On February 20, 1995, Willie King, a 52-year-old diabetic, was scheduled to have his right leg amputated below the knee. As if losing a leg wasn’t enough, when Willie regained consciousness from the operation the surgeon informed him that he had accidentally amputated the wrong leg. In this case, a lack of accurate information cost Willie King his leg, cost the hospital $900,000, and the surgeon was ordered to pay out $250,000. This misdiagnosis led to far more damage than if nothing had been done at all.
Similarly, we can do more harm than good when we try to speak truth to someone without fully understanding them or their circumstances. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 gives us a few categories to have in our brains as we are seeking to help others. Paul wrote, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
This passage is a command for all believers to be engaged in what is called interpersonal ministry, or discipleship. As Christians speak God’s truth to one another the church matures into Christlikeness (Ephesians 4:1-16). This act of engaging in interpersonal ministry can be quite intimidating. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 provides hope for fearful disciple-makers by helping us understand the person we are trying to help and how we should respond to them.
3 Dispositions & 3 Responses
First, there are those that are unruly. The unruly, or idle, are those that deliberately disobey the teaching of God’s Word. An example would be the professing believer who is abandoning his family to pursue an adulterous relationship. Or, the lady who is stealing from work by clocking in when she is not actually at the office. The proper way to respond to the unruly is to warn them of the dangers of sin (Proverbs 13:15) and to admonish them to turn from sin and return to Christ (2 Samuel 12:7). They often need help to see the holiness, righteousness, and justice of God.
A second disposition is the faint-hearted. These are the ones that are discouraged and tempted to give up in their pursuit of Christ. This might be a teenager whose parents are in the middle of a messy divorce. It could be the widow who is wondering if she will ever get used to going to bed alone. This person doesn’t need a warning the way the unruly does. Instead, we should seek to encourage by leading the faint-hearted to the gentle Savior. Often, the faint-hearted are very aware that God is ruler and judge, they often need reminding that God is also Father. We can come alongside and help by pointing them to God’s faithfulness, love, sovereign care, and unending grace.
Lastly, Paul mentions the weak. The weak could refer to those that have a weak conscience (Romans 14:1), those who are particularly susceptible to sin and temptation (Romans 5:6), or those that society has abandoned like the poor, the addict, or the refugee (1 Corinthians 1:27). The weak do not need a rebuke and encouragement will not go far enough. They need to be upheld. They need the kind of attention and care that the world would say is over the top. To hold someone up is to say, “hitch your life and faith to mine and we will get through this together.” As God’s people, we don’t run away from the weak. Instead, we take an interest in, pay attention to, and remain loyal to those who need to be upheld.
The Need for Balance
1 Thessalonians 5:14 is a call to action, but it is also a call for balance in the way we deal with people. David Powlison says, “Probably each of us who does ministry tends towards one of the characteristic forms of helping. It’s your gift. But left to itself, it remains unbalanced. That is part of why God has given us [1 Thessalonians] 5:14, to keep us from being blinded by our best gifts. We are called to broaden our vision, to work out of our comfort zone. A hammer thinks everything is a nail; a blanket, treats everyone as shivering; a wheelchair thinks everyone needs a lift. But wisdom sees people for what they are and gives what is needed.”
We need wisdom to discern the need of the moment. We don’t comfort the unrepentant adulterer, we don’t rebuke the sexual assault victim, and we don’t admonish the one who just found out she has cancer. We take time to consider whether the person sitting across the table is unruly, faint-hearted, or weak and we respond appropriately.
We also need the courage to do what does not come naturally to us. Personally, I lean towards encouragement above admonishing and upholding. I don’t enjoy the awkwardness of admonishing others. So, if I’m not careful I will seek to encourage when correction would be more appropriate. Consider which of these 3 responses–admonish, encourage, uphold–you are more prone to and ask God to give you the courage to respond in a way that doesn’t suit your strengths.
Lastly, we need patience. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 ends with a call to be patient with everyone, regardless of their current disposition. We exercise great patience as those who are cognizant of the fact that God has been patient with us. Peter reminds us, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). We seek to be patient with others in an effort to imitate our patient Savior.
May the Lord grant us the wisdom, courage, and patience we all need to engage others in discipleship.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Thessalonians 5:14 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
David Powlison in “Familial Counseling: The Paradigm for Counselor-Counselee Relationships in 1 Thessalonians 5,” Journal of Biblical Counseling, Winter 2007, PP2-16