One of the most challenging imperative sequences in the bible is this very brief grouping of 3 verses:
Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)
We are tempted to write off these admonitions as hyperbole—just Paul exaggerating for literary effect. Some choose that interpretation. Just think back to last weekend in Sutherland Spring Texas. Such an event is part of “always”, “continually”, and “all circumstances”. Can we apply these commands in such situations? Can we apply them in the situations you may be facing in your life? Health crises, broken relationships, challenging parenting problems, stresses of caring for aging loved ones, career dead ends or financial shortfalls are all candidates for disrupting our joy, our communication with God and our sense of gratitude toward God.
I believe these commands are intended to be interpreted literally. In fact I think our response in these challenges give us a diagnostic window into the state of our faith. Faith is rather effortless in times of blessing and prosperity. We see ample evidence of God’s work on our behalf and it quite naturally produces joy, affinity for praying to God in praise and inner gratitude for the goodness of His ways. That was not the case last weekend in Texas. Horror, shock, terror, and overwhelming grief were palpable, not joy. Prayer was more likely a matter of inner groaning than verbal address with God (Romans 8:26). A sense of betrayal was more likely than a sense of gratitude. Would that mean that believing victims or survivors experiencing these spiritual symptoms were disobedient sinners?
God knows our hearts. He designed the emotions we experience in such times of grief and trial. He also designed a plan to give us endurance through our relationship with Him. In such situations I think the first command to obey here is to “pray continually”. To bring every thought, concern, question and observation to Him directly, expressing the grief, pain, loss, fear and disappointment we feel. At the same time we should pray affirmations of God’s proven character, eternal promises and divine power to use even painful situations to bring about long term good, even when we may not see how. Our awareness of the truth of Scripture is of great value in such a situation. Our “hearts” will likely lag behind our “heads” as we process the situation. Rejoicing and giving thanks will likely be done with our “heads” at first; affirming by faith the attributes of God’s sovereignty, holiness and wisdom, even when we don’t understand how He is acting in the situation. As time goes on we will see evidence of His working to redeem and bring good out of bad circumstances if we look for them.
Evil is real and destructive. God has allowed this for His reasons for a time that He has ordained to allow for people to repent and be redeemed. He has also ordained a time when that era of evil activity will end. We often wonder, “How long?” The Apostle Peter wrote of this…
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
There is a conflict going on in us and around us. We will inevitably experience the effect of it. But through eyes of faith we also can see evidence of God’s grace and redeeming power. Through that faith that we can seek to conform to the challenging exhortations to rejoice, pray and give thanks in any and all circumstances—not because we are naïve, but because we choose to trust in God’s demonstrated faithfulness. Meanwhile we seek to be part of His redemptive plan for as long as He chooses, urging those separated from Him to turn to God in faith.
In the messages for the next 2 weeks we will prepare for Thanksgiving by looking at “Strange Springs of Gratitude”.
Looking forward to seeing you!