Try telling someone who struggles with depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder, or general anxiety disorder to rejoice at all times and the most polite answer you will get is a terse refusal. This passage from Thessalonians is one with which I struggle often. I know how hard it is to find joy in the midst of despair personally, so as a pastor, I can't muster the gumption to expect that of others either.
The reality in which we live is not always a joyful one. Just yesterday, the U.S. released a study about the use of torture by government agencies. Whether you support or abhor these actions, one thing was clear: no one was rejoicing over the content of the report. The continued racial tension in our country, and especially the deaths of unarmed young black men, does little to inspire joy.
Yet, we approach the Third Sunday of Advent, typically known as Joy Sunday. What are we supposed to do with this when we can't muster up a single shout of thanksgiving, much less a Christmas cheer?
If we take this Thessalonians passage seriously, the author isn't ultimately telling us to feel a certain way. We aren't supposed to manufacture joy in a joyless time. We aren't supposed to feel something alien to ourselves.
Rather, the first 4 1/2 chapters of 1 Thessalonians is a rehearsal of Paul's good relationship with the Thessalonians, one based in the Gospel, and the good news about Jesus' promise to return, to renew all of creation, and restore us to fullness of relationship with God. This is a young church that is in need of a foundational identity as they continue to grow in God.
So, when Paul tells them to rejoice always, his concern isn't with a fleeting feeling of joy; rather, it is about an intentional decision to practice joy in the midst of a transitory world. In Christ, we literally have an eternity of things for which to be thankful, for which we rejoice. To rejoice always is about acknowledging the goodness we have in God, even in the midst of our present struggles.
Christmas is pretty difficult for me. Each of my maternal grandparents died the week before Christmas, my grandmother first and my grandfather a few years after. By the time we get to the Third Sunday of Advent, my family is staring the anniversary of their deaths in the face. Feeling joy in this season is a difficult thing to conjure.
But practicing joy, now that is something I've been taught to do. Soon after my grandparents death, we began spending Christmas day with the Brown and Wayt families. I grew up with Karen (Brown) Wayt, and have become fast friends with her husband Matt. Their three sons are my godsons, and some of the best reasons I have to rejoice. So on Christmas day, though I struggle with the absence of my grandparents, the ones who taught me why Christmas was a joyful time, I get to practice joyfulness by passing on that good news to Kaleb, Kellen, and Karter. I get to practice joy by falling in love all over again with a new family tradition even as we mourn the loss of the old. I don't always feel joyful, but with them, I always find reason to rejoice.
To be joyful always is ultimately about committing to this kind of rehearsal of thankfulness. Each Christmas gets a bit easier because we have found a way to rejoice even in the midst of our sorrow. With that practicing of joyfulness, feelings of joy begin to replace the laments. Joy not only for the present, but a rejoicing of the good memories of the past as well.
That would have been impossible without the intervention of Karen and Matt and their entire family. Sometimes we need people to rejoice for us, to show us how to find joy again. That's the beauty of friends and confidants, of counselors and psychiatrists, and hopefully, of pastors. Each, in different ways, helps us to see the world in a way that we couldn't without them. Each offers us not only new perspectives, but the opportunity at new habits.
With an intervention, we can find joy again. It will not be the same joy, but it can be just as good, and absolutely a reason to rejoice. Always.