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How To Rescue Those in Spiritual Danger, Part 1

From the series Lift

What do you say to someone who’s fallen away from the faith, especially when you care deeply about them? Is there a way to sensitively deal with the situation without coming across as “holier than thou?” Chip lays out a few strategies to help you effectively talk with your friend or loved one.

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Message Transcript

Every single one of us will go through seasons where, in your heart of hearts, you will find yourself drifting away from God. And that’s what I want to talk about. That’s what the apostle Paul, in 1 Thessalonians, is going to talk about tonight.

How in the world do you overcome this magnetic draw away from Christ? Let me give you a couple symptoms if you can’t already think about what they are, when spiritual entropy begins to occur in your life. I think there are internal symptoms and I think there are external symptoms.

The internal ones: first, at least in my own experience, time in the Scriptures becomes unfocused, sporadic, then negligible. Prayer becomes shallow, inconsistent, less honest, and then perfunctory. You know? Just do it around the table because we’re supposed to.

The external symptoms: first, our schedule. The pace and busyness of life, work, hobbies, families, and activities – it seems to increase. It’s an amazing thing, when I drift away from God my schedule gets busier, and busier, and fuller, and fuller.

And then our decisions: When you begin to drift, pressure replaces priorities in the decision-making process.

And then finally, our fellowship. This is the last to go, actually. These other things have been operating at least when that happens in my heart. But regular fellowship in church, in Bible studies, small-group involvement, in your service and ministry – it becomes increasingly, first it starts sporadic. You start, you hit and miss, you know?

And then, after you hit and miss, then you rationalize, “We need this time out. We need to get away. We need to be refreshed.” And then something comes up and then you don’t feel all that good and pretty soon it seems like a couple weeks but it’s been a couple of months. And you’ve distanced yourself from God’s people. Have you been there?

I have. I’ve been there a bunch, multiple times in my life. Those are the symptoms when spiritual entropy begins to occur. Here’s the danger: The danger is the longer we drift the more difficult it is to return.

The word picture that comes to my mind is that of a little boat, like a little rowboat drifting out to sea. The farther it drifts, the greater the danger. Picture, if you will, a little rowboat and it’s out by the harbor, and then it gets out past the harbor, and then the waves, and the currents, and the winds, and it gets beyond the horizon. Now, it’s so far away from shore no one can see it.

Spiritually, there are people that you know and there are people that I know, who are spiritually drifting away from God, and the truth, and all the things that we know are right. It happens. In fact, it happens so regularly that in Hebrews 3:13 we are given a command about how to relate to one another. It says, “But encourage,” build up, “but encourage one another,” when? “day after day as long as it is still called today.” Now, how many days does that apply to?

When you wake up what do you usually call it? Today. “Encourage one another day after day as long as it’s still called today,” why? “lest anyone of you be hardened, your hearts be hardened, by the deceitfulness of sin.”

See, no one wakes up and says, “You know something? You know, God’s been so good to me, He loves me, He’s restored relationships, He’s used me in the lives of other people. Today would be a good day just to drop out. You know? I think I’ll just quit the Christian life today,” no one wakes up and does that.

You do it by little, tiny degrees. The question then is, “Who do you know that is in spiritual danger?” If you visualized in your mind a little rowboat, drifting past the harbor and then the wind and the current taking it out to sea, who is in that boat? Is it you? Is it a friend? Is it a family member? A mate? A child? Is it a coworker? You know they’re a believer and you’ve watched the slide. Is it an old friend from college?

Who is it? Who would be in that boat if God would bring someone to your mind that you know and you can sense they are drifting away from Him, who would go in there? See, that’s the big question because you need to listen tonight with two ears.

Who is it? Because I’m going to tell you, there’s a lot at stake tonight. This is exactly the situation that the apostle Paul is going to write into. There’s a church he’s been away from for, plus or minus two years, eighteen to twenty-four months.

And he knows that there’s incredible persecution on the outside and he knows there’s great temptation on the inside. And he, literally, can’t sleep at night and he can’t sleep at night because he’s fearful.

And what he’s fearful about is that all their labor, all their preaching, all their discipling is going to go straight down the tubes because these people are going to spiritually drift, and they’re going to end up shipwrecked, and after coming to Christ they’re going to drift away and there’s going to be no impact, no fruit, no church, and you know what? This is something that makes the apostle Paul’s heart beat and pound and it’s one of his passions.

And what we’re going to look at tonight is a letter he writes to that group where he jumps into what I want to call his “9-1-1 rescue response.” If you’ll open your study notes, we’re going to look here and we’re going to see that there is a way to help people.

I’ve been in restaurants, I’ve seen the people come in, I think, “They used to go to our church,” and then I rationalize, “They’re probably going somewhere else.”

And I sit here at a restaurant or in the mall just like this and as I sit here I don’t say anything. I don’t say anything because I don’t want them to reject me, I don’t say anything because I think they’ll think I’m butting into their lives, I don’t say anything because I’m not obeying Scripture.

What we’re going to learn tonight is what to say and how to say it and how to do it in such a way where those people, you’re going to be like a little tugboat. And as those people are drifting out of the harbor into danger, God is going to show us, through the apostle Paul, how in the little tugboat you can come alongside, throw a little anchor, or whatever rope you throw over, hook onto their boat, and pull them into safety.

And you won’t be pushy, you won’t be holier than thou, and it’ll happen in a way that will restore them to the Savior.

And so let’s look at the model that the apostle Paul gives us here. He’s going to model a 9-1-1 rescue response.

In verses 13 through 16, of chapter 2, Paul thanks God continually for the manner in which the Thessalonians received the Word of God. Now, just before I read it, listen carefully. Here’s what he’s going to do. He’s going to tell them, “I am so impressed,” notice he starts very positively. He’s going to say, “I’m so impressed about how authentic your faith is,” and then he’s going to say, “I know it’s authentic because you have held strong, even in the midst of persecution.”

And then he’s going to have a little aside where he talks about the evil of those who persecute the Church and then the judgment that God’s going to have on it.

So follow along with me, verse 13 he says, “And for this reason we constantly thank God that when you received from us the Word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the Word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s communicating his gratitude.

He says, “I’m continually thankful for you.” By the way, that’s the best way to start with people. Be thankful and communicate your gratitude for times in your shared experience when you know their faith was authentic, when it was operating well.

Now, how does he know? Look at verse 14, “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea: for you endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen even as they did from the Jews.” He’s going back to the early days, they received the Word, you came to Christ, you had a lot of pressure, you had a lot of persecution. He says, “Hey, I want to congratulate you and I want to thank God for those early times in your faith where I saw you stand up under difficult times.”

In fact, the little phrase here where it says, “You received the Word of God,” where he says, “not as a word from men but from God,” and then he says, “which also performs its work in you,” that word for “work,” we get our word “energy.” It’s used in the New Testament for a supernatural activity. He says, “There was clear evidence of a supernatural working of the Spirit of God through the Word of God that was transforming your life even in the midst of great persecution.”

Now, he has a little aside in verse 15 and 16. He says that just as the Jews persecuted him, and the Lord, their countrymen are doing it to them. And he goes on, “Who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out.” Now notice his description of the enemies of the cross of Christ.

One, they are not pleasing to God. Two, they are hostile to all men. Three, they’ve been hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles, in order that they might be saved, with the result that they’re always filling up the measure of their sins. Then notice the conclusion, “But wrath has come upon them to the utmost.”

He paints a picture of real gratitude. And he does it in the context of, “I know it’s real because I reached back into our shared experience and how you walked with God in the midst of hard times against some pretty tough cookies.”

So here’s the application. I’m going to give you four steps of rescue intervention. Step one: Communicate your gratitude for the authenticity of their faith in the midst of spiritual opposition.

See, when I’m sitting in that restaurant, or when I’m at the mall, or when I bump into someone, or if I see someone at church and I know, “Man, it’s been a long time since they’ve been here, or they’ve not been to our Bible study group or whatever,” see, how they’re feeling is how we felt when we’ve been there or maybe some of you are there tonight.

You feel down on yourself, you feel like you know, you’ve got to perform and do something good to get God to love you, which isn’t true, but you feel that way. You think everyone is down on you, and you think everyone is going to really get hard on you, if you go back.

And so what you need is people to help you, and love you, and support you, and you do what I do. I tend to avoid them at that time. So guess what we need to do. We need to communicate our gratitude to God for the authenticity of their faith. And you need to reach back in a shared experience.

In one of my surgeries, I had the chance to lead a young mom to the Lord. And I led her to the Lord and she comes from a very difficult background – her father is an atheist, she had never been in a church in her life, but little by little as I went to physical therapy, I got to share my faith and then she began to read the Scriptures on her own, and little by little she trusted Christ.

And early on she was very, very faithful in church and making good progress. But she’s got all these demands, and all these pressures, and you know how it is, right? In those early years?

And I hadn’t seen her for quite some time. And so she stopped in to Saturday night and I just, first of all, I think the way you greet people is important. I just said, “Oh, it’s so good to see you. I’m so glad you’re here.” You see, that’s a lot better than, “Oh, where have you been?” You understand what I’m saying? You know, let’s communicate some love.

Everybody in this room has dropped the ball spiritually and if you haven’t, you will. So, what we need to do is be positive and encouraging towards people. Well, she needed to pick something up and I gave a couple words of encouragement but there wasn’t much time and she swung by the office to pick something up.

And then I was able to share. I said, “Boy, you know, I think of when you trusted Christ, the impact you’ve had there. And, you know, the steps you’ve taken, how it’s impacted your family, I am so thankful to God for how He has already used your life and the authenticity,” I didn’t use this word but I communicated it, “the authenticity of your faith.”

And you could just see her eyes start to light up. She was starting to remember, “Oh yeah, yeah.” And then you know? So guess what her next line is. “Oh, you know, I need to be here a lot more often. You know, I miss everyone and I’ve just… I’m listening… you know, I’m reading on my own, and then I was able to say, “Yeah, you know, I think all that’s really great. But we miss you. It’s not a matter of just what you need. You see, God has given you something, and as you come you have something to give to the body, and we’re incomplete without you. We really miss you. But I’m thankful to God for all He’s done in you.” Do you hear that?

Have you got step one of rescue intervention? That’s how you communicate to people that are drifting away. Now, we’re going to talk about step two in just a second. Let’s look at what the apostle Paul does.

After he communicates his gratitude then he expresses genuine concern. Verse 17, “But we, brethren, having been bereft,” that’s an interesting word. The NIV I like a little better says, “Having been torn away from you for a short period, in person, not in spirit, we’re all the more eager with great desire to see you face to face.”

By the way, this little word “bereft,” or “bereaved,” is the idea, you might circle it. It means to be physically separated but also with mental anguish. It’s an involuntary separation. One commentator says you could translate it, “orphaned.”

Do you hear what he’s doing? He’s communicating his sincere concern. This isn’t perfunctory, this isn’t, “Oh, we happen to go to church together.” This is, “I care about you.”

And notice the word here, he says, “We have great desire.” It’s the most emphatic, intensive form of that verb that you can have. In fact, that same word is translated, in a negative way, of being extremely lustful. Exact same word but it’s used in a positive way here.

He’s saying, “My heart beats for you! And even though we’ve separated geographically, I’ll tell you what, you’re…” Out of sight out of mind doesn’t happen to the apostle Paul. “Out of sight? Deep in my heart.” He says, “I greatly desire to see your face,” why? “for we wanted to come to you. I, Paul, more than once and yet Satan thwarted us.”

Do you get the picture? The apostle Paul is saying, “You matter. I’m concerned about you. Not only am I grateful for what God’s done in your life but I’m concerned about you, and I care about you, and I love you.”

And it was almost like they’ve had no contact. It would be like someone that you haven’t heard from in a long, long time saying, “Oh, I’m glad I finally got to see you and I’ve really missed you.” And you say, “Yeah, right.”

And then they have a box and they say, “Here.” And you say, “What’s in the box?” “Oh, you open it.” And you take the box and you open it. And there’s a stack of thirty letters in it. And somehow they couldn’t get the right address, they couldn’t find you.

And on the corner, stamped in red in every letter it says, “Return to sender,” “Return to sender.” And here, for a two-year period there are thirty letters, they’ve been thinking about you every month, every two weeks, writing you a letter, praying for you. You just didn’t know it.

That’s what he’s saying here. Then notice the reason. Look at verse 19, “For who is our hope, our joy, or our crown of exultation?” I mean, why do we live? Why do we get up?

The apostle Paul says, “I don’t get up so that I earn more money this year. I don’t get up to find out what’s going on in the stock market. I don’t get up just so that my life will be successful, wealthy, happy, comfortable, and all my circumstances turn out right. I get up in the morning, and I live for your spiritual welfare and progress. You are our hope, our joy, and our crown.”

There are two words for “crown” in the New Testament. This one is in reference to a crown of victory. It’s the idea of royalty coming and arriving with his crown, as a sign of honor, and he says, notice what his crown is: “Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?” He says, “The day when I come to Christ, whether He comes back,” or whether I die and go to Him, when I go to Him, and when I go up to that believer’s judgment that doesn’t have anything to do with our sin because that’s dealt with but it has everything to do with reward, the crown that I’ll wear on my head of victory and royalty will be my relationship with you as a church. I invested in you. I loved you. I led you to Christ. I built into your life. I gave my life. And when I stand before God, you are my crown, my joy, and my hope.” In fact, he repeats it, look at the last line: “For you are our glory and joy.”

Now, you know something? If the person, even if it’s you – you need to get to know some others, but if the person in that little rowboat that you have pictured in your mind is drifting out to sea, and is spiritually adrift from Christ, can you imagine what would happen if someone communicated that they really cared?