No one ever said that the Christian life would be easy. In fact, Jesus Himself promises His disciples a life of cross bearing and suffering now, though including some joys, and eternal blessing later (Matt. 16:24–28; Mark 10:29–31).
In our trials, we often find it difficult to maintain the proper attitude of a citizen of a kingdom of heaven—defined in today’s passage as an attitude of joy and thanksgiving. Still, we are called to walk by faith and to persevere in holding on to the hope of heaven in the bad as well as in the good. After all, the first readers of 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 were facing persecution and had little to make them rejoice in the ordinary circumstances of life. Yet, they were to be continually rejoicing, thanking God, and praying to Him.
The Apostle writes that the will of God is for us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing” and to “give thanks in all circumstances” (vv. 16–18). Importantly, the grammatical construction of this phrase indicates that these three things are key aspects of the Lord’s will for us but do not constitute the totality of His will. God has other things for us to do as well. Paul has already listed other activities in which we must engage, including avoiding sexual immorality, loving one another, and working hard in our vocations (4:3–12). So, the admonitions in today’s passage do not mean that we are to spend every waking moment in prayer, thanksgiving, and rejoicing, for then we would be left without time to fulfill the other aspects of God’s will. Instead, the Apostle intends for us to approach all of life in a spirit of prayer, thanksgiving, and rejoicing—to do these things in both good times and bad, in our everyday activities and on special occasions.
Paul’s admonitions do not require us to pretend that things are going well when they are not. He does not tell us to give thanks at every time or for all circumstances considered in themselves. Rather, we must give thanks “in all circumstances.” We must try to view the hardships of life in light of God’s greater plan, which is working everything for our ultimate good and His ultimate glory (Rom. 8:28). There is a time to lament, to sit in our grief, to express how bad things are (e.g., Ps. 88). Nevertheless, Christians can find a joy in these circumstances that transcends our feelings of happiness or unhappiness, for we know that we belong to Christ, who will give us joys in the life to come that we can hardly imagine.