In First Thessalonians, Paul wrote to a church that eagerly awaited Christ’s return. The church in Thessalonica had sprung up suddenly when Paul preached there. Persecution arose shortly thereafter, and Paul had to flee to Berea. In spite of persecution, the church grew. The members struggled, enduring hardships and wondering what will happen to the church’s deceased members when Christ returns. They loved the Lord, but they needed reassurance that their faith was not misguided.
Today, our society can create confusion for Christians as well. Legislators pass laws in defiance of God’s edicts, and judges “legislate from the bench” in opposition both to God’s law and our nation’s Constitution. The media depict Christians as a flock of bigoted, narrow-minded, ignorant fanatics; many of our friends and co-workers are brainwashed to believe these stereotypes. As we await Christ’s second coming, we must be prepared to face whatever challenges may come. Outright persecution may arise. Religious freedom is gradually disappearing, even in America, despite the First Amendment. Our nation’s fountain of prosperity seems to be drying up. We need to learn how to follow the Lord so that we may not falter in hard times. We also need to wait patiently in hope for the return of our Lord.
How shall we live and act as we prepare for Jesus’ second coming? A familiar passage in First Thessalonians 5:16–18i provides some insight:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
This can look like three separate commandments. However, the passage bears a parallel structure, much like the Hebrew poetry found in the book of Psalms. This parallelism suggests that this passage is one command in three parts. To follow God’s will for us, we must rejoice, pray, and give thanks continually.
These three attitudes work together. When we pray, we give thanks, and such thanksgiving brings us joy. Such joy encourages us to pray some more, increasing our reasons to give thanks. Prayer, thanksgiving, and rejoicing become a cycle.
The most significant message here is that we should continually worship God. The emphasis is on the continual nature of this command. In the original Greek, these three adverbs—”always,” “without ceasing” (or “unceasingly”), and “in all circumstances”—appear before the verbs. Paul emphasizes the continual nature of these actions. This passage does not encourage us to rejoice occasionally, pray periodically, and give thanks on the fourth Thursday in November. We should do these things continually. They should be more than activities: they should be part of our very character.
That can be difficult. It is easy to rejoice when your favorite sports team is winning, your checking account balance keeps growing, and you have a productive day at work. It is not as easy, though, when your favorite sports team is on a prolonged losing streak, your checking account balance approaches $0, and work equals drudgery. If we cannot accomplish God’s will for us in Christ Jesus at these times, though, how will we fare during full-fledged government-sponsored persecution?
Galatians 5:22 tells us that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual fruit grows from spiritual seed. How do we grow joy? By keeping our eyes on spiritual blessings. In Matthew 5:11–12, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Elsewhere, Jesus told his disciples to rejoice, not because of the supernatural power he gave them, but because their names were recorded in heaven (Luke 10:20). Therefore, we grow eternal joy by reminding ourselves of our eternal rewards.
We can get so addicted to this world that we forget about heaven. We may get dangerously comfortable here. If Jesus were to ask our permission to rapture us into heaven tonight, many of us may balk because of all the things we would have to leave behind! “Lord, I need my TV; I never miss an episode of ‘American Idol.'” “You mean to tell me there’s no football in heaven? What am I supposed to do on Sunday afternoon there?” “I’m still making payments on that car! I can’t leave it here!” Perhaps if we truly considered our heavenly treasures, and all that awaits us there, we would not cling so tightly to the things we have here.
Perhaps that is why Christians in some Third World countries receive the word of God with such enthusiasm. They are not enslaved by possessions. They count themselves blessed if they eat enough to stay healthy, own two changes of clothing, and have a roof over their heads (even if that roof is made out of mud or tin). Their only treasure is whatever they are storing up in heaven. They realize just how temporal earthly pleasures are.
Praying without ceasing is central to rejoicing and giving thanks. Unfortunately, it is easy to make excuses to disobey this command. There are times when conscious prayer might hinder us from fulfilling our other duties. As an editor, when I am working on authors’ proofs, I need to concentrate on the pages in front of me. Most of us encounter similar circumstances, where our full attention must be directed to a task at hand. However, this should not become an excuse for spiritual laziness.
Are you at least consistent in prayer? Do you pray every day? Do you set aside time for prayer and then stick to it, or do you wait until you have nothing else to do before praying? In the Old Testament, the Israelites were often commanded to offer their first fruits to God. In other words, they sacrificed to him first. Likewise, we should set aside time for prayer as a top priority. If we wait until there is nothing else to do, we will never pray until we are in a crisis.
Perhaps many of our lives are too cluttered. It is difficult to pray while listening to the radio or your IPod. It is even harder to pray while watching television. We need to decide whether prayer or worldly pleasures are more important for us.
Prayer is our spiritual lifeline. We need constant spiritual protection. In First Peter 5:6–9, we read the following:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.
Satan prowls as a vicious predator seeking souls to devour. Everything can be flowing smoothly in your life. You can be walking in victory. You might feel like you have finally overcome that addiction or life-controlling sinful habit. Suddenly and unexpectedly, life throws you a major crisis. In the midst of that stress, you are tempted in your weakest area. Maybe that sin, which you thought you had overcome, suddenly crops up as an overwhelming urge. If you have not tapped into the Lord’s power through prayer, you will be at Satan’s mercy until you call on the Lord. By the way—Satan has no mercy.
Remember to give thanks in all circumstances. If we pray continually, thanksgiving will flow. It is hard to thank God in hard times. However, when we recognize that in all things God is working for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (Rom. 8:28), we can thank him for what he is doing, even if we are not currently comfortable in our circumstances.
Let us take these exhortations to heart. Rejoice always, even when you should feel like crying. Pray without ceasing, especially when you feel like God is ignoring your situation. Give thanks in all circumstances, even if you are not sure what God is doing. You may not see the blessing now, but if you remember that God loves you and is in control of all situations, you can rest confident in the hope that he will produce a good outcome in your circumstances.
Most importantly, remember that God is the One who will sanctify you and declare you blameless. His power strengthens us. His love encourages us. His guidance leads us. His Holy Spirit seals us. He holds us in His hands, and he will not let go of us. We are precious in his sight, so he will preserve us against any trial as we draw closer to him.
iScripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.