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Joy and Gratitude

Giving thanks has always been an extremely important discipline to me.  I try to thank God everyday of my life (whether I feel like it or not), and I tried to instill this discipline in my children when they were growing up.  The Bible is full of admonitions to be thankful.  And going hand-in-hand with being thankful (in my mind) are the warnings against grumbling and complaining.  To me, thanksgiving is the antidote to grumbling and complaining.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 has always been one of my all-time favorite scripture verses  – “……in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”   I’ve always loved that it tells us to be thankful in situations, and not for them.  This was an incredibly important distinction for me during the first couple of years after my son passed away.  I don’t think I could ever, this side of eternity, be thankful for my son leaving us so suddenly and unexpectedly, at such a young age.  But I can still thank God in the midst of the sorrow, disappointment and pain.  There is always something to be thankful for.

This attitude of thankfulness is so ingrained in my being that I don’t have to think about being thankful – I just am.  Just before this command in 1 Thessalonians, though, is the first part of this verse, which says to “Rejoice always…..”.  This part of this verse used to also be one of my favorites, as I always had something to rejoice in or about.  But, it has been a bit of a conundrum to me for the past 3 years.  How do I “rejoice always” when my heart is broken into so many pieces I’m not sure it will ever be whole again?

The simple definition of rejoice is to be full of joy.  With this word, my mind immediately goes to my love of the English language and all its complexities, and tries to decide if “re” in the word rejoice is a prefix – which it is not – but that is what I always wonder when I see the word rejoice.  I immediately think that I am to “joice” again.  Or, at least be joyful again and again.  But enough of this nonsense.  Even distracting myself with nonsensical questions about the word doesn’t relieve my concern over the command to “rejoice always”.  What does that mean?  How is a bereaved parent supposed to be always full of joy?

The simple answer to that question, as a Christian, is that because of Christ and His incomparable gift of salvation, I am always full of joy.  Yes, I can rejoice in that.  Is that what this verse means, though?  Is it simply referring to being joyful that my position in Christ is eternal and secure, guaranteeing me a place in heaven with my heavenly Father, my savior Jesus, and all my loved ones?  I’ve always said that if I had nothing else to ever thank God for, Jesus’ gift of salvation would be more than I could thank Him for, for all of eternity.

But I don’t think that is all this verse is referring to – thanking God for saving us by the blood of Jesus Christ.  I believe this verse, like many Bible verses, has a practical, everyday application.  But, how?  How do I rejoice always when I am grieving the loss of a greatly loved and missed son?

Many years ago, when Dan and I were young adult Christians, newly married, and about to be parents for the first time, we sat under a pastor who would frequently say, “You’re asking the wrong question.  You have to ask the right question.”  Today, I can’t remember what he was referring to, but this concept came back to me as I was pondering my question above – “How do I rejoice always?”  It struck me that the answer to that question is very simple – You just do it – like Nike!  Just do it!

But what is the right question?  I believe it is a “why” question I’m searching for the answer to, not a “how” question.

Why should I rejoice always?

I’ve been meditating on and praying about the answer to my questions about this verse for several days, and yesterday in church, during worship time, it came to me.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”  Hebrews 12:1-3

What was the “joy set before Him” that made Christ endure the cross?

It was you and me!  It was every person God ever created!

Jesus Christ hung on a wooden cross and bled and died so that you and I could spend eternity with Him in a glorious place He is even now preparing for us.

Why can I rejoice always?

Because of Jesus.

Because He saved me for all of eternity.

Because He endured a horrible, tragic death to purchase me and you and everyone who believes in Him, because He knew it was worth it.  He saw through the pain and saw what the end result would be – you and I with Him in heaven for all of eternity – and that was the joy set before Him.

So what is the practical application for this verse?

Well, simply put (and I am preaching to myself when I say this) we just do it.  It’s called (and again I am preaching to myself here)obedience.

“Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.  Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before Him with joyful singing.  Know that the Lord Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.  Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise.  Give thanks to Him, bless His name.  For the Lord is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness to all generations.”  Psalm 100

From the book hand in Hand, by Randy Alcorn: “We would do well to contemplate God’s remarkable choices to select us before the world began, to deliver us from sin and death, and to allow us to live with him in everlasting happiness.  Jesus told his disciples, who were thrilled to cast out demons, ‘Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’  (Luke 10:20) We have not written our names in Heaven – God has.  That God chose me to be his child, despite my unworthiness, is the greatest of all causes of celebration.

Now that is something to rejoice in – that our names our written in heaven; that God chooses us to be his children.

We were the joy set before Jesus that enabled Him to endure the cross, and He is the reason we can rejoice always.

“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances.  But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every appearance of evil.  Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.”        1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

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