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
In the midst of the turmoil and tragedies that surround us these days, it seems a meager thing to lift up gratitude and thanksgiving as a spiritual practice. Amidst the images of forest fires in California; amidst the news of another mass shooting; amidst election recounts and partisan sniping, we yearn for a spacious center where we can connect to God and each other more profoundly. We worry the center will not hold and the challenges facing us are beyond our capacity to resolve in a just and compassionate way.
I have always thought of the words from one of Paul’s letters to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances to be a difficult admonition to follow. Life is filled with challenges both personal and societal. How does one rejoice always when we see the pain around us; how does one pray without ceasing when we struggle to find a quiet moment to breathe; and how does one give thanks in all circumstances when we don’t like our particular circumstances? Paul’s words feel like an impossible ethic in today’s world.
Yet I am struck by the last phrase – “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” God desires for us joy, prayer, and thanksgiving. This means that God does not desire for us despair, fear, and regret. (It is sadly ironic how often church people preach forms of fear and guilt to motivate allegiance to a particular religious tradition) Maybe the rejoicing and praying and thanksgiving are not so much an act of our will as it is signs of God’s Will working in us and around us. The qualities of joy, prayer, and gratitude are a result of being transformed by God rather than a prerequisite for faithful living. Ultimately, this is a description of what God does to us. Ironically, we make these words into something to feel guilty about!
Every one of us feel sorrow and despair and struggle at times to be grateful. This is what it means to be human. Our very gospels reflect how Jesus felt sorrow and despair and grappled to find hope in the midst of a violent and oppressive world. Yet he embodies for us a Way of being transformed by God’s grace; a quality of consciousness and life different from anything else. A Way of living rooted in the true reality of gratitude and love and hope.
This world needs a people transformed by Christ in our hearts. It needs a kind of people who reflect the will of God for all humanity where joy, unceasing prayer, and thanksgiving are a true reflection of the reality of the world. Paul is telling us that this is what God is doing in each and every one of us. Thanks be to God!
Grace and Peace,
Rev. P. Alex Thornburg