Simple But Difficult Christianity
Joy, Prayer, Thankfulness
One of the most perplexing questions for a Christian is this one: What is God’s will for my life? When we ask that question we generally want to know,
What job should I take?
What school should I attend?
What person should I marry?
What ministries should I be involved in?
Often we ask the question at crisis points in our life (as we should). Today’s text is going to challenge the way we normally think about God’s will. I think our text suggests that when we ask “What is God’s will for my life?” we should put less emphasis on “What does God want me to do?” and more emphasis on the question “What does God want me to be?”
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 we find what some call the “standing orders of the church”. If you want to know what God’s will is for your life here’s where you can start. Whereas in verses 12-15 Paul instructed us on our interpersonal relationships, in these verses he talks to us about our attitudes.
16 Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Each of these commands is in the Imperative, which means these are commands. Paul is not really talking about our feelings; for the most part, we can’t control our feelings. Paul is addressing our mindset; our focus.
I’ve titled this message: “Simple but Difficult Discipleship” because these three commands are not difficult to understand. We know God wants us to be joyful, praying, and filled with thanksgiving. However, the modifiers of each directive is what makes these commands difficult: we are to be ALWAYS joyful; CONTINUALLY praying; and thankful in ALL circumstances.
Be Joyful Always
In Philippians 4:4 Paul told us to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice!” Before we can begin to understand what this means we have to be clear about what it DOESN’T mean. Paul is not telling us that we should be happy all the time. That would be foolish.
There are many things in life that bring unhappiness. Circumstances can bring sadness, grief, and a sense of bewilderment. I don’t believe Paul is telling us to simply “put on a happy face”. God doesn’t want us to be phony; He wants us to be real. Sometimes we don’t feel happy.
Joy is deeper than happiness. It is unrelated to the circumstances of life and it is anchored to our relationship with God. It is that exhilaration of spirit that derives from our deep-seated confidence in God’s love, power, and His work in our lives. The deeper our roots extend in our relationship with God, the more joy we will know.
So, let’s state the obvious. If you don’t have a true and vital relationship with God, you cannot know this kind of joy. The prerequisite to joy is a true and vital relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In other words, If you are still putting your confidence in your own abilities, if you think you can “do it on your own”, if your faith is more of an academic issue than a vital relationship in your life, you will never find this kind of joy.
I was reading this week and excellent book by Erwin Lutzer on what happens after we die. In the book Lutzer told of a time he was bobbing on a boat on Lake Michigan. When he began getting seasick his friend told him to choose a building on the shore and keep his eyes fixed on it. Lutzer writes,
I chose the Sears Tower and discovered in a few moments that I felt better. He [his friend] explained that the motion of a boat confuses our balance system if we look at the very object that is causing our movement. But we can handle the ups and downs if our eyes have a fixed object that is unmoved by our own vacillation. (Your Eternal Reward, p. 122)
This is how we experience joy. We cannot focus on the circumstances of life or life will make us sick. We will be joyful sometimes but often we will find joy lacking. We must instead put our focus on something that is constant. That constant is the nature, character, and promise of God. John MacArthur [Commentary on 1 Thessalonians] gives a number of “constants” we should to take away the seasickness of life’s circumstances, We should focus on,
- God’s Righteous Character (Nehemiah. 8:10, Psalm 71:23)
- Christ’s redemptive work (Luke 10:20, Romans 5:1-2; 1 Peter 1:8-9)
- The Holy Spirit’s ministry on our behalf (Romans 8:14-27)
- The Spiritual blessings we possess (Philippians 4:13, 19; 2 Peter 1:3)
- God’s providence as He orchestrates everything for our benefit (Rom. 8:28–30; James 1:2–4)
- The promise of future glory (Jude 24)
- Answered Prayer (John 16:24)
- The gift of God’s Word (Psalm 19:7-11)
- Deep and sincere relationships in the body of Christ (1 Thessalonians 3:9)
- The privilege of being able to share the life-changing message of the gospel
Do you notice something about this list? These are generally not the things that we think of as the key to our joy. We would list things like: good health, family, job satisfaction, great experiences, and personal achievements. Our focus is on the storm tossed circumstances rather than the stable character of God.
Let me repeat something I said in a sermon on Philippians.
We often miss out on joy because we try to create it ourselves. When we try to “produce” joy we are working against joy. You see, when we look to our activities and our devices to bring us joy we are NOT looking at the Lord. When we are relying on external things we are distracted from the internal work of God’s Spirit. The harder we work to find joy the further we drift from the Lord and that joy we are looking for.
It’s like a person who is drowning. They need to trust the lifeguard who comes to save them. The more they struggle to “save themselves” the more difficult it is for them to be saved. Or maybe it is like the patient in the hospital. They wake up from surgery and find tubes in them. The more they fight the tubes and pull at them, the longer it will be before they get better. Instinct says to fight, but in this case instinct is wrong.
So it is with joy. Our instinct is to try to DO things to produce joy. We can’t produce joy by our choruses, music, methods, campfires, meditation or anything else. The harder we try to create joy the more elusive it becomes. Joy comes from resting not running. It comes from trusting not working. [http://www.unionchurch.com/archive/031101.html]
The second command is to pray continually or as the King James puts it, “pray without ceasing.” Many dismiss this command quickly as ridiculous hyperbole or exaggeration. They reason if anyone prayed all the time, they would actually be quite useless in the world. They would not function.
However, Paul does not mean that we should constantly spend our lives in a prayer meeting or in formal prayer. He isn’t saying we should always be on our knees or have our eyes closed. That is only one kind of prayer. Paul is encouraging us to be in constant communication with God. Most of us would actually have a better time with prayer if we kept up a running conversation with the Lord throughout the day.
When we talk about communication in marriage we are not simply talking about those times when we sit down to have formal conversations with our spouse. Communication in marriage takes place constantly. We communicate through our words, our actions, and through our silence. Have you noticed that people who have been married a while start often finish each others’ sentences? Many times something will be said and they have exactly the same response. At times it is maddening. A conversation is progressing and all of a sudden a husband and wife start talking about something totally unrelated. Why? Because they have shared their lives with each other to such a degree that they have begun to think alike. Wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of relationship with God? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such a continuing conversation with the Lord that you regularly “knew” what God wanted you to without even having to ask? Wouldn’t it be great if you could hear His voice of love in your head in every crisis?
People wonder, “What in the world would I talk to God about all day long?” Again, we have to adjust our thinking. We think of prayer as “asking God for stuff”. Prayer is much more than merely making requests. Prayer is meant to be a conversation with the Lord. It is a time for us to align our hearts and minds with His.
There are times when we need to confess our sin; times when we can express appreciation for God’s creative wonders; times we should express our love; times when we should admit our fears or seek His guidance; and times we should be giving thanks. There are times when we simply need to seek to align our hearts with the heart of God. If you will, there are times we need to discuss things with the Lord. To pray without ceasing means we are living and thinking in the presence of God.
Give Thanks in All Circumstances
Paul tells to give thanks in all circumstances. Once again we need to qualify. Paul is not saying we should give thanks FOR all circumstances. Obviously we should not be thankful for injustice, for tragedy, for disease, or for war. None of these things are good. However, we are to be grateful IN every circumstance. This is an important distinction. Like joy, our thankfulness is anchored to our relationship in Christ rather than to the circumstances of life.
No matter what happens in life we can be grateful that
1. We are forgiven and loved in Christ
2. Nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38)
3. God is working in every circumstance (even in the circumstances that aren’t good in and of themselves) for our good. (Romans 8:28)
4. God will supply our needs (Philippians 4:19)
5. God will give us the strength we need. (Philippians 4:13)
6. We will live even though we die (John 11:25); and if this earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have an eternal house in Heaven not made by human hands. (2 Corinthians 5:1)
7. No one can snatch us from His hand (John 6:39)
8. God will finish the work He started in our lives (Philippians 1:6)
9. We have been extended mercy rather than justice.
If we get this; if we understand the implications of these truths; then we will be able to be grateful in every circumstance. No matter what happens, we can still be grateful that we have not been treated as we have deserved but have been treated with the mercy and love of God.
Periodically on the news someone is interviewed who recently lost their home to fire. In the midst of the devastation these people often say things like: “we lost everything, but thankfully no one was hurt.” These people understand that they can be grateful even in the midst of such terrible loss. They have the right perspective.
We ought to not only thank God in the hard times . . . we should also be grateful in the good times. In the hard times we recognize our lack of strength; so we turn to the Lord. In the good times we have a tendency to feel that we have somehow earned what we have. We tend to pat each other or ourselves on the back. We forget to give thanks. Every day of life is a gift. Every blessing is an expression of the mercy and love of God.
Let me apply this even further.
In the case of a death of someone we love, we will be grateful that there is life beyond the grave
In the case of a devastating illness we can be grateful that God knows our weakness and has promised to give us strength. If the illness leads to death we again can be thankful (and draw strength from the fact) that this life is not all there is.
In the case of injustice, we can be grateful that God will vindicate us.
In the case of a promotion, we thank God for the new responsibility He has entrusted to us.
In the case of a job loss, we can be grateful that God will work in the situation for our good or that God is giving us some kind of new opportunity.
In the case of a financial windfall, we should give thanks that God has equipped us to steward His resources.
In the case of divorce, we can be grateful that God will forgive our failures and heal our heartache.
The point is this: if we focus on the circumstances of life we will be grumblers. If we focus on the Lord we will be thank-ers. No one promised that life will be easy. In fact, Jesus told the disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation.” However, Jesus then adds, “but I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) That’s the perspective that leads to a continuously grateful heart.
I struggle with these commands. Too often I find myself swallowed up by complaints rather than gratitude; a sour mood rather than an attitude of deep-seated joy. I admit that at times I have to remind myself to talk with God.
However, what Paul commands of us; what God desires from us; is not unreasonable and certainly not impossible. We must stop looking at these verses as if they were grand exaggerations. We CAN be joyful always; praying without ceasing; and we can always be grateful. It all depends on our relationship with God.
So it is time for us to get serious. Let’s be honest with ourselves.
We lack joy because we lose sight of God
We become lax in prayerfulness because we think to highly of ourselves
We find gratitude illusive because we have put our focus in the wrong place
We must remember that doing the will of God starts by being the person God has called us to be. If you want to do His will the place to start is to develop an intimate relationship with Him.
The thing about these three commands is: if you really start working on one, the others will tend to follow. If we find our joy in the Lord in all circumstances we will want to talk with him and we will be grateful. If we adopt an attitude of gratitude we will find ourselves giving thanks at all times and our attitude and outlook will be one of joy. If we learn to pray without ceasing we will find the joy of our relationship with God will overshadow the trials of our lives and it will lead us to a constant sense of gratefulness.
So, start somewhere. Here are some simple suggestions,
Put up some little signs around your house that ask, “have you talked to God lately?” We often tell our children that they need to “check in” with us periodically. As God’s children we need to check in with Him.
Memorize the words to the hymn “Count your Blessings”
Draw a picture of a heart that has a big smile to remind yourself that joy is a heart issue
Memorize 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
When you feel yourself getting anxious or uptight about the events of life, learn to say to yourself, “look to the Lord”. When you face a daunting task, ask, “Do I trust Him or don’t I?”
These commands are not unrealistic. Each one of us can do these things. And if we would work on these areas of our life, we will find that our Lord will become more precious, the trials of life would be less devastating, and we would be a lot more fun to be around. So, if you want to know what the will of God is for your life, start here.