A Trifecta of Joy Commands

joyThere is a delightful little trifecta of commands in the middle of Paul’s laundry list of exhortations towards the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians:

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

Where is True Peace Found?

I’ve begun my second attempt through John Bunyan’s spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Progress this week in my attempt to find more theologically-rich devotional literature. (The first was an unfortunately broken off in college due to my immaturity.) I’m pleased to say that I have been thoroughly blessed by it. It’s easy to see why Charles Spurgeon confessed that, “Next to the Bible, the book I value most is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.” The allegory is riddled with biblical quotations and wisdom designed to illustrate the pilgrimage of the Christina through the current world on to glory.

Bunyan does this by telling a dream-vision he has of the pilgrimage of Christian, an everyman character, who is on a journey from his home-town “the City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City.” His journey is provoked by his reading of a book that causes him great distress and anguish about his spiritual state.  On the way he is met by various characters such as Worldly-Wise Man and Evangelist who give him varied instructions as to ease his turmoil. Eventually after a foolish detour in the direction of the village of Morality on the advice of Worldly-Wise Man that lands him in great peril, he takes Evangelist’s advice and heads down the narrow road that leads to life and his true journey begins.

Burdens Released

Christian is committed and so he makes great headway for a while, but from the very start of his journey he is weighed down by a burden, a pack that hinders his progress. The pack symbolizes the spiritual weight of his sins, the anxiety and fear of judgment, the encumberance of great guilt and shame. He suffers with it despite his best efforts as well as the godly counsel of those good characters such as Evangelist and Interpreter who open the truth to him and he receives no respite until he catches a vision of something glorious:

Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Isaiah 26:1. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. 

Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.” Then he stood still a while, to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked, therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks. Zech. 12:10. Now as he stood looking and weeping, behold, three Shining Ones came to him, and saluted him with, “Peace be to thee.” So the first said to him, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” Mark 2:5; the second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with change of raiment, Zech. 3:4; the third also set a mark on his forehead, Eph. 1:13, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he bid him look on as he ran, and that he should give it in at the celestial gate: so they went their way. Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing,

“Thus far did I come laden with my sin,
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither. What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss?
Must here the burden fall from off my back?
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?
Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me!”

So many of us suffer the burdens of guilt and shame. We walk day in and day out bearing a great burden, an inexpressible anxiety and grief that doesn’t seem to dissipate no matter how many self-help books we read, mantras we chant, or health-goals we set and meet.

Christian found the true source of peace: “Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be/The Man that there was put to shame for me!” In Christ all of our sins, our shames, our hurts are taken, destroyed on the cross with him, buried in the sepulchre with him, and in him we rise again to new life, freedom, joy and hope. In him we find true peace.

Soli Deo Gloria