“The Attractiveness of a Large Heart” 1 Thess. 3:6-13 July 2, 1995
One of the grandest demonstrations that man is so much more than a mere animal, that he has been made for so much more than mere existence, is his penchant for boredom.
Place a cow in a pasture of clover and it is content. Place a man in a material paradise and he will be content only for a time. Then comes that strange condition we know as boredom. He is made for more, he feels it in himself; there should be more. He is not content and cannot rest satisfied until his Maker has given him all that he was made to enjoy, to experience, and to do. Whether or not he knows it, he was made for God and God’s presence and glory and nothing short of that will make his life complete.
We were given this past week a good example of the phenomenon, which we can see every day in a thousand ordinary ways. The newspapers and television news were reporting that a new young Hollywood star, a British actor who has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame in the last two years, whose girl friend, with whom he claims to be in love, is one of these so-called “super-models” and so, by definition, one of the world’s most beautiful women, who himself is now one of the most popular faces in Hollywood, was arrested in a tryst with a Los Angeles prostitute.
What, we ask, did that man need from her that he did not already have? How could he have considered his life incomplete and unfulfilled. What happiness had eluded him that he should find himself wanting to do what he did?
Paul Vitz, the Christian professor of psychology at NYU, has argued that “boredom” is a particularly obvious and pronounced condition of human life in decadent cultures such as ours. And he argues that there is a reason for that.
“Disillusionment with modern society is familiar and widespread…. the basic cause for this is the failure of secular heroic models to convince us of their intrinsic worth. We have consumed the heroic meaning in modernist life. The heroes are dead; even the anti-heroes have gone stale. The Great Revolutionary has dwindled to a part in political theater; the Communist hero is now seen as a functionary in the grim reality of the Gulag Archipelago; the socialist’s ideal is a creeping bore; traditional politics has become a media-manipulated process of image control, in which show drives out substance, leaving the viewer with a residue of minor sentiments. The sports hero is a commercialized entertainer at best, a ruthless competitor driven by intense egotistical needs to dominate and make money at worst. Physical adventure and exploration have long since given way to the occasional self-conscious artificial creation of challenge such as rowing across the Atlantic or climbing up a mountain backwards. The heroic military ideal destroyed by the impersonal, frightening destructiveness of modern war has degenerated into the nostalgic reenactment of old battles in which a man’s courage and daring once made a difference. The idea of a scientist as hero has eroded until what remains is the cold brilliance of a super administrator leading a team of technicians in a bureaucratic enterprise sponsored by some government, reported at a fancy international convention, and covered by the ever-present press; or, worse still, there is the growing role of the anti-hero scientist confronting us with the realities of nuclear power, genetic engineering, and more efficient mind control. The crisis is perhaps held at bay by millions of individuals attempting to find heroic meaning in the private neuroses of their personal careers. They fantasize tough-minded accomplishment surrounded by the soft rewards of various pleasures: stoical existentialism at work, epicurean consumerism at play. This double theme of a successful career combined with sensational, often decadent pleasure is standard with such contemporary women’s magazines as Cosmopolitan. …Multinational corporations and government bureaucracies alike need hard-working professional types that are not tied down and are interchangeable across organizations; people who promptly spend their salaries to keep the consumer economy going.
But the pathetic inadequacy of pleasure [and careerism] as a route to higher meaning is obvious. One generation at most can pretend that such a response is ‘heroic’ rebellion, but its degrading triviality cannot be long disguised.
Vitz concludes with a quote from the anthro-pologist Ernest Becker:
Hedonism is not heroism for most men. The pagans in the ancient world did not realize that and so lost out to the “despicable” creed of Judeo-Christianity. Modern men equally do not realize it, and so they sell their souls to consumer capitalism or consumer communism or replace their souls — as Rank said — with psychology. Psychotherapy is such a growing vogue today because people want to know why they are unhappy in hedonism and look for faults within themselves. [Psychology as Religion,
Now we spoke last week, from 2:17-3:5, of the true heroism of life as a great contest, warfare with a powerful, cunning, implacable adversary, a fight to the death between good and evil. At least such it was for Paul and should be for every Christian. No boredom in such a life as that!
But there is another dimension of Paul’s heroism set before us here, another way in which his life is so much more, so much higher, so much more weighty than the life of ordinary men and women who are not animated by the life of Christ and the kingdom of God.
I am speaking of the enthusiasm with which Paul embraced the lives of others, the love he felt for them, the interest he took in their fortunes, and the way in which he saw his own life and happiness as connected with theirs and himself as responsible for them.
Paul was a man of very large heart and that heart was filled up not with himself but with others. And this large-hearted interest in others and commitment to the well-being of others and delight in others made his life always larger and more satisfying and important than human life ever is or can be when a person lives largely for oneself. Paul’s life was never boring, never lacking interest, or concern, or high purpose, because he carried so many human lives in his heart!
How far from boredom the life of man whom we meet first in v. 6 eagerly, nervously awaiting word from his assistant Timothy as to how the new believers are faring in Thessalonica; who then finds himself on cloud nine because of the very encouraging report Timothy brings; and who then throws himself with still more vigor and zeal into prayer for them and new plans to contribute somehow to their lives and godliness.
Listen to the fullness and richness of life in those words in v. 8: “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.”
I love this! Don’t you? Don’t you see so clearly how authentic this life is that Paul reveals here? How right and how good and how fruitful? I am far from this myself, I know; but I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the life that is worthy to be called life, the life that I am to desire and pray for and work toward — a life full of others: others in our hearts, others in our prayers, others and their happiness and well-being before us when we speak and when we act. This is human life rich and real, and it is human life the farthest conceivably from boredom — because there are enough other people in your life and in mine to keep us busily and fruitfully and purposively and satisfyingly occupied 24 hours of every day we live in this world. And, because loving our neighbor is God’s will, he comes to us in our neighbors–the more of them in our hearts, the more of Christ as well!
What a legacy Paul left behind him; how many who, humanly speaking, owed him their very lives; how many friends who loved him because he had loved them and who never thought about him without gratitude and affection.
I finally came recently into the possession of a copy of A.A. Hodge’s biography of his celebrated father, the American Presbyterian theologian, Charles Hodge, and have been reading it of late. And while thinking of Paul and the way others rested on his heart, I have warmed to the account of the year that Charles Hodge spent in Germany as a young scholar. His journal is full of the warmth of new friendships which he formed with other scholars — some of the greatest minds of the 19th century church — especially Augustus Tholuck, the great theologian and translator of Calvin, and Augustus Neander, the Jewish Christian church historian. Deeply spiritual men both of them, they found immediately a kinship with the American Hodge and on long walks and at leisurely evening meals and soirees they talked together of matters of both the mind and the heart.
But what is most affecting is how deeply these great men came to feel for one another, how strong the bond between them became so quickly. Because their fellowship was founded on what was most precious to them, because it was practiced as a decisively Christian love and friendship and conducted on the highest principles, it became something very precious, very important, very valuable to them, very quickly. They were like Paul and the Thessalonians in this.
This is the friendship of just a few months, but listen to Hodge describe his parting. “The kindness, the Christian love, the warm-hearted conduct of those with whom I have passed this winter so happily, will remain deeply impressed on my heart as long as I live. When I bid my friends farewell I cried like a child. Neander’s farewell I shall never forget.” [p. 188]
Several years later Hodge wrote to Tholuck and still could say:
“It is seldom, I believe, that a day passes without your image presenting itself in some form or another before my mind. I commune with you in your writings, where I trace those same features which were so familiarly exhibited during our [time together]. Or I hold [fellowship] with your spirit through the recollections of the past. Rejoice over the remembrance of your friendship, and in the prospect of meeting you [Jenseits ‘on the other side’] in a purer world.”
Why, it is almost exactly what Paul said to the Thessalonian Christians whom he had come so soon and so well to love.
Now, it goes almost without saying, that there is a risk in such love and in so closely connecting one’s own life and happiness to that of others. They can disappoint, they can refuse to return the love you have given.
But, listen to Paul. Did only some of those he loved repay that love, did only some of his love for others prove so fulfilling and so satisfying and so significant of eternal things, was it not completely worth the risk and the pain of that love that was disappointed? Paul would say so in a heartbeat! Once you taste this life — this life worthy to be called life, which God has made life to be when it is lived with and for the saints of God — you will be ready, as he was to love and love again, even when sometimes your heart is broken.
To love at all, C.S. Lewis wrote, is to be vulnerable, to risk a broken heart. But, “if you want to make sure of keeping [your heart] intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal…. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers…of love is Hell.” [The Four Loves, 169]
But, what is more, Paul’s love, because it was Christian love, Christ’s love, was a love that so often triumphed even in and through its disappointments. He was often disappointed in his love for others, let down, discouraged–think of the Galatians or the Corinthians–, but by loving still, had the victory at last and saw those who had disappointed him once now living aright and pleasing God. This is perhaps an even greater pleasure and, certainly, an even more satisfying life.
Love that survives sin is a higher, deeper, more beautiful love than anything Adam and Eve knew in the Garden. This is the Lord’s own love and it is the true fulfillment of life, the absolute and perfect antidote to all human boredom.
If you are a Christian, if the Spirit of God lives in you, I know you know instinctively how right it is to live as Paul did, with others so much in his mind and on his heart, love for others and desire for others animating so much of his emotion and his thinking and his decision-making. This is truly authentic living — you know it is. This is the life of Christ and of
the true followers of Christ — you know it is and you desire it for yourself.
But how does it come. We who have to confess that so often and so much of the time.
I lived for myself, I thought for myself,
For myself, and none beside —
Just as if Jesus had never lived,
As if he had never died.
Well, it is God’s grace and gift to live in the love of others this way and we should be always seeking it from his hand, telling him that we love such a life and desire it because we know it is not only the genuinely authentic life we were made for and which will fulfill us but because we know how much it pleases him when his children live for others and care for others as Paul did.
But we should put hands and feet to our longing and our prayers. Paul did. He practiced his love for others and did so in two ways. First, as he tells us here in v. 10 and as he had already mentioned in 1:2 he did not forget them but brought them to mind in his prayers to God on their behalf. Praying for people sweetens the heart toward them; asking God to bless them makes you want their blessing; seeking their happiness at the throne of grace makes their happiness important to you; prayer for others elevates others in our hearts. It is a blessing God adds to a man or woman who prays faithfully for others.
But Paul also practiced his love — in the same way, I think, anyone who loves as Paul did may be seen to practice it — in his praises and compliments and appreciations.
We saw it already in chapter 1 how many good things Paul took time to say and write about his Thessalonian friends; how often and how generously he lavishes his appreciation on them. And here again, telling them how much they matter to him.
Alexander Whyte observed this about the Apostle Paul. It has always struck me as a very true thought and a very important one — clear Christian counsel to follow if one wants to live for others as Paul did.
“The size and the substance and the spirit of a man’s soul is at once seen by the spontaneity and the generosity and the exuberance and the warmth of his praises. Just as the smallness and the stinginess and the sullenness and the mulishness of another man’s soul is all disclosed to us by his despicable ingratitude to all his benefactors. Almighty God himself inhabits the praises of Israel. And to praise, and with your whole heart, all those men and women and children who deserve praise at your hands; that already, is a certain contribution toward your praise of God.” [Fraser of Brea, 19]
The Thessalonian Christians owed Paul much more than he owed them, but you would never know it from the way he talked about them and to them. He spread his praises everywhere; found Christ’s grace in them everywhere; could see God’s love for them and thus how much he should love them too for God’s sake. And so he spoke — always and to everyone. And if you want to see Paul’s kind of love for others taking control in your heart and the governance of your life, then you make your practice, as he did, the appreciation of others in your speech. I tell you, nothing so pleases God, nothing so wins others to you, and nothing so sweetens your own heart to them.
And then, brethren, remember this: doing this, you do all. Love others in this Pauline way, live your life for others, lay them on your heart and fix them in your prayers, and everything else in the Christian life will come to you as well — for the Lord has made this the master principle of authentic life, satisfying life, life the furthest thing possible from boredom.
You want all the fruit of the Spirit in your life? Here is how to get it. For it is all love. As one Bible teacher put it, when Paul begins his list of the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5 with love, he means not that love isone among the virtues, but that all the virtues come from love:
Joy is love singing;
Peace is love resting;
Patience is love enduring;
Kindness is love’s self-forgetfulness;
Goodness is love’s habit;
Gentleness if love’s true touch;
And self-control is love holding the reins.
“For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” There brothers and sisters is a motto for life!