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The closing verses of First Thessalonians confront us at first glance with a formidable challenge. It seems that Paul is running out of papyrus with so much more to say. In particular, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 yield a series of densely packed imperatives, any one of which could be the heading for an entire chapter. In particular, the first three of these imperatives, appear as absolutes: “Always rejoice. Pray unceasingly. In everything give thanks.” Paul immediately follows these three commands with a statement that apparently applies to all three, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
The challenge is formidable, not because we are incapable of rejoicing, praying, or giving thanks, but because at first it seems impossible to do these three things all the time. Changing circumstances make rejoicing seem inappropriate. We reason that praying cannot be a continuous activity, lest we neglect our other responsibilities. And how can we give thanks for the trouble, the trials, and the frequent moments when we experience out right failure, obvious inadequacy, and discouraging immaturity?
If Paul had urged us, “rejoice often, pray a lot, and find many opportunities to be thankful,” we would have reason for push-back. But that is not what he demands of us. The only way we can obey his commands is by transforming our thinking. When we look at our circumstances, we must learn to see them from God’s point of view. We tend to see events as happening to us randomly with little or no connection to what precedes or follows. God sees them as a series of opportunities for training us, contributing to his long-term goal of shaping us into the image of Jesus Christ.
As long as he is moving us toward that ultimate goal, we can be thankful for everything that happens to us. Every day that we are moving closer to resembling Jesus is a day for rejoicing and being thankful. Recognizing and maintaining an awareness of his character-transforming efforts in our behalf create many occasions for having a dialogue with the Lord. When we combine that with a sense of participation in his mission for the world, we can live every day in an environment of prayer.
It all boils down to a matter of our values. If we align our values to God’s, we begin to see things differently. Our daily successes and failures cannot be our focus, but rather the development – sometimes slow and sometimes rapid – of the mind and character of our Savior. Seeing that take place elicits from our hearts joy and thankfulness. Cooperating with him in that work, on us and with us, is what prompts and prolongs our prayers.