Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5.16-18
This little trio of texts is one of my favourite pieces of Scripture and one that I have long had committed to memory. But as it came up before me in my Bible reading plan this morning, a great big question mark appeared over parts of it because I found myself trying to read it through the eyes of two people who are presently on my heart.
The first is a very public figure whom I have never met nor am ever likely to meet. She is Katherine Welby, the daughter of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and she has recently been very open in the press and on television about a constant battle she has with depression – despite the fact that she is a committed Christian in a deep and genuine relationship with the Lord Jesus. Her condition became so severe last year that she stopped working, split up from her partner, and stopped going out. “I had lots of panic attacks … a permanent feeling of breathlessness, a permanent fear of what the day would hold and how I was going to get through; and a longing with all my heart to be anyone, anywhere or nowhere, just for it to end.” She even contemplated suicide. Does her dad pray for her? Yes, but despite all the prayer surrounding her “I am still miserable every day, most days … It’s ridiculous to be depressed in my position, but I am.”*
I can see how Katherine might well “pray without ceasing” for her depression to end, but how can she be expected to “rejoice always … and give thanks in all circumstances”?
The second person on my heart is Michelle Anderson – a theatre nurse who works voluntarily for Mercy Ships Africa – and who, through our correspondence and blogs over a number of years, has become a dear friend of mine. In a very recent post on her blog**, she wrote this:
“I woke up sad today. There is no apparent reason for this sadness. I have struggled with melancholy all my life. It is one of the things about my character I dislike, even hate, a lot. I have no control over my moods. And when the sadness strikes, I can’t hide it. I’ve tried. I’m not an actor. Oh how I pray I were. I HATE being so exposed. I HATE that people I don’t know can see me so clearly. This is a problem I don’t know how to deal with here, living in community. I look around and see other people carrying on, consistently happy. Why can’t I be like them? This is clearly a weight I need to give to the Lord. I just can’t seem to figure out how?”
Again, how – when you are drowning in sadness and melancholy – can you “rejoice always … and give thanks in all circumstances”?
I can only speak from experience. I myself do not suffer from a permanent state of depression or melancholy, but I have gone through seasons of depression and sadness and despair. And my response to these verses at such times has been to remind myself that they are not about my feelings at all. They are a command to DO something and to keep on doing it regardless of how I feel.
The first command is to rejoice which, as I understand it, is to do the things that people who actually do feel joy do to express it. I am being instructed to put a smile on my face even if it is just a matter of flexing the right muscles. I am being enjoined to sing a song of gladness however much it sticks in my throat. I am being exhorted to stick my hands in the air and shout ‘Hallelujah!” even though it’s the last thing on earth that I really want to do. It may at first seem phony and even farcical, but I find it gets less so as you go on because the imitation rejoicing primes the pump so that real rejoicing starts to flow out of you.
Likewise with thanksgiving. Once, in a very dark hour in my life, a friend came to me in my despair and asked, “Have you thanked God for this terrible thing?”
I turned on him in anger: “Thank God? How can I thank God for this?”
His reply was to ask me another question: “Do you believe the Scripture that says: ‘In all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8.28)?”
“Well, yes,” I said, reluctantly. “I suppose so.”
“Then,” he said, “because ‘all’ means ‘all’, it follows that God is working in this terrible thing for your good. And if God is working in it for your good, then you can – and indeed you must – thank him for it. There is no going forward until you do.”
So I did – on my knees, through gritted teeth, and as a sheer act of surrender – but in doing so I found God’s life and peace pouring into me to not only console me but to change me.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Really? Yes, really! I can do it. You can do it. Anyone can do it … because it is nothing to do with how we feel.
*A video clip of Graham Satchell’s interview with Katherine on BBC Breakfast is here.
**Michelle’s blog is here.