These are particularly striking words since they’re part of a letter from a persecuted man to a persecuted church.
The apostle Paul was on his second missionary journey. This letter was written back to a church he’d established earlier on the journey. Before arriving in Thessalonica originally, Paul and his fellow workers (including Silas) had been in nearby Philippi where, ‘The multitude rose up together against them, and the magistrates tore their clothes off of them, and commanded them to be beaten with rods. When they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison’(Acts 16:22-23). After being released they moved on to Thessalonica, probably still covered in bruises. After winning some converts, persecution soon broke out there too, and the newly formed church sent Paul and Silas away under cover of darkness. One of the key teachings these new converts received in this context was ‘when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we are to suffer affliction, even as it happened, and you know’(1 Thessalonians 3:4). So how could Paul write to these people ‘Rejoice always.…’?
Obviously he’s not teaching a joy that denies the reality of suffering and its associated sorrow. Paul writes consistently about this elsewhere, for example in his joyful letter to the Philippians, writing that he wants to know the ‘fellowship of his [Christ’s] sufferings’(Philippians 3:10), who as Isaiah foresaw ‘was despised, and rejected by men; a man of suffering [sorrows],’(Isaiah 53:3). Paul doesn’t see joy and rejoicing as requiring the absence of suffering and sorrow. Indeed, he even describes himself and fellow workers as ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’(2 Corinthians 6:10). For Paul the two can co-exist. So how does this work?
Paul’s next phrase is key: ‘Pray without ceasing’. In prayer we form a mind transforming connection with God. This is precisely how Paul and Silas coped in the Philippian prison: ‘Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them’(Acts 16:25). Perhaps they started with laments that turned into songs of praise! Prayer to our heavenly Father has a wonderful way of putting things into a right perspective. This needn’t involve words even, because sometimes ‘we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings’(Romans 8:26). Like a much loved child in distress we feel His comforting arm around us, and find ourselves simultaneously crying, smiling and even laughing with comfort and joy.
We should note also the ‘without ceasing’. Regular frequent focused times of prayer help us to maintain an ongoing awareness of God’s presence with us throughout the day, as do so called ‘arrow prayers’: short prayers uttered as we go about our daily business. This is helpful, since for most of us the pain and groaning of life is not marked by dramatic events like violent imprisonment but an ongoing struggle against sin as we live as broken people in a broken world; ‘For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in hope’(Romans 8:22-24).
We’re being delivered out of brokenness into Spiritual life. We have the first fruits of this, but the process won’t be complete until we’re fully adopted as God’s children, living with Him in eternal glory. This is the hope at the heart of the Christian gospel of salvation. It’s what brings us joy, ‘rejoicing in hope; enduring in troubles; continuing steadfastly in prayer’(Romans 12:12), and how the Thessalonians ‘received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit’(1 Thessalonians 1:6). Seeing the fruit of Christian service can bring us joy too, as it did for Paul when he heard the Thessalonians were standing firm in the faith: ‘we were comforted over you in all our distress and affliction through your faith. For now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we render again to God for you, for all the joy with which we rejoice for your sakes before our God’(1 Thessalonians 3:7-9).
That’s what Paul means by the last phrase in his trio ‘In everything give thanks’. He doesn’t mean that we’re to give thanks for every aspect of every situation, but we can give thanks in every situation. We give thanks and rejoice in our salvation and fruitful service despite our suffering and sorrow, fuelling an ever closer walk with God.