Giving thanks in difficult circumstances

1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18

Our text today is from 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and 18. v. 16 says “Rejoice always” and v. 18 says, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Our focus today is on why we can rejoice and give thanks “always” or “in all circumstances.”

Now it’s easy to rejoice and give thanks when God answers prayers and delivers us from our problems, although certainly sometimes we forget to do this. But it’s surely more difficult to give thanks when things are going badly for us. But it is possible.

Let’s look at some –

Examples of rejoicing in difficult circumstances

The twelve apostles did this. They were put in prison for their preaching but were miraculously released. Then whey they preached more, they were taken to stand before the governing authorities where they were beaten and warned to stop preaching. Acts 5:41 says, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

Paul and Silas rejoiced when things were hard. In Acts 16 Paul cast out a fortune telling demon from a slave girl. This made the owners mad because they made money off of her. They promptly caused a stir and got Paul and Silas in trouble with the authorities.

Vs. 23-25 say, “And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison . . . into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them . . ..” They were unjustly beaten, arrested and shackled – but they were singing praises to God.

This happened just before Paul came to Thessalonica, so he knew what he was talking about when he told them “rejoice always . . .  (and) give thanks in all circumstances.”

And the Thessalonians themselves knew about rejoicing in suffering. From the time they first believed they suffered. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says, “you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” They suffered, but they had joy.

Finally, the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. They had undergone persecution and the writer reminds them of this in 10:34, “ . . . you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Can you imagine having all your goods hauled away because of your faith – your big screen TV, your dining set, your couches? Would you be able to keep things in perspective and still be joyful?

They did. And we can too by God’s grace. It’s difficult. But it is possible.

Now let’s look at –

Why we can rejoice in all circumstances

– including when things are difficult. It certainly can’t be based on our feelings, these change all the time. It has to be based on something much stronger and more stable – our faith. So here are four aspects of our faith that show us why we can do this:

1. God is worthy of praise – period. Nothing else needs to be said. Whether we feel like praising God or not – God is worthy. Whether we’re in good times or in bad times, it doesn’t matter. God is still the same – yesterday, today and forever and is still worthy of our praises.

Apart from anything God may or may not do for me; apart from whether God allows me to go through good times or bad, God is worthy of praise for who God is. God is awesome! God is holy! God is good! None of this changes based on our circumstances.

Habakkuk the prophet lived in a difficult time. The people were unfaithful to God. And he knew that judgment was coming – things were going to get worse. But he praised God anyway, because God deserves to be praised. Habakkuk 3:17-18 says, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord . . ..” I believe that this is the purest form of praise to God because it’s not dependent on something that we get from God.

2. God has blessed us in many ways. Even in the worst of times, if we’re able to step back and think about it, we can recognize that this is true.

James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . ..” You have been given the gift of life. Also think about your abilities, your strengths, your family, your friends, your home – whatever good thing you are or have is from God.

And this includes our salvation – God’s grace and mercy to us in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of our sins, new life by the Spirit, a relationship with God, fellow believers who walk with us, strength and peace in difficult times – all these are gifts from God as well.

And so despite whatever else may be going on we can give thanks for God’s blessing to us.

3. God gives us hope for the future. God allows each of us to go through hard times, and a part of this is simply living in this sinful and broken world where evil is normal. But in the midst of this as Christians we have a hope for something better. This life is not all that there is. In fact, we are to live for the life that is to come, not this one.

When Jesus talked about suffering for our faith; being reviled and slandered, he said, “Rejoice and be glad” Why? “For your reward is great in heaven . . .” – Matthew 5:12.

In 1 Peter 1:6 Peter tells his readers that “now for a little while . . . you have been grieved by various trials.” Just before this he said, “in this you rejoice.” Why do they rejoice in their trials? It’s because of what he had just mentioned in vs. 4-5. They have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven . . . a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This hope puts things in perspective for us as Christians. Yes, we will suffer in this life. But we will be blessed in the world to come. And in fact the blessing will outweigh the sufferings. Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” – Romans 8:18. Similarly he says, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” – 2 Corinthians 4:17. Our suffering may well be great, but what awaits us is far greater. God gives up hope for the future.

4. God harnesses trials for our good. We go through fiery trials. This is an image that is used in Scripture (Isaiah 48:10; 1 Peter 1:7). And it makes a point. Fire can consume or it can refine. If we go through the fire in faith we will not be consumed. Rather, God uses the flames to refine and purify us.

God is able to bring good out of pain, suffering and tears. This doesn’t mean that God causes the pain, only that God is greater than whatever evil befalls us.

Paul makes this point in Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is able to work in and through all that happens to us to bring some good to us.

James tells his readers, “Count it all joy” when you suffer various kinds of trials. Why? “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:2-4.

Along the same lines, Paul says, “. . . we rejoice in our sufferings.” Why? “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . .” – Romans 5:3-4.

The world will throw hard times at us left and right. But when we endure them in faith, God brings something good out of them for us. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this.

Christmas Joy. Luke 2:10-11

I want to share with you briefly on Joy and Christmas-time. Joy is certainly central to the message the angel spoke to the Shepherds in the Christmas story.  Luke 2:10  says, “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.’”

Christmas is a time of joy, right? Time off work; enjoying family; giving gifts; special meals; special events with friends; sentimental associations from childhood and a time to set aside one’s problems for a while. All we need to do is hear the Christmas music and  see the decorations to be joyful and happy.

Yet, as you know, for some, Christmas can be a time of real sadness. If many have time off work, some don’t have a job or are working several jobs with no time off. If many enjoy family, some have family brokenness or even no family. If many give and receive gifts, some don’t have the money to do this. If many have special meals, some can’t afford this either. If many go to special events with friends, some don’t have friends to go out with. If many have sentimental remembrances, some didn’t have a good childhood and so it can bring back bad memories. If many are able to set aside their problems – some are reminded of specific tragedies that have happened at this time of year, or losses from the past year.

So for one or more of these reasons, simply to hear the music and to see the decorations brings sadness or even depression. You can’t seem to enter in and be happy, and it makes you sadder when you see others experiencing joy, when you can’t.

So does this mean that we shouldn’t talk about Christmas joy since we might make someone feel worse? No. We simply need to remember again why we have joy at Christmas. And we learn this from the angel who spoke to the Shepherds in Luke 2:11 – “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Notice, the angel said nothing about time off work; family; gift giving; meals; special events with friends; sentimental associations from childhood; or a special time to set aside problems for a while. This is the cultural part of Christmas; the human traditions that have accumulated around our celebration of Christmas.

Think of Mary and Joseph. They were obeying an imperial edict to be registered in a census. I’m sure they weren’t excited about having to do this at the very time when Mary was due to give birth. I don’t think it was fun to have to put Jesus in an animal feed-trough because there wasn’t enough room for them in a home or an inn. They certainly weren’t enjoying what we associate with celebrating Christmas.

Think of the Shepherds as well. They took a brief break from their work to go see the baby and then went back. They had none of the trappings of our cultural traditions.

The angel said we can have joy because of something else. We have to keep vs. 10 and 11 together. v. 10 speaks of “good news of a great joy.” v. 11 tells us why – “for unto you is born . . . a Savior”

Our Messiah and Lord has come someone who can save us. Someone who can help us in our difficulties, provide for our needs, and give us the promise of a better future. And this is what gives us both hope and joy.

This is a message precisely for those who are sad and who don’t have what they want at this time of year. And it’s for all of us who have problems. You don’t need a savior if you have nothing to be saved from, right?

The true meaning of Christmas can give us all joy precisely because we do have problems, pain and brokenness.

Jesus is the savior. He has come. And he can help us. And this is what we celebrate. So let’s celebrate with vigor and great joy! A joy that cannot be taken away no matter what our circumstances are.