Over the last several months I have been praying for a number of my friends who are either battling life-threatening illnesses themselves or have close family members who are undergoing great suffering. It is often in times of such trial that we actively seek spiritual wisdom and direction that can hopefully help us to rely more upon God and rest in his immeasurable grace and comfort. From a Christian perspective, suffering can often be a mysterious experience. As much as we dislike it and truly hate to see our loved ones go through it, suffering also appears to be a severe mercy because for so many of us it uniquely causes us to reach out for and cling to God.
As people of faith who love God’s Word, we often gravitate toward biblical passages that can serve to give our lives spiritual guidance and discipline. The Pauline passage cited above from the First Thessalonians epistle is an amazingly simple threefold command that we can shape our inner lives around. The apostle Paul reveals that it is categorically God’s will that we incorporate into our lives the virtues and spiritual disciplines of joyfulness, prayerfulness, and thankfulness. And while these spiritual states of mind are necessary in everyday life, they become absolutely vital anchors during times of trial.
Let me discuss each of these three spiritual attitudes and practices that the apostle Paul mentions.
God’s Will #1: Be Joyful
In a spiritual context there can be a profound difference between being joyful and being happy. Happiness is often dependent upon circumstances. But Christians can be joyful in their forgiven position in Christ even though their present circumstances have left them rather unhappy. Life’s circumstances can change drastically from being up to being down, but one’s relationship with Christ remains steady because of what Jesus Christ has permanently accomplished on the believer’s behalf. It was said of the early Christians that they could be joyful during persecution, and amazingly even during martyrdom.
God’s Will #2: Be Prayerful
The apostle Paul exhorts believers to “pray continually.” This doesn’t mean spending 24/7 on one’s knees, though praying a lot and praying on one’s knees is always a good thing. To pray continually undoubtedly means developing an ongoing attitude and awareness of prayer. Prayer should become as natural as breathing. Thus, the Christian’s entire life is to be lived with the conscious awareness of God being present in one’s life and, in turn, God’s people communing with their Lord. In other words, prayer should punctuate the believer’s entire life. This prayerful approach offers proper perspective in life and allows one to balance the temporal with the eternal and thus, to justify joy even in times of trial.
God’s Will #3: Be Thankful
Like joy and prayer, thankfulness to God is a foundation of the Christian life. God the Father’s provision for his children in and through the work of the Son and the Spirit runs through this mortal life and beyond. What is amazing is that many psychological studies now indicate that authentic happiness in life is deeply influenced by one’s ability to express gratefulness.1 The Christian can always be thankful for the Lord’s sovereign promise that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”2
God’s threefold will for one’s life of being joyful, prayerful, and thankful can serve to transform the entire life of the believer. And during times of great pain and suffering the apostle Paul gives us this precious statement: