There are some Bible verses that are ambiguous however you read them, and others that say something when taken on their own that they clearly don’t mean when taken in context.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 is not one of those verses:
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Yes, this snippet of text was written at a particular time and addressed a particular group of people at that time, but it is one of those that seems to communicate God’s will for all of us pretty clearly, especially as it falls in line with the idea of a transformed life on a trajectory towards God that is present throughout the whole Bible, and especially the New Testament.
This verse fits nicely with Christian thinking that has surrounded me all my life that says our lives should be made up of constant prayer and worship. If this idea is so clear, why is acting on it so hard?
Maybe you don’t find it hard, but when I look back on my life so far as a Christian, I see it as a time of peaks and troughs, where the peaks represent times when it’s easy to worship and the troughs represent the times that it’s hard.
For a long time I didn’t question that reality. After all, just read the Psalms. Even David – a man after God’s own heart – felt distant from him at times. But now I wonder if there’s more to the story; I wonder if I have tied my worship too close to my emotions in a way that does not reflect the life that I believe Jesus has given me.
Many modern churches (particularly in a more charismatic/evangelical tradition) and the big conferences associate with them know how to produce an emotional response in their congregations. There is nothing inherently wrong with those emotional responses; they are created to break down people’s barriers and to free them to express themselves in their worship and their relationship with God.
However, when those emotional responses become the ‘peaks’ in our relationship with God I think a life of constant worship becomes all but impossible. I went to summer conferences through most of my childhood and loved them – I felt so close to God for the week. Then I would get home, and a week or two later I’d be back to normal in my day to day life, as if nothing had happened. My relationship with God just didn’t feel the same.
Of course it didn’t feel the same. There is no way that I could generate that same level of emotional engagement in my day to day life than those conferences (or later, times in church) can give. I don’t have the live music that’s there to elicit emotion, I don’t have the preaching that’s tugging at my heart strings. I’m not told that the Spirit is in the place that I’m in, and that He’s moving now.
Those times become the special times. We’re told time and again that those are the times when we can be filled with the Spirit and we’re encouraged to worship like never before. Where does that leave us for the rest of the week or the rest of the year?
I see a different story in the Bible. I read Paul, saying that we’re temples of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus, saying that rivers of Living Water – the Spirit of God – shall flow within us and that anyone who drinks his Living Water will never thirst (1 Corinthians 6:19; John 7:39-39; John 4:14).
Paul quotes a Greek poet and says that in God we ‘live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). These verses change everything. It seems obvious now, but it took me so long to divorce my worship and my prayer from those emotional highs.
Now I believe that all Christians who have been baptised in the Spirit are continually filled with the Holy Spirit – He is like a constant stream of Living Water within us. When we start to see ourselves in this way, as we see our bodies as God’s dwelling places on earth, we realise that everything can be worship.
Your breath can be a prayer of thanksgiving. Your heartbeat a sign of the life that God has given to you.
The worship peaks in life don’t have to match your emotional ties. Jesus promised that he would be with us always – as close in the lecture hall or the office as he is in the church or the conference. A healthy prayer life does not have to revolve around intense, emotionally-charged prayers that feel ‘good’, because it can start from something as simple as a breath.
You might think that this attitude leads you to stop being active in your relationship with God, but in my experience it’s been the opposite. Now, rather than getting discouraged when I don’t feel anything ‘special’ I know that I can enjoy the presence of God regardless of how I feel in the moment, and that I can pray even when I do nothing but sit in silence.
It’s freeing to not have the expectation of a particular experience, but to be present in every moment, recognising each fleeting second as another sliver of time that God’s Holy Spirit lived in you.