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 ESV)
These verses aren’t easy to follow. It’s easy to think “The apostle Paul didn’t know what I would be going through when he wrote that!” No, he didn’t, but God knew what you’d be going through when He divinely inspired Paul to write those words. Don’t forget, Paul had his own trials:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:24-27 ESV)
Everyone goes through unique trials, but as Christians we are still called to be joyful. Being full of joy doesn’t mean we delight in the circumstances we’re in. Joy comes from the knowledge of our salvation in Christ Jesus. Joy comes from the expectation of spending eternity in the presence of God. Joy is not a feeling which comes and goes based on what’s happening in our lives, or what we had for lunch.
The Christian who remains in sadness and depression really breaks a commandment: in some direction or other he mistrusts God—His power, providence, forgiveness…1
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17 ESV)
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:12 ESV)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18 ESV)
Pray without ceasing
As frail humans, we can’t possibly live our entire lives praying. At a minimum, we have to sleep. Perhaps some monks and nuns spend all of their waking hours in prayer, but most Christians don’t. Are we breaking a command from God if we take a break from praying? No, I don’t believe God intended us to use every thought in prayer.
Praying without ceasing means living a life focused on God. That doesn’t mean we need to have our hands folded, eyes closed and head bowed. Immerse yourself in activities which are God honoring. The way we treat people is a reflection of our commitment to a Godly lifestyle. How honest we are in our business dealings reflects our relationship with God. Our thoughts and actions Monday through Friday at work should be consistent with how we worship in church on Sundays. A common objection to Christianity is that Christians are hypocrites. We ought to live our lives in a way the critics don’t have anything to criticize us about.
“Pray without ceasing” does not mean we must always be mumbling prayers. The word means “constantly recurring,” not continuously occurring. We are to “keep the receiver off the hook” and be in touch with God so that our praying is part of a long conversation that is not broken. God knows the desires of the heart (Ps. 37:42), and He responds to those desires even when our voice is silent.3
There are times I know I need to pray, but I don’t know how to pray. When someone is going through a difficult time, what should I pray for? Happiness? Peace? Understanding? Healing? Forgiveness? Often none of these convey the emotions I feel. Fortunately, God knows what’s needed, even though I don’t.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27 ESV)
…and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.… (Ephesians 6:17-18 ESV)
Give thanks in all circumstances
This verse doesn’t say “Give thanks because of the circumstances”, but “Give thanks in all circumstances”. During every circumstance there is something to be thankful for, even though we often don’t see it. When something bad happens, we experience it with our limited senses, but God’s sight is eternal. God allows bad experiences4, but they aren’t what He desires for our lives. God uses experiences to test us, to make us stronger Christians.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-3 ESV)
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12 ESV)
…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…. (Ephesians 5:20 ESV)
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17 ESV)
For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you
Our attitudes of joy, prayer and thanksgiving are not character qualities we can work towards. I can’t choose to be joyful and create deadlines and goals on the journey to being full of joy. These qualities come from God, and the closer we are to God, the more of these we’ll receive.
Pretend you’re making s’mores around a camp fire. If you stand too far from the fire, the marshmallow won’t get toasted. As you move closer to the fire, the marshmallow will get warmer, but it takes patience to get the perfectly toasted marshmallow for the s’more. People who are in a hurry will get too close to the fire and burn the marshmallow. God wants us to move to him, but if we try too hard we can get discouraged when we don’t receive the joy we want. Christians have to be willing to let God work in their lives, and work in his timing.
Common to the three commands is the stress on fulfilling them all the time and in all circumstances; this does not mean, for example, that one prays uninterruptedly but that one prays regularly and frequently. Such a life is made possible, Paul adds, because God intends it to be so; he wants his people to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and he makes it possible for them to be so.5
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12 ESV)
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. (Colossians 4:2 ESV)
The Bible doesn’t say these practices will be easy. At times God seems so far away. When Jesus was on the cross, He quoted the first sentence of Psalm 22 (ESV):
Some theologians speculate Jesus may have recited the whole Psalm, because he wanted people to remember the last verses in Psalm 22, which discuss why we have hope in God.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it. (Psalm 22:26-31 ESV)
Anything the world gives us can be handled by God. The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7 ESV)
- Mason, A. J. “The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians,” in Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 145. Quoted in: Walvoord, John F. and Roy B. Zuck, editors. Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures – Old Testament and New Testament edition (Victor Books, 1983)
- Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalms 37:4 ESV)
- Wiersbe, W. W. The Bible exposition commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996) Vol. 2, p. 189.
- And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he [Job] has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD. (Job 1:12 ESV)
- Carson, D. A., Consulting editor. “1 Thessalonians 5:14”. New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition (Downers Grove, IL; Intervarsity Press, 1994)
- This is probably Aramaic rather than Hebrew. Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew, and was spoken in first-century Judea.
- And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV)