12.17.2017 Preaching Text: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 16-18)
If you ask me, there just may be a single motto that defines contemporary American “spirituality”: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
I know what you’re thinking, “He’s finally lost his razor-thin hold on reality! I mean, now that he’s only got a week left, maybe he’s just letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak.”
But hear me out. Years ago (1952) a pastor in New York City lit the country on fire with his landmark book, The Power of Positive Thinking. His name, of course, was Norman Vincent Peale.
I’ve referenced him several times in other sermons. In general, and not necessarily in a good way, I tend to think of him as the patron saint of American religious thinking.
In today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians, we read this: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
That almost sounds as if Peale could have written it himself, right? On other words, don’t worry, be happy. Be positive. It’s God’s will, after all. Just look at life and think positive thoughts, and everything will be great.
Yet is this what Paul is actually saying? Is “don’t worry, be happy” or positive thinking really a Christian outlook? Should life be lived this way?
You’ve heard it said that there’s nothing really new under the sun. Even so, it may surprise you to consider that positive thinking and its corollary, “don’t worry, be happy,” is really an updated, warmed-over kind of Stoicism.
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that holds that everything that happens in life is willed by God. Everything. So if it happens, it’s what God wanted to happen.
If you accept this premise, you’re left with but two responses. Either you choose to fight against the vagaries and injustices of this life (and be miserable), or accept everything, both good and bad, as God’s will (and thus be happy, since there’s nothing you can do about it). “Don’t worry, be happy” fits the latter to a “T”.
Classic Christianity, however, completely rejects the idea that God causes everything to happen, especially sin, evil, suffering, and pain.
Years ago my mother and I were having a conversation about some event or another when she blurted out, “Well, it was meant to be!”
Being the argumentative type, I challenged her.
I asked whether God is responsible for giving someone cancer. As I recall, she didn’t particularly like the question. Yet isn’t it true that we tend to say such things only when life circumstances go well? But what about those times when they don’t, when great evil arises?
As I say, classic Christianity sees things differently. While it acknowledges that bad things happen, it never ascribes them to God. That’s because we’re created with free will. It is we who choose to reject God’s ways and thus cause sin, not God. So when things go south, humanity owns it.
Classic Christianity also advocates for a different response from us when bad things happen, as they inevitably will. It does not ask us to ignore bad things, or not worry about them in order to be happy. That’s because Christianity actively charges us to do something, to help mitigate or prevent such things.
The Quakers are known for “quietism.” Quietism, in short, sees God as the main actor, so much so that the human task risks becoming one of simply waiting for God to act. Taken to an extreme, this leaves little room for human agency, confining us to a far more passive role than does classical Christianity.
For biblical Christianity encourages us to participate in life, to try to do good in the time we have here on earth. Without this, we abdicate the active role God wishes for us to play.
Broadly, to not worry and be happy (to leave things up to God) strikes me as, in some sense, selfish. It risks our tuning out the suffering of the world in order for us to feel good. Worse still, it absolves us from any real responsibility.
The other extreme, its direct opposite, is to think we are in total control, that we somehow can perfect life without God. One sees a lot of this in contemporary culture, even in our churches. The conceit here is that we can fix the world ourselves, forgetting the more fundamental truth that we need to fix ourselves first. Each of us is a sinner after all, and without exception.
The paradox of Christian faith is that while we are called to be engaged in making the world a better place, we are forced simultaneously to admit we can achieve only so much. For ultimately only God can fix what truly ails us.
Thus 1 Thessalonians is not a call to ignore reality in order that we might be happy, but an assertion of clear-eyed hope in the midst of life’s very real brokenness, a hope that waits steadfastly upon God’s unalterable promise to cleanse and recreate our lives and world, in God’s time.
What Paul is saying in 1 Thessalonians is that we can know authentic joy (as opposed to the fake or contrived kind) even in the midst of events and circumstances that otherwise do not recommend it. This kind of joy betrays the fact that we can endure and even thrive amid life’s travails, but only if such travails are placed in proper perspective.
Knowing this, Paul exhorts us that while we wait for God’s decisive future in Christ we are called to make the most of the present. We are to seek peace with everybody, admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and be patient with all. We are not to repay evil for evil, but to seek to do good to one another.
And, yes, we are to rejoice always, praying without ceasing; knowing that this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.
G.K. Chesterton, the great Christian writer, once lamented how Christian virtues, once decoupled from religion, can take on monstrous form.
“When a religious scheme is shattered,” he once wrote, “it is not merely the vices that are let loose…But the virtues are let loose also, and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.
“The modern world is full of old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they are isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth, and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity, and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”
Thus when the virtues that produce Christian joy or happiness are taken in isolation, and away from their proper context, that is, the Gospel, which alone gives them their sole meaning, the “happiness” produced becomes divorced from reality. And that’s never a good thing.
So in conclusion I say, worry. Not in abject hopelessness, but with appropriate and loving concern for the world around you.
But be happy also, not because there’s nothing to worry about and, as such, nothing to do, but because God has promised, in and through Jesus Christ, to fix our lives utterly, and with a godly perfection. Amen.