You would think that the book many Scripture scholars agree to be the oldest in the New Testament would garner a great deal of respect. You would think that a document written only 17 years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus would be pored over by contemporary Christians. You would think that Christians would know, as with the Gospels, even the smallest verses of this document by heart.
Well, you would be wrong: St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is not well known.
Still, by common consent, it is the earliest of Paul’s letters and therefore the earliest writing in the entire New Testament. Scholars say that First Thessalonians was most likely written from Athens or Corinth around A.D. 50. As such, it predates the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. And buried in the letter is a remarkable little phrase that upends the typical conception of St. Paul as a cranky, grumpy, depressive prude.
Pastoral, Warm, Affectionate
First a little history. Paul is writing to the Christian community that he had founded in Thessalonica, located in the Roman province of Macedonia, on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea. (Today the town is Thessaloniki, in northern Greece.) In this brief letter he encourages his fellow Christians to have confidence in the second coming of Jesus, which they thought would happen in their lifetime.
Unlike some of Paul’s other letters, here the apostle is not responding to any heated theological debate raging within the Christian community in the region. Nor is he scolding his fellow Christians for some litany of horrible sins. Instead, he is mainly encouraging them to lead holy lives. The beginning of the letter, in fact, contains generous praise of the conduct of the Christians in Thessalonica, who he says are an example to other churches in the region. This may account for Paul’s gentle words. First Thessalonians, says a commentator in the HarperCollins Study Bible, is “pastoral, warm in tone, and affectionate throughout.”
Now back to that remarkable phrase. Toward the end of his letter, Paul offers a triad of Christian practice. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
You could spend a lifetime meditating on that one sentence. You could spend a lifetime meditating on just the words “rejoice always.” But is it possible?
What About Suffering?
Realistically, what would it mean to “rejoice always”? First of all, it does not mean that you cannot be sad about suffering or that you have to ignore the tragedies in the world around you. But at first blush, Paul’s words certainly seem to imply that. In his book Chasing Joy: Musings on Life in a Bittersweet World, the Rev. Edward Hays, a Catholic priest and popular spiritual writer, notes that Paul’s words are challenged not only by sadness in our own life but also by injustice in the world. Rejoicing always may seem not only impossible but offensive. “To do this in our present world is extremely difficult,” says Hays, “since the daily headlines overflow with the bad news....” Isn’t injustice in the world something to lament, not grin about? “To confront evil with joyfulness instead of outrage,” he says, “feels like the cowardly complicity of silence.”
But Thessalonica in the time of St. Paul was hardly a paradise. Under the heel of imperial Rome, many in the town were living as slaves. Those who were free may have been poor, illiterate and unable to obtain what we would consider even basic medical care. The Thessalonians would have known the meaning of suffering. And the Christians among them would have known persecution, something that Paul alludes to in the first few lines of his letter.
So how could Paul ask them to turn a blind eye to the realities of life?
He didn’t. Paul was pointing to something deeper. It is easy to be joyful when you are happy. Or to be joyful during those fleeting moments when the world seems like a fair and just place for everyone. But how can you be joyful in sad times and in the face of injustice? Hays offers a suggestion, “To live in joy is to abide in God who is love, and being an authentic prophet requires loving who and what you denounce.”
Here I think of the example of the great African-American spirituals. This is not the place for a long exegesis on that rich topic, but we can say, in brief, that one of the most lasting signs of the great faith of the African-American Christians is the legacy of their spiritual hymns, pieces of joy in the midst of intense suffering. These are signs of confidence in God. As the African-American theologian James Cone notes in his book The Spirituals and the Blues, “So far from being songs of passive resignation, the spirituals are black freedom songs which emphasize black liberation as consistent with divine revelation.”
Deeper Than Happiness
The joy of those songs, forged in the fire of suffering, continues. One of the most vivid memories I have as a Jesuit novice is being invited to a predominantly black church in the Roxbury section of Boston. Before this I had never been in such a church. Yet from the moment the choir began singing “Lead Me, Guide Me” I felt swept away in a chorus of joy. Years later I would experience that same ebullience in the songs of the choirs in the churches of the slums of Nairobi, where Kenyans would be packed shoulder to shoulder (literally) as they shouted out the words to Swahili hymns. What these two groups (descendants of American slaves and East Africans) had in common was not simply the color of their skin but their abiding confidence in God.
Joy, deeper than happiness, is a virtue that finds its foundation in the knowledge that we are loved by God. For Christians, the knowledge that Jesus has been raised from the dead is a constant cause for joy, even in tough times. This does not mean that suffering does not bring sadness. Of course it does. But suffering is not the last word—in Jesus’ life or in ours. And that knowledge can lead us to a deep joy.
Just as I was writing this essay, I received some unpleasant medical news: I would have to have minor surgery in a few weeks—nothing life-threatening or serious, but something that I would rather not have to face. Praying about it the next morning, right before I was planning to write about joy, I realized that I wasn’t feeling especially upbeat. But gradually, as I prayed, I realized that God would be with me all through this small malady and that God would give me the strength and intelligence to deal with it, to figure it out and to live with it, as God had done in the past in similar circumstances. That put me in touch with not only peace but joy. I can’t say that I was happy. Or that I wouldn’t have wished for different news, but I still, nonetheless, felt joy. This may be part of what it means to rejoice “in all circumstances.”
As I’ve said, sadness is an appropriate and natural response to suffering. God desires, I believe, that we be honest about our sadness and share it in prayer with God. Knowing that God is with us, that God accompanies us, can lead us to a deep-seated joy that can carry us through difficult, and sometimes unbearable, times.
Likewise, “rejoice always” does not mean that we should simply “look on the bright side” in the face of injustice. The anger that rises in you over an unjust situation may be a sign that God is moving you to address that injustice. God may be speaking to you through your anger at what you see, through your disgust over what you have read, your shock over what someone has told you. (How else would God move people to action?) This is particularly the case when it is an injustice visited on another person, since anger over an injustice to yourself (rightful though the anger may be) may be tinged with selfishness and a sense of wounded pride.
An example: let’s say you passed a homeless person on the street sitting beside a fancy restaurant and saw diners coming out, having spent hundreds of dollars on their meal but failing to give the man even a glance, let alone a few dollars or a kind word. You might be angry or sad. You would probably be moved to give the fellow some of your own money and maybe even spend some time with him. But you certainly wouldn’t say to yourself, much less to him, “Be happy!” Witnessing the injustice, you would try, as far as you could, to lessen it. Out of such strong emotions and holy anger are born great works of charity.
Where is the joy, then? It comes from a loving trust in God, in the awareness that God is working through the compassion you feel, in the knowledge that God desires a just world where the poor are treated fairly and in the trust that God will help those who heed his voice to help bring about justice. So there is joy.
Joy, Prayer and Gratitude
One important key to St. Paul’s suggestions is that all three parts of his triad of Christian practice—joy, prayer and gratitude—are intimately bound together. Let’s consider how.
Joy springs from gratitude. When we recall things, events or people for which and for whom we are grateful, our joy increases. Prayer also supports the other two virtues. A contemplative awareness of the world and an attitude of prayerful attentiveness make it easier to see life’s blessings. Finally, joy moves us to gratitude.
Likewise, our gratitude over good news can lead to joy. Joy can also move us to pray. In our joy we want to be with God, to share our joyful life, gratefully, in prayer—just as we would share joy with a friend.
Thus, each virtue supports the others in a complex spiritual interplay. Prayer awakens gratitude. Gratitude leads to joy. And joy moves us to prayer. In this way, we are able to follow Paul’s gentle advice to the Thessalonians almost 2,000 years ago.
Many modern believers think of St. Paul not as the Apostle of Joy but as the Apostle of Gloom. He is usually (and unfairly) characterized solely as a stern moralizer, intent on frustrating authentic human emotions, obsessed with tamping down human sexuality more than with recommending something positive. But here in his earliest letter, Paul is doing just that.
Of course there were other Christian communities that needed to hear sterner words. But to the Christians at Thessalonica, and to Christians today, the Apostle Paul advises three things. And the first of these is joy.
From St. Paul
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.1 Thes 5:12-20.