Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
In that little burst of admonition, Paul gives us a snapshot of the life of joy that God intends for his children. Not only his children in easy circumstances, but even those like the Thessalonians who were under serious threat of harm, persecution, and loss.
What does it mean to rejoice, though, and how can we do it always? Well, Calvin points out its parallel passage in Philippians 4:
In like manner, in Philippians 4:4, having said,
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known to all. Be not anxious as to anything. The Lord is at hand.
He afterwards points out the means of this—
but in every prayer let your requests be made known to God, with giving of thanks.
In light of this, he says that rejoicing always, or being filled with joy regularly is, “moderation of spirit, when the mind keeps itself in calmness under adversity, and does not give indulgence to grief.” That is not to say that a person never grieves, nor that the person is slap-happy all the time, burying their emotions and plastering a fake smile on their face. He says that the person doesn’t “give indulgence”, doesn’t coddle, doesn’t nurse, doesn’t cultivate grief in the soul in every situation, nor even in those that might tempt us to despair. Instead, Paul “presents as a source of joy a calm and composed mind, that is not unduly disturbed by injuries or adversities.”
How do we do this, though? Well, through prayer. Calvin knows that it is very easy to be “borne down by grief, sorrow, anxiety, and fear”, so he says Paul “bids us repose in the providence of God.” What’s more:
as doubts frequently obtrude themselves as to whether God cares for us, he also prescribes the remedy — that by prayer we disburden our anxieties, as it were, into his bosom, as David commands us to do in Psalm 37:5 and Psalm 55:22; and Peter also, after his example. (1 Peter 5:7.)
Prayer brings us into the gentle presence of our Fatherly God. Prayer reminds us that all things are in the hands of the Lord of History. What’s more, it actually effects change as the prayer moves the God who moves all things. Once we do this, “giving thanks in all circumstances” becomes a thinkable reality. As Calvin expounds it,
For, in the first place, he would have us hold God’s benefits in such esteem, that the recognition of them and meditation upon them shall overcome all sorrow. And, unquestionably, if we consider what Christ has conferred upon us, there will be no bitterness of grief so intense as may not be alleviated, and give way to spiritual joy. For if this joy does not reign in us, the kingdom of God is at the same time banished from us, or we from it. And very ungrateful is that man to God, who does not set so high a value on the righteousness of Christ and the hope of eternal life, as to rejoice in the midst of sorrow. As, however, our minds are easily dispirited, until they give way to impatience, we must observe the remedy that he subjoins immediately afterwards. For on being cast down and laid low we are raised up again by prayers, because we lay upon God what burdened us.
Prayer reminds us of our many benefits in Christ, which allows us to consider the joyful, thanks-inducing reality beyond the current circumstances. There is always reason for joy for the Christian and so Paul tells us to constantly be praying, unburdening ourselves, and tapping into the deep reservoir of comfort we have in Christ.
Finally, we need to remember that this is all God’s will towards us in Christ. God’s intention is for us to live a life of constant joy, in all situations, in prayerful communion with him, pouring out thanksgiving for all of his manifold blessings. These are not burdensome commands. These are, as John Piper has put it, the “duty of delight.” This, indeed, is the endgoal of both God’s commands and his promises: our delight in his glory.
So then, today, remember the trifecta of joy commands: rejoice, pray, and give thanks.
Soli Deo Gloria