“And we exhort you, brothers: warn those who are irresponsible, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone.(1 Thessalonians 5:14 HCSB)
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that people often don’t perform to expectation (I know because I’m one of them). Sometimes that’s because expectations are unrealistic, but in his letter to the infant church at Thessalonica in Greece, the Apostle Paul identified 3 common kinds of ‘extra care required’ people. Probably we’ve all fitted into one of these categories at one time or another, so there’s really no room for judgment, but they do need different kinds of responses.
1. The Irresponsible. Paul tells us to warn those who are irresponsible. Fact is, in life and in church, some people just need a slap around the head. They know better but they remain undisciplined, selfish, wilfully immature or rebellious in spite of wise and loving counsel from others. Like unruly children they make life difficult for the community. Sometimes we molly coddle people or tolerate them because we don’t want to judge, but such behaviour is destructive to the person and those around them and we need to warn them out of love. The goal is not to punish but to see them become mature and responsible adults.
2. The Discouraged. Nearly everyone gets discouraged at some point. These are good people who reach breaking point. It might be ongoing health or relationship trouble in the family; conflict or stress at work; financial pressure; burnout; disappointment with life and with God. Maybe it’s a case of ‘hope deferred making the heart grow sick.’ Some people just need encouragement and emotional or practical support while they work through the current crisis. When our resilience is low, we can start to behave badly, but this isn’t like the first category, the irresponsible, this is a drowning person flailing around in panic, trying to stay afloat. If we don’t see the warning signs early and give them the support and help they need, the danger is they will drop out of community altogether or fall into serious sin. The goal is to help them cope with the crisis and get strong again.
3. The Weak. In some ways, this group is the most challenging, especially for less compassionate and more capable people. Paul’s language in all these categories is quite non-specific and open, but the idea may be people who don’t have the resources to cope with life. There limitations may be physical, intellectual or emotional and, consequently, material (poverty). Some people experience trauma early or later in life that permanently scars them. Some are born with physical or intellectual limitations. Some struggle with ongoing temptations that ‘the strong’ may grow impatient with. It’s not a case of encouraging them through a difficult patch or giving them a kick in the posterior, they just don’t have the resources within themselves. They need ongoing love, support and generous helpings of patience, and always will. They teach those of us who may have less patience or tolerance that they are not the issue, we are! In a hard world these are the people who get left behind, but in a loving church they discover a family, and a God, who love them unconditionally. The goal is… love.