It is often the little words in a verse that can contain a big part of the meaning. This certainly holds true in 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18 - “Be joyful (always), pray (continually), give thanks (in) all circumstances.”
In verse 18 Paul is not saying to be thankful FOR all circumstance but rather to be thankful IN all circumstances. Like joy, our thankfulness needs to be based on our relationship with Christ rather than the external circumstances of our life.
For example: We are not thankful for a job loss. But in that circumstance, we can be thankful that God continues to provide and meet our needs. Someone diagnosed with cancer would not be thankful for the illness. But they can be thankful for accessible health care and the support of family and friends.
Regardless of our circumstance we can gives thanks that God loved us so much that he sent his son to die for us (John 3:16-17), that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39), and that God will give us the strength we need for whatever comes our way (Isaiah 41:10).
No one promised us that life would be easy. In John 16:33 Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!” That is the perspective that will help us learn to find a reason to give thanks in every situation. Ephesians 5:20 says, “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Verse 18 finishes with FOR THIS IS GOD’S WILL FOR YOU IN CHRIST JESUS Joy, prayers and thankfulness should not fluctuate with our circumstances or feelings. We lack joy because we lose sight of God’s love, power and work in our lives. We lack prayer because we get too busy to keep up a running conversation with God. We lack thankfulness because we focus on life’s circumstances instead of the almighty God who created us.
These three commands are interwoven and dependent on each other to help us know what the will of God is for our life. If you work on one the others will naturally follow:
When we find our joy in the Lord we will want to be in conversation/prayer with him and we will be thankful. When we practice an attitude of gratitude we will find ourselves sending up a litany of thanks and we will be filled with joy.
When we are in continual conversation with God the joy of our relationship with him will overshadow the difficulties we face and it will give us a grateful heart.
Simple commands – be joyful, pray, give thanks. With complicated qualifiers - always, continually, in all circumstances. However, if we want to know what God’s will is, this is the place to start. Working on these areas will lead to a deeper relationship with Christ, an attitude of gratitude and a life filled with joy rooted in the constancy of Christ.