Have you ever found yourself doing something that brought you so much joy that you wanted it to never end? Maybe you went on a vacation that was so amazing you would have been perfectly content if you had spent the rest of your life there. Or perhaps you can recall that sweet spot in your career where you loved the team you worked with, you loved the kind of projects you were working on, and you loved all of the bonuses and stock that came with doing what you loved. You could have stayed in that mode forever and been so happy. For some of you, you recall a season in your spiritual life where God seemed so close and your faith was so strong.
In these moments, we would love to push the pause button on our lives and stay in those circumstances forever. But life isn’t static; it’s dynamic. It moves. It changes. And yet, there are some things in our lives that aren’t changing fast enough.
What do you do when you’re surrounded by a life that you wish was going so different? How do you respond when you find yourself in the middle of circumstances that cause you to continue to ask these questions: “Really? Are you serious? This is now my life?”
Here’s how the world responds to circumstances: when things are going well, the world rejoices. When things are less than ideal, the world complains, denies reality, or chooses to give up and lives in despair. But we aren’t after what the world’s after, are we? Here at Epic Church, our vision is to orient our entire lives around the way of Jesus.
With a lot of grace, I want to help us grapple faithfully and genuinely with a couple of commands God gives us. What God is asking us to do today seems nearly impossible if I’m honest. So let’s look at what He’s asking of us, see some examples of how to do this in the middle of difficult circumstances, and let’s pair the command with some daily practices that can give us a fighting chance to actually do what He wants us to do.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
I don’t know who wrote this, but the guy must have had an easy life. Everything must have worked out for him. He must be one of those people who always got the circumstances he wanted for his life.
Actually, I do know who wrote it. It’s Paul and here are some of the circumstances he found himself in the middle of.
2 Corinthians 11:24-27 Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
That’s the guy who’s telling us to rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances. Notice that he does not tell us to give thanks for all circumstances, but in all circumstances. I do not believe that God is the cause of the bad or evil in our lives or in our world. I do believe he allows bad and evil things to happen in our lives and in the world.
Pray, rejoice, and give thanks are all present tense verbs, indicating that these are to be continuous, recurring activities in our lives. Remember that joy is a fruit of the Spirit.
Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, not a fruit of our circumstances.
Joy is a choice.
Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS. I will say it again: Rejoice!
We’re asking, “Will it ALWAYS be like this?” And God’s telling us, “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS.”
What are you allowing to push the joy out of your life?
How do we wrestle with always rejoicing and giving thanks, while at the same time being desperately honest with God about what we wish was different? I really think Psalm 13 gives us a hint at what this could look like in our lives. Here’s a vision for how we might wrestle with God to change what we’re in the middle of, while also being able to always rejoice and give thanks. Otherwise, we just live like the world – we only rejoice when things are going well and we only complain when things are going bad.
Psalm 13:1-6 How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me.
It seems like this is two different people talking. God, will you forget me forever? I trust in your unfailing love. How long will you hide your face from me? My heart rejoices in your salvation. How long must I wrestle with my thoughts? I will sing the LORD’s praise. How many days will I continue to have sorrow in my heart? God has been so good to me.
Where in your life are you asking the “How Long?” question of God?
How long will I be single?
How long will I be afraid?
How long will I be unemployed?
How long will you feel far away from me?
How long will our family conflict last?
What is David doing? He’s fully engaging God about all the things. But He’s also reminding himself what He knows to be true about this God.Here’s what I want to be different. And at the same time, here’s what I know is the same. Your love never fails. You have given me salvation. You are always worthy of praise. You have been good to me throughout my life. We don’t have to choose.
“Gratitude is not a simple emotion or an obvious attitude. It is a difficult discipline in which I constantly reclaim my whole past as the concrete way God has led me to this moment and is sending me into the future. It is hard precisely because it challenges me to face my painful moments – experiences of rejection and abandonment, feelings of loss and failure – and gradually to discover in them the pruning hands of God purifying my heart for deeper love, stronger hope, and broader faith.” Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Direction
There’s a lot of talk about how we experience the presence of God. But we also need to know what to do when we experience the absence of God. What do I mean by that? Well, we know that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have promised to always be with us. That has to be true. But there will be seasons in life when all we can feel is God’s absence. And when you do, you’ll think it’s because you’ve done something wrong. And that could be the case. But more likely, you are going through what every maturing Christian has experienced at some time. Here’s the phrase that has come to describe what is happening in these seasons:
Dark Night of the Soul
This phrase was coined in the 16th h century by a Carmelite monk who became known as “Saint John of the Cross”. You can refer to it as a spiritual desert or wilderness. You are empty and dry. God seems distant. You feel abandoned. And you feel like no one else goes through this. I think everyone who grows spiritually encounters these moments in their journey with God. Even Jesus went through this, but somehow kept his joy.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Jesus
“For the joy set before him (Jesus), he endured the cross.”
Same person. But not only same person; same moment.
“And I’d radically discovered: If Jesus chose to give thanks for the cup of suffering since, out of a cosmos of possibilities, thanksgiving was the preferred weapon to face and fight the dark, do I have any better way? And if Jesus can give thanks even on the night He was betrayed, then I can give thanks in the midst of anything, and there is always something to be thankful for and thanksgiving always precedes the miracle of more God.” Ann Voskamp, Waymaker
The only way to keep this going is to believe with confidence that God works out everything for the good of those who love Him.
If you’re in the middle of circumstances you wish were vastly different, how can you thank Jesus?
Thank Jesus that He promised to never leave you or forsake you.
Thank Jesus for the good He has done in your life.
Thank Jesus that this isn’t the end of your story…more on that in a few weeks.
Thank Jesus for this community that’s willing to walk with you through any wilderness seasons you experience.
Thank Jesus that He’s promised to always be working in your life, even if you can’t see it yet.
First thing in morning or last thing at night – list what you’re grateful for from the day or the day before. Then thank God for those things. This practice has done as much as any practice for shifting my perspective. This will also remind you of what God has done. And it will grow your faith and confidence as you go into the next part of your time with God, which is this: Beg God for what you long to be different.
So joy/gratitude can co-exist with sorrow. They have to live together. But friends, there’s a day coming when they will not co-exist. Jesus said it this way to build the hope of his disciples:
John 16:20-22 “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”