God often seems to draw my attention to a subject not because I have wisdom about it, but because I need wisdom. And sometimes He prompts me to write about areas in which I am currently struggling to one degree or another. He sure knows how to keep me humble! I can tell you this edition of Good MEWs is certainly no exception!
“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)
As we close out this Thanksgiving season and move toward all things Christmas, I wanted to pause a few moments to encourage us all to consider these verses so often quoted on Thanksgiving Day. I am challenged by each of the directives given.
I fail to “rejoice always.” I was thinking recently about how God has taken some of the most difficult times in my life and made them into some of my most incredible, awe-inspiring, faith-building times. Faith-building almost to the point of being able to trust in the midst of the next storm that He will rescue me again. Almost. Or at least, I can see it from here. Maybe this is what Paul was referring to in Romans 5:3-5 when he talked about how rejoicing in our sufferings produces endurance, character, and finally, hope (ESV). Maybe it’s having enough faith in the midst of suffering to be able to rejoice because you truly trust that God will make good of it. In any case, “rejoicing always” can be our outward expression to God that, even if we don’t yet fully trust Him, we want to, and we’re taking steps in faith to move ourselves closer to that goal. James 1:25 exhorts us to act on God’s word when we hear it, and promises that he who does so “...will be blessed in his doing.” (ESV) I believe this blessing is twofold: our results will be better, and our faith will be stronger. While “…faith comes by hearing,” (Romans 10:17, NKJV) it grows by doing.
I fail to “pray without ceasing.” I have been troubled by this verse at times. First, let’s clarify what it means. Obviously, it doesn’t refer to a never-ending string of nagging pleas heavenward in hopes of eroding away God’s resistance toward us. Neither is it a call for plate-spinning our prayers out of fear that pausing in our efforts will cause God to turn His attention elsewhere, disgusted by our lack of commitment. Rather, the intent here is that our relationship with God is ongoing--that we are God-conscious throughout our day, always aware of His presence and interest in our lives. If this was truer of me, I doubt that my thoughts would drift so easily to worry, discontent or discouragement. I would be less susceptible to destructive comparisons or vulnerable to the enemy’s lies. James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (ESV) The first step is to submit to God--to devote ourselves to a relationship with Him and to surrender our will to His. The second step--resisting the devil--becomes possible only as a result of the first. By submitting ourselves to God and actively participating in a relationship with Him through prayer, we build a wall of protection and resistance against our enemy.
I fail to “give thanks in all circumstances.” At times, I am especially prone to self-pity, fault-finding and complaining. For one reason or another, whether real or perceived, my perspective gets skewed and my focus becomes fixated on what is wrong instead of right in my life, on ingratitude rather than gratitude. In a recent sermon, my pastor related that when a person feels the urge to be negative, it’s like a red light on a gas gauge. It indicates that the tank is on empty. Right away, I thought they “need a tankful of thankful.” When I’m “running on empty,” my first instinct is to either look to others to start filling my tank or to petition God to do so. While certainly neither of these responses is wrong, and both can yield great results, Scripture clearly instructs us to give thanks. (See Philippians 4:6, Colossians 3:17, Psalm 107:8, 1 Chronicles 16:34 and more.) One point of clarification, too: notice that 1 Thessalonians 5:18 directs us to be thankful in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. We live in a fallen world and sometimes, awful tragedies occur. God does not ask or expect us to spray Pollyanna perfume on mass shootings, sexual assault or anything else that causes pain or suffering. You can be sure that He doesn’t take evil more lightly than we do! Instead, our Father wants us to turn our eyes and hearts to Him, to rejoice in the fact that He is “...able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think...” (Ephesians 3:20, NKJV) and to give thanks that, even in the most difficult circumstances, He is with us. David wrote in Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me...” (NKJV) As my pastor recently pointed out, the presence of a shadow indicates a source of light. We can be sure He is always with us, and that He is able to make “…all things work together for good…” (Romans 8:28)
People often wonder what God’s will is for their lives. Let’s look again at the entire sentence that makes up 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Regardless of our chosen vocation or avocation, doing these things--rejoicing, praying, and thanking--is His will for all of us. Why? Because they are all ways of expressing our trust in and love for God. He wants a real, active, and personal relationship with each one of us.
Finally, I would be remiss if I closed this MEW out simply saying that we all need to try harder, do more and be better. While it is true that our faith requires action, it is also true that, like so many other commands in the Bible, perfect adherence and obedience is impossible. Is that discouraging? It needn’t be. First of all, God knows the limits of our abilities; after all, He made us. Secondly, He has provided an answer to those limits and it can be found in those three powerful words, “in Christ Jesus.” In John 15:5b, Jesus says, “…apart from me you can do nothing,” (NIV) while Paul proclaims in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (NKJV) Learning to abide in Christ is a progressive journey, one that takes us step by step closer to fulfilling His will for us. Following Him becomes less of a trust fall and more of a love affair. I can’t say I’m there yet, but I’ve gotten glimpses, and I am willing to be led by His Spirit even if I’m unable to see every step in front of me.
I pray that your Thanksgiving was wonderful and that this Christmas season, you experience Immanuel--“God with us”--in a personal and powerful way.