By Elton HiggsRecently our pastor has been preaching a series of sermons on experiencing joy in Christian living, based on the book of Philippians. His sermons provoked me to consider the question, “How do we rejoice in prayer?” I remembered that rejoicing and praying were paired in I Thess. 5:16-17: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing.” But as I looked at Paul’s two “always” instructions there, I noticed that they are linked with another admonition to do something continually: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thess. 5:16-18). So I expanded my question: “What is the relationship between these three juxtaposed “always” commands to pray, rejoice, and give thanks?”
First of all, I would argue that thankfulness, the third of the triad, is the most basic one, on which the other two are built and maintained. The mind-set of thankfulness alters our interpretation of circumstances and events by focusing on the goodness and rightness of what God has done and is doing, rather than on our analysis and interpretation of the things happening to us. Focusing on God’s sure and all-wise management of things gives us the stability and confident perspective from which to approach praying and rejoicing always. It lays the attitudinal foundation for forming the habits of rejoicing and praying.
Thankfulness is also foundational because it is easier to will into action than the other two; it is harder to be hypocritical in giving thanks than in praying and rejoicing. As Jesus pointed out in Matt. 6, prayer can easily be done for show; and one can go through the motions of rejoicing in an emotionally charged worship service and soon afterward experience spiritual emptiness. In contrast, the mere decision to verbalize thanksgiving pushes us toward actually being thankful, and thus feeds, in a positive way, on itself,
Before we go on to consider prayer and rejoicing specifically, we must deal with the intimidating effect of those three uncompromising adverbial modifiers, “always,” “without ceasing,” and “in all circumstances.” They seem on the surface to demand superhuman compliance. Who can meet these extreme expectations? Are we to seek some monastic retreat in order to pray all the time? What sense does it make to rejoice when the world is falling down around our ears and we are in anguish because of physical pain or the crumbling of a relationship? And how can we give thanks for personal failure and being treated unjustly? The answer to these questions lies in two directions: (1) Understand that the counterintuitive challenge of this group of actions is to do them in spite of the prevailing circumstances, not because the situation obviously calls for thankfulness or joy or prayers of praise. As James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). (2) Recognize that we cannot achieve the implied perfection in these commands through fleshly strength; we must depend on God’s Spirit to enable us.
With these two facts in mind, we can use the springboard of thankfulness to concentrate on the strength and sovereignty of God, rather than on our weakness and inevitable failures. In that light, we can broaden our view of prayer beyond consciously planned prayer times. We can observe with praise the spring trees in bloom or the wonder of pictures from the Hubble Telescope. We can view with prayerful concern people in public places who look battered by life. We can respond to the distressing news of political chicanery with a brief prayer for our governmental leaders. As we make our feeble efforts at prayer, our Father rejoices that we are still trying, just as we rejoice in and encourage a child’s persistence in learning to walk. And there we find the reality of the link between prayer and rejoicing, both embedded in the faithful attitude of thankfulness. God is in charge, and we can be thankful to Him whatever our circumstances, because seen or unseen, He is working for the good of those whom He loves and who love Him (Rom. 8:28). That being the case, we rejoice in our unearned relationship with Him and are given the confidence that our imperfect attempts to pray and praise give Him joy.
To sum up in the words of Paul, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4), and in so doing, renew your prayer life and thank God for His wondrous grace and provision for us, His beloved children.
Image: “Morning Prayers” by Don Christner. CC License.