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.