The Apostle Paul says in I Thessalonians 5:16-18:
Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. (KJV)
The Message puts it this way:
Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.
This text tells Christians three things:
- They are to rejoice always no matter the circumstance
- They are to pray without ceasing
- They are to thank God no matter what happens
- It is God’s will that you follow these commands.
Paul is not making suggestions here, as Evangelical preachers make clear in their preaching. Ask any Evangelical if they have ever heard sermons about rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and always thanking God for everything, and they will tell you yes. Worse, they will likely tell you that these commands were an unattainable ideal; that they caused them much consternation and depression. What Christian has ever rejoiced always, prayed always, or thanked always? None. In the hands of Evangelical preachers, especially those who are IFB, these verses become millstones around the necks of people of faith. Often, they cause psychological harm.
I am sixty-five years old. I have experienced a lot of things that caused me to rejoice: my marriage to Polly, the birth of our six children, and the birth and growing lives of our thirteen grandchildren. I am quite stoic about life. I am not a clap-happy seal who gets excited about the trivialities. While I rejoiced when the Cincinnati Bengals made the Super Bowl last year, my feelings paled considerably when compared to watching my beautiful bride walk down the aisle or holding our first child in my arms, and many years later our first grandchild in my arms. Most of life just “is.”
I have experienced some things in life wherein I had no capacity to “rejoice.” When I thought Polly was going to die from ulcerative colitis, I did not rejoice. As I continue to struggle with gastroparesis and unrelenting debility and pain, I do not rejoice. When my parents suddenly died at relatively young ages and Polly’s sister was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident, I did not rejoice. As I mentally page through the trauma I have faced in life, I find nothing to rejoice over. I have experienced horrific things in my life, things no child should ever face. How could I possibly “rejoice?” I see no redemptive value in these things. I wish I had experienced none of them. Yet, Evangelicals are taught that they are to rejoice no matter what happens in their lives; that they are to be thankful to God no matter what happens. Rarely do they ask, why? Why should I rejoice? Why should I give thanks to God?
Verse 18 mentions “the will of God,” and therein is the answer to the why? question. You see, Evangelicals are taught that their peculiar God is sovereign; that he is the creator of all things; that he controls all things; that everything happens according to God’s purpose and plan. Thus, when you are lying in bed, writhing in pain, rejoice! When your baby is born with fatal birth defects, rejoice! When your wife runs off with another man and divorces you, rejoice! When you lose your job, your house is foreclosed upon, and your car is repossessed, rejoice! And greater still, THANK GOD for what you are experiencing in your life. Paul said in EVERYTHING give thanks. No matter what pain and suffering you face in life, your experiences are God’s will. So dear Christians, God says shut the fuck up and take it! That’s what Paul, writing under the influence and control of the Holy Spirit, is saying to you.
I am so glad to be free from this kind of thinking. Though it still plagues me from time to time, I no longer feel the need to praise and thank Jesus when my life is in the toilet or when my pain is so bad that I want to kill myself. Shit happens, life is hard, and then you die. Live long enough and you will face a good bit of pain, suffering, and heartache. For some people, the hits never seem to end. I am grateful that my illnesses and pain aren’t the sum of my life; that there are moments in my life when I can rejoice.
Yesterday, Polly and I, along with our oldest son and his girlfriend, and Bethany, our oldest daughter who has Down syndrome, traveled three hours south to Cincinnati to watch the Reds play the Chicago Cubs. We had a delightful time, even though I was in a lot of pain. Afterward, we ate at a Bone Fish Grill, which was an unmitigated disaster. More on that tomorrow. We finally arrived home around 11:00 pm. By then, my pain levels were off the charts, despite taking extra narcotic pain meds, and my legs were swollen from fluid retention. I finally fell asleep around 4:00 am, though I had to get up repeatedly during the night to urinate as my body fought to remove the fluid from my legs. I slept to 4:30 pm, waking upon hearing the loud, playful voices of my youngest grandsons.
Just another day in my life. If I am going to do anything that matters in life, I must be willing to pay what I call “the price of admission.” I could drug myself enough that I wouldn’t have any pain, but I wouldn’t be able to do anything — literally. So, because I plan on living until I am dead, I must daily determine how much pain I can live with. I take hydrocodone, NSAIDs, and powerful muscle relaxers, just enough so my pain is lessened so I can function. There’s never a day when I feel well or am without pain. That’s just how it is. Does this mean I never have any reason to rejoice? Of course not.
I rejoice over spending the day with my son, his girlfriend, my wife, and my daughter. I know that I have a finite amount of time I can do so. Someday, sooner than later, I will no longer be able to do these things. I rejoice over the Reds beating the Cubs, a highlight in a depressing season. I watched Joey Votto play, knowing that next year might be his final season. I watched numerous young rookies hit and field, wondering if I were seeing stars-in-the-making. I rejoice over the endless banter between us as we drove to and from Cincinnati. I rejoice over hearing my son laugh as we listened to comedians on our way home. Most of all, I rejoice over not having to rush to the bathroom, avoiding shitting my pants or vomiting. That is a good day in and of itself.
Yet, I know there will be days that I have nothing to rejoice over; just moments and days to be endured. This is life as it is. No religious fantasy or delusion. Imagine how much better it would be for Evangelicals if their pastors told them the truth: sometimes life sucks. Expecting people to rejoice over whatever happens in their lives, or expecting them to thank God no matter what, doesn’t help them, especially when they are also told that someday after they die, God will reward them for not blaming him for the shit that happened in their lives. Instead of every human being brought before God’s throne in Chick tract This Was Your Life fashion, perhaps it is God who should be called to account for his mistreatment and abuse of humanity.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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Christianity reduces every profound human emotion (or, rather, the words for them) to something trite, shallow, and flat. Everything is the same, everything is absolutes. No matter how major or minor the event, no matter how good or how bad, the prescription is the same. It’s dehumanizing in the truest sense. People can’t rejoice all the time. People can’t love their enemies, not real enemies. It’s all just another set of impossible demands and impossible standards, setting you up to fall short so you can be told you’re not good enough, you’re not worthy, you need forgiveness, and on and on.
“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” shows the absurdity of ignoring the bad in life. There has to be a balance – it isn’t helpful to focus merely on the negative, nor is it healthy to focus only on the positive. Evangelicalism categorizes human emotions into “good” and “bad” when really they’re more complex than that.
The kind part of me wants to interpret these verses as Paul being high on his perception of Christ in his life, and trying to express that feeling. He’s fully engaged with his conception of a deity, and this is how he engages. He wants everyone else to have the same high.
The cynical part of me observes that passages like this keep believers tied up in knots because they literally can’t do what he’s insisting are God’s commands. Well, maybe, if you’re a monk on some Mediterranean island and have lots of time to work on the praying without ceasing, but that’s obviously not who Paul is thinking of. But if you live in a state of fear that you’re not obeying God well enough, how do you fix that? Why, you go to church, pray, fellowship, listen to your church founder’s letter read yet again, tie yourself further up in knots, and cycle yourself deeper and deeper into the religion. It’s manipulative. And of course, manipulative processes, no matter how well-intentioned, will get hijacked by people who have ulterior motives.