15 Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else. 16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
We often think gratitude is purely a feeling, a reaction to something outside of us. That makes “give thanks in every situation” puzzling—some situations do not trigger positive feelings. But psychology researcher Robert Emmons wrote, “It is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful…. [B]eing grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives.”*
Observe. There is so much beauty all around us, so much to be grateful for, but we often fail to recognize it. Walk outside and pick up a rock and place it in your pocket. Use it as a reminder to give thanks throughout the day. Write down instances when this rock was a reminder to give thanks.
O God, you are like the sun, always shining your love and mercy into my life, whatever may happen in my family, my workplace or my health. Help me learn how to keep my focus on you every day. Amen.
* Robert Emmons, “How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times,” syndicated from Greater Good, Sep 12, 2013 at http://www.dailygood.org/story/532/how-gratitude-can-help-you-through-hard-times-robert-emmons/.
** William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians (Revised Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, p. 207.
The times we think most about changing our lives are usually the times when we need it the most: desperate times, times of great turmoil or sorrow, and the times we find ourselves the lowest. But positive change, like a healthy body, requires discipline. It’s one of life’s greatest ironies that the best time to think about change and start laying that groundwork is actually when we need it least, when our lives are most stable, because that’s when we’ll really be able to focus on the discipline of change rather than be overwhelmed by the necessity of it.
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is all about this. Paul had spent somewhere in the neighborhood of three months starting a new church in Thessalonica, but found himself pulled away before he could finish what he started. When things had calmed down, he sent Timothy to check on them, worried that false teachers may have stepped in and turned the young congregation down the wrong path. Thankfully, Timothy’s report was positive: the new church was doing great! That’s the situation Paul was addressing when he wrote this first letter to the Thessalonians. He wasn’t trying to fix a major problem, as he was with many of his letters; he was mostly just showing these young faithful Christians how to take their faith to the next level. In short, things were good and stable, so Paul was giving them instructions on how to adopt behaviors and disciplines that would get them through the rough times in their lives, which he knew would be coming.
Today’s passage (1 Thessalonians 5:15-18) is at the end of Paul’s letter, as he throws in random advice that he knew they needed that didn’t require a major explanation. And here, we find some of the shortest verses in the Bible as he gives some very simple guidelines: Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation.
Why are these things mentioned so briefly, almost in passing? Because, for people going through a good season, these are easy things—so easy that we often don’t see the value in them. When things are going well, it’s easy to rejoice, pray, and give thanks, because those are natural reactions to what’s going on in our lives. The spiritual discipline that Paul wanted to teach them was to learn to do this in every situation, even when it wasn’t a natural thing. The life-changing part of gratitude is never a single act, but a discipline of thinking about it daily, and that’s something that takes practice.
Some of us may be in terrible times right now, and some of us may be living in a great time of life. No matter where you are, learning to practice gratitude will benefit you; but for those of you in that second group, it will be far easier for you to learn that discipline now so that it will serve you well when you need it. Gratitude will take your faith to the next level, so to speak, but only when it’s a discipline and not a feeling. How do you do that? Practice. Practice gratitude every day. This is spiritual exercise that can keep your soul in tip-top shape.
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