Summary: The key to being joyful always and being thankful in all circumstances is to humbly rely on God.
A few weeks ago James Rogers, our senior minister, spoke about songs he hated. I’ve got a number of songs I hate. I can’t really share them with you now because they’ve normally got some sort of profanity in the title as well as in the lyrics themselves. Then there’s the songs that I just can’t get into. They’re too slow or too fast or too monotonous or you just can’t sing along to them or they’re just not very catchy. I put most stuff written in the last 15-20 years in that category. There’s the songs which sound good but when you look at the lyrics are vapid, shallow, hedonistic and narcissistic (they’re just crap in other words). Then there’s the songs which just make us feel uncomfortable, because they hit a bit too close to home or because we know we don’t live up to their standards. It was a song like this that James said he hated – the song that many of you will be familiar with, Blessed Be Your Name. Now I know that James is actually a big fan of this song, but his point was this: it calls us to praise and thank and glorify God when things are great AND when we’ve hit rock bottom. Here’s the second verse:
“Blessed be your name
When the sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s all as it should be
Blessed be your name
Blessed be your name
On the road marked with suffering
When there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be your name
It’s a huge challenge, isn’t. Now matter what we’re going through, we are to praise the name of God.
16Be joyful always; 17pray continually; 18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus
As Sheldon was reading the passage for us this evening you probably noticed the range of different instructions and encouragements that Paul, Silas and Timothy were giving to the Thessalonians as they ended their letter. We’re not going to cover everything tonight, instead we’re going to focus on three verses – only one sentence really – and that’s verses 16-18: 16Be joyful always; 17pray continually; 18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
How do you react when you hear that? Be joyful ALWAYS. Give thanks in ALL circumstances. Is this an instruction for some super-positive thinking? How can we be expected to be joyful and thankful when we’re enduring pain and loss or when we’re walking that road marked with suffering? That’s the question that this passage will have raised with many of you, I think.
But I reckon it’s just as hard to be joyful and thankful when things are going well. When our lives are sailing along smoothly, how easy it is to forget to thank God. How many of you have not even thought to thank God when you’ve got that job you wanted or when you’re relaxing on the beach in the middle of a well-earned holiday, or when you get back some good marks on an exam. We end up feeling with don’t need God because everything’s going so well.
If you’re struggling to put food on the table then you might remember to thank God that you’ve got a full stomach every evening. But when there’s never a question, when things are never hard – do we remember? Do I remember to thank God that I keep getting paid and that I can eat and have a roof over my head? To my shame I have to say no, and I would guess it is the same with most of you. Give thanks in all circumstances – because all our many blessings come from the Lord. It is only fitting that we should thank him.
As I said, though, the question most often asked about a passage like this is the other extreme – how can we thank God when things are going bad. Before he left on his globe trotting expedition, Cameron Smith spoke to the morning congregation about suffering. We didn’t get an opportunity to hear that talk but as we look at these three verses hopefully we’ll be able to explore at least a little bit of what he said.
Before we start looking at this question at a sort of intellectual level we need to acknowledge that there is often real anguish behind this. It’s not just an exercise in theology. It’s a desperate attempt to make sense of the life God has dealt us, sometimes in the face of experiences that many of us here in leafy Lugarno would never be able to understand.
It’s from that very real context that spring these questions:
How can he say “be joyful always”? How can he say “gives thanks in all circumstances”? Doesn’t he know what life is like? Doesn’t he know how I feel? Doesn’t he know how I hurt? Doesn’t he know I miss them? Does he really expect me to be joyful through that? Is this guy some sort of masochist? Is this God some sort of distant figure so caught up in his own divine privilege that he just doesn’t get what I feel like?