Rejoice? Always?

“Rejoice always; pray constantly; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (RSV)

Does it sometimes look like the writers of the Bible just didn’t get it? Perhaps people living when it was written just didn’t face the troubles we do. After all, who can rejoice always with all we have to live through?

For the last couple of years, our economy has been rocked by very tough conditions: high unemployment, long term unemployment, lots of foreclosures on peoples’ houses.

We just had a particularly nasty election, with no limits on how much anonymous corporate entities could spend on vicious attack ads. After it ended, the usual promises of bipartisan cooperation seemed to last no more than about fifteen minutes. In recent years, our government has treated us to partisan recriminations while doing little or nothing of substance on some of the urgent problems that face our nation.

It is becoming more expensive to fly anywhere, and increasingly inconvenient and intrusive security measures have many citizens up in arms. But of course, some people are trying to kill us.

When we get to our own personal lives, all of us have been affected one way or another by the various national and international conditions, only some of which I have mentioned. We have also had to deal with our own personal aches and pains, conflicts in interpersonal relationships, disappointments of all kinds, concern for loved ones who are suffering.

To top it all off, we keep hit strings of red lights when we drive, especially when we’re running late. We’ve found out that the store is out of some product we want, or worse yet, stopped carrying it entirely. And so on. We live with all kinds of major troubles, combined with the daily accumulation of petty aggravations.

I quoted the scripture from the RSV, mostly because I have sung it at so many Christian meetings that I memorized it that way. It’s a round, and lots of fun to sing, but I’m not sure how many people seriously contemplate actually acting on it.

For a lot of people, it seems like a cruel joke, recommended by someone who certainly has no understanding of the problems we have to deal with nowadays. Except, of course, Paul dealt with all of it. He was writing to a church he had recently established, shortly before he was run out of town by an angry mob.

So without denying the reality of any of our problems, let’s look carefully at this seemingly crazy commandment.

Rejoice. Always. Rejoice about what? Well, what is happening around us? Is there anything at all besides trouble? Certainly. Some days it might be hard to take our eyes off our troubles and look at anything else. But at the very least, is there some beauty of, say, some flowers or birds, or the brilliance of the moon? When we eat, does the food taste good? Does anyone speak or write words of concern, support, confidence, or gratitude?

Anyone who makes a habit of noticing such things will discover plenty on even the worst days to be glad about, and the psalms use the phrase “rejoice and be glad” often enough that the two words seem like synonyms.

Pray. Constantly. Times of prayer ought to begin and end with praise. Appreciate God for who he is. Until it becomes a spontaneous habit, find prayers of praise in the Bible and tell it to God until his greatness overshadows the day’s troubles. Then, after praising him for who he is, thank him for what he has done, starting with all those things you found to be glad about.

After a while, if we have something to ask for, we can ask in appreciation of the love of God, not in the desperation of our neediness. We can ask from a position of faith rather than worry. We can ask in full assurance of faith that such a loving God will do what we ask when we ask in faith. But prayer is not over when we have presented our requests.

Give thanks in all circumstances. If things are going your way, give thanks to God with a grateful heart. If the whole world and everyone in it seems against you, give thanks to God with a grateful heart, because he has promised never to leave you or abandon you. Plus, you can thank him all over again for what you found to rejoice about. And Paul doesn’t just say to give thanks to God. Each day, even a bad one, presents ample opportunity to give thanks to other people.

So what is God’s will for our lives as expressed in these familiar verses? Take the focus from what’s wrong in our lives and turn it to God. Once you have put your focus on God, leave it there. We should keep trouble in the periphery of our spiritual vision, not the center. It will not go away, but it won’t look nearly as big or overwhelming if we’re gazing at God instead.

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