My husband and I recently celebrated our anniversary. We married late– I became a bride at nearly 47 years of age. I spent most of my childhood and adulthood “preparing” to be a bride–I learned how to cook and sew and keep house with the goal of becoming a wife and mother. I saved items in a “hope” chest– collecting dishes and linens, candles, books–items I thought would help fill our home. After several years, I had quite a collection! Even so, when the time came, I found there were several things I still needed to learn, prepare, collect, and even change as David and I began our life together. And it wasn’t just me– David also made a lot of preparations and sacrifices to ensure that we could begin our lives in safety and relative comfort.
And marriage requires learning, and adjusting, and growing after the wedding, too. So even though we are still happily married after seven years, and even though I spent years before preparing to be a wife, I am still learning and we are still growing in our love for each other and for God.
Jesus compares our eternal life to a marriage. He has paid the “bride price”– redeeming us to belong to Him. He has gone ahead to “prepare a place” for us (John 14: 1-4). Our response should be to prepare for our eternal future with Him! In fact, our marriages should be a reflection and a model of Christ’s relationship with His Bride, the Church.
As we live out our lives, learning and preparing to spend eternity with God, there are (at least) two things to remember:
Don’t “go it alone”– God uses the imagery of weddings and marriages for good reason– He wants us to live in communion, unity, and togetherness for eternity. To try to live independently, grow, learn, and act independently, is to work outside of God’s plan. Insisting on the “perfect” mate– one that will never challenge you to grow–or bailing out at the first sign of conflict may be signs of trouble in our relationship with God. That doesn’t mean that we can’t grow or learn outside of earthly marriage– nor does it mean that marriage alone can teach us all God wants us to learn about relationships. But it does mean that relationships should be more than just superficial interactions, and working through relationship struggles can often teach us about God’s steady and enduring love, and help us develop our own capacity to love wisely and well. Heaven has many “rooms” or “mansions”, but it doesn’t have hideaways and solitary confinement!
Preparation must be a priority–imagine getting engaged and doing nothing to prepare for a wedding! No date or time, no venue, no dress, no invitations or guests, no menu, no vows?! And worse– no plan for the marriage–no idea where to live, no furniture, no discussions on how to rear children, pay bills, manage the household expenses, plan for the future?! Yet many of us become Christians and do little or nothing to prepare for our future eternal life with Christ! We spend no time reading His word, seeking His face, or learning about His character. And we spend no time investing in relationships with people who will be our neighbors for eternity– or inviting others to join us for the most important wedding in history!
I have wonderful pictures and memories of a wedding day seven years ago–how much more wonderful to prepare for the ultimate wedding day!
There is no way I can give a definitive answer to the above question. In a thousand blog posts or three volumes of analysis, I could never cover all the issues this question brings up. I offer the question today for two reasons:
This question is raised in the Bible. Asaph raised it in Psalm 73 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+73&version=ASV; Habakkuk and other prophets also asked it. Solomon pondered it in Ecclesiastes, and Job cried out against it. God is not afraid of such questions, but He doesn’t give glib answers, either. The psalmist received no immediate answer directly from God, but when he entered the sanctuary of the Most High, and considered the eternal destination of the wicked, his attitude changed. His envy, anger, and bitterness melted in a flood of awe and worship. God does not want us to be bitter, angry, or envious of the wicked; nor does He want us to be apathetic toward injustice, abuse, and inequality. There is something profoundly disturbing when we see the wicked prospering at the expense of the righteous and innocent. It should cause us to turn to God and seek His help.
That brings me to the second reason I want to grapple with this topic today. I need to! I have the tendency to want an immediate answer, and to see the wicked suffer– until I am in the presence of a Holy God. There is no wickedness that is outside of God’s justice, or of His grace. God WILL bring complete justice– in HIS time. But His primary goal is to bring redemption, restoration, healing, hope, and salvation– even to the wicked; even to ME. God’s justice is not just reserved for those I deem to be wicked and prosperous. God’s ways are not my ways. What if, in my eagerness to condemn the wicked, I miss God’s plan to change the heart of a Zacchaeus, or an Ebenezer Scrooge, or a sinful King David or arrogant King Nebuchadnezzar? No amount of wickedness can overwhelm God’s love and mercy, or His ability to make “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28) for those who love Him and are called to serve Him.
When tempted to dwell on this question, there are some wonderful alternatives. See some of the links below.
Lord God, today I pray for eyes that see Your face, even in this broken and fallen world. May I look to see Your patience, Your mercy and Your grace, as well as Your Holiness and Justice. May I be an instrument of all these aspects of Your character as I live in Your grace today. Thank You for Your great mercy toward me, and to the promise of Eternal Life with You. Amen.
The Bible is filled with images of family–long lists of “begats” and genealogies, parables about sons and fathers, brothers, weddings, brides and grooms…God is even described as our Father, with Christ as “the son.”
One of my hobbies is genealogy– tracing my family’s roots back through several generations and several different places. While the Bible warns that we should not get caught up in “endless” and vain genealogies that lead to false pride and foolish divisions (1 Tim. 1:4/Titus 3:9), there are many good reasons to pay attention to families, family histories, and family dynamics.
First, the family is God’s design– God instituted marriage, parenthood, and family units. It is God’s will and purpose that we should not live in isolation and self-absorption, but learn to depend on and be responsible to others. Families honor, protect, love, provide, comfort, teach, encourage, build and work together. Even in a broken world, filled with dysfunctional and chaotic family relationships, the purpose and design of “family” is still part of God’s good and perfect plan for living. Broken families and toxic relationships are not a failure of God’s plan– they are the result of Sin’s power to distort and corrupt the Good that only God can create. The great news is that God also has the power to restore and redeem individuals and families; offering “rebirth”, adoption, and an eternal “inheritance” within His family!
Second, families can teach us about the astounding and limitless love of God. There is something about the bonds of familial love that stretch us beyond our regular capacity to hope, to sacrifice, to share, to grieve, to endure, and to forgive. Who has seen a mother or father go hungry so their child can eat; or a sister or daughter donate her kidney or bone marrow to help heal a family member? Or a father carry his son who could not walk, or a wife who visits her aging husband when he no longer knows her face? How can we see such devotion and not be struck by how much greater, wider, deeper, and more eternal the Father’s love is for each of us?
Third, family (particularly the idea of genealogies and long family histories) teaches us the eternal nature of God. We live our lives as part of three or four generations– a span of 70 or 80 years for many of us–and we concentrate our efforts on “making our mark” for less than that entire span. But even the longest of our lives are so short in the span of God’s plan for His people. We have one lifespan to play an important role in the story of centuries. When we fail to understand that role, we can miss our sense of purpose in life. Sometimes, we overestimate our own importance or miss the significance of our own legacy. Even “important” people are forgotten, or have their legacies tarnished or rewritten in the pages of history. And those people who never made the history books are often the inspiration for actions and movements that span generations and change nations. When I study the history of my own family, I find lives that were cut short by war or disease– yet these lives shaped the lives (or were the lives) of my ancestors, and without them, I would not be who or how or where I am today. Maiden aunt, baby brother, empty seat at the table– every life touches others in ways that God alone truly comprehends. “Coincidental” meetings, “unplanned” children, migration patterns, epidemics– all loom large in a single generation, but they all become part of the fabric of each person’s “history.”
Lastly, genealogy reminds us that we are all one enormous family! There is so much talk on the news and online about all our differences– language, culture, skin tone, beliefs, skills, abilities, interests, even diets!– and it is important to note that God loves variety and created us each with unique and precious differences to reflect His infinite character. But sin twists our differences into conflicts; sin spreads lies about God’s character, and thus, about how we (or others) reflect, honor, understand, acknowledge, or obey our amazing creator. Differences may cause division in our broken world, but they do not cancel God’s mercy or limit the reach of His love for us all.
This was brought home to me in a small way this past week, as I was preparing for two important reunions. My high school class celebrated the 35th anniversary of our graduation in 1984. I saw friends and classmates I hadn’t seen in weeks, months, or, in some cases, 35 years! But it struck me that our class is very much like a family– we grew up together; we learned to get along (most of the time), to share, to work together, to understand and appreciate our differences and our unique gifts–we send birthday greetings and share pictures, we laugh together, grieve together, share fond memories and special connections with one another. We pray for one another, argue with one another, encourage one another, and challenge one another. There are some who have distanced themselves–whether through physical distance or emotionally– from the rest of us. Some have even ended their earthly journeys. But that doesn’t make them any less a part of our class/our family. We are short and tall, thin and stout, hairy and bald, dark and light complected; we are single, married, divorced, and widowed– some with children still at home; some with no children at all. We are rich and poor, healthy and ill, walking around with scars and wounds and unresolved questions, arrogant assumptions, or chips on our shoulders. And we are optimists and mentors, healers and teachers, helpers and protectors. We are loud and quiet, social and task-oriented, driven and laid-back, dreamers and doers. And in my genealogy research, I have made genetic and marriage connections to about 1/3 of them! We really ARE family, and I can show how we are related! How small would this world seem if we looked at our brothers and sisters across the world, and realize that those connections are so much greater than the differences that divide us?
The second reunion I attended this weekend was “family.” All of us descended (or married to descendants, or adopted by descendants) from my great-grandparents. Not all of us were there– in fact, this was mostly just one “branch” of the family, and a few “twigs”. We estimate that there are nearly 500 people who can claim the same ancestral “roots” from the same two people, and this “branch” contains over 250 of them! Once again, we don’t all look , or act, or think alike– some are tall, some are tattooed, some are old, some are newborns, some argue about college football teams, or politics. But we love each other, encourage each other, and many of us share our prayers and concerns and joys and pains. My great-grandparents (and all their children) left a legacy of love and faith that continues to influence and inspire the fourth, fifth and sixth generation to follow!
When we pray for others, we are always praying for our family! Praying for our neighbors and classmates and co-workers– we are praying for family! Praying for our enemies, for strangers, for those who look and speak differently than us–We are praying for family! May God give us eyes to see and hearts to love our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and even the “long lost family members” and lift them up in prayer to the One who loves us and wants to bring us all into His family!
All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, brings out the fearsome, garish, gory, scary, and macabre in many people. Movies, costumes, and stories concentrate on death, mystery, nightmares, ghosts, and terror.
I am not a fan of horror in any of its forms. I don’t like to be scared, startled, tricked, haunted, or frightened. I don’t like seeing others being terrorized, tortured, or hurt.
So it is with great interest and some surprise to find that the Bible tells us to fear. Of course, it also tells us NOT to fear– several times, in fact. We are told that we need not fear the future (Matthew 6:34), struggles, battles, or long journeys (Joshua 1:9), shame or disgrace (Isaiah 54:4), terror, evil, and the “shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), actual death, angels or demons (Romans 8:38), or anyone at all (Psalm 27:1; Psalm 188:6). But there is one fear the Bible does nothing to dispel.
There is a Holy terror that comes from the recognition that God is Holy– and we are NOT. There is a very real, very terrible chasm separating us from an eternally sinless and perfect God. There is nothing we can do on this side of the chasm to close the gap– no way to escape the eternal. hopeless and horrific state of being separated from all that is good, and noble, and peaceful, and joyous. In life, we get glimpses of glory–flashes of amazing grace at work in the world around us. Even though we live in a fallen world, we do not live in a place rejected or abandoned by God.
This should cause us to have a healthy “fear” of God– a soul-deep awe of His “Other-ness”, His Authority, and His Pre-eminence. And it should give us a terror of remaining in separation from Him– especially as He offers the very restoration and renewal we can never achieve for ourselves. And He offers it as a free gift to ANYONE who will receive it!
Far from trying to “scare someone into Heaven,” sermons and admonitions about Hellfire and eternal damnation are meant as very real warnings with real and eternal consequences. No horror on earth can compare with an existence devoid of all joy, peace, love, light, help, and hope–and filled with the knowledge of “all that might have been.” Zombies, vampires, ghouls, and monsters can terrorize in the movies for an hour or two, or in books for a week or more, but what makes people willing to entertain such horrors is the latent hope that we will close the book cover, exit the theater, and wake up from the nightmares presented there. The idea that Good will eventually triumph; that order, peace, and justice can be restored; that love conquers all, and “something” will survive, re-emerge, and carry on into the future. All of these hopes are possible because God exists and is eternal. When we reject God’s authority; His sovereign direction and His call to salvation, we reject all that comes with it. While we live on His earth, we will still see the glimpses of glory– we can pretend that it is enough for now, or choose to settle for false “hope” of emptiness in death. But we cannot escape the search for meaning and purpose that drives us to build and plan for a future we have never seen; nor can we know the peace that comes from looking forward and seeing more than darkness, doubt, and destruction.
I don’t know about anyone else reading this, but I need a reminder every so often about living in the present (including keeping my prayer life centered in the present). It is very tempting sometimes to wallow in the past or dream of the future. There’s nothing wrong with learning from past mistakes or making future goals, but we are not to waste our time or our energies pursuing what isn’t, while ignoring what is happening around us.
If we look closely at the Lord’s Prayer, we see how centered it is in the present. There are a couple of forward-looking phrases (Thy kingdom come…lead us not into temptation…For ever and ever..) but most of the prayer is for the present and foreseeable future.
I need to be reminded, through Christ’s example and through scripture, that God wants me to trust Him for my daily needs and follow one step at a time. If I find myself spending more time asking God for things far out in my future, or continually bringing up things from my past, it may mean (though not always) that I am not fully trusting in the sufficiency of His Grace for today.
God has already seen my past– and loves me unconditionally. His Grace will not be rescinded each time I face a reminder of my past; He will not change His mind if someone else carries a grudge against me.
God has also seen my future. He knows my needs, my concerns, my desires. He wants me to bring my whole heart to Him in prayer–a heart that is ready to trust His provision and plan, even when I don’t know the details.
Think what would happen if every parent-child conversation involved the following themes:
“Mom, do you remember the time I tipped over your plants when I was five, and you yelled at me. I just want to tell you I’m so sorry I did that. I know you said you’ve forgiven me, but I need to ask you again.” “Dad, I know you were disappointed when I got into a fight with my brother back when I was eight, but I hope you can see how I’ve learned a lot since then. Please don’t hold that against me today.”
“Hey, Dad, I really want to drive when I turn 16. Can I ask you for a purple sports car when I turn 16? I want to be a good driver, and I just know that you want me to be a good driver. I think a purple sports car would make me a great driver in another seven years.” “Mom, will you promise to babysit my kids after I have kids? I just know my kids will want to have a close relationship with you, so will you just promise to be close to my kids when I grow up and have them?”
There’s nothing essentially wrong with the actual requests– but when we focus on the past or the future at the expense of the present, we miss learning what God has for us TODAY. We also risk seeing God only for what He gives and what He has done, and not for Who He Is!
Let’s enjoy time with God today (and every day) as it unfolds.
It’s fall here in western Michigan, and that means falling leaves…lots of them! In cities and larger towns, there are leaf “pick up” schedules. Trucks come along at appointed times to pick up leaves that have been raked and piled up by the roadside or placed (along with other yard waste, sticks and such) into waste bins. In smaller towns and around the countryside, leaves will be raked, piled up and burned or placed in compost heaps and bins. In a few cases, leaves will be left where they fall or are carried by the wind until the snow covers them, to be rediscovered in the spring when the snow melts off.
Falling leaves are part of the cycle of every year. They announce the advent of autumn, delighting us with their colors for a few short weeks. But when that task is done, they fall beneath our feet to be stepped on, swept up, burned up or forgotten. Gone are the memories of shoots and buds blooming in the spring, or rich green leaves shading us from the intense heat and light of summer. Leaves are ephemeral. They pass out of memory and time, their swirling colors lost in a heap of crunchy detritus underfoot.
People are not leaves. We share the same creator, but God has placed eternity in the minds, hearts, and souls of humankind. Whether we are blooming, changing color, falling, or being swept aside in this world, God will gather us all in a great harvest of souls. But we will not be turned to ash or mulched into compost. We face an eternal destiny; one where our true “colors” will be permanent, and our placement fixed. We will either be raised to vibrant life, attached to the source of life and abundance; or we will be eternally “fallen”, swept away by judgment and guilt and the consequences of rebellion.
That may sound harsh and dramatic, but it is written in our soul–we feel it as we watch the withering leaves let go of the tree or smell the acrid of the burn pile. We feel the pain and injustice of people being treated like no more than dead leaves– swept away as just another inconvenience.
Today, I want to look for fallen leaves–we are all “fallen” from Grace, but some have also “fallen” through the cracks or by the wayside–look for people and seek ways I can pray for, reach out to, and offer Hope and Grace, especially to those whom life has swept aside. Someone did it for me…Now it’s time to pass it forward. It’s time to turn over a new “leaf”. Let’s not “leave” the job unfinished–“branch” out beyond our comfort zone and bring in some leaves this autumn!
My mother and I shared a wonderful morning shopping and enjoying the spring weather. We both arrived home, only to be greeted with the news that one of our extended family members had died in an accident. Just the day before, another member of our family had passed on at age 94. Both of them left a legacy of faith, hope, joy, and kindness that leaves us grateful, but grieving their loss.
And it is a loss– even though both of them were Christians, even though we have the great hope of being reunited with them in Heaven, even though both of them led full lives–they were unique on this earth, and everything that made them special and irreplaceable to friends and family is now absent; a gaping, aching hole, lined with teasing flashes of memories, echoes of laughter, and unanswered questions.
Some days, the hits just keep coming– an unexpected expense, a misunderstanding at work, a fender-bender during the commute, a plumbing nightmare, a migraine, the phone call with bad news. Each new pain rolls over us, throwing us off balance, and trying to drag us under.
“Even so, it is well with my soul.” The story of this favorite hymn has been told many times, but it bears repeating. ( It Is Will With My Soul. wikipedia.org ) The author of these words had lost everything– his only son had died; shortly afterward, he lost almost all his money and property in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A friend, knowing of his troubles invited him to bring his family to England for an evangelistic campaign. Mr. Spafford (the above-mentioned author of the hymn) had to stay behind and sent his wife and four daughters ahead. Their ship, the Ville du Havre, was struck by another vessel and sank. All four of the daughters were drowned, and only his wife survived to send him news of the tragedy. As he made the heartbreaking voyage to rejoin his wife, he passed the place where his daughters had most likely gone down. At that moment, Mr. Spafford felt a welling of peace and hope beyond human understanding, which led him to pen the words that have given comfort to so many in the years since:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Nothing can prepare us for the sorrows that sweep over us at unexpected moments. Nothing can stop them, and though we know they will come, no one knows how high they will rise, or when they will crest and break around us. No one except the one who set the boundaries of the sea, the one who has walked on its waters, and the one who can calm the storm.
God doesn’t remove the sorrows or tragedies from our life or prevent them from washing around and over us. But for those who trust in him, there is a promise that we will not be consumed. We may be in a storm-tossed boat in the middle of a raging sea, but at our faintest cry, Jesus will walk on choppy waves to be by our side and bring comfort. He will teach us to be in awe of him as he commands the winds and waves to obey him. He will teach us to trust him in the good times and the bad. He will teach us to say, “It is well with my soul!”
Have you ever had one of those days where things just don’t seem to make sense? It doesn’t have to be a “bad” day, necessarily–just a day when things don’t seem to “fit.” I had one of those days yesterday.
I journal my prayer life– I have notebooks with names and places for each day of the year. Yesterday, my notebook included the city where my daughter lives and the names of three people celebrating birthdays, among other needs. One of the names was a complete mystery to me. I couldn’t remember who this person was, or how I knew either her or her name…I was drawing a blank and didn’t know how I should pray for her. Was she a former classmate? Was she a daughter or mother or sister of someone I knew better? I ended up praying a very general prayer– for her health, her family, etc., but it bothered me.
Hours later, speaking with someone on the phone, another name came up, along with a prayer request– a man suffering with an illness who happened to have the same surname. Coincidence? Possibly, but the name stood out, and I prayed again– for both. Now I was really curious. I did some digging. The first person WAS the sister of someone I knew, and their father is the one suffering from an illness.
God is amazing, and one way is how he gives us the opportunity for “a-ha!” moments like the one I had yesterday. I have spoken to several Christians who are sometimes separated by several time zones from those they normally call on for help or advice. In crisis moments, they have cried out to God. Thousands of miles away, someone will be awakened from a sound sleep with a sudden urge to pray for their distant friend, or another will be stopped in their tracks and send up a random prayer as their mind wanders. Often, this will be in the exact moment of the crisis, and God will intervene with a miraculous healing or rescue or provision. Days later, the two parties will connect and be astonished at the timing.
What used to puzzle me about such prayers was this– if God already knows the need, and plans to act, why involve the second (or third) party? Because stories like this, while impressive and inspiring for those who believe, rarely cause a skeptic to come to faith, and aren’t necessary for those who already believe.
I think God has many answers, and I know I don’t have all of them, but here are three things I believe God is doing through such puzzling circumstances and outcomes:
While it doesn’t turn a skeptic into a believer, it DOES give the skeptic something to explain away– one such instance might be ignored as coincidence, but five? two hundred? And we have a Biblical precedent in the book of Acts, chapter 12, when Peter is rescued from prison and shows up at the very house where believers are praying for his release! Even they didn’t believe at first, and left Peter out in the cold!
It IS an inspiration and an encouragement as a follower of Christ to know that he not only hears our prayers, but he recruits others to think about us, bear our burdens, and share in our trials.
Last (on my short list; I’m sure God has many other wonderful answers I haven’t imagined yet), I believe that God’s purpose for us involves communion– eternally living, sharing, and loving together with Him and with each other. It is one of the highest honors and greatest privileges to be involved in God’s work through prayer…it is something we all can do, anywhere, anytime, but it requires being humble and willing to stop what we’re doing, commit our moments and our hearts in prayer for others (sometimes without knowing why!), and trust God to do all that we cannot.
Prayer sometimes seems puzzling, but that’s because we don’t see all the answers– yet. Someday, what a marvelous and miraculous picture will unfold– and we have the opportunity to fill in the gap; to be the answer to 34-down; to be the missing piece of the pine tree in the upper right corner– to answer the call and finish the puzzle!
God knows our innermost thoughts, wishes, and needs. So why do we pray? We’re not telling God something he doesn’t already know. He asks us to seek him, though he is omnipresent. He tells us to knock, and the door will be opened, yet he also says he stands and the door and knocks. Is this another Bible mystery? An oxymoronic enigma?
I don’t think so– I think it is a case of God laying out some ground rules of relationships– his with us, us with him, and even us with each other. God is spirit, but he ask us to build dwelling places where he can meet with us– temples, tabernacles, churches. He wants to abide, to live in relationship and companionship. Ultimately, he offers to dwell in each of us. But he has created each of us as a unique being. And just like a unique building, we have walls and windows and doors. When we reach our eternal dwelling place, this will still be so. We will be changed, purified, sanctified, and glorified, but our souls will not be subsumed or merged into a single temple or a single “soul.” Heaven is not like Nirvana. God is eternally God and we are eternally his creation. Living in communion is not the same as merging or evolving into something not ourselves. We remain uniquely individual, and as such, we need to learn to take initiative to open our doors and windows– to interact, to serve, and to honor each other.
Have you ever been blindsided by someone who expected you to read their mind? You know they are hurt and angry, but you find out later (sometimes much later!) that they wanted you to comment on their new hairstyle, or they expected you to ask them out for coffee. Maybe you know the pain of being on the other end– wishing someone would notice your weight loss or ask about your day. God wants us to learn to reach out, to ask, seek, and knock, instead of isolating ourselves behind locked doors. We are to be active, not passive, about noticing others, sharing with and including others, and serving others. But we are to do it in love and humility– with grace and mercy and love, not with bullhorns, fists, or combat boots.
God is the Almighty one– yet he stands at the door and knocks. He could barge through our stubbornness and rebellion, and drag us kicking and screaming to the altar. He could tear down the walls of isolation and storm crush our pretentious justifications and excuses. But he stands, waiting for us to open the door, and seek his face. The one who spoke the universe into being waits for us to begin the conversation!
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!