When we allow ourselves some honest reflection most of us will admit that we struggle to like some people. Some people make us uncomfortable. Some people offend us. Some people hurt us. Some people oppose God and our faith. Does God really want me to be thankful for these people?
Here’s my key text for this discussion, “I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them.” A little later (v4) Paul reaches the climax of his thought when he writes that God “wants everyone to be saved…”.
Pray for ALL people. God wants EVERYONE to be saved.
The first meaning of verse 1 is that we should pray for the salvation of everyone. This means that our prayers for others are not limited by class, by race, by nationality, or by any other distinction we humans have a habit of creating. God loves all people equally and wants all people to receive His salvation.
Apparently Paul felt he needed to make this point because the church in Ephesus had decided to stop praying for the salvation of some groups. William Mounce (WBC, 78) cites a comment by Chrysostom in the fourth century relating to this passage. He sarcastically asks, “Was Christ then a ransom for the Heathen? Undoubtedly Christ died even for Heathen; and you cannot bear to pray for them.”
In the context of 1 Timothy I find it fascinating that this instruction to pray for the salvation of all people arises out of the previous paragraph where Paul describes how he handed two men “over to Satan so they might learn not to blaspheme God.” (The NIV and ESV include the word “then” right at the start of this verse. It could also be the word “therefore”. This word connects chapters 1 and two as a continuous and related thought.) Paul encountered opponents. Paul encountered people who turned their back on God. Paul encountered people who discouraged him. In all of this his response is to pray for their salvation.
But then Paul takes it a step further. Not only are we to pray that all people may be saved. Not only are we to petition God on their behalf. We are to give thanks for them.
Did you catch that?
We’re to pray for ALL people and give thanks for ALL people. I’ll be honest. There are some people I would like to pray for like this,
God, I know you created this person. I know that you love and care for them. I know that you see the possibility of good within them. BUT, they just ………… me. They make me mad. They hurt me. They scare me. I don’t like them. I will pray for their salvation because I know you died for them and you can perform miracles, but please keep them away from me because I wish I’d never met them and I hope I never need to talk to them again.
But through Paul God challenges me to give thanks for these people.
So how can I be thankful for people who do me wrong?
Ever person and situation is different. When we struggle to love people and see God’s nature within them it will require we spend extra time talking our reservations over with God in prayer. Here’s some other thoughts that might prove helpful:
- God is the source of all life, including that person who offends us.
- Christ died for me when I was his enemy.
- Each person is made in God’s image and contains that image in some way.
- Jesus asked God to forgive those crucifying him as he hung on the cross.
- More often than not the biggest problem is with me, not the other person. I need to examine my heart.
- Jesus tells us to love our enemies (Matt 5:44).
- Sometimes our character is formed in fire. It’s not pleasant or easy, but it’s good for us.
I will leave with this exception. There are times when people have removed themselves so far from the influence of God in their lives and have caused so much hurt that it may not be humanly possible for us to give thanks for them. Certainly not in the short-term and maybe not ever. I think of a friend who had his wife and son shot by a church member. There’s nothing there to be thankful for. It would be macabre to insist that he thank God his family is dead or that he thank God he met the man who killed them. (You can follow God’s work in Les’ life at his blog, www.lesfergusonjr.com.)
In these extreme circumstances it is often all a person can do to present their grief, questions and accusations to God, rather than cursing Him.
Those of us blessed not to encounter these extreme circumstances need to work at praying for the salvation of all, and giving thanks for them. Yes, we should want to even give thanks for those who make our lives more difficult because they prompt us to grow our character in the image of Christ.