The Command that Restored my Heart
The shortest verse in the New Testament (in the original Greek), 1 Thessalonians 5:16, gives to us a command that I understand and appreciate more deeply now than I did two years ago.
Last year I went through a very trying time. Following the death of my mother and of a couple of good friends, I ended up dealing with some other significant challenges. Much in my life was turned upside down. I faced criticisms that shook me deeply, and I faced major uncertainties about my future. In the midst of my stress and discouragement, I came to discover that the command given in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 is given for a reason: My spiritual and emotional health (and perhaps my physical and mental health as well) depended upon my obedience to that command: “Rejoice always.”
The New International Version translates this verse: “Be joyful always.” The impression I get from this translation is that I ought to be in a perpetual state of happiness. That certainly was not the reality of my life last year.
The New American Standard Bible translates it: “Rejoice always.” What I hear in this translation is the command to me to rejoice in God even when I am not in a happy mood. That became my experience. In the midst of my struggles I picked up a couple of new verses from Scripture that I recited each day to keep my mind and soul focused on God’s promise to be with me through all things and to be my strength and hope and peace through it all. Rejoicing always did not mean that I had to feel guilty about not being happy at all times, but it meant that I had a choice to make: The choice to turn my attention to God and to cling to the truth of His love and goodness and provisions of hope and peace and strength.
I appreciate Tim Hansel’s wise words on this topic. He wrote the book You Gotta Keep Dancin’ out of his own struggle with constant pain following a climbing mishap in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In this book he points out: “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional. We cannot avoid pain, but we can avoid joy. God has given us such immense freedom that He will allow us to be as miserable as we want to be. I know some people who spend their entire lives practicing being unhappy, diligently pursuing joylessness. They get more mileage from having people feel sorry for them than from choosing to live out their lives in the context of joy” (p. 55).
The command to us to “rejoice always” is the soul-rescuing and life-restoring command to make that vital decision not to lock up our hearts in the realm of misery but to turn our focus to the God of hope. As I plodded through the daily discipline of focusing my heart on God’s character and promises, I was able to suck in drips and drops of peace from above and of grace and renewal.
Henri Nouwen wrote the book The Return of the Prodigal during a time of deep pain in his own life. In that book he stresses, “Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.” This is, indeed, the wonderful miracle of rejoicing: Rejoicing transforms the sadness in our soul to a fertile soil for joy. It’s the command that saved my heart.