In Everything Give Thanks

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Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for You. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NJKV)

The ancient city of Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province Macedonia, making it a hotspot for Roman travel, trade, politics, and religion in the region. And when Paul preached in Thessalonica, he quickly encountered much hostility from local non-believers. After Paul left, the Thessalonians continued to experience similar hostility and persecution in the city. Against this backdrop of hostile daily life, we read Paul’s isntructions to the Thessalonian church.

Confession time. When God lets my life get uncomfortable, I get upset. Personally, my issue is anger. When life starts piling on the difficulties, even the small annoyances that I can usually shake off feel like red-hot iron pokers burning away sanity.

Maybe you’re like me and your issue is anger. Or maybe your struggle is with discouragement, doubt, and despair. Or, perhaps, when life closes in around you, you detach from the world and run away. Whatever your response, all of us at various times experience the pressures of life weighing heavily on us.

But imagine being a Thessalonian believer. You’re living in the center of a pagan world that worships their gods with gluttonous parties, drunkenness, wild orgies, and so forth. As a Thessalonian, you used to do those things, too. But now, as a believer in Jesus, He has set you free from those lifestyles of sin and you don’t do those things anymore. But your old friends aren’t ok with that. They won’t sell you food, clothes, or other necessities. They won’t socialize with you anymore. And if you start telling them about Jesus, they literally drag you and your family out of your house and beat you.

As a Thessalonian, your first pastor, Paul, and his ministry team were forced out of town by such hostility. But he has heard about your struggles and he has written you a letter, encouraging you to give thanks in everything. How absurd!

But Paul doesn’t say, “rise up and slaughter the offenders,” or “take them to court and squeeze every penny from them,” or “run for office and force Christian morals on society.” Those are the methods of men. They’re not our mission from God.

God’s will for us is to let Him transform our hearts and minds into the likeness of His Son, Jesus Christ. God’s mission for us is to go out, into all the unbelieving world, preaching the gospel and making disciples of the nations. Both God’s will and God’s mission require us to remember the single most important fact of every believer’s existence:

Jesus Christ died for our sins, saved us from death, and gives us eternal life.

It is this reality that enables us and impels us to be thankful at all times, in all things. One author explains the situation this way,

[Remember] Rom. 8:28, [how] all of which cooperate for good to God’s children and thus call forth our thanks to God. We need to learn this secret of the happy Christian life—thankfulness. If everything actually conspires to do us good, how can we do otherwise than always rejoice?[1]

Our thankfulness is not based on external circumstances. It flows from our relationship with Jesus Christ. When we begin looking at life through the lens of salvation, we see God working through the hardship in this life to make us holy. That holiness grows in us, making us more like Jesus, focusing our hearts toward heaven, filling us with joy, and turning our frowns upside down.

[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1937), 358.

Be Anxious for Nothing

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Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NKJV)

Pardon my bluntness, but sometimes life just sucks, doesn’t it? You make these plans and they seem so important, but as the time approaches one thing after another just starts tearing them down. You have these people in your life, people you care about so deeply, that you’re ready to do almost anything for them, but when you need them, they seem to let you down. Maybe it’s your job, or you just can’t seem to find or keep a job. Maybe it’s a loved one who has fallen on hard times, illness, or death. Or maybe your own health burdens you on a daily basis. Whatever your situation, I am confident that each of us, whether presently or in times past, has experienced these kinds of discouraging situations.

I believe these kinds of situations can, depending on the circumstances, qualify as what the Bible calls “anxieties,” or “cares.” The Greek word has a long history and it has a double-meaning, very similar to our English word “cares.” In the positive sense, it can refer to any kind of heart-felt motivation to help someone else, “caring” for someone else when they are sick, weak, or in some kind of need. In the negative sense, it can also refer to any kind of heart-felt need that goes unsatisfied, like if you are sick, weak, or in need, but you feel as though you’re alone and no one is helping you. Both kinds of “cares” are strong enough to demand our full attention. And therein lies the problem—for when we fix our eyes on the situation, we take our eyes off Christ.

But there is a remedy for that feeling of discouragement and despair. You see, that feeling comes from a false perspective. You may feel alone, but you aren’t alone. God is with you. So, Paul says, the remedy isn’t to focus more on the situation, but to fix your eyes of the Lord. And prayer is the single most effective strategy for doing just that. And if you are willing to go to God in prayer, Paul gives a promise—the Peace of God will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Paul doesn’t say might or probably. He says will. That’s not just a style of translation—that’s the literal rendering of the Greek. When we fix our eyes on the Lord, we can be absolutely sure that His peace will guard our hearts and minds from the efforts of the Enemy and the world to discourage us.

During the Last Supper, I think the disciples were feeling some anxieties. For at least a few days, Jesus had been telling them about how he would be betrayed and killed. He was going to leave them. In my mind I can imagine reclining at the table among the disciples, thinking, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Aren’t you supposed to be the King of Israel? But you say you’re going to die. And what’s this business about rising in three days?”

While Jesus and the disciples were talking after the meal, Jesus instructed them about many things, including peace. As John 14:27 says,

Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

The peace of God is a gift given to us by Jesus. It was made possible by the death of Jesus, which paid the debt for our sins and reconciled us to the Father. In this way, Jesus made peace for us with the Father (see Rom 5:10-11). And now, the peace of God can rule our hearts. But God does not force his peace on us. As Colossians 3:15 says, we have to let his peace rule our hearts. How? By fixing our eyes on the Lord through prayer. And how is this possible? Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Do Not Fear, Little Flock

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Then He [Jesus] said to His disciples, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? If you then are not able to do the least, why are you anxious for the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith?

“And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.

“Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:22-34, NKJV)

Psalm 23:2 begins, “He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” Sheep are timid, fearful creatures. They aren’t strong or smart, they’re always looking for food and water, and they’re easy pray for predators. So, sheep are typically restless animals, rarely feeling sufficiently provided for and secure enough to lie down and rest. Instead, they wander about on edge, easily spooked and rarely satisfied with where they are.

A responsible shepherd meets the needs of their flock to address these issues. Such a shepherd ensures that the pasture land is well cared for, providing nourishing food and having ample water for the flock. They also protect the sheep from predators, fighting them off in defense of the sheep. And sometimes shepherds use music to sooth the sheep, drowning out strange noises and helping the sheep relax so they can lie down and rest. But, of course, the sheep have to recognize the shepherd’s protections and provisions and then choose to rest in the shepherd’s presence.

In Luke 12, Jesus instructs his disciples not to fear because the Father is such a good shepherd. He promises His Kingdom to every sheep in His sheepfold. God protects us from our Adversary—Satan and his servants—as well as the forces of the world that threaten to overtake us. The Father also provides for our every need. He created us, after all, and He knows that we need food, water, clothing, and so forth. So, Jesus tells us, we can rest in the protection and provision of the Father.

But, as Jesus explains, our ability to find spiritual rest depends on our intentional seeking for God. Jesus gently rebukes his disciples with the phrase, “O you of little faith.” God made the universe in such a way that our spiritual rest depends on us focusing our hearts on Him. If we focus our hearts on the physical challenges of this life, we are restless, wandering on edge, searching for safer, greener pastures. But when we focus our hearts on seeking our loving Father, He promises that we will find spiritual rest in Him as He provides for our earthly needs.

May we seek God and His Kingdom with our whole hearts, that we may find He will not only supply our earthly needs, but He will also give us rest.