In my experience, 1 Thessalonians 5:16 (“Rejoice always”) is one of the most challenging verses in the Bible and one of the most soul-restoring verses in the Bible.
The verse is challenging to me because I have the tendency to get discouraged at times, and when I get discouraged I tend to wallow in my discouragement. This verse does not scold me for being discouraged. It doesn’t insist that I be happy always, nor does the verse accuse me of being a lousy Christian for not being constantly happy. But it does challenge me away from wallowing in discouragement. It calls me to make a deliberate decision to lift up my heart to God even when I am downcast. It calls me to turn my focus to the God of hope when I am disheartened.
Tim Hansel 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.”
Seen from this perspective, 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.
How do we do it?
Perhaps some spiritual giants are able to rejoice always more easily and more naturally than I. For me, rejoicing involves three disciplines:
1: Honest Prayer: That’s what David and others did in the Psalms. They did not simply put on a happy face and pretend that everything was fine. They honestly and painfully poured out their struggles, complaints and questions to God. That was the first step of rejoicing for them. It was their way of deliberately turning their attention to God. It was the way they made sure their hearts would not be locked in the realm of misery but opened up to God.
Perhaps this is why John Bunyan pointed out, “The best prayers have often more groans than words.”
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.” We never get to a place of true rejoicing unless we honestly deal with the sadness that is in us.
2: Praise: Praise is the deliberate act of remembering and declaring the goodness of God. It is in the process of doing this that our hearts begin to settle into the truth that God’s goodness withstands all of our hard times. True praise is not the declaration that we are happy about how things are turning out in our lives. Instead, it is the declaration that we cast our hope on the goodness of God whether things are going well or poorly.
Praise is a corrective recognition of who God is and who we are in comparison. As Henri Nouwen points out, “To pray is to walk in the full light of God, and to say simply, without holding back, ‘I am human and You are God.’ At that moment, conversion occurs, the restoration of the true relationship. A human being is not someone who once in a while makes a mistake, and God is not someone who now and then forgives. No, human beings are sinners and God is love.”
3: Cling to Scripture: Throughout my Christian life, I have worked at memorizing verses of Scripture, but for many years it was more a matter of doing what I thought Christians were supposed to do. A few years ago, I went through some great struggles in my life. At that time I found myself turning to specific verses that enabled me to focus my heart on God’s care and sovereignty and on the assurance of peace and strength and help which God promises us. At set points during the day, I would recite those verses to myself. Those verses became a lifesaver to me. They filled me with hope and encouragement amidst the darkness that surrounded me. I continue to say those verses daily, and they continue to tune my soul to rejoicing.
Paul Tournier once commented, “There are two things we cannot do alone, one is to be married and the other is be a Christian.” The reality of the Christian life is that we need one another. So when Paul begins to conclude his first letter to the Thessalonians with a string of practical instructions, most of them have to do with how we ought to interact with one another. Two of these practical, relational instructions are recorded in 1 Thessalonians 5:14: “Encourage the fainthearted; cling to the weak.”
The literal translation from the Greek for the first instruction (paramutheisthe tous oligopsuxous) is: “Speak alongside the small-souled, or speak beside those who souls are small.”
Whenever our souls are deflated, we need someone to come alongside of us and to speak the right words to our deflated soul. That’s what Paul calls us to do for one another.
Tim Madigan tells about how Fred Rogers did that for him. At a very difficult time in his life, when he thought his marriage was going to break up, he wrote to Fred Rogers about his struggles. In his book, I’m Proud of You: Life Lessons from my Friend Fred Rogers, he records what happened: “I finally summoned my nerve, went inside to our computer, and typed out a letter to my friend, tears of remorse streaming down my cheeks. After years of counseling and struggle, my marriage was probably ending and I was the one ending it, I told Mister Rogers in my letter that day. Could he forgive such a person? Could he continue to love such a man?
“His reply arrived within the week, dated December 20, 1997, two full pages on the stationery of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood…. I did not make it through the first paragraph before I again began to cry: ‘My dear Tim, Bless your heart. I feel so for you—for you all—but, Tim, please know that I would never forsake you, that I will never be disappointed with you, that I would never stop loving you. How I wish we could be closer geographically! I’d get in my car, drive to your house, knock on your door, and when you answered I’d hug you tight.
“‘You are a beautiful man, inside and out, and those who care about you are privileged to share your pain…. As for suffering: I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact, I’m fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of “powerlessness.” Join the club; we are not in control: God is.
“‘Our trust and affection run very deep. You know you are in my prayers—now and always. If you ever need me you have only to call and I would do my best to get to you, or you to me….
“‘You are my beloved brother, Tim. You are God’s beloved son.’”
That’s the kind of encouragement 1 Thessalonians 5:14 calls us to. That’s coming alongside of a friend when their soul is deflated.
The second instruction (antexesthe ton asthenon) is translated literally, “Hold firmly to or cling to the weak.” This instruction recognizes how easy it is for a person to stumble when he or she is weak, and how important it is for us to hold onto such a person so as to keep them from hurting themselves.
On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first people in history to climb to the top of Mount Everest. On their descent from the mountain peak, Sir Edmund lost his footing, but Tenzing dug his ax into the ice and held the line taut, keeping them both from falling to their deaths. When reporters asked about this later, Tenzing refused any special credit for saving Sir Edmund’s life. He considered it a routine part of the job. He said simply, “Mountain climbers always help each other.”
That’s what should be said about Christians as well: We always help each other; we always hold firmly to the one who is in danger of falling.
At times, Christians have been accused of being so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good.
Paul had that concern about the believers in Thessalonica (in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). They had become so excited about the prospect of Jesus coming back that they lost sight of their place in this world. In 1st Thessalonians 5:6, Paul challenges them, “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”
What does it mean for a Christian to be awake and sober?
It means that while we wait for the incredible happiness of heaven, we need to keep our eyes open on this earth—alert and attentive to what is going on around us.
Joyce Meyer compares our waiting for heaven to the diligence of an expectant mother: “It’s just like when a woman is pregnant; it’s said that she is expecting a baby. She carries inside her the promise of a baby, and even though she can’t see it, she knows it’s there. The moment she learns of her pregnancy, she begins to plan for her baby’s arrival. She starts collecting items she’ll need and busily gets the nursery ready. She actively prepares for the arrival of the baby because she knows the promise will be fulfilled—it’s just a matter of time. She is expectant, and she’ll wait as long as it takes…. Our act of waiting isn’t supposed to be spent sitting around passively hoping that something will happen sometime soon.”
While we wait to enter the joy of heaven, or while we wait for Christ to return, we are to do so expectantly, alertly, actively.
What should we be alert to?
1: We should be alert to the presence of God. Though heaven is the place where we will experience closeness to God without any kind of barrier or interruption, we should be attentive to His presence now as well. In verse 10, Paul expresses his concern that “whether we are awake or asleep, we may live with Him.” David Benner points out, “The Christian spiritual journey is unlike any other journey. Christ’s call to follow Him is a call not simply to obedience but to a relationship in which He leads us to the source of His life—the source of all life…. God’s intended home is our heart, and it is meeting God in our depths that transforms us from the inside out.” Be alert to God’s presence.
2: We should be alert to dangers to our soul. In verse 8 Paul repeats that we should be sober; this time he adds that we should “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” We need a breastplate and a helmet when we are in danger, and the reality is that our souls are in danger everyday of our lives. The former mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia remarked, “The devil is easy to identify. He appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn comments, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” So be alert to the sin in each of us, to our tiredness, and to the devil’s temptations.
3: We should be alert to opportunities God opens up to us to do something good. Paul ends this passage with this challenge: “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other.” F.B. Meyer once lamented that if he could live his life over again, he’d spend much more time in the ministry of encouragement. One of the greatest things we can do in life is to encourage others. It is encouragement that builds others up, making them greater. Let us be alert to such opportunities to build others up.