Always Rejoicing, Praying, and Thanking God

Dr. Brian Allison

This past week I was speaking to a friend. He was somewhat confused, trying to discern what is the will of God for him at this particular point in his life. He indicated to me that he knows how he is to serve the Lord, he knows exactly what he is to do in serving Christ, but he does not know in what capacity nor in what context he is to serve. He does not know the avenue that he is to pursue in serving. That may be the case with some who read this message. At this point in your life, you do not know the Lord's specific leading for you. You do not know His directive will. Although we may not always be clear and cognizant of the directive will of God, we can (because we have the Word of God) always be clear and cognizant of the moral will of God, that is, what God desires for us, how He wants us to live and behave.

There are clear expressions, plain statements, in the Scriptures concerning how God wants us to conduct ourselves in this world. The statements of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 are a clear example of His will. When we know God's will and do it, He is pleased with us; and pleasing Him ought to be our greatest joy and motivation. It ought to be our passion to know what God's will is because that is our spiritual food and drink; for in doing God's will, we glorify Him. Thus, we read, "Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this [rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks] is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." The apostle Paul provides us here with practical directives. More particularly, as we consider the wider passage in which we find our text – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 – the apostle herein highlights various relationships which we sustain with different ones. In 5:12,13, Paul touches on pastor-people relationships. In 5:14,15, he touches on corporate or social relationships. With 5:16-18, he is dealing with personal religion or, if you like, our personal relationship with God – how God expects us to relate and respond to Him. What I want you to notice with these practical directives, as they pertain to our relationship with Christ, is that the emphasis is on the devotional or experimental – rejoicing, praying, giving thanks.

Keep in mind, as we consider these practical directives which centre on our relationship with God, that Paul is here spelling out a way of life; not something that is 'hit and miss', not something that we should do now and again. These three activities ought to characterize every Christian. Further, as we consider these three practical directives, realize that there is a logical connection and progression with them. First, out of our rejoicing, we should be propelled to pray. True prayer, in turn, has the character of joy. Why? True prayer is the practice of the presence of God, and in His presence there is, "fulness of joy, in [His] right hand there are pleasures forever" (Ps. 16:11). So, if there is a rejoicing heart, it will spill over into prayer – a speaking with God. Second, if we are really enjoying His presence, and engaged in prayer, there will be thanksgiving. Thanksgiving will be an essential part of our prayers. As we are confronted with the presence and glory of God, we will give Him thanks.

Never stop rejoicing

The first practical directive, as we consider our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is that we are to rejoice at all times – "Rejoice always" (5:16). This language does not require any commentary; it does not require any explanation. As Christians, we are to rejoice all the time. Now, you may retort, "Hold it, what are you talking about? How is it possible for anyone to be happy all the time?" I did not say, "Be happy all the time;" rather, I said, "Be joyful all the time." There is a distinction between happiness and joyfulness. Though the feelings may be somewhat similar with these two emotional dispositions, there is still a distinction between them. Happiness is directly dependent upon our circumstances; joy is not. Joy is dependent upon our possession – what we have – regardless of what happens to us. That is why you can "rejoice always." If you were to get into a car accident, you would not be happy. If you were to get an unexpected bill this coming week, with an already tight budget, you would not be happy. If you were to fail an exam in the near future, you would not be happy. But, regardless of whether you get into a car accident, receive an unexpected bill, or fail an exam (which would make you unhappy), you can still have joy, because joy is not dependent upon circumstances; but joy, as a Christian, is dependent upon knowing someone, possessing someone – Jesus. The reality of that relationship never changes. In the midst of our topsy-turvy world, there is this anchor of the soul, namely, Christ; and He never changes. He remains in control of everything; and therefore we can "rejoice always." Thank God that God does not change. Thank God that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. Thank God that the promises of God are 'yea and amen' in Jesus Christ.

According to Acts 5, Peter and the apostles were severely persecuted. Peter and John were thrown into prison. They were later castigated before the Sanhedrin, and then were flogged. So, they were humiliated, verbally assaulted, and physically threatened. They suffered for the name of Christ. What was their attitude in all this? Acts 5:41 reads, "So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name." Now, as an onlooker you might have said, "They are nuts; they are crazy; they need to be locked up. Look at what they have gone through – the hassle, the difficulty, the humiliation – and yet they are rejoicing."

Even when we go 'through the valley of the shadow of death', we are to still rejoice because God changes not. At one time, Paul's life 'hung in the balances'. He was not sure whether he would live another day or be executed (though the Lord did deliver his life); and we read in Philippians 2:17,18, Paul's own testimony, "But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. And you too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me." This text, no doubt, is an indictment against many. We may experience a little bit of difficulty in our lives. Perhaps someone criticizes us, or disappoints us, or we do not get our own way. And the result is that we sulk, get moody, or become upset. We bemoan the slightest discomforts. Most of our suffering certainly does not compare with that of the apostle Paul. What was your cell block number this past week? In your particular trying circumstance, have you continued to rejoice? In everything that happened this past week, were you rejoicing? Did you beam with the joy of Christ?

Rejoicing in the midst of pain

Now, I am not saying that we should never have sorrow. I am not saying that we should never cry. God does not call us to stoicism; He calls us to reality. Sometimes we shed tears; but even with tears rolling down our cheeks, we should still be rejoicing in our hearts, though this may sound like a contradiction. We read in 2 Corinthians 6:10, "As sorrowful yet always rejoicing." We have no way out, no excuse. You may say, "Lord, You know the burdens in my life. You know how I am crushed and weighed down; and no one seems to understand, no one seems to care; everyone seemingly rejects me. You know, Lord, that I have a right to be depressed about my problems." God says that even when you are sorrowful, you are to "rejoice always." It is possible. An expectant mother may be in much pain and sorrow in body while in the delivery room and yet, at the same time, rejoice within at the thought of having a baby.

God is looking for a perpetually joyful people; and when we are not joyful, we not only deny His Word, but we reveal our lack of faith and trust. Why? Our lack of joy is a reflection of our understanding of our relationship with Him, and of our possession of Him, which does not change. We always have Him. He is ours and we are His. Of course, when the apostle Paul directs us to rejoice always, the focus of rejoicing is Christ Himself. People will let you down. There are times when we have difficulty rejoicing in people. We try to work with them; we try to be patient with them, but sometimes we have difficulty rejoicing in them. They change. They react. They turn on you. People can be like a box of Cracker Jacks – you do not know what surprise you are going to get inside. But God does not change. So, we are to rejoice in Jesus Christ. Philippians 4:4 reads, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!" Do we really believe these words? It seems that many Christians don't, if we can use one's countenance as a measure. Proverbs 15:13 reads, "A joyful heart makes a cheerful face" (a general, not an absolute, principle). Joy in the heart is naturally expressed on the face (not that someone always has to be smiling as an indication of his or her joy; but true joy cannot be hidden). Again, to rejoice always in the Lord does not exclude emotional pain, but this joy, by the grace of God, eventually absorbs and extinguishes such pain, and continues to set us free.

It does not matter what your situation in life is – either good or bad – you are to rejoice. James 1:2 reads, "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials." You may respond, "Lord, are You sure about that? Are we seeing life from the same perspective?" God says, "Listen, your perspective is wrong. See things from My perspective. Consider it all joy. Be 'hilarious in the Spirit'. Let there be that 'laughter of the soul', when you are confronted with various difficulties." Now, you cannot do that on your own. You cannot volitionally whip up this joy. You cannot say, "Okay, the pastor says I need to be joyful, and I am determined to be joyful" (and you put on a plastic smile). You have to decide to make rejoicing your objective; you have to pray about being joyful; you have to respond to this directive in faith. But where does real joy come from? – the Holy Spirit. Unless you are living and walking in the Spirit, you will have no real joy. If you have no joy, that is saying something about your spiritual condition – "For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rm. 14:17). These are the spiritual characteristics of kingdom citizens. You will know someone who is walking in the Spirit, who is filled with the Spirit, if he or she has joy. That is why Ephesians 5:18,19 says, "Be filled with the Spirit," resulting in "singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord."

Never stop praying

The second practical directive, as we consider our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is that we are to persistently pray – "pray without ceasing" (5:17). Do not forget that this activity should be a way of life. This directive does not mean that we are to pray every second of every day. That is practically impossible; but rather, we are to be praying at all times. And the primary thrust of the text is that we are to pray audibly, that is, to steal away, get down on our knees (if possible), and open up our mouths to the Lord. We can play great mind games, can't we? God knows whether we are praying all the time or not. We may say, "Oh, I am thinking about You, Lord." God did not tell us to think about Him as a substitute for prayer. He told us to pray, to speak with Him – not a monologue, but a dialogue.

We are to engage in both regulated prayer and spontaneous prayer. Regulated prayer is when you have set times during the day when you steal away and pray alone. Spontaneous prayer is unanticipated times of prayer in which something, during the day, comes to your mind, or presents itself to you, and you raise a silent prayer to God in your current setting. We should always be engaged in spontaneous prayer; and we should always be practicing regulated prayer. We should be praying in the morning, and (if possible) in the afternoon, and praying in the evening – "As for me, I shall call upon God, and the LORD will save me. Evening and morning and at noon, I will complain and murmur, and He will hear my voice" (Ps. 55:16,17). Are you praying without ceasing? There is no spiritual power without persistent prayer. You will know very little of the Spirit's moving and blessing in your life without persevering prayer.

At one time, I thought that preaching was the highest calling that one could receive. I am no longer convinced of that. I believe that prayer is. In prayer, you speak to God and God speaks to you; in preaching, God speaks to you and you speak to people. Prayer is more intimate. Prayer is the "Most Holy Place" for the Christian. In the new heavens and the new earth, we will not have preaching, but we will still be praying, still be worshipping our God, still be casting our crowns before Him, crying, "Worthy is the Lamb Who was slain."

Do you know why we are to pray? What is the reason for prayer? First, we have daily needs. Prayer is the posture of dependency. We cry, "Lord, You are powerful; I am weak. You have everything; I am struggling with very little." Prayer is the acknowledgement that we need God. Again, we read (remember the logical progression of these activities), "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!...Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Php. 4:4,6). We also pray because God invites us to worship. Prayer is the essence of worship – "May my prayer be counted as incense before Thee; the lifting up of my hands as the evening offering" (Ps. 141:2). Also, we pray because we require spiritual and physical safety. We pray to God for protection. As Jesus instructs us in Matthew 26:41, "Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." Prayer is the means for survival. Further, we pray in order to receive the forgiveness of sins – "then hear from heaven, from Thy dwelling place, their prayer and supplications, and maintain their cause, and forgive Thy people who have sinned against Thee" (2 Chron. 6:39). Through prayer we are pardoned and spiritually cleansed.

God really does not need our prayers. He can do quite well without them. Prayers are designed to allow us to come to know the Creator, to love Him, to see Him as our source, origin, means, and end of all of life. Think about this wisdom of God. He gave us the simple means of prayer that we might enjoy fellowship with Him. God, by nature, is a relational God. That is His nature – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is, by nature, in fellowship; and He allows us to enter into fellowship with Him by means that even a child can use. We are to pray without ceasing, and thus enjoy continual fellowship with God.

Paul was a man of prayer; and what he exhorts us to do here, he himself did. Colossians 1:3 reads, "We [are] praying always for you;" and v. 9, "For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding;" and 2 Thessalonians 1:11, "To this end also we pray for you always that our God may count you worthy of your calling, and fulfil every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power." Again, it is joy that propels us into prayer. Philippians 1:4 reads, "Always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all."

Never stop giving thanks

The third practical directive, as we consider our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is that we are to give thanks in all situations – "in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." (5:18). It does not matter what the problem is, it does not matter what the disaster is, it does not matter what we are enduring; it does not matter who has hurt us, or who has rejected us, or who has offended us, or who has attacked us; it does not matter if our bodies are mangled and broken; it does not matter if we lose our job; it does not matter if we lose our position and status; in everything we are to give thanks to God. I did not say that we are to give thanks for the pain or trouble itself – God does not call us to be masochists – but we thank God because in everything, He is in control; in everything, He is still a good God, He is still a loving God. In everything, He still knows the end from the beginning. He has ordered everything that comes to pass in our lives. God knows what He is doing; and He says in everything give thanks, because He does not change. He is still the God of love, the God of goodness, the God of faithfulness. He still cares. He still meets our needs.

We ought to give Him thanks because of His sovereignty and because of His greatness. When your family breaks apart, when your child contracts a fatal disease, when your wife leaves you – whatever – though you feel the pain (and you ought to feel the pain), you should continue to say, as Job, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. [In everything], blessed be the name of the Lord" (Jb. 1:21b). It takes grace to respond like that, my friend. You show me someone who is filled with the Spirit, and I will show you someone who is thanking God in every circumstance. Again, you cannot evidence this characteristic on your own. You need the Spirit. Consider again Ephesians 5:18,19, "But be filled with the Spirit...always giving thanks for all things [because they have come from the hand of your loving heavenly Father] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father."

We may say, "Lord, I do not understand what is happening in my life, but I know You love me; and I know that Your Son died for me; and with Christ, and in Christ, and through Christ, You will freely give me all things. And so, in an act of faith, my Father, I will bow the knee in submission and surrender, and I will give You thanks." Again, there is a logical connection. We move from joy to prayer, and from prayer to thanksgiving. So, Ephesians 1:16 reads, "Do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers."

So, these verses – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 – deal with our relationship with God, cast in the form of practical directives which centre on the devotional. Would you expect anything else? When we are considering our relationship with God, would you expect anything other than that which constitutes, or points to, worship? I do not think so. God calls us to worship. That is our primary calling. It is to be a way of life, a perpetual lifestyle.

Notice the postscript to these three practical, devotional directives – "for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." There is no mistaking what God requires of us. Do you want to do what is pleasing and honourable to God? Then rejoice, pray, and give thanks. In doing the will of God, we are most closely aligned with Jesus Christ. In Mark 3:35, Jesus said, "For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother." You are sustaining no more intimate fellowship with Christ than when you are doing the will of God. Let me ask you, in light of what you have read, are you doing the will of God? Is your heart a Bethel – the house of God in which is constant worship? As James writes, "But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves...not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does" (1:22,25b).