism helps many of us create an emotional buffer (I.T.; ENTERTAINMENT; COMFORT). Many of us read this passage and think: “This is dangerous—like emotional Russian roulette!”

Yet Paul was not relationally co-dependent. Co-dependency is the term our culture uses to describe relational idolatry—when our identity and security become so enmeshed in and dependent upon how certain people (romantic partner; children; “ministry”) view us, or treat us, or how they make us look. Therefore, our emotional lives are at their mercy and fundamentally unstable.

Paul’s emotional life was foundationally stable and secure because of trust in God’s unwavering love. This reality courses through this letter (EXAMPLES). Because of this, he was free to care deeply for them and be emotionally affected by them without being co-dependent on them.

How can we move from this self-protection and/or relational idolatry toward the kind of relational and emotional health that we see in Paul? This is a huge question, and I can only give a brief outline of the Bible’s answer.

It begins by establishing a real personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Only a relationship with the living God can meet your deepest identity and security needs, and God is accessible only through His Son Jesus who pays the debt of your sins against God. Have you asked God to forgive you through Jesus and become your true Father?

Then you must build this primary relationship, especially by meditating on His Word (especially His promises & provision), and by giving thanks to Him in/for all things (Eph.5:18-20 >> LAST WEEK). As you relate to God this way, He begins to undergird you with His peace and hope and joy (Rom.15:13) no matter how other people treat you.

From this secure basis, we allow Him to teach us how to love people in healthy ways:

We forsake self-protection to care more deeply and for more people. Our cold hearts begin to melt as we ask God to give us His heart for others, as we invest in a few people by faith, as we pray for them and with them, as we let them interrupt our schedules, and as we resist the urge to withdraw when they hurt or disappoint us. Over time, we start to care deeply for them, and our capacity for doing this expands.

We forsake co-dependency to love people without compromising God’s truth. Our weak hearts begin to strengthen as we point these people to God for their core needs and erect healthy boundaries, confront and discipline them when needed, and take our anxieties about them to God instead of trying to fix or control them. Over time, we learn to love people—not just need them or be needed by them.


SUMMARIZE: These are keys to helping one another toward spiritual maturity, and this is also the way to a truly happy life (Acts20:35)!

“The Flight from Conversation,” by Sherry Turkle. New York Times, April 21, 2012. All subsequent quotes come from this article.