Scripture Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
November 19, 2015
16 Rejoice evermore.
17 Pray without ceasing.
18 In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
These three verses have been called “The standing orders of the church.”
It is interesting to note that they are in the imperative mood, forceful commands directing our attention and actions. The very mention of the imperative forces us to regard rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks as things other than mere feelings. We all know that feelings cannot be commanded. They are spontaneous and often get us into trouble if we act on them without thinking . . . taking a deep breath and counting to 12.
Telling your spouse not to feel angry or your child not to feel badly seldom leads to a happy evening at home. But behaviors can be called for.
I did a residency in adult psychiatry at Georgia Mental Hospital as a chaplain in clinical training to be certified as a supervisor in Clinical Pastoral Education. Our chief of Psychiatry instructed us to tell patients that when they were misbehaving this, “Your behavior is unacceptable.” We did that without rejecting the person, and believe me it worked.
First, “Rejoice evermore.”
This command is not the same as commanding one to feel happy at all times. Feeling happy is the natural response to experiences that bring us rewards. Please don’t ask me to feel happy when I’ve just smashed my thumb with the hammer or even when I’ve just lost the tennis match. But neither smashing my thumb nor losing my tennis match need have anything to do with my joy and rejoicing in life.
However, throughout the Bible, we are called to joy and rejoicing in our sufferings. I can’t make any sense of this without distinguishing between joy and happiness. I have long accepted the fact that I cannot be happy at all times. But I’m satisfied that there can always be a basic joy in my life.
The basis of that joy is Jesus Christ Himself. For in Him, I am able to distinguish between appearances and reality. Joy is tied to reality, not merely to appearances. This is so clear when I am with a family at the time of the death of a loved one. I have been with my congregations in all seasons. Death is real and it brings grief and sadness, and sheer shock. But as the months pass by after a death, reality transcends appearances. The reality of life eternal in Jesus Christ is central to their minds and hearts. The reality of God’s love and presence through their grief is more than a slogan. The appearances were all very real, but the ultimate reality is Jesus Himself. And in this, they rejoice.
Even in the little things that make up most of our lives, the same truth is our hope. For a time, the smashed thumb and the lost tennis match appear to be terrible things. But the reality shines through in the light of God’s love. The thumb will heal, and if not, I still have my fingers. The lost tennis match remains lost, but I have the health and leisure to play again, win or lose.
There is a perspective on life in Jesus Christ that enables us to rejoice always, even when we are unhappy. And this is something we can choose to do, whatever the tone of our feelings. It really becomes a matter of obedience.
Second, “Pray without ceasing.”
As with the first command, we need to untangle some definitions and assumptions. Obviously, to pray without ceasing means something other than saying prayers, or the command is an impossibility. J. B,. Lightfoot clarifies this point in his oft–quoted “It is not the moving of the lips, but in the elevation of the heart to God, that the essence of prayer consists.”
But having made the distinction between saying prayers and praying with the heart, the question of unceasing prayer demands deeper reflection. To pray without ceasing establishes prayer, not as a part of the Christian life, but as all of it. To pray day and night, in good times and in bad, without cessation or interruption, is not the experience of most people I know. Is this just a high ideal to be achieved by a few spiritual super athletes, or is it within the reach of ordinary folks like us?
I once heard about the “Jesus Prayer” that was discovered by a Russian peasant. He felt if he repeated it hundreds of times a day it would be unceasing prayer for him. It goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” While I think it is a good prayer, it just doesn’t seem to work for me.
Henri Nouwen has helped me to understand something about the essence of unceasing prayer. In his Book, Clowning in Rome, he has this title of one of the chapters, “Prayer and Thought.” He encourages people to convert our thinking into prayers. From the cradle to the grave, our minds never stop thinking. The brain is always active. Sometimes our minds wonder off when we need to concentrate or keep our focus. Sometimes our minds keep us awake when we desperately need to sleep. So, Nouwen encourages us to convert our unceasing thinking into unceasing praying.
When we consciously do this we we learn to think and live in the presence of God. That means to live with a growing awareness of God and that He is always present in our lives. When we do, it will enable us to consciously bring all of our words and deeds into God’s presence.
Just think for a moment of love. When one is truly in love with another person, there is an unceasing awareness of the other person. It means that the presence of the other person is constant in our awareness.
Universal experience makes it clear that daily periods of intentional prayer, reflection, and meditation are essential to establish the climate of unceasing prayer for the rest of the day. The place of daily Scripture reading also is well established as an essential discipline. It is good to read a statement of Jesus every morning and consciously reflect on it all during the day. Nouwen, a Catholic monk, finds the daily Eucharist, a practice all too foreign to us Protestants, as essential to the climate of prayer. In his life.
Third, “In everything give thanks.”
This is the third command and grows out of the first two. Joy and unceasing prayer flow forth in a constant stream of gratitude.
I am not in agreement with the interpretation of this phrase that calls us to praise and thank God for literally everything that happens. I can’t even imagine God being thankful for everything that happens. Things that happen because of the selfishness of ourselves or others need to be changed, not accepted. I prefer to thank God for being God and to focus on Him rather than on the things that happen.
The great drama of the Bible centers in the belief that God is at work for good in the lives of His people, no matter what. There was nothing good in Joseph’s brothers selling him to the Ishmaelite traders. There is nothing good about the injustices he experienced from Potiphar’s wife. But, in retrospect, Joseph could say of it all: “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). This belief is articulated by the Apostle Paul: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Unfortunately, our translation tends to make “all things” the subject rather than “God.” A better translation is that “in everything, God is at work for good.” We must never forget that God is at work in and through, and often in spite of the “things.”
To rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in every thing “is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (v. 18).
Obedience to these three commands is difficult. But Christ calls us to a life of joy, prayer, and gratitude. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, but the rewards of obedience to these commands are rich and full.