The challenge & soul-restoration of rejoicing always

1 Thessalonians 5.16

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.

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