Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NRSV)
Paul presents in this passage the hat trick of living in the present. A trinity of disciplines that seem almost impossible, but “nothing is impossible with God.” Paul is not unaware of how difficult life is in this world; in fact, he is intensely aware of the pain, suffering and despair afflicting his audience in Thessalonica and nothing has changed in humanity since then.
There are far too many ways for us to be anywhere but where we are – technology, daydreaming, internal conversations, fixation on past wounds or future wants – and all of them can kill the joy of the Lord. All of them can silence the ongoing conversation with God that He desires. All of them can uproot the gratefulness that should be at the center of our souls each day. They steal the abundant life right out of our hands and replace it with cheap imitations and shoddy substitutes.
God has given us the means to abide in Him in our present circumstances through rejoicing, prayer and thanksgiving. They are critical disciplines that help us keep our branch from falling off the vine. They each require us to focus on God and they each help us step back from our worldly perspective to recalibrate our view.
“Rejoice always” may be misconstrued as positive thinking, but it is much deeper and richer than sun-shiny optimism. When Paul exhorts his readers to “Rejoice always,” he is asking them to remember where their joy is anchored. He is asking them to remember that the source of their joy never changes even if everything around them does. Rejoicing reminds us that we serve the God who was, is and is to come, the God whose love is limitless, whose grace is boundless and whose patience is unquenchable. He is the joy we anchor our hearts and minds in so that the roughest day does not sink us in despair.
Prayer without ceasing seems like a tall order. While I like to think I can multi-task, it just doesn’t seem feasible, but that is just my flesh trying to keep me from something profoundly important – an underlying conversation with God throughout my waking hours. I heard a song at church this past Sunday and one line stuck with me: I don’t want to talk about You like You’re not in the room. (Dove’s Eyes by Misty Edwards) It struck me how often I talk about God instead of with God.
I believe that what Paul was getting at is a conscientious recognition of God’s presence throughout our day. If we are living each moment with the understanding that He is right there with us, prayer becomes a natural part of our inner conversation instead of the distracting thoughts that bring our eyes off of Jesus.
Giving thanks in all circumstances almost seems like a cruel thing to encourage others to do. When you are in the middle of tragedy, loss or pain, the last thing on your mind might be thanksgiving, but that is exactly where Paul is trying to steer us. The problem lies between two words: for and in. The passage actually reads “Give thanks IN all circumstances,” but often it is taught and understood as “Give thanks FOR all circumstances.” In the first (and original) version, we are instructed to be thankful in the midst of our circumstances, while in the second (and misleading) version, we are cornered into being thankful for things that happen which may not be good. While Romans 8:28 promises that God can bring good from bad, nowhere does he say we have to be thankful for bad things.
God asks us to remain thankful for His work in our lives even when circumstances aren’t good, when the fallen nature of the world is in full bloom and the enemy is at the door, God still reigns in heaven and the hearts of those who call on His name. That is reason to be thankful.
Paul has the resume to put forth this counsel. He has suffered persecution. He has seen the church in turmoil, ravaged by sinful forces both from the outside and inside. His health had endured challenges, his reputation had been attacked and his friendships had been tested. In the midst of all these obstacles, he calls the church to rejoice, pray and give thanks. My testimony in this area is borrowed from Paul: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12)
I pray that I will learn what it is to rejoice always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances. I want to live the life abundantly by keeping my eyes on what God is doing. Lord, help me to seal these disciplines in my heart and grow in me the desire to rejoice, pray and give thanks. Amen.