The hardest part of developing good habits is breaking bad ones. Bad habits are like styrofoam pellets, they attach themselves easily, but are hard to shake loose. However, in the spiritual realm, the Christian develops godly habits not merely under his own willpower, but foundationally by the willpower of God. Keenly aware of this, Paul urges these three healthy Christian habits: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thes. 5:16-18).
God’s Will in Christ Jesus
Consequently, as believers, we must understand these habits as flowing out of the eternal purpose of God in uniting us to Christ in salvation. These are not commands given to all humans in general. They are specific to Christians and essential to God’s plan for us.
In addition, they are not just lofty goals to aspire to someday. The words, always, without ceasing, and in all circumstances, communicate a habitual practice in our daily lives. They are distinctively Christian habits firmly rooted in our union with Christ.
Rejoicing is not, in itself, virtuous. One can “rejoice at wrongdoing” (1 Cor. 13:6). Even finding joy in the good things of this world while estranged from God is misguided. “God’s kindness is meant to lead [us] to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). Paradoxically, godly rejoicing is only possible when tears of mourning over sin (Matt. 5:3) are washed away by tears of joy at the sight of Calvary.
Hence, only joy that is grounded in our union with Christ is pleasing to God. In fact, it is a fruit of the Spirit of Christ indwelling the believer (Gal. 5:22). The Christian can rejoice always because he always carries the pledge of his Savior’s eternal love in his heart (Eph. 1:13-14).
Yet, developing this habit is not a matter of just looking back to the cross or looking forward to heaven. It thrives on the knowledge that every moment in between is governed by sovereign love refining us to bring more glory to Christ (1 Peter 1:3-9).
Some read “pray without ceasing” as teaching a disposition or readiness to pray. This avoids the functional paralysis that taking this literally would produce. However, I take it as hyperbole urging us to steadfastness in prayer. If that is so, it implies persisting against opposition and discouragement. As Christ’s followers, we are spiritual aliens (Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 1:17) in this brutal and hostile world petitioning the King of kings for liberation and justice.
Indeed, that fits well with the circumstances of the persecuted Thessalonians, the experience of the Apostle Paul, and the example and ongoing priestly ministry of our Lord Jesus. We may pray for deliverance from sickness, deprivation, and difficulties. But we always grapple against our flesh, the snares of this world, and spiritual forces of evil to advance Christ’s eternal kingdom whether in sickness or health, honored or abused, by life or by death.
Furthermore, this vital habit is grounded in Trinitarian theology. Every petition is brought before our Heavenly Father, bearing the name and sealed with the blood of his eternally loved, only-begotten Son. Will he disregard it? “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” (Luke 18:7; cf. John 15:16). Even when brought to our knees in the strangle-hold of weakness, grief, and confusion, His Spirit intercedes for us with groanings that speak more forcefully than our words ever could (Rom. 8:26).
Finally, we seek to cultivate the habit of thanksgiving. At first glance it appears to be a universally appropriate virtue to pursue. And it is, as we consider the matter of our creatureliness and our debt to our Creator. However, as saints, we practice the habit of giving thanks in the only way that is acceptable to God. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).
Moreover, only the Christian can sincerely “give thanks in all circumstances.” He alone has the promise that God uses all things to conform him to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:28-29). As a matter of fact, the most effective way to develop this habit is to fix our attention on the greatest gift. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).
Habit Forming Confidence
So, we pursue these three healthy Christian habits with confidence that God is enthusiastically at work developing them in us. Rejoicing always, steadfastness in prayer, and thankfulness in all circumstances are practices that mark us as followers of Christ, make our faith engaging, and prepare us for heaven. May the Lord develop them more fully in each of us for his glory.
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