Joyfulness is God’s will for you: I Thessalonians

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Today’s reading: I Thessalonians 1-5.

“When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.” – Tecumseh

Do you want something fresh and practical? First Thessalonians is all that. Paul wrote it to a baby church during the whirlwind of his second missionary journey. There are many exhortations in it, but this one stands out:

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. I Thess. 5:16-18

The New Testament is full of grace, putting to rest the old covenant with its law, but it is also full of commands. Fulfilling those commands is a huge part of knowing and doing God’s will. There are three parts to this command, but they complement and strengthen one another. They form an upward spiral that keeps us moving in the right direction. We pray because of our joy in the Lord, giving thanks as we pray, and our gratitude leads to greater joy. Personally, I struggle with remaining joyful and with praying consistently, so it’s interesting to see the connection Paul makes between prayer, gratitude, and joy.

Joy. If we are commanded to be joyful always, then it’s clear that our joy should be independent of circumstances. Happiness depends on what happens, but joy comes from the understanding of our right relationship with God. The writer of Ecclesiastes said we should be joyful because of God’s approval (Ecc. 9:7). The Psalms are full of exhortations to be joyful as we praise God and love him because of his character and actions: his protection of us, how he helps us and blesses us, his greatness, and his provision for us. Paul found reason to be joyful in the lives of other Christians who blessed him. Finally, we are joyful because of the hope we hold, through faith, for all that is yet to come because of God’s grace.

“The out-and-out Christian is a joyful Christian. The half-and-half Christian is the kind of Christian that a great many of you are – little acquainted with the Lord. Why should we live halfway up the hill and swathed in the mists, when we might have an unclouded sky and a radiant sun over our heads if we would climb higher and walk in the light of His face?”  – Alexander Maclaren

Prayer. Paul admonishes us to pray without ceasing. Prayer shouldn’t be limited to the morning or bedtime, but as Brother Lawrence showed us, we should realize that God is with us no matter what we are doing. As our guest beside us we should be always talking with him about the things that are happening in our lives and in our thoughts. God has said that he is pleased when we pray. We can pray continually as we share our needs, praise him for his character, confess our sins, and give thanks for our many blessings.

 “Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still.” E.M. Bounds

Thanks-giving. Gratitude is the fuel that fires this upward spiral and enlarges our joy. As joy exists free of circumstances, so we are commanded to be thankful at all times knowing that our present and future are secure in God’s hands. No matter how difficult the moment, God will work all things out to our good, just as he did in the life of Joseph in Egypt. We praise God for his wonderful character, but we thank him for his mighty actions on our behalf. We can thank him for the past – how he saved us. We can thank him for the present – how he is working through events to make us more like Jesus. We can thank him for the future – how we will soon be in his presence.

“We would worry less if we praised more. Thanksgiving is the enemy of discontent and dissatisfaction.” ― H.A. Ironside

Image by John St John on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

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20 thoughts on “Joyfulness is God’s will for you: I Thessalonians

  1. “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” 1 Thessalonians 2:13

    Stop for a moment and reflect on this. What is Paul speaking about? This is not the written word, this is not the Bible. This is the spoken word. Can oral tradition equal that of the written word? In fact it can, as Paul will tell us in 2 Thessalonians, just as he is here.

      • That is so true. That is why actions of certain churches today are so offensive. They prop themselves up in utter contradiction to both written and oral tradition.

        Ever play that game, where a group sits in a circle, and a phrase is whispered into one ear, then passed to the next, until the circle is complete. Rarely does the final phrase sound like the initial phrase. So how has the Church preserved oral tradition? She has scrutinized the whispering at every transfer, and preserved an authentic tradition by correcting and refuting errors. Careful comparisons of scriptural texts have verified the veracity with which scribes copied and recopied sacred scripture with few if any meaningful mistakes.

        Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium are the three legs that support the Church, just as three branches of Government support our state. Replace this with scripture, tradition, and reason, as the Episcopal church does, and you end up with practicing homosexual bishops.

      • Replace this with scripture, tradition, and reason, as the Episcopal church does, and you end up with practicing homosexual bishops.

        Come now. I could as easily say that, under the Magisterium, we end up with crusades and inquisitions.

        The truth of the matter is that Christians of all stripes fail to live out their faith properly and have, at times, enshrined their failure in their particular institution. Catholic Christianity is no different from the rest of us in this regard – would that it were!

    • This is the spoken word. Can oral tradition equal that of the written word?

      Certainly it can; the spoken record of God that existed before the codification of Scripture was no less than its written form, nor were the Ten Commandments lessened by being committed to tablet and parchment.

      But the Catholic Church’s weakness in this area is that the potential equality of the two isn’t sufficient for its position. It needs as well the following propositions:

      (1) That there are things in the oral tradition of which Paul speaks that did not eventually make it into Scripture;

      (2) That those missing things are important and/or necessary for right Christian living; and

      (3) That those things are a superset of those traditions taught by the Catholic Church today.

      Without (1), it doesn’t matter how valuable oral tradition is, because it’s covered by Scripture. Without (2), the oral tradition is unnecessary to Christian living; while of interest, it adds nothing essential. Without (3), even if additional valuable truth should exist in the mind of God, it isn’t present in the RCC’s teaching.

      And it’s these three – particularly the last – that are the problem. The sticky wicket isn’t the value of divinely-inspired oral tradition in the abstract; it’s the value of your particular oral tradition.

      • The point is that scripture itself validates both oral tradition, and extrabiblical written tradtion. The question is who gets to decide. 🙂

      • The point is that scripture itself validates both oral tradition, and extrabiblical written tradtion. The question is who gets to decide.

        The trouble is that Scripture also condemns oral and extrabiblical tradition. Consider Christ, to the Pharisees: “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” – or Paul’s condemnation of the Judaizer’s legalistic tradition, or that philosophy which “depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”

        So I absolutely agree: the question is who gets to decide. And the only reasonable answer I can see – the answer Christ puts forward when he rebukes the Pharisees – is that God, as recorded in Scripture, decides. Scripture is the judge of which traditions are worthwhile and which are not; it’s to Scripture that we appeal to ground all acceptable tradition, and it’s to Scripture that we appeal to reject everything else.

  2. “Come now. I could as easily say that, under the Magisterium, we end up with crusades and inquisitions.”

    Except that the Magisterium did not advocate for Crusades and Inquisitions. The Episcopal church has voted for openly homosexual bishops. And now the Anglican Church has appointed its first female bishop.

    • Except that the Magisterium did not advocate for Crusades and Inquisitions.

      How so? Urban II initiated the first Crusade; the plenary indulgences were a massive clerical action by the institutional church. Ad extirpanda is quite literally a papal bull authorizing heretic hunters to violate any laws they liked in order to capture heretics and torture confessions from them. These were major actions of the Catholic Church’s authoritative arm, supported by clergy from the pope on down.

      This is not a position from which to throw stones!

      • Then the errors of one denomination do not a condemnation of all Protestantism make.

        We all like sheep have gone astray: that’s the point. None of us have traditions that have followed Christ perfectly, and there are shameful and wicked things that all our churches have approved in the name of Christ. That doesn’t in itself invalidate any of our approaches; it only means that we are all, fundamentally, still fallen human beings.

  3. I agree completely.

    So then a helpful question might be to reflect on how does a church, well-meaning, come to such a blatantly erroneous doctrinal shift as to accept homosexuality as morally permissible? My point was that substituting reason for a teaching magisterium is part of the explanation.

    Does it matter? I think it does. The end result, or fruits, of flawed doctrine can be harmful. Ultimately it can lead to sin and separation from God.

    Many thoughts in scripture are difficult and challenging. Homosexuality is not one of them. How this can be construed as morally licit defies belief. Not surprisingly, it was this same church who first began to preach that contraception was acceptable, when prior to 1930, no mainstream Christian religion taught such a thing. What are the fruits of contraception? Sexual licentiousness, objectification of women, and ultimately abortion to name a few.

    The flawed doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura produce their own harm as well (more about that in James).

    Does this mean doctrine is fixed, unchanging, stale? Not at all. As a child grows to adulthood, so our understanding of God’s plan grows and matures over time. Paul seemed to understand the need to start with “mother’s milk” before feeding his flock a five course meal of Church doctrine. But as doctrine grows and matures, one of the things it cannot do is contradict scripture or Tradition. TEC’s newfound teaching on homosexuality is guilty of that on all counts.

    • So then a helpful question might be to reflect on how does a church, well-meaning, come to such a blatantly erroneous doctrinal shift as to accept homosexuality as morally permissible? My point was that substituting reason for a teaching magisterium is part of the explanation.

      I understand that. But from my perspective, the Catholic Church has also seen doctrinal shifts that I would call “blatantly erroneous.”

      The Catholic perspective, as I understand it, says, “Look, all of you who have abandoned the Magisterium – see how far you’ve strayed from the truth! We, meanwhile, guarded by our teaching arm, have kept it close.” But that latter sentence is itself our point of contention: from our perspective, the Magisterium is the office that has led you away from the truth. From the perspective of a Protestant, the current and historical status of Roman Catholic theology is itself the argument against the Magisterium.

      What are the fruits of contraception? Sexual licentiousness, objectification of women, and ultimately abortion to name a few

      So, let me make this personal for a moment. My wife is on a teratogenic drug. One of the fruits of non-abortifacient chemical contraception that you don’t mention, for my family, is that we minimize the risk of either (1) conceiving a child who suffers from terrible birth defects, or (2) my wife having a heart attack due to stopping her treatment.

      These other things you mention? They don’t characterize my marriage, and my freedom is not sacrificed because someone else could use the same chemicals to ill purpose. So if I may turn the perspective a bit: one of the fruits of holding to Scripture alone, rather than to tradition, is that we can recognize an extra-Scriptural stipulation and joyfully abandon it.

  4. Can you name some doctrinal shifts the Church has undergone that you find erroneous? I used to think that too. Now, not so much.

    Regarding contraception, there are some good arguments to be made for benefits, there are some compelling arguments to be made against them (for example, hormonal contraception is at times abortifacient, most people just don’t realize that). The theology behind the Church’s teaching is profound. It’s a mix of God’s command to be fruitful, and the prohibitions that come under the name of Onanism. There are also some deeply spiritual benefits that are not immediately obvious. But when the sum total is surveyed, contraception seems to have severely damaged us. I can think of no better example than Obama’s plea that he wouldn’t want his daughters punished by a “mistake”. That is the value of life in the contraception era, it’s a mistake at times, and the next step would be abortion. You can carve out nuances where it appears good, and maybe it is in rare circumstances. Overall, it looks pretty bad.

    Catholics trust God with the thing he first gave us, the gift of life. John Paul the Great has written extensively on what has come to be known as the “Theology of the Body”. It is profound beyond telling in this space, but in some sense the procreative act of husband loving wife, producing life, is a glimpse into the nature of the Holy Trinity, the love of the Father and the Son creating the Holy Spirit. When viewed in those terms, it seems rather profane to alter what God has made so miraculous.

    • Can you name some doctrinal shifts the Church has undergone that you find erroneous? I used to think that too. Now, not so much.

      Sure. I’d prefer not to get into debating these here, as this conversation has switchbacks enough already, but a short list: the baptism of infants; the immaculate conception of Mary, and indeed the general elevation of Mary; the veneration of some handful of fallen brothers as “saints”; the Petrine theory of apostolic succession; the doctrine of ex cathedra infallibility; the historical justification of war and torture, accompanied by promises of remittance of penance and sin; the notion of penance; the concept of Purgatory; the idea of sacraments, and in general of the transmission of grace via ritual action; the transubstantiation of communion, and its resultant veneration; the subdivision of Christians into a further “priestly” caste, and the imputation of special rights and powers to that caste; the multiplication of extrascriptural prohibitions, including the ban on non-abortifacient contraception; the unknowability of salvation for the individual; permeating throughout, the absorption of Aristotelian metaphysics; and above all, the absolute confidence in your institution’s teaching that justifies excommunication for disagreement with the list above!

      Some of the errors above entered the church quite early; others didn’t emerge or weren’t declared infallible until the middle ages or later. But they all seem to me to be error, and the net effect is a pretty significant drift from what’s described in Scripture!

      Regarding contraception, there are some good arguments to be made for benefits, there are some compelling arguments to be made against them (for example, hormonal contraception is at times abortifacient, most people just don’t realize that).

      One of the benefits of having a doctor of pharmacy as a wife is that she’s investigated our options pretty thoroughly to make sure we don’t risk abortion!

      The theology behind the Church’s teaching is profound. It’s a mix of God’s command to be fruitful, and the prohibitions that come under the name of Onanism.

      I understand the Catholic Church’s position on this issue. I just fundamentally disagree with its application of the principles here. In particular, given that there’s no risk of my brother’s line dying out in the Promised Land, I literally cannot commit the sin of Onan.

      There are also some deeply spiritual benefits that are not immediately obvious. But when the sum total is surveyed, contraception seems to have severely damaged us.

      I question even the possibility of judging “the sum total” of its effects – and even if one could do so, since when is sin a matter for utilitarianism?

      When viewed in those terms, it seems rather profane to alter what God has made so miraculous.

      But of course, I don’t view it in those terms; nor, it seems to me, does Scripture ever do so! In which case, it seems profane to invent a prohibition God has not supplied and give it the weight of sin: indeed, it seems the very sin for which Christ rebuked the Pharisees: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

      My own Southern Baptists do the same thing with alcohol – but they don’t hold that mistake to be infallible.

  5. I would agree that this forum is not the place to work through these questions, though they are wonderful questions, with even more amazing answers.

    What I see emerging though is the fundamental error of the individual deciding what is error, or sound belief, versus the Church. The problem with Protestantism is that it moves that process from the Church where it always resided and where it has always been protected by the charism of the Holy Spirit to an individual toting a Bible. In essence, each man becomes his own pope. This is why there are over 20,000 Protestant denominations now, because it simply leads to more and more doctrinal dispute and division, a far cry from the unity Christ prayed for in John 17. Paul recognizes the important of the Church for just this very reason and appeals to Jerusalem for answers to troubling doctrinal questions. Paul. This monolith of theological reasoning appeals to the Church for answers, not his own reasoning. Why? Because he knows the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth”, and that it is guided and protected by the Holy Spirit.

    The Church hasn’t changed the things you mentioned, others outside the Church have. History and scripture support that. This is why John Henry Newman converted, because he learned through intensive study, that “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

    • In essence, each man becomes his own pope.

      Entirely true. Each and every man becomes a royal priest, indwelt by God Himself. Yes, precisely – and the question is whether that’s the correct interpretation or not.

      But your argument above is circular: it’s premised on the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is, in fact, the guardian and preserver of truth. If that is so, then you’re absolutely right: tautologically, Protestants are in error and should rejoin the RCC.

      But that can’t be your premise; it is, itself, our point of contention! You can’t argue against me on the grounds that, if I was wrong, then I would be wrong. So it’s on the truth of the premise that everything else hangs: is the Roman Catholic Church the sole divinely-appointed guardian of truth, or is it claiming rights beyond its station? You have to establish the former before you can appeal to us to react to it as such.

      And to that question, what standard of appeal can you offer other than Scripture and reason? The Catholic Church’s authority can’t be used to prove its own authority! (The same holds for Scripture, of course, but I think that’s a step of proof we can skip.)

      This is why there are over 20,000 Protestant denominations now, because it simply leads to more and more doctrinal dispute and division, a far cry from the unity Christ prayed for in John 17.

      Come now. Many of those denominations exist – or their forerunners exist – because the Catholic Church expelled them. Had Luther not been excommunicated, much of the subsequent disunity might have been avoided – but you can’t both insist on the paramount importance of unity and also kick out anyone who disagrees with you.

      Or to put it another way: your call, it seems to me, urges all non-Catholic Christians to set aside their understanding of the truth in favor of the beliefs that you happen to hold. I can offer the same call: “Come to the Baptists! End this disunity, and join our two denominations! How regrettable it is that Catholics still refuse to join hands with us in one faith, setting aside their personal convictions about the Magisterium to join under the greater authority of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

      Wouldn’t that resolve the problem of disunity just as well? If so, why should it be my convictions set aside, instead of yours? (Again, an answer that amounts to “Because we’re tautologically right” is not an answer; so, then, what else do you have?)

      Also, it’s not at all clear to me that differing denominations are a bad thing. That people believe something other than the truth is bad, sure – but there’s never been a solution to that problem. Given that we have legitimate disagreements on the nature of truth, a system for organizing on those lines is actually pretty helpful. This is one of the Catholic/Protestant asymmetries, I think: Catholicism draws a very hard disunity between itself and Protestantism, but many Protestant denominations would say that they are essentially unified with their brother denominations. Many Protestants, for instance, will freely allow anyone professing Christ to share full communion with them. There’s not perfect agreement between Southern Baptists and Orthodox Presbyterians, but they’d both say they’re pulling in the same direction.

      So I think it’s a very Catholic reading of the situation to say that 20,000 denominations implies great disunity; one can think of it more as 20,000+ churches, many of them united in Christ, though not with perfectly identical doctrine.

      Paul. This monolith of theological reasoning appeals to the Church for answers, not his own reasoning.

      Are we discussing the council of Acts 15? The one at which Paul stands and exhorts the council to follow his reasoning, with the end result that they do? The council consisting of those men whom he says that ,while they were held in high esteem, “whatever they were makes no difference to me”? If so, I’d point to what he says of that council in Galatians 2: “they recognized that I had been entrusted.” It’s not the act of the council that gives Paul his authority: they recognize that Paul has something he already knows about (and indeed, has already been acting on independently for years).

      (And suppose the council hadn’t recognized him. Would Paul have lacked his authority to preach to the Gentiles, as he had done? Obviously not – his authority was from God, not from them. What, then, should he have done?)

      The Church hasn’t changed the things you mentioned, others outside the Church have.

      That’s, again, the point of contention.

  6. “But your argument above is circular: it’s premised on the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is, in fact, the guardian and preserver of truth.”

    That is in fact the Church’s teaching. It arises from Paul’s knowledge that the Church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth”, and that it is protected by the Holy Spirit. That is not the same as saying Catholics are such. Paul is talking about the mystical Church, the Bride of Christ.

    “What standard of appeal can you offer other than Scripture and reason?”

    The standards are scripture, tradition, and the Church. The three testify together to support each other, but part of that authority comes from the Lord himself, recorded in scripture, and maintained through tradition. I agree, it can feel a bit circular, but this power of the Church was instituted and revealed by Christ, not by the Church. That’s an essential component. It is not deduced or reasoned, it is revealed.

    “Had Luther not been excommunicated, much of the subsequent disunity might have been avoided – but you can’t both insist on the paramount importance of unity and also kick out anyone who disagrees with you.”

    Not only can we insist on this, we must:

    “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 18:15-17

    The truth only survives if you preserve it. The greatest minds of the Church, including Aquinas, had to expend precious time and energy refuting heresies in order to do just as Paul commanded, holding fast to the traditions passed on from him, testing everything and holding on to the good. And at the end of the above quote you see the Lord giving the Apostles and thereby the Church the power to make these crucial decisions. Luther could have recanted; he refused. “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” Ex communication is not permanent, unless the ex communicant makes it so. Imagine where we would be today if the Church had not steadfastly held Her ground. Almost certainly we would all be products of Arianism, and a hodgepodge of other heresies. Who knows what the canon of scripture would look like? Luther would have gladly burned the book of James, his “epistle of straw”. But neither has She hermetically sealed it in a jar and placed it on a shelf. She has allowed it to grow, flourish, and yes, develop.

    “You can’t both insist on the paramount importance of unity and also kick out anyone who disagrees with you.”

    You can, because Christ prayed for it, and you must or else you risk the absolute debacle that has become the Church of England. But it is not just unity for unity’s sake; it’s unity to preserve the truth.

    “It’s not at all clear to me that differing denominations are a bad thing.”

    I do not disagree with this, but neither am I convinced. If the Catholic Church holds the truth, then a lot of harm has come from the Reformation. But the Reformation was such a huge historical event, I consider the possibility that God may be using it for a greater good, but probably not the one you might imagine. Seeing how TEC is eroding the truth should sound an alarm. And the whole process of denominational division, over and over again, seemingly ad infinitum, is concerning. They split for a reason, and it’s usually not a positive one.

    “Are we discussing the council of Acts 15?”

    Yes, precisely. And the point is that Paul felt it necessary to consult with the Church. He even corrected Peter. This is the power and beauty of the Church. She is strongest when She is a unified community, greater than the sum of her parts. There is always discussion, disagreement, and debate. But in the end, She knows the Holy Spirit has spoken. Why else would Paul even make the journey to attend?

    • That is in fact the Church’s teaching.

      Yes, but the argument is circular: “Since the Catholic Church is right about everything, people who disagree with the Catholic Church are wrong.” It’s like trying to convince an atheist to believe in God “because God’s Word says he’s real”: the argument stands on its own head. Regardless of whether your conclusion is true, you can’t support it this way. You simply can’t! It’s one of the most fundamental logical fallacies.

      If you want to introduce an argument that begins, “Since the Catholic Church has correctly guarded the truth all these years…,” you have to first establish that the Catholic Church has correctly guarded the truth all these years. Without that, your argument has no weight.

      So when I ask “What standard can you use to prove that the Roman Catholic Church is, in fact, a reliable source?” and you answer…

      The standards are scripture, tradition, and the Church.

      … you’re answering, “The Roman Catholic Church is reliable because the Roman Catholic Church says it is.” That isn’t only “a bit circular” – it’s a perfect one-step circle from premise to conclusion and back again.

      I’m being, perhaps, a bit more emphatic here than I ought, but this is a sticking point in our conversation. If you cannot ground Catholic tradition in anything external to itself, there’s no reason for me to accept what you’re saying!

      but this power of the Church was instituted and revealed by Christ, not by the Church.

      If you can demonstrate that, by all means! That would be a point we could actually debate.

      Not only can we insist on this, we must:

      I actually agree! But then you and I agree, don’t we, that teaching true doctrine takes precedence over a unity that ignores dangerously false beliefs? That, for instance, given that I’m persuaded by Scripture that Catholicism contains significant errors, that the only morally acceptable thing for me to do is to reject those errors – to teach against them, and to build a church without them?

      Because if so, it seems unfair to complain about denominational disunity in the church. Disunity is commanded, when it’s in service of clinging to the truth.

      And at the end of the above quote you see the Lord giving the Apostles and thereby the Church the power to make these crucial decisions.

      I see the Lord giving this authority to Christians. Where does he restrict it to only his apostles (plus the elders of the Catholic Church)? This is the same passage that commands us to forgive our brother “seventy times seven” – was that only for the apostles? When Christ says, a few verses before, to become like little children, is that only for the apostles?

      Why else would Paul even make the journey to attend?

      I’ll be glad to answer this question, but I’d appreciate an answer to mine, first. Here it is, repeated: “Suppose the council hadn’t recognized him. Would Paul have lacked his authority to preach to the Gentiles, as he had done? Obviously not – his authority was from God, not from them. What, then, should he have done?”

  7. Pingback: Bible Daily Devotional – Joyfulness is God’s will for you: I Thessalonians | ChristianBlessings

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