Near the end of his first letter to the church of Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul issued an exhortation that at once seems inviting and impossible. He writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1st Thessalonians 5:16-18).
This exhortation seems inviting because it calls us into an ideal and fruitful way of life, and it is a fitting response to all that God accomplished for us and granted to us in Christ. However, it also seems impossible because the standard is so high and our tendencies are so contrary to it. Indeed, can you think of even one day in which you have literally rejoiced always, prayed without ceasing, and given thanks in all circumstances? Perhaps I’m blind to the grace of God operating in my life, but I can’t think of a day in which I’ve perfectly reached this standard in more than thirty years of walking with Christ.
Yet, perceived impossibilities aside, this way of life is the will of God in Christ Jesus for His people. Therefore, in this article we will briefly consider (1) the meaning of the terms rejoice, pray, and give thanks; (2) the nature of what we’re called to rejoice in, pray about, and give thanks for; (3) the high standard God has set for each of these activities; and (4) some practical ways we can make progress in this way of life for the glory of God, the nourishment of our souls, and the blessing of others.
Biblically speaking, to rejoice is to inwardly appreciate God for His person, words, and works, and to outwardly praise Him for the same. And since His eternal purposes and plans come to crescendo and fulfillment in Jesus Christ, we can say that to rejoice is to personally and corporately exalt God for the gospel. As Paul said to the Thessalonians, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God [about Christ], which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1st Thessalonians 2:13). So, when he later exhorted them to “rejoice always”, he was primarily encouraging them to exult in the gospel which they had received.
When our rejoicing is rooted in the gospel, it does not ebb and flow with the tides of our circumstances, rather, it persists and intensifies even in times of difficulty and persecution. This is why Paul and his companions gladly preached the gospel to the Thessalonians in the face of persecution, and the Thessalonians gladly received it in the midst of much affliction. “But though we [Paul’s team] had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1st Thessalonians 2:2). And, “you [Thessalonians] became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1st Thessalonians 1:6-7, emphasis mine). Further, James applies this basic principle to all of life’s struggles when he encourages his readers, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4, emphasis mine).
This is the biblical vision of rejoicing: to personally and corporately appreciate and praise God for the gospel, no matter our present circumstances. But having said that, the question remains, how can we “rejoice always”, that is, “at all times”? Theoretically, we understand that our joy in Christ is not subject to the ebb and flow of circumstances, but realistically, we don’t always respond well to challenging or negative things. So again, how can we possibly attain God’s standard and “rejoice always”?
The primary answer is this: we will learn to rejoice in God as He completes His work in us. The more we progress in sanctification, the more we will grow in appreciation and praise for God. The more we gain eyes to see what He has accomplished for us and granted to us in Christ, the more we will gain mouths to express our affections to Him. The more we watch Him work in our lives, through a variety of circumstances, the more we will grow in the hope that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
So, while we may never attain God’s standard here on the earth, we will keep moving in this direction by grace through faith, until the day we see Jesus face-to-face and rejoice in Him with the angels for all eternity! In light of this destiny, it is best for us to think less about the standard itself and more about the God, who has revealed His glory through Jesus Christ. For if we will focus on Him, we will indeed learn to rejoice always.
Pray Without Ceasing
The second part of Paul’s exhortation is to “pray without ceasing” (1st Thessalonians 5:17). To pray is to talk with God, and to intercede is to talk with God about others. We tend to take this privilege for granted, but we will never understand the lengths to which God went to make access into His presence possible for us, and to make our prayers and intercessions pleasing to Himself. Through the blood of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, God the Father has made a way for us to come into His presence at anytime and from any place to talk about anything. As Paul wrote, “And he [Jesus] came and preached peace to you who were far off [Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:17-18).
Having opened up the way to His throne of grace, God not only invites, but encourages us to come to Him with all of our cares, concerns, and anxieties. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1st Peter 5:6-7). And remember, “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5-7). God’s desire is that we would share all things with Him, who is able to do all things. Of course, it’s not that He’s unaware of the state of our hearts or the particulars of our lives, but it is that He wants us to enter deep into the joy of fellowship with Him by sharing all things with Him.
In order to make our prayers and intercessions most pleasing to Him and effective in the world, God counsels us to pray according to His will, as revealed in His Word. As Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:7-8). When our minds are saturated with the words of God and our hearts delight in the wisdom of God, we will learn to pray according to the will of God so that God is pleased to answer our prayers. But as we grow in bearing fruit through conversation with God, we rejoice more in the fellowship we have with Him than the answers He grants to us. In fact, for the believing soul, answers to prayer are simply confirmation that we have come to know God through Jesus Christ, and in this we greatly rejoice!
Now, one of the profound secrets of living a life of prayer and intercession is that, as we grow in it, we slowly transform into the image of Jesus. The author of Hebrews writes, “Consequently, he [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). That is, Jesus saves and sanctifies His people through His intercessions for us, and He transforms us into His image by teaching us His way of life. And as we learn His way of life, we enter deep into His joy so that we have all the more reason to rejoice always and pray without ceasing.
But if this is the nature and purpose of prayer, how are we to “pray without ceasing”? As inviting as this exhortation is, it seems impossible. To be sure, if we envision prayer as an activity for which we must set aside all other things, then this call to prayer is impossible. After all, we must ready ourselves in the morning, we must work and play and interact with others during the day, and we must sleep at night. However, if we envision prayer as a conversational way of life with God, whereby we maintain and nourish our conscious communion with Him, then this call to prayer is both possible and inviting. For then it simply means that God wants us to talk to Him at all times, about all things.
By the grace of God in Christ, we can grow toward the day when this conversational way of life with God characterizes our lives. We can grow toward the day when we consciously commune with Him even in silence. We can grow toward the day when our fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the main thing in everything we think, feel, say, or do. I am not saying that this way of life is easy to attain, for no matter how much we grow, we will always have more growing to do and more fleshliness to overcome. But I am saying that this way of life is possible by the power and grace of our Heavenly Intercessor, and I am saying that it is the destiny of all who know Him and enjoy fellowship with Him.
In sum, the call to pray without ceasing is an invitation to enjoy unbroken fellowship with our heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And it is an invitation to be transformed into the image of Him who saved us. So, again, let us think less about the standard itself and more about God Himself. For in turning our thoughts toward God, we will long to enjoy fellowship with Him all the days of our lives.
Give Thanks in All Circumstances
This leads us to the final part of Paul’s exhortation, namely, to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1st Thessalonians 5:18), which is probably better translated “give thanks in all things”. To give thanks means to offer up “good graces” to God, that is, to bless His name. It means to express gratitude to God for His person, words, and works. And as we learn to rejoice always in the gospel and commune with God through prayer, it is only fitting that we also learn to thank and bless the name of Him who has forgiven our sins, who has reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and who has begun the long but certain process of transforming us into His image. Indeed, since there is so much for which to be thankful to God, we should learn to give Him thanks “in all things.”
But as sensible as is this call to gratitude, the question remains, what does it mean to “give thanks in all things”? First, notice that Paul did not instruct us to give thanks for all things. Some things are inherently evil, and some circumstances, while under the sovereign control of God, are not in accordance with His perfect will. Therefore, we are not called to give thanks for all things in themselves, but we are called to give thanks to God in all things whatever the particulars of those things.
The reason for this is both simple and profound: we are called to give thanks in all things because we know that God is at work in all things. The cross of Christ is the greatest demonstration of the fact that God is able and willing to use even the greatest evil to bring about the greatest good. And since we are sure that God will exalt Himself and bless His people through good and evil, victory and defeat, triumph and tragedy, we should learn the discipline and joy of rendering to Him the thanks that are always due His name.
This is the Will of God in Christ Jesus
With that, Paul concludes his three-part exhortation by teaching us that this way of life “is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (5:18). In other words, our heavenly Father not only commends these things to us, but He deeply desires them for us. And we can rest assured that this way of life will become our way of life as we grow in Christ, not because of what we have determined to do for God, but because of what He has purposed to do in us. The day is coming when we will be happily consumed with God: rejoicing in Him always, praying at all times, and giving thanks in all things as a natural part of our union with Him.
Since this is what our Father wants for our lives, let us fully cooperate with His work in us and build daily habits that nurture His desires. Specifically, let us spend some time every morning meditating on His Word, sharing our hearts with Him, and asking for grace from Him to rejoice, pray, and give thanks throughout the day. Then, by His grace and power, let us learn to appreciate Him, praise Him, call upon Him, intercede before Him, and give thanks to Him in and through everything we experience and endure. Finally, as we take our rest at night, let us express our gratitude to Him for His mercy and faithfulness to us. As the Psalmist wrote, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night” (Psalm 92:1-2).
Indeed, let us cooperate with God as He endeavors to bring about His will in our lives, for this will be a glory to Him, nourishment for our souls, and a blessing for everyone around us. And let us remember that our hope is in God’s faithfulness to us, not in our faithfulness to Him. For this reason, Paul closes his letter with this prayer and promise; I encourage you to read it prayerfully and carefully. “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1st Thessalonians 5:23-24). Amen.