Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“Live quietly”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

1 Thessalonians is one of my 66 favorite books of the Bible (a lame joke that I just keep using).  It stands alone just fine, as one of comparatively few times Paul wrote a letter to a congregation without really tearing into them.  Yet, the deeper we study it, and especially upon comparing it to 2 Thessalonians, which he wrote a very short time after the first letter, the clearer it becomes that he was, in fact, trying to address some pretty significant problems the first time around, but he was being delicate and hoping they’d get the picture without him having to resort to more forceful words.  They didn’t, and he did.

At the end of the second letter in question, he gets rather specific in discussing one of the prominent shortcomings among the Christians at Thessalonica:

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. (2Thessalonians 3.6-14)

There’s a lot in there, but chiefly I want to focus on the problem of “idleness”—not working for a living.  He writes as if he is surprised this came up, since, after all, he and Timothy and Silas had deliberately taken steps above and beyond their own responsibility in order to forestall this eventuality, working for their own living, even though they had a right to be compensated by the church they were serving so diligently.  But, their efforts were ignored, or forgotten. 

As usually happens, one sin compounded with another, as Paul noted in verse 11 with a slight pun, that some are “not busy at work, but busybodies.”  We all know, and most of us have seen firsthand, the damage and destruction that can be wrought by people who just won’t mind their own business, and never seem to have anything more important to do than to meddle in other people’s affairs, usually second-guessing, finding fault, and incessantly pestering someone who’s just trying to do their best and get home to their family.  We all know someone like this, and even if we love them, we dread their presence.

Where it starts to get a bit comical is in the following verse, when Paul brings it home: “such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (v12).  He hasn’t even directly addressed the busybody problem, instead going for the root and using strong terms to get his point across.  The funny thing, though, is that he’d said almost this exact same thing in the previous letter, but there it seemed a lot more gentle, urging them “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1Th 4.11-12).

Well, now that we know what’s coming in the second letter, it’s easy to see how the roots of the problem were already present when he wrote the first one, and instead of drawing attention to the sin, calling out those responsible, he just mentions in passing what ought to be their goal.  It’s a clever persuasive technique, but it didn’t work, and so he had to be more aggressive the next time.

There’s something to learn in this about how we correct others, as well as about making sure we don’t become busybodies.  It’s a problem endemic to humanity, but right now especially, we’re seeing society at large poking into each other’s affairs, past and present, and then passing sweeping moral judgment based on tenuous standards that seem to shift drastically by the week, if not the day.  God’s answer, passed through my “snarky” filter, would be, “don’t you have anything more important to do?”

As I’ve mentioned a number of times lately, we live in interesting times.  As a group, we need to be standing up for truth and right; as individuals, we’ll generally avoid most of the problems, as well as avoid becoming problems ourselves, if we take the first encouragement.  “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands”—if you’re busy working to take good care of your family (and this does not only mean working to get paid!), you generally don’t have time to cause problems.  You generally don’t have time to dig into other people’s lives and flush out, or fabricate, their problems.  Ultimately, there’s nothing to be done about most of those problems anyway—we all have created problems—they’re called “sins.”  Rather than drawing attention to the specks in each other’s eyes, wouldn’t it be better if we all focused on removing the logs from our own eyes (Mt 7.3-5)?  In our daily lives, let’s make sure, first of all, that we aren’t continuing to sin, before we start calling for others to be punished.  “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another” (Ro 14.4)?

Jeremy Nettles