1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 – Give Thanks

Brothers and sisters, we ask you to respect those who are working with you, leading you, and instructing you. Think of them highly with love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else. Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Don’t suppress the Spirit. Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. Avoid every kind of evil. (Common English Bible)

A lot of problems would resolve themselves if gratitude was a default way of life. Giving thanks in all circumstances creates peace; causes encouragement to flow freely; warns those who are busybodies; builds patience; and spreads goodness.

It can be easy to give thanks when things go our way. It’s another matter when circumstances are difficult, and we experience missed expectations. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica was written to people caught between a rock and a hard place. In fact, it was so hard that the believers focused completely on the return of the Lord. 

When times are tough, Christ’s second coming comes bursting from the recesses of our minds and straightaway to the forefront of our thinking. Gratitude is typically not a first response to trouble and hardship. Instead, we may look to escape. We long for Christ’s return as a way out of trouble.

Although we know we should be thankful, we often are not.  Envy and resentment are the twin enemies continually looking to subvert our gratitude. In our frustration of disappointments and unwanted situations, ingratitude may easily slip into our spirits.

A life of unhappiness awaits those who are resentful of what they do not possess. Those who envy shall never be satisfied because they are always dreaming about how much better life would be without their troubles.

No matter how good we have it, someone else has it better. To envy is to be overly future-oriented, like the Thessalonians, always thinking about how the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. And it squelches gratitude.

For example, according to a study by the Templeton Foundation, only 39% of people are grateful for their current employment; 74% of employees have rarely or never expressed gratitude to their bosses; and 60% have rarely or never expressed gratitude to anyone of their fellow employees. Workplace dissatisfaction is nearly a guarantee apart from gratitude.

If we desire happy contented lives, then observe the biblical exhortation to give thanks in any kind of circumstance. It can be challenging to give thanks during hard times. Yet, that might be best time to do it.

In her book, The Hiding Place, the late Corrie ten Boom tells about an incident that taught her the principle of giving thanks in all things. It was during World War II. Corrie and her sister, Betsy, had been harboring Jewish people in their home, so they were arrested and imprisoned at a concentration camp. The barracks was extremely crowded and infested with fleas.

One morning they read in their tattered Bible the reminder to give thanks in all things. Betsy said, “Corrie, we’ve got to give thanks for this barracks and even for these fleas.” Corrie replied, “No way am I going to thank God for fleas.” But Betsy was persistent and persuasive, and they did thank God even for the fleas.  During the months that followed, they found that their barracks was left relatively free, and they could do Bible study, talk openly, and even pray in the barracks. It was their only place of refuge. Several months later they learned that the reason the guards never entered their barracks was because of those blasted fleas.

Sometimes we neither understand what God is doing nor perceive that the Lord is up to anything. You may feel as if you are sitting still right now, yet, planet Earth is spinning around its axis at a speed of 1,000 miles per hour. We are also hurtling through space at an average velocity of 67,108 miles per hour. Even on a day when you feel like you did not get much done, remember you traveled 1,599,793 miles through space!

Although amazing, we do not feel it. So, it’s off our spiritual radars. When was the last time you thanked God for keeping us in orbit? I am guessing you likely never prayed, “Lord, I wasn’t sure we’d make the full rotation today, but you did it again!”

We must learn to thank God in every circumstance, both big and small. If we can trust God to keep our feet on the ground with a big thing like gravity, then we can have faith in any and every situation we experience.

Here are three simple ways of being intentional about gratitude:

  • Pray with prayers of thanksgiving. 

I am a believer in using biblical prayers for ourselves rather than just saying what is always on our minds and hearts – because we might never get around to gratitude. Scripture, however, does. The Apostle Paul typically began every discussion with gratitude. For example, when beginning his letter to the problem filled church at Philippi, he said: 

I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus….  And this is my prayer:  that your love may abound more and more in knowledge of depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:3-4, 9-11, NIV)

  • Write your thanksgiving.

Cards, letters, emails, social media messages, and whatever other ways are available, use them to express thanksgiving to God and others. Again, Paul ended his letter to the Philippians just as he began it, with gratitude:

It was good of you to share in my troubles.  Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need.” (Philippians 4:14-16, NIV)

  • Keep a gratitude journal.

Identifying and writing down at least three things you are thankful for everyday has healing power. Any common fool can bellyache about how bad things are and play armchair Deity about how to fix all the world’s ills. However, it takes a wise person to find gratitude and choose to give thanks for all the good things God has done and is doing, being careful to give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will in Christ Jesus.

Almighty God, we give you humble thanks for all your goodness and kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. Above all, we are grateful for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for grace and the hope of glory.

Give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days. We pray with thanksgiving through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Psalm 63 – I Will

You are my God. I worship you.
    In my heart, I long for you,
    as I would long for a stream
    in a scorching desert.

I have seen your power
and your glory
    in the place of worship.
Your love means more
than life to me,
    and I praise you.
As long as I live,
    I will pray to you.
I will sing joyful praises
and be filled with excitement
    like a guest at a banquet.

I think about you
    before I go to sleep,
    and my thoughts turn to you
    during the night.
You have helped me,
    and I sing happy songs
    in the shadow of your wings.
I stay close to you,
    and your powerful arm
    supports me.

All who want to kill me
    will end up in the ground.
Swords will run them through,
    and wild dogs will eat them.

Because of you, our God,
    the king will celebrate
with your faithful followers,
    but liars will be silent. (Contemporary English Version)

Regulars to this blog know that I believe the Old Testament Psalms to be a vast untapped resource of devotion and prayer for many Christians. The biblical psalms provide believers with words for prayer, song, and thought so that we might remain close and connected to the Lord.

I Will Worship

Worship involves gratitude to God for God’s inherent love; and praise to God for divine works done in the world.

God’s people, gathered together for worship, affords a wonderful opportunity to express gratitude and praise, as well as listen to the stories of others who have experienced the gracious works of God in their lives.

Therefore, both personal and corporate worship is needed. Personal worship, even if engaged daily, will inevitably lead to a truncated understanding of God and God’s Law without corporate worship – because we need the encouragement and the accountability of others for mature spiritual growth. In addition, to only participate in corporate worship, without attending to daily personal worship, leads to a bifurcation between Sunday and our Monday-Friday workaday existence.

Worship isn’t so much an event, as it is a life. So, it makes sense to have healthy rhythms of personal and corporate worship which enable us to glorify God in our neighborhoods, families, workplaces, and faith communities.

I Will Pray

In those dark times when we don’t know what to pray, how to lament, or what to say to God; in the joyful times when we want to proclaim praise, give thanks, or express our blessings and longings; in every season of our lives the psalms help give voice to our relationship with the God of all creation.

Today’s psalm was originally uttered to God when David was roaming in the wilderness avoiding King Saul’s malevolent intent. David prayerfully expressed his yearning, desire, and hope to connect with God and be guided by the Lord, step by step. David praised God in an awkward and adverse circumstance, longing to be satisfied with spiritual food and drink.

I Will Sing

Just as we are to pray the psalms, we are to also speak the psalms out loud with singing. The Psalter Hymnal of old, as well as many contemporary praise and worship songs, are words from the psalms, meant to help, encourage, and give voice to our own current experiences.  

Inspired by the psalms, take a few minutes today to sing and/or listen to songs such as, “God You Are My God” by Michael W. Smith, or check out a compilation of music from the psalms, like, “The Psalms Project,” which aims to put all 150 psalms to music. Maybe even craft your own tune to today’s psalm and sing it to the Lord.

I Will Think

Specifically, the psalmist mentions thinking about the Lord before retiring for sleep, as well as turning to God when awake during the night.

In today’s modern (and postmodern) society, anxiety and racing thoughts are ubiquitous – the result of overthinking and fixating on particular troubling thoughts. Contemplating God through reflecting on the psalms can be a way of taming the out-of-control thinking, while positively engrafting sound theology into the inner workings of our brains.

There’s a reason why the daily lectionary has a reading from the psalms every day. It is one of the best sources for practical spirituality and heartfelt worship, as well as transforming the way we think.

I Will Stay Close

Whatever we do, whatever we say, and wherever we go, let the psalms help form and shape within you a profound spirituality which helps foster a deeper connection with the God we long to know more and more. 

May our celebrations be raucous and robust because the God of the psalms has showed up and given grace and mercy to our troubling circumstances.

Soli Deo Gloria

Hebrews 10:32-39 – Believe, Be Patient, and Remember

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And,

“But my righteous one will live by faith.
    And I take no pleasure
    in the one who shrinks back.”

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (New International Version)

Sometimes we get stuck in our troubles. We might get lost in adversity and cannot see either how we got here or a way out. This is hopelessness. Without a confident expectation of better days ahead, while in the throes of difficulty, a failure of faith can too easily happen.

To realize better days, it’s important to remember the earlier days. I’m not talking about living in the past and wishing it were the 1950s again with Beaver Cleaver across the street. This is not about believing that the past was the good old days, and the present is no good. Rather, I’m referring to remembering the ways we endured and persevered with joy in past experiences.

The original Christian recipients of the message of Hebrews needed to recall the various ways they stood firm and tall in their faith, despite the adversity. They were insulted and persecuted, showing solidarity to others in similar situations. They were attentive to prisoners and sought to meet their needs. And they actually responded to the confiscation of their property with joy because they knew there was more than this present life.

God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12, NLT

The believers needed to reconnect with their purpose, with their why. The reason they had such incredible attitudes while enduring hard things is because they were pursuing heavenly treasure. Their earthly possessions were merely temporary things, not of eternal value. It is people who have eternal value, and the believers willingly focused efforts in helping others.

However, the Christians eventually, over time, lost their focus and could only see the pain and the difficulty. They became disconnected with their purpose. And so, they were in danger of losing their faith and becoming utterly hopeless.

Remember what God has done for you. Affirm what is right, just, and true. Embrace faith and patience. That’s what the prophet Habakkuk did. And his resilience helped to bring proper perspective to present troubles.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

Habakkuk was distressed over the corruption of his fellow Israelites. So, he complained to God about it. God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to Israel through the Babylonians. This was neither what Habakkuk expected nor wanted. The prophet grumbled even more because the Babylonians were more corrupt than the Israelites. “The Babylonians need judgment, too!” believed Habakkuk. 

Habakkuk struggled to come to terms with what God was doing, and not doing. Finally, he concluded the matter by reconnecting with his faith: 

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NLT)

One of the most significant faith experiences we can ever have, is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances. The truth is that the Christian’s joy and spiritual security is independent of what is going on around us. Even though situations might be difficult and even evil, believers can still rejoice because we do not need everything to go our way in order to experience happiness.

Faith, patience, and joy are neither cheap, nor easy. It requires daily affirmations of faith and patience. It requires remembering. There is a reward ahead if we persevere to the end.

We can remain patient, express faith, kindle hope, and remember necessary things whenever we stop doing unimportant things which do not add value to our ultimate goals; be mindful of those things which are most important to us; and move through life at a pace of hope, not anxiety.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

Hebrews 10:11-25 – Don’t Give Up!

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again, and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice, he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

“This is the covenant I will make with them
    after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
    and I will write them on their minds.”

Then he adds:

“Their sins and lawless acts
    I will remember no more.”

And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (New International Version)

The book of Hebrews was originally a sermon preached to a group of struggling Jewish Christians who were discouraged. They were a congregation in decline. The preacher’s approach throughout is to demonstrate that Jesus is better and superior to anything or anyone ever.

With this high view of the person and work of Christ, the preacher comes to the punch line of his sermon. He insists that what the believers need is perseverance to keep going – no matter what adversity they face. For without the ability to endure hardship, the sagging congregation would continue to decline and eventually give up.

Yet, giving up is not an option when it comes to the Christian life. The Christians may not have been going through a Job-like experience, but they needed to get some spiritual spine to them so that they could stand up for Jesus. 

Sometimes, because most of life is lived in the mundane, we can slowly drift from our spiritual moorings and just go through the motions of Christianity without really living for Jesus. Boring and repetitive work; the monotony of caregiving; the tedium of busywork; and the continual grind of it all can be an effective tool in the devil’s workshop. 

When we begin sleepwalking through life, we are in danger of wandering from faith. We then need some stout spiritual stamina. “I didn’t sign up for this!” can be the cry of both the person who is downtrodden with hard circumstances, as well as the person who is simply living a dull life. 

We all have our quitting point – that point where we say, “enough is enough” and we give up and cry uncle. Those times usually come when the pain or inconvenience of what is happening overcomes the resolve to persevere. The devil keeps detailed notes on everyone’s quitting points, and he tries to get us to that point of being ineffective and giving up on the Christian life. 

It easily begins with some minor irritation or complaint against from another. Then moves further along by the loss of someone close. Frustration mounts if financial hardship happens. After a while, if things do not markedly improve, living day in and day out with missed expectations and disappointing situations may lead to bailing out, blowing up, or binging on a sinful desire.

At the quitting point, we throw up our hands, wrongheadedly believing others don’t care and that God is indifferent to our situation.

The preacher of Hebrews knows that the one real measure of a person is the learned ability to push through the quitting points of life. We need endurance and perseverance. But how will we get it?  How can we endure, living for Jesus for the rest of our lives?

There are three indispensable elements of the Christian life, necessary to persevering. Perseverance is a privilege, and not some drudging duty to slog through. Following Jesus for a lifetime comes as we embrace our spiritual privileges.

Faith is the privilege of continually approaching the Lord with confidence

We possess the incredible privilege of approaching the throne of grace with confidence because Jesus has opened the way to God. No longer do we need the elaborate Old Testament sacrificial system in order to approach God. So, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.

We need faith to keep going in the Christian life. Faith is more than doctrinal confession; it is something we experientially live by every day. By faith, we come to God through Jesus – not only soaking in more information but also drawing near to Christ.

Jesus, when on this earth, drew near to the Father. We are to follow Christ in his example. Jesus practiced solitude, silence, and extended times of prayer. Our Lord oriented his teaching and healing ministry around his relationship with the Father by engaging in basic spiritual disciplines that put him in a position to hear and listen so that he could then do the will of God. 

“We can all see God in exceptional things, but it requires the culture of spiritual discipline to see God in every detail.”

Oswald Chambers

A successful student orients her life around certain study disciplines in order to learn and reach graduation day. A winning athlete orients his life around certain daily practices in order to develop the skills needed to face the upcoming competition. Likewise, if we want to follow Christ and draw near to God, we need to reorient our time and commitment in order to take advantage of the privilege of growing and maturing in Jesus. 

The perspective of Hebrews is that we must orient our lives around basic disciplines of faith and put our hands out in order to receive the gift of faith God wants to give us.  Faith is a muscle that must be exercised, or it will atrophy and become useless. And with puny weak faith muscles, it is easy to give up because we have no “umpff” for the Christian life.

Hope is the privilege of living for Jesus with a confident expectation that God keeps divine promises

Perseverance requires hope. Hopelessness happens without the continuing practice of faith expressed in drawing near to God. Hope in Scripture is not wishful thinking; it is a confident expectation that God is good for his promises. 

Hope enables us to bank on the words and ways of Jesus. In those times when we feel hopeless; when there is negativity in the air that brings us to the quitting point; when we sense a season of blessing is not going to come; it is in those very times the preacher of Hebrews says to hold unswervingly to your profession.

We will not always squint our spiritual eyes, looking for the least little hope. Just as young mothers must remember that constant lack of sleep and caring for a needy infant is not always going to be the status quo; just as kids must remember that they will not be in school for the rest of their lives; in the same way, we must remember that God will accomplish everything he sets out to do; that there is an end and a goal to Christianity; and we will be richly rewarded if we keep going and do not give up.

Love is the privilege of encouraging fellow believers

We are to pay thoughtful attention to one another. Believers are to take an interest in each other’s welfare, and put some significant thought into how to spur, incite, cajole, and provoke others into keeping up with Jesus. 

A major opportunity for encouragement is corporate gatherings. Attendance is not an end in itself. Worship services, small group Bible studies, and other ministries of the Church are important because they are moments for us to encourage other people.

Let’s play good response/bad response to this. Bad response: “I feel guilty about what you just said, so I will try harder to love and encourage others.” That’s a prescription for frustration and failure. It ends in reaching the quitting point because we are focusing too much on the strength of our own will, or lack thereof.

Good response: “Wow!  God wants to use me to love other people! I’ll seek to know Jesus better so that I can learn to live and love, just like him. I can’t wait to encourage someone and build them up in the faith.”

Church is not optional equipment for the Christian life. We need each other. We need the Church.

“Love cannot exist in isolation: away from others, love bloats into pride. Grace cannot be received privately: cut off from others, it is perverted into greed. Hope cannot develop in solitude: separated from the community, it goes to seed in the form of fantasies. No gift, no virtue can develop and remain healthy apart from the community of faith. ‘Outside the church there is no salvation’ is not ecclesiastical arrogance but spiritual common sense, confirmed in everyday experience.”

Eugene Peterson

“No one can have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother.”

Cyprian (210-258 C.E.) Bishop of Carthage

“May Christians be guided by the Church’s maternal care until they grow up to maturity and attain the perfection of faith…. To those whom God is a Father, the Church must also be a Mother.”

John Calvin

The Church:

  • Creates a unique presence with God. (Matthew 18:20)
  • Provides the nurture, guidance, and encouragement necessary for spiritual development. (Romans 12:4-5)
  • Helps form our identity as Christians. (Ephesians 2:19-20)
  • Enables endurance through suffering and brings comfort and encouragement in difficult times. (James 5:14-15)
  • Nourishes with the Word in preaching and sacrament. (Acts 2:46-47)
  • Lifts up godly examples to imitate. (1 Corinthians 4:16)
  • Intervenes when sheep go astray. (Colossians 3:16)
  • Fosters spiritual transformation. (Philippians 2:12)
  • Brings maternal care and help. (1 Thessalonians 2:7)

Conclusion

Let’s be encouragers – loving others with the grace of Jesus. The following are six types of encouragers displayed in the book of Hebrews for us to emulate:

  1. The Promoter. Cheering others on to endurance. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on and promoting us to push through the quitting points. They did it, and so can we (12:1).
  2. The Professor. Affirming others’ work as valuable and important. God will not forget your work and the love you have shown God’s people and how you continue to help them (6:9-10).
  3. The Preacher. Rebuking and admonishing in love (Proverbs 27:5). We must pay more careful attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.  How shall we escape punishment if we ignore such a great salvation? (2:1-3).
  4. The Prayer Warrior.  Approaching the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (4:16).
  5. The Partner. Coming alongside one another daily so that no one may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (3:13).
  6. The Pastor. Shepherding others through the confusing situations of life. Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Together, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore, as we look forward to the heavenly city to come (13:12-14).

It’s our privilege to persevere through the spiritual gifts of faith, hope, and love. Use them for building up one another so that together we can endure for a lifetime.