How can you always be joyful? – isn’t it insensitive when suffering and tragedy abound? What if you don’t feel like it? – don’t you have a right to be miserable?
Perhaps we ought to look at the context of Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24. Looking back through the letter, there has been talk of:
- the Life and Faith of the Thessalonians
- Paul’s Work (well, God’s really); his desire to visit again
- and in chapter 4, the consequences: A Life that Pleases God
What does God want? – well, very much what we want in our better moments: Love, peace, mutual service, holiness of life. So if they, and we, have absorbed that, we should be Ready. Ready for – The Lord’s Coming. And the words we read today are at the end of chapter 5 and the letter.
So “Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances”. It’s not insensitive in context. Don’t “bounce” on the miserable – but help put their problems in context. Face death in the context of resurrection, pain and hurt in the context of incarnation and healing.
No, you don’t have a right to be miserable! All you have is given by God (sometimes spoiled by your misuse – but there is forgiveness). At least some sorts of misery imply that God isn’t up to his job – he’s given the wrong tools, doesn’t understand, doesn’t know. (Yes, there are other sorts of misery. We can all be overcome for a time by tragedy, and cannot offer an easy solution to mental illness, but – do I have a right to choose to be miserable, NO, as far as it is a choice, I don’t).
Be joyful. How, if I don’t feel it? By giving thanks, by not restraining the Holy Spirit, by avoiding evil. This isn’t a forced Hollywood smile, a backslapping heartiness, or the suggestion that real Christians must be extravert personalities. But it is a serious instruction.
“Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances.” Joy, even at times of difficulty, is a blessing. Thanksgiving can be carefully practised until it becomes a habit. So – Praise God! not as a cliché, but as a deliberate decision, especially at times of stress. Thank God! even when you have to think quite hard what you can thank him for.
The lives the Thessalonian Christians led were certainly no easier, more comfortable or more secure than ours, – perhaps they needed these instructions, but so do we. As a preparation for the coming of Jesus, and as a serious part of our faith, let’s set out to do this:
“Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances. This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus.”
1 Th 5:16-18