If Your Only Tool is a Hammer

Keith Crosby

"And we urge you, brothers, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all."  1 Thessalonians 5:14

The title says it all. If your only tool is a hammer, pretty soon you start treating everyone like a nail. It takes many tools and approaches to accomplish important tasks. Seldom can you and I accomplish anything with only one tool. Sadly, in the family of faith we often bludgeon those who don’t behave or act as we believe they should with the word of God. Paul knew better. Jesus taught better. We should behave better.

Ministering to our brothers and sisters in Christ requires love, patience, and discernment. That’s what is meant by “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak; be patient with them all.” In our passage, God’s word challenges and instructs us to be discerning in our dealing with one another in the church family and in life in general. Understood, or implicit, in the verse is our need to understand who and what we are dealing with. Our verse seems to say that there are at least three kinds of hurting people in this world.

First, there are those who are unruly. There’s a reason for the troubles they face. Theirs are self-inflicted wounds resulting from deliberate and sinful choices. Some translations describe them as idle or lazy. But the word underneath our English word “unruly” could be better translated and understood as “willfully disobedient.” Our verse tells us to admonish (or warn) them. We find here in 1 Thessalonians 5:14a the command to warn them to think and act differently. Misdiagnosing their disobedience as anything less than intentional is a mistake. It does them no good if we treat them as if their problems are merely mistakes. We have to help them see that their choices have consequences. To do less is unloving. That’s why God tell us to “admonish,” or “warn.”

At the same time, not everybody is unruly. There are those who are “fainthearted.” A better word is “discouraged.” They might have just suffered one too many hardships. During the course of a bad day, or a bad week, or even a bad month, a discouraged person might look like an unruly person from the outside. But if God makes distinctions between unruly and discouraged, so should we. We are not to confront them or warn them or admonish them. We are commanded by God to encourage them: “encourage the fainthearted.” In other words: encourage the discouraged. These are not sinners who need to be roughed up, but worldly saints who need to be lifted up. Another word for encourage is comfort. We are to comfort, or console, the discouraged. This is the will of God. This is where wisdom and discernment come in. Too often we survey the situation and jump to conclusions. This is where jumping to the end of our verse comes in: “be patient.” Wrapped up in this word is the idea of being slow to judge or evaluate. As we encounter different people with different problems, we need to be slow to react. There should be no room for knee-jerk reactions. Instead we should respond to them and their behaviors with patience or forbearance as Jesus does to us. We are called to carefully diagnose and understand their needs and problems. A person in need of encouragement does not need to be warned, but encouraged.

Let’s consider the third type of person. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. Helping the weak is radically different from warning the disobedient. It’s also different from encouraging the discouraged. Wrapped up in this command is our need to recognize that some people are “broken” and will always be so. The word weak speaks to someone who lacks the ability to function normally in either an emotional, spiritual, mental, or physical sense. They have some kind of disability. In God’s view they are just as deserving of our patience and care as the disobedient sinner and discouraged the saint. In fact, the word “help” here speaks to showing a special devotion to them. While we can make no allowance for tolerating someone’s disobedience and unruly conduct, while we are commanded to encourage those who are discouraged---those who are weak seem to be deserving of special care. We must not challenge them to do what they are incapable of doing. I have friends who have an older brother living with them. His name is “Chucky.” Chucky is 64 years old. Chucky has Down’s syndrome. We used to call such people “mentally retarded.” Chucky is 64 but operates at the level of a 5 or 6 year old. Chucky trusted Christ about 7 years ago. I saw him baptized at my church in Green Bay after a number of baptismal interviews to make certain he understood the Gospel. Chucky has been changed by God through salvation. Many of his habits changed. But there are just some tasks and behaviors that Chucky is unable to embrace. We are not to admonish him as being unruly. We are not to encourage him to excel still more as we might do someone wrestling with discouragement. We are to help him (to devotedly love him) patiently: 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. You and I will encounter Christians with more subtle and less obvious limitations. Sometimes, despite all we do for them they will not change the way we’d like them to change. The reason might be that they are neither unruly nor discouraged. They might be permanently weak. Let’s be wise and discerning and seek to understand them rather than jumping to conclusions and treating them like they are either unruly or discouraged: be patient with them all.

Come to think of it, we are called to patience with the unruly, the discouraged, and the weak. The word of God urges us (...we urge you, brothers...) to be careful to care. God’s word is telling us that our tools and practices for ministering to others must be many. Our only tool is not to be a hammer. We are not to treat all (problem) people the same. We are to be wise and discerning as we encounter various people to respond to them carefully, seeking to understand their real needs and meet them and treat them appropriately. This requires patience of us: 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. Think about it and pray about it and love and minister to others accordingly for God’s glory, their good, and your own growth.

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