“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). Read literally, these admonitions from the Apostle to the church at Thessalonica seem impossible to do. Given the hardships and difficulties of life, how could anyone expect to rejoice always? With the busyness of life, how is possible for a person to pray constantly? For those situations and events that we wish had never occurred, how do we begin to give thanks in all circumstances?
For some people, these words have led them to believe that Christian faithfulness dictates that they should always be happy, rejoicing in the face of tragedy, and giving thanks in the midst of calamity. Such a reading pushes one to sometimes say what is not truly felt, and to act as if what has happened has not truly happened. While such utterances and actions may provide a temporary respite from the pain of the moment, yet the deeper grief remains untouched. Therefore, it lingers, still hurting and still impacting the life of the one who boldly and bravely tried mightily to rejoice and give thanks.
For some people, these words make no sense and are therefore dismissed, filed away with biblical ideas that are too hard, too irrational, or to impractical to be taken seriously. While such a response may seem the wiser, it leaves unexplored a deeper spiritual reality and richer intimacy with God.
When Paul says to give thanks in all circumstances, the implication is that circumstances are not be the determining factor of one’s thankfulness. If one can be thankful regardless of circumstances, then one’s circumstances are not the deciding factor in whether or not one is thankful. For Paul, giving thanks is something more than a gesture of politeness, good manners, or heartfelt gratitude. Normally, when we give thanks there is a reason – our family, our job, our friends. There is someone or something that touches our life in such a way that we express thanksgiving. Yet, Paul seems to point to something more than someone or something for which we are grateful, to a way of being. Be thankful, with or without someone. Be thankful, with or without something. Be thankful, with or without an apparent reason. There is more to giving thanks than our circumstances, whatever they might be, would indicate.
In a similar way, when Paul says “Rejoice always,” I do not think he is suggesting that we ought to rejoice because of this good event or this bad event. Again, the attitude of rejoicing is not determined by the circumstance or situation. Interestingly, one of the ways that the Greek word “Rejoice” was used was as a greeting. It was similar to our “Hello, I am glad to see you.” Perhaps Paul is suggesting that we greet each moment that comes our way with joy. Such joy is not circumstantial or situational, but takes a longer view. Julian of Norwich, 14th century Christian mystic, seems to have understood this sort of joy, “. . . All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”
The gratitude and joy that Paul speaks of are the fruits of a prayerful life. Prayer is central for the follower of Christ. It is the oxygen of living a daily Christian life. For Paul it cannot be relegated to a particular time of day, it must be a constant. This does not mean that all activity stops and the believer does nothing except pray. It does mean that everything the believer does can become prayer, a mindfulness of the presence of God, and of being in that presence. Rejoicing and thanksgiving are rooted in such mindfulness.
With joy and thanksgiving for the way God has made us God’s own, we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. We have much for which to be thankful, but nothing more so than the reality that God has come to us and made us children of God. Everything is different because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. This Advent, as we remember God first coming to us, and how radically changed the world is because God did come, we are going to ask the question: What if the birth of Christ could change the world again? Is it possible for the joy and gratitude that we have experienced in Christ to impact the world in a way that makes a difference in the lives of people? Let’s conspire together and see what God will do.