Probably anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the New Testament, believer or not, knows about the ending of 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul says that faith, hope, and love abide and identifies love as the greatest of the three.
Perhaps the very familiarity of the passage robs us of the power inherent in the juxtaposition of those three virtues. Fortunately, there are plenty of lesser-known passages where we can see the power with fresh eyes.
1 Thessalonians is the earliest extant letter of Paul. People study it less than some of the others not because it’s harder to pronounce, but because the themes that characterize Paul’s teaching are not yet fully developed. The first chapter, on the other hand, is pretty much what Paul would write for the rest of his life, an opening greeting followed (except in Galatians and Romans) by a summary of his prayers or some similar expression of either thanksgiving or personal concern for the addressees.
Verses 2-5 begin Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving for the good example the Thessalonian church lived. He mentioned three things in particular as he prayed: their work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfastness in hope.
But here, the emphasis is not on faith, hope, and love. It is on the work of faith, the labor of love, and steadfastness in hope. A lot of times, when we say labor of love, we mean someone does something because he enjoys it, even though he doesn’t get paid for it or get anything else out of doing it besides the enjoyment. That’s not what Paul meant. Whenever Christians try to live out these virtues, something always gets in the way.
In our society, we have a drive to get rich and amass as much stuff as we can in order to impress people. It’s hard to love people if they stand in the way of achieving some goal. We have a growing welfare state, where every generation the government adds some new entitlement. Many of us also have a sense of personal entitlement. Students in school now act as if they’re entitled to an A in every course they take, whether they’ve really learned the material or not. It’s hard to maintain faith in God if we’re constantly expecting other people to supply all our needs.
Economists point to a looming demographic catastrophe that will engulf our society if we don’t get realistic about all the entitlements. Scientists and others have been warning about a looming environmental catastrophe if we don’t lessen our carbon footprint and stop wasting so many of the world’s unrenewable resources.
And so it goes. It’s hard to have hope for the future in the midst of these troubles if we expect the government to solve them. Unfortunately, a hundred years of “progressive” political agendas have banished God from any role in either the problems or the solutions.
The Thessalonians could not have imagined any of these things, but as soon as they accepted Christ, their neighbors began to harass them violently. Paul was run out of town within a month of the first time he preached the gospel.
Those who believed his message had to work to hang on to their faith, labor to hang on to love, and deliberately be steadfast in hope in the face of active persecution. And they did. Somehow, word of their steadfastness in spite of all the pressure to abandon their faith spread all over the region.
Now, it’s hard to hang on to faith, hope, and love in times of stress. It’s hard to hang on to faith, hope, and love in times of complacency.
It’s hard to hang on to faith, hope, and love when we’re successful and everything around us is telling us we deserve our success because of our talent, ambition, and drive.
It’s hard to hang on to faith, hope, and love in any times and conditions whatsoever. So how does anyone do it?
Paul wrote that the message of the gospel reached the Thessalonian church not only in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit does anyone ever receive the gospel. And then when the forces that try to get us to turn away from the gospel start their work, the power of the Holy Spirit is available to strengthen our faith, hope, and love. God has done the work to make salvation possible. Now we have to do the work to make salvation ours.