Joyful, joyful

A few years back, I put up a sign on my office wall, with the words “Attitude Check” and a much-needed reminder from Paul:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess 5:16-18, NIV)

I placed it strategically next to the clock, for two reasons: one, I knew that I would glance at the clock several times a day; and two, when I did, an attitude check would probably be appropriate.  Having had the sign hanging there for some time now, I can honestly say: I still look at the clock, but ignore the sign.

Yet God in his grace still brings that text to mind now and again.  Truthfully, there’s a part of me that reads it like a religious to-do list, and a daunting one at that.  In that frame of mind, to read that this is all “God’s will” merely adds to the intimidation factor.

But the other part of me knows this isn’t what Paul means at all.  Rejoice, pray, give thanks; always, continually, in all circumstances.  It’s not a three-item spiritual checklist, but a kind of parallelism, three alternative ways to convey the same truth–not simply about what God wants from us, but for us.

It’s one thing to think that God is demanding from us that we put a happy face on every situation, no matter how terrible, and somehow bend the knee 24/7.  But it’s another to believe that what God really wants for us is to be the kind of people for whom prayer isn’t just a discrete act of piety, but an orientation of life, a continual openness of the soul to God–with the result that we can be people of joy and gratitude without denying the reality of suffering and hardship.

That is, after all, a good description of Paul and his colleagues.  If you read between the lines of 1 Thessalonians, you can hear the carping of Paul’s opponents in the background: “Don’t listen to them!  Don’t let them smooth-talk you with their phony religion!  Sure, they put on a good pious show, but that’s all it is–show.  All they want is for you to stroke their egos and give them money; they don’t really care about you.”

To give your all in ministry, to try to be a person of integrity, only to have people misrepresent your character and your teaching behind your back…how does one endure that?  Soldiering on while gritting your teeth in resentment is no answer.  Nor is trying to manufacture simple good will.

But the Holy Spirit can work joy and gratitude in us when we pray with a surrendered soul.  And as surrender becomes more and more the orientation of our lives, joy and gratitude become more constant companions.

Joy and gratitude: I’ll take those.  Surrender?  Well, that’s another matter.

I suppose that’s why I need an attitude check in the first place.