Thanksgiving is fast-approaching. Many families have a tradition where they go around the table listing what they’re thankful for. It has been an especially dark year and this year as Thanksgiving looms closer, it’s been on my heart that many people will feel they don’t have much, if anything, new to be thankful for. In these unprecedented times, there’s so many challenges that we never believed we’d be met with. You might never have imagined pastoring a church, shepherding a flock through a global pandemic, political division that causes rifts in families and church families and friends. I never imagined as a worship leader calling people to rejoice in the Lord that had especially heavy hearts that felt impossible to lift. You never thought you’d be trying to parent and lead your children and family through the same issues. Jesus warned us about so much of this in the book of Matthew but we never pictured ourselves as part of the story. You might be feeling frustrated, exhausted, overwhelmed, ill-equipped, and spread thin, but thankfulness probably doesn’t make your list right now.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Paul wrote this first letter to the newborn church in Thessalonia either a few weeks or months after establishing the church and then leaving after teaching on three Sabbaths. I love this book because not only is it a letter of encouragement in the faith that is irreplaceable to new Christians, it also serves to strengthen and encourage us when our hearts grow hard and our faith becomes weak.
There’s not a Christian in the world that has a straight-shot perfect journey through life. Faith isn’t a natural human response, it isn’t easy to believe especially during the hard times. No, faith is forged in fire. We stumble through the valley seasons and during our climb up the mountains to the peak seasons. I cannot tell you how many times I have spiritually taken my eyes off of Christ and started to sink. Faith is tested time and again. 1 Peter 1:6-7 says, “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;”
So where does this leave us? The Bible tells us to rejoice, pray, and give thanks, at all times, even now in a valley season, even now when we are so tired. Even now, as leaders of your church and/or family, people are looking to you for guidance and wisdom. How do we carry out the command God has given us through Paul when the feeling isn’t there?
I think it helps to dissect this into three parts and also realize that you can’t do any one of these things without also doing the other two.
1. Rejoice Always
When Paul says, “rejoice” he is not talking about feelings. You don’t have to fake joy in the presence of the Lord, you would never be able to fool Him anyway - He knows your every thought and every desire and the depths of your heart. Here, I believe it ties directly in with John 15:9-11: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” John 15 includes the well-known parable of the vine and branches (beginning with verse 1) and Jesus reminds us later in the chapter to abide in Him. Abide is an interesting choice of wording here. The Psalmists commonly used the word “dwell” which means “to live”. People commonly confuse “abide” with “rest”. Abide means to “endure without yielding” or “to bear patiently”. To endure something, or to suffer for it, or to bear it, that is the true nature of bearing the cross. It’s the perfect word to describe the effort it takes to sustain an active and strong faith in the face of the darkness of this world and a passionate and loyal love of God over anything else in this world.
Choosing Christ and abiding in Him takes endurance. It takes effort. But when we abide in Christ, He makes our joy complete. We cannot summon joy within ourselves. We cannot create true, lasting joy from anything on this earth. It comes from Him and Him alone. We can rejoice when we abide in Him because He is our joy.
2. Pray Without Ceasing
My favorite of the three commands, this goes hand in hand with abiding in Christ and enduring in the good fight. Again, you cannot have one of these three things without the other two. Praying without ceasing, being in constant conversation with the Lord keeps our eyes on Him. It keeps our mind and heart guarded, it keeps us on the path, it keeps our faith strong and our hope secure. Prayer is the priority. You simply cannot stay firm in the faith, especially in the valleys, without it. The world is attacking the priority of prayer these days by spewing lies about how it’s equivalent to doing nothing, but don’t let that discourage you and throw you off the course. It is the most we can do. It is the best we can do, because we are putting every situation into the hands of the Most High God who hung the planets and counted the stars and brought forth the universe with just the sound of His voice. There is nothing we can do in our own strength. Prayer gives us clarity, it strengthens us, it is a time God can point us in the right direction or lead us to an answer or action he wants us to take. Dear friend, don’t ever stop praying. There are no greater weapons against darkness than the sword of the spirit: the word of God, prayer, and praise. You are not ill-equipped in these times, you are equipped with all you need to get through the darkest of days. Pray.
3. Give Thanks in All Circumstances
There’s a reason this was listed after prayer. When Jesus taught us to pray, He didn’t begin the prayer with a list of needs, He didn’t begin the prayer with a list of complaints. He began His prayer with praise. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” Put in simpler terms, He said, “Heavenly Father, You are holy and I honor you.” He worshiped with a reverent and thankful heart before anything else. He placed praise ahead of His requests. At the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus took five loaves of bread and three fish and gave thanks for them even though it wasn’t enough and the disciples were telling Him to send everyone home because they were not expecting a miracle. The night of the last supper, Jesus, knowing full well what was to come and what the bread at the table symbolized, gave thanks for it, the symbol of what suffering was to come for Him, a suffering so brutal and intense that later in the garden of Gethsemane He would sweat blood while asking the Father to take the cup from Him if it was His will. If Jesus can give thanks in the face of darkness, when it looks like there’s not enough, so can we. We can give thanks even as far as in the face of death because Jesus won the victory over it.
Lastly, may I remind you dear reader, whether you lead a church, a small group or team, your family, I’m sure someone is looking to you in these times for hope, wisdom and guidance, but you cannot offer them hope on your own. Our job as leaders is not to give out hope and peace and comfort - that is God’s job and God’s job alone. In the Bible only Jesus offered hope. The apostles in the early church preached messages of pressing on and fighting the good fight of faith and most importantly, they pointed the early churches to Jesus. That was their job as leaders and that is our job now.
We cannot lift heavy hearts, but we can encourage people to take the last bit of strength they have when their faith feels weak to just lift their eyes to the hills to see the Lord, where our help comes from, where our hope comes from, where our joy comes from. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, abide in Him, endure, and fight the good fight, and in Him, we will find our hope.
A long-time Christian would answer questions like the following with a resolute YES:
“Is God all-powerful?”
“Is God working all things together for good?”
“Can God do miracles?”
As someone who grew up in the church, who has known Jesus so deeply and personally from a young age, I’ve learned that what we know and what we believe are very different things. We know all of the biblical examples of God’s power. We know of the creation of the world. We know of the flood, the mighty signs and wonders documented in Exodus and shown through the prophets. We know of the miracles Jesus performed during His ministry, ending with the most victorious and critical miracle of all - the Resurrection. We know God did those things, and often times there’s no question in our minds. If the above questions were rapid fire, we wouldn’t need even a second to think about it. But - when it comes to God being active in our lives, when it comes down to faith in Him for what we hope for, the solidity of our belief is significantly more fragile.
It’s so easy to believe in things that have happened. But each trial is different than another and in the vulnerable thick of our pain, the enemy tries to convince us that this thing; this illness, this financial struggle, this family problem, this depression or anxiety, this brokenness, THIS is the thing that is too far gone for God to intervene. The enemy so easily convinces us, whether we are conscious of it or not, that this is the thing God cannot fix. But, to quote CS Lewis, “Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar.”
Jesus Himself says in Matthew 19:26, “With God, all things are possible.” There is nothing beyond God’s ability to save, restore, and make use of in His kingdom.
In Matthew 9:27-30, two blind men were confronted with this directly as they pleaded for their healing. “As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”
When He had gone indoors, the blind men came to Him, and He asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”
“Yes, Lord,” they replied.
Then He touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you” and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” (NIV).
These men had just seen Jesus agree to resurrect a young girl from the dead and on the way, He’d healed the woman with the issue of blood. They knew, much like we do, that Jesus was powerful. But He stops and He asks them, “Do you believe I am able to do this?”
In Charles Spurgeon’s sermon #1355: “Our Lord’s Question to the Blind Men”, he writes: “But now I want to lay stress on another word of my text and I want you to lay stress on it, too. “Believe you that I am able to do this?” Now, it would have been of no use for these blind men to say, “We believe that You can raise the dead.” “No,” says Christ, “the matter at hand is the opening of your eyes. Believe you that I am able to do this?” They might have replied, “Good Master, we believe that You did staunch the woman’s issue when she touched Your garment.” “No,” says He, “that is not the question. Your eyes have now to be attended to. You need sight and the question about your faith is, believe you that I am able to do this?”
“Ah, some of you can believe for other people, but we must bring the question more fully home to you and say, “Believe you that Christ is able to save you--even you? Is He able to do this?” Possibly I address someone who has gone very far in sin. It may be, my friend, you have crowded a great deal of iniquity into a short space. You went in for a short life and a merry one, and according to your present prospects you are likely enough to have a short life, but the merriment is pretty nearly over with you already and as you look back upon your life, you reflect that never did a young man or a young woman throw life away more foolishly than you have done.
“Now then, do you desire to be saved? Can you say from your heart that you do? Answer me, then, this further question, Do you believe that Jesus Christ is able to do this, namely, to blot out all your sins, to renew your heart, and to save you tonight? “Oh, sir, I do believe He is able to forgive sin.” But believe you that He is able to forgive your sin? You, yourself are the case in hand. How holds your faith on that point? Let the cases of others alone just now and consider yourself. Believe you that He is able to do this? This—this sin of yours, this misspent life—is Jesus able to cope with this? On your answer to that question everything depends. It is an idle faith which dreams of believing in the Lord’s power over others, but then declares that it has no confidence in Him for itself. You must believe that He is able to do this—this which concerns you or you are for all practical purposes an unbeliever.
“I know I am speaking to a great many persons who never did go into the vices of the world. I thank God on your behalf that you have been kept in the ways of morality and sobriety and honesty. Yet I have known that some of you almost wish, or at least it has occurred to you that you might almost wish—that you had been great, open sinners, that you might be preached to as open sinners are, and that you might see a change in yourself equal to what you have seen in some of them, about whose conversion you can never doubt.
“Do not indulge in so unwise a wish, but listen while I put this question to you also. Your case is that of a moralist who has obeyed every outward duty, but has neglected his God—the case of a moralist who feels as if repentance were to him impossible, because he has been so long eaten up with self- righteousness that he knows not how to cut out the gangrene. The Lord Jesus Christ can as easily save you from your self-righteousness as He can save another from his guilty habits. Do you believe that He is able to do this? Come now, do you believe that He is able to meet this, your own peculiar case? Give me a “yes” or a “no” to this question.
“Alas,” cries one of you, “my heart is so hard.” Do you believe that He can soften it? Suppose it is as hard as granite—do you now believe that the Christ of God can turn it into wax in a moment? Suppose your heart is as fickle as the wind and waves of the sea—can you believe that He can make you stable- minded and settle you upon the Rock of Ages forever? If you believe in Him, He will do this for you, for according to your faith shall it be unto you. But I know the pinch lies here. Everybody tries to run away to the thought that he does believe in Christ’s power for others, but he trembles for himself. But I must hold each man to the point which concerns himself. I must buttonhole you and bring you to the real test. Jesus asks each one of you, “Believe you that I am able to do this?”
“Why,” says one, “it would be the most surprising thing that the Lord Jesus ever did if He were to save me tonight.” Do you believe that He can do it? Will you trust Him to do it now?
“But it will be such a strange thing, such a miracle!” The Lord Jesus works strange things, it is the way of Him. He was ever a miracle-worker. Can you believe Him able to do this for you, even this, which is now needed to save you?
“It is wonderful, the power which faith has—power over the Lord Jesus Himself. I have often experienced in my little way how confidence will master you. Have you not frequently been conquered by the trustfulness of a tiny child? The simple request was too full of trust to be refused. Have you ever been grasped by a blind man at a street crossing who has said to you, “Sir, would you take me across the road?” And then, perhaps, he has said somewhat cunningly, “I know by the tone of your voice that you are kind. I feel I can trust myself with you.” At such a time you have felt that you were in for it—you could not let him go.
“And when a soul says to Jesus, “I know You can save me, my Lord. I know You can, therefore in You do I trust,” why He cannot shake you off. He cannot wish to do so, for He has said, “Him that comes to me, I will in no wise cast out.” I sometimes tell a story to illustrate this. It is a simple tale enough, but it shows how faith wins everywhere. Many years ago my garden happened to be surrounded by a hedge, which looked green, but was a poor protection. A neighbor’s dog was very fond of visiting my garden and as he never improved my flowers, I never gave him a cordial welcome.
“Walking along quietly one evening, I saw him doing mischief. I threw a stick at him and advised him to go home, but how did the good creature reply to me? He turned round and wagged his tail, and in the merriest manner picked up my stick and brought it to me, and laid it at my feet. Did I strike him? No, I am not a monster. I should have been ashamed of myself if I had not patted him on the back and told him to come there whenever he liked. He and I were friends directly, because, you see, he trusted me and conquered me.
Now, simple as the story is, that is just the philosophy of a sinner’s faith in Christ. As the dog mastered the man by confiding in him, so a poor guilty sinner does, in effect, master the Lord Himself by trusting Him when he says, “Lord, I am a poor dog of a sinner and You might drive me away, but I believe You to be too good for that. I believe You can save me, and lo! I trust myself with You. Whether I am lost or saved, I trust myself with You.” Ah, dear heart, you will never be lost if you thus trust. He who trusts himself with Jesus has given the answer to the question, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” and there is nothing now left but for him to go his way and rejoice, for the Lord has opened his eyes and saved him.”
So, dear reader, I want you to take a moment, even right now, and think of that thing. The thing maybe you are too ashamed to pray for, or maybe it’s the thing that’s far too painful to talk about or impossible to talk about without crying. I want you to think of the thing that’s holding you back, the thing that’s the eye of your storm, the cause of your brokenness, the gnarl in your heart, that thing. Maybe it’s multiple things you’ve let pile up. Maybe it’s something you used to pray for all the time but never saw an answer so you gave up on it and God’s ability to fix it. Maybe you prayed skeptically, “Lord, it would be so great if THIS was taken from me, if this was healed” but you didn’t really believe it would happen, perhaps it was a prayer to “cover all of your bases” so to speak. Maybe it’s something that you have struggled with your entire life and have accepted it as “the way things are”. The Lord is asking you now, “Do you believe I can do THAT?” And all you need to say earnestly and honestly is, “Yes, Lord.”