Rejoice alway….in everything give thanks.
1 Thessalonians 5:16
How is this possible? How can we rejoice amid difficulties? Where does that joy come from? We cannot manufacture it, for we have not got it; we just have not got it! But elsewhere Paul gives us the secret. We are to rejoice in the Lord. We are to live by the joy of him who, where you or I would have despaired, “rejoiced in the spirit” with those triumphant words: “Father…it was well pleasing in thy sight” (Luke 10:21). His joy is yours. Learn to live by it above your troubles. When tempted to be cast down, look up and ask yourself, Has the Lord lost his joy today? Only if he has may you be content to be joyless! For it is not a question of your joy, but his. The joy of the Lord is your strength.
Lest we who read this today somehow think these are words of religious hype, written by someone who knows not the depths of struggle and despair, I offer a glimpse of Nee’s life. He was a pastor in China during the fifties when the Communists gained control of that nation. One of their first acts was to outlaw Christian churches and to round up and imprison thousands of pastors and church leaders. Nee was among those jailed and tortured for their faith. Much of his writing, similar to the apostle Paul, who wrote the text scripture today, was done in a prison cell. What makes today’s instructions and words of encouragement and challenge so relevant is that both the authors are experiencing personal sufferings. If someone who knows little or perhaps only minuscule difficulty were to pen or speak these words, we would no doubt shrug them off as “pie in the sky.” We might even be offended or feel that something was wrong with us or our faith. But knowing these words come from the hearts of fellow believers who themselves have and are experiencing extreme pain, suffering, and even moments of despair, gives us hope that we ourselves might by the help of God attain to this place. These words aren’t designed to condemn us in our struggles or to imply that if we aren’t “rejoicing” at all times we somehow lack in our faith. These words are to encourage us and give us hope to look beyond our present circumstances and get a glimpse of the One who is with us and fully aware of our battles.
Paul, who wrote the text today also gives us additional encouragement and understanding as to how it can be possible to rejoice in those places that bring despair to our hearts:
“But we have this precious treasure [the good news about salvation] in [unworthy] earthen vessels [of human frailty], so that the grandeur and surpassing greatness of the power will be [shown to be] from God [His sufficiency] and not from ourselves. We are pressured in every way [hedged in], but not crushed; perplexed [unsure of finding a way out], but not driven to despair; hunted down and persecuted, but not deserted [to stand alone]; struck down, but never destroyed; always carrying around in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the [resurrection] life of Jesus also may be shown in our body. For we who live are constantly [experiencing the threat of] being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the [resurrection] life of Jesus also may be evidenced in our mortal body [which is subject to death]. So physical death is [actively] at work in us, but [spiritual] life [is actively at work] in you. Yet we have the same spirit of faith as he had, who wrote in Scripture, “I believed, therefore I spoke.” We also believe, therefore we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus and will present us [along] with you in His presence. For all [these] things are for your sake, so that as [God’s remarkable, undeserved] grace reaches to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of [our great] God. Therefore we do not become discouraged [spiritless, disappointed, or afraid]. Though our outer self is [progressively] wasting away, yet our inner self is being [progressively] renewed day by day. For our momentary, light distress [this passing trouble] is producing for us an eternal weight of glory [a fullness] beyond all measure [surpassing all comparisons, a transcendent splendor and an endless blessedness]! So we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are unseen; for the things which are visible are temporal [just brief and fleeting], but the things which are invisible are everlasting and imperishable.”
2 Corinthians 4:7-18
In these verses, Paul acknowledges the realities of life- life filled with hurt, bewilderment, despair, doubt, defeat and disappointment. Listen to his words describing those places: “We are pressured in every way(hedged in), perplexed(unsure of finding a way out), hunted down and persecuted, constantly experiencing the threat of being handed over to death, and physical death is actively at work in us.” What a list of hopeless and helpless experiences. But Paul isn’t content with just listing the difficulties- the realities of a life of suffering. To each distress he includes words of hope. We may be experiencing these moments he says, but along with them comes a faith, a trust, that rests not in our power to face and withstand these trials, but the revelation that in those moments God stands for us and ultimately we will enjoy the fruit of overcoming all these things now or in the world to come.
He says the accompanying provisions of God are: “We have been given the precious treasure of salvation and the grandeur and greatness power of God’s power is at work in us. That power which comes from God and not from ourselves keeps us from being crushed under the pressures of life, keep us from the despair of ever finding our way out of a situation, when we feel hunted down and persecuted tells us we have not been deserted to stand alone, and when we are struck down, fallen to the ground under the weight of burdens, keeps us from being destroyed.” In conclusion, Paul says that even though death is at work in us- and it is in everyone, including the young and healthy for everyone is destined to die- that spiritual life is also actively working in us. In other writings Paul reminds us that as believers even when our outer body is wasting away, our spirits are growing stronger.
Maybe today you can’t give thanks for your situation and that’s ok for the Bible doesn’t say we are to give thanks for everything. What it says is that in everything, give thanks. I’ve discovered that if nothing else, I can always give thanks that God is with me and even in the darkest moments when hope is failing, I know I am not alone. I know that even if there is no relief in this life, that someday in the world to come my joy will be complete. We rejoice in God and His promises even in the midst of despair. Hebrews tells us that Christ endured the cross because He focused on “the joy that was set before Him.” I think what got Him through the suffering was what was yet to come. That, beloved will be what gets us through. I pray today that you will know this “joy.”
Dr. John Thompson