A popular praise chorus goes, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That’s Scripture, actually: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. Is it really practical in this day and age? Or is it the case, as Jean Kerr observed, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.”
The troubles we’ve seen
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.
The last national election cycle was particularly nasty. The Supreme Court declared that there could be no limits on how much anonymous corporate entities could spend on vicious attack ads. The coming elections will be no better. After the last several elections, the usual promises of bipartisan cooperation seemed to last no more than about fifteen minutes. Then we get two years of partisan recriminations while the government does little or nothing of substance on many 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 that hate Americans are trying to kill as many of us as they can.
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 hitting strings of red lights when we drive, especially when we’re running late. The store is too often 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.
Is Paul serious?
For a lot of people, that praise chorus and the scripture that forms the words seem 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 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 to us?
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.
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 your neediness. You 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 for the state of blessing you are experiencing. 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. That’s the part of the situation that the people all around you losing their heads haven’t grasped.
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.
- Let trouble be off in the periphery of our spiritual vision. It will not go away, but it won’t look nearly as big or overwhelming if we’re gazing at God instead.
- And if we’re really paying attention, God will show us how to deal with the trouble.