The Christian life is one of ultimate victory and yet it is not without its pains. We live in a wicked world full of difficulties which affect us in many ways. Be it economic uncertainty, wicked leadership, death and disease, the scorn of unbelievers, or any number of challenges which can easily produce fear, doubt, and uncertainty within us, we will struggle. And yet, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Everyone struggles, believer and unbeliever alike, but we must not sorrow as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13) because our God equips us to overcome.
First Thessalonians 5:16-18 is a short but powerful passage. The Thessalonian saints knew what it was to endure great challenges (cf. Acts 17) and this epistle was written, in part, to encourage them to remain steadfast despite them. The letter concludes with a number of imperatives regarding Christian life and service. Within that list are three well known commands, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Together, these three imperatives paint a moving portrait of what the Christian life should be. As we struggle through the difficulties of life, we must not complain or allow ourselves to be overtaken by fear. Rather, we joyfully and prayerfully thank our Father in every circumstance.
Joy is a distinguishing characteristic of New Testament Christianity. Unlike those outside of Christ, Christians possess an abiding sense of contentment, satisfaction, and hope regardless of circumstance. Such a concept was foreign to the pagan world of the first century. The gods of paganism were seen as unpredictable and vindictive, and thus a general sense of despair and hopelessness hung over the populace like a dark cloud. Even in our modern world true joy is foreign to the carnal mind. But Christians rejoice because we have hope (Rom. 12:12). Because we believe we “rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8). Even in difficult times we rejoice because of what we know to be true (cf. Jas. 1:2-4). Yet it is important to note that joy is a choice. Paul chose to rejoice in suffering (2 Cor. 6:10) and so too must we.
To “pray without ceasing” is to be devoted to and invested in prayer. Luke used similar terminology in Luke 18:1 when he wrote, “Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart.” We must “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Rom. 12:12) and “pray always” (Eph. 6:18). In the ancient world prayers were offered up to false gods as a way of influencing them to be kind and generous to the people. But when we approach our Father in prayer, we are granted entrance into the throne room for an audience before the one true and living God who loves us and desires to hear from us and bless us (1 Pet. 5:7). What greater motivation to pray could possibly be imagined? Why would we not want to pray as often as possible?
Thanksgiving is an essential component of Christian character. We are to give thanks in all things (Eph. 5:20). “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col. 3:17). Always, in every circumstance, we must give thanks, and not just for the good and easy things. It is a worldly mindset that only gives thanks when things are good. But the Christian gives thanks even in times of trial because he recognizes that there is value even in suffering! “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Rain or shine, poverty or wealth, success or failure, whatever the circumstance, we know the end of the story–victory! Thus, live by faith and thank God for an opportunity to abound.
No one is exempt from the difficulties of life. “Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1). The sun shines and the rain falls on everyone (Matt. 5:45). What then is the difference between the righteous and the unrighteous? In a word, perspective. How we view things, our perspective, determines our reaction. God’s people have a heavenly perspective. We know the end of the story. An unbelieving world crumbles under intense pressure. They complain, retaliate, and worry. Christians, however, can endure even the most difficult of circumstances. Not because of ourselves, but because of our God. He wills that we be people of joy and thanksgiving, regularly approaching Him with our cares and desires.