Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess 5:16-18, CEB)
I hate to say it, but I can be a grumpy person (I get grumpy just thinking about it). I grew up as a reasonably cheery kid. But I’ve noticed how in adult life, my humor often has a cynical edge, and I tend to notice what’s wrong more than I notice what’s right. In some ways, that’s all quite normal, since human beings in general are naturally biased toward negativity–it helps protect us from real threats. But negative emotions also have a stronger, more lasting grip on us than positive ones do. Given a choice, gratitude is better than grumpiness as an orientation toward life.
That’s why, several years ago, I made a sign with the words “Attitude Check” in bold letters across the top, and Paul’s words from 1 Thessalonians beneath. I hung it in my office right next to the wall clock, where I knew I’d see it on a regular basis.
Sad to say, I still look at the clock, but often ignore the sign.
Still, the Holy Spirit still brings those words to mind every so often, precisely when an attitude check is in order. My problem is that part of me still hears Paul’s admonition as a religious rule about what God wants from me, rather than a gracious word about what God wants for me, and what he’s already done about it.
I’ll explain what I mean by that in the next post. Let me spend this one setting up the context of Paul’s letter as a whole. The city of Thessalonica was under the patronage of Rome. The church there came into existence through Paul’s preaching of the gospel, and the letter shows the mutual affection between Paul and the Thessalonian believers. That’s not to say that all was sweetness and light, since Paul had to defend himself against accusations of greed and trickery (1 Thess 2:3-6).
Still, Paul loved them deeply and genuinely, and prayed for them diligently and with thankfulness (1:2). He heard how the Thessalonians had been persecuted by their unbelieving neighbors, possibly because the gospel of a glorified Jesus ran afoul of the imperial cult, threatening the city’s very status in the eyes of Rome. Having somehow been thwarted in his efforts to visit them (2:17-18), Paul sent Timothy in his stead, both to encourage them (3:2-3) and to bring back a report (3:6). Happily, it was an encouraging one:
Now Timothy has returned to us from you and has given us good news about your faithfulness and love! He says that you always have good memories about us and that you want to see us as much as we want to see you. Because of this, brothers and sisters, we were encouraged in all our distress and trouble through your faithfulness. For now we are alive if you are standing your ground in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you, given all the joy we have because of you before our God? Night and day, we pray more than ever to see all of you in person and to complete whatever you still need for your faith. (1 Thess 3:6-10, CEB)
Note the words in bold. Paul, as we know well from the book of Acts, was a man who suffered more than his share of “distress and trouble” for the sake of the gospel. Timothy’s report of the Thessalonians’ faithfulness and love encouraged his heart: he was grateful and filled with joy, and strengthened in his habit of constant prayer.
In other words, when in chapter 5 Paul brings together joy, prayer, and thankfulness, he is reflecting his own experience of faith in the midst of suffering. He isn’t laying a new religious burden on them (“I don’t care what you’re going through–stop complaining and smile like a good Christian!”), but inviting them to join him in a joyous journey of sanctification.
More on that in the next post.