I Thessalonians 5:16-17: “Be joyful always; pray continually”(NIV)
“Rejoice evermore; pray without ceasing” (KJV)
Two verses; five simple words, but they are among the most misunderstood and misused phrases in the New Testament. Critics of the faith use these verses to paint Christianity as a religion of unrealistic fanatics– “shiny-happy,” posturing adherents who do nothing but offer empty words to a deaf and apathetic deity from sunup to sundown. Christians use them to bash or shame others. Feeling depressed or worried? “Tsk, tsk– we’re supposed to be joyful always!” Struggling with circumstances or doubts? “You’re not praying enough (or not praying the right way, or with the right motive, or not really praying at all).” I’m not sure how saints like this actually live when they’re not busy judging others, but I think these verses are important enough for a closer look and more careful treatment.
Both convey the idea of constant engagement, but common sense tells us that they don’t mean 24/7/365…you cannot express joy or recite prayers in your sleep, and God isn’t asking Christians to go without sleep, or to give up all other normal activities. Nor does he ask us to be false or insincere in either pursuit. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice, but also to weep (or mourn) with those who weep. We are allowed to be mournful, to be remorseful, to be angry, even. We are called to pray, but not to the exclusion of other activities– eating, talking, working– prayer is no excuse to stop engaging with other people, or to skip out on work that needs to be done. There is a similar idea in the Boy Scout motto– “Always be prepared.” This doesn’t mean staying awake every night, or waiting on edge throughout each day, always expecting an imminent crisis. But it does mean that one should be vigilant, attentive to events and circumstances, and have an attitude of preparedness. I would suggest that we do the same with prayer and joyfulness.
These reminders come at the end of a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, who were mostly new converts–very eager to learn all about Christ and how to follow him. They were hard-working (mostly), and generous, and conscientious. But they were falling into two bad habits–worry, and comparison. In this context, the reminders take on a different shade of meaning. If we are prone to worry, it robs us of all joy. It saps our strength, our enthusiasm, our purpose; it leaves us exhausted and unable to lift our faces, let alone lift up others around us. Similarly, if we are comparing our performance with others, we are wasting energy, losing our focus, and we become disillusioned and ineffective.
Always be joyful–joyful–not giddy or silly or amused, but filled with joy– ready to celebrate small victories, cherish small moments, laugh off small defeats and set-backs, and ready to grit your teeth against the suffering and the darkness, because you know how the story ends. We don’t need to be simplistic or naive to be optimistic and joyful– we just need to plug into the source of joy. And that joy becomes our strength in the midst of trouble and our anchor in the midst of chaos.
Pray without ceasing–be perpetually prepared to turn worry into prayer, triumph into praise, pain into petition, doubt into dialogue, heartbreak into heart-cry, gladness into gratitude, and remorse into restoration. Practice making time for prayer, but don’t limit your time with God to a penciled-in appointment with an agenda and a timer.
Don’t skim these short verses; don’t miss out on the blessings they bring. The practice of “always” in this life is but a shadow of what we will experience of Joy and Communion with God throughout eternity.
Rejoice! Enter His presence with gladness– come early, come often. Sit and stay awhile! Make yourself at home! Now– arise, go forth, and conquer!