By Dot Bowen
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:4-6 (NIV)
How can we already be preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is often like a brief moment in time before we begin to celebrate Christmas. Let’s not miss the importance of gratitude and spend a few weeks discovering what God has to say about thanksgiving. Of course, I am not referring to the actual holiday we call Thanksgiving, but instead, what God says about having a heart of thanksgiving. I cannot express what it does to my heart when I hear my precious grandkids say, “Thank you, Mimi,” even if all I have done is pay for their dinner. Nothing is sweeter than a grateful heart! I wonder if it’s just as sweet to God when He hears His children say, “Thank you, Jesus.”
No one understood the importance of having a grateful heart and a life filled with joy more than the apostle Paul! Before you dismiss this because you think Paul was on a different level than most people, remember he was only a man. Actually, during the time Paul lived, he was known more as a murderer than a saint. It was only after Paul met Christ that he was able to have a reason to rejoice and be thankful. Before Christ, Paul was trying to find joy in his knowledge of the law, status as a Pharisee, and his drive to protect the Jewish traditions. And I’m certain we can all agree there is no joy in trying to control something that cannot be controlled. Thankfully, as a follower of Christ, we find joy in what Christ has done for us, not what we can do for Him.
Not only did Paul rejoice in the Lord, he encouraged all the churches he established to rejoice. In Philippians 4:4-6, Paul tells us to rejoice, not to be anxious, and to pray with a heart of thanksgiving. We might expect Paul to write such encouraging words since he was such a godly man—until we realize Paul is writing this letter from prison. In all of Paul’s letters, he appears to be one of the most joyful people in all Scripture. What was Paul’s secret to such joy when he faced excruciating poverty, regular beatings, imprisonment, and shipwrecks all while carrying the burden of all the churches? I believe part of his secret was that he never forgot the day Jesus called his name. Perhaps remembering the day Jesus rescued us is foundational in cultivating a heart that explodes with joy.
Paul also tells us not to be anxious. This just seemed like a suggestion until I noticed the words do not! I can’t read those words without thinking ”that’s easy for you to say.” And then I am once again reminded that Paul was in prison when he wrote those words, and his circumstances certainly were not the reason he found joy and the freedom not to be anxious. Obviously, just as we cannot see into the future, Paul had no idea what each day held for him. Paul tells us we can rejoice and be thankful simply because God is near. In other words, rejoice because we are in Christ. In his letter to the church at Philippi, he reminds us we that we are able to rejoice, talk with God, and be thankful—not because everything in our lives is perfect—but because our perfect and powerful God is near!
Paul loved to remind us that we are in Christ. He explains that when we decide to follow Christ, we are united with Him. When Paul was in prison, Christ was with him. When Paul faced the possibility of being beaten, Christ was with him. Paul discovered that finding joy and having a thankful heart in all circumstances was foundational and reminded him that nothing could separate him from His Savior. Paul makes it no secret that his reason to celebrate is found in Jesus the Messiah. In Philippians 1:21, Paul actually said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In his mind, having Christ was a win-win for him. If he died, he would be with Christ. If he lived, Christ lived in Him.
As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, I want to propose a challenge. Rather than focusing on our circumstances, let’s take time this season to be thankful we have a God who is near and sitting on His throne. Let us joyously celebrate that we are in Christ, and He is in us. With our focus on Christ, there will be nothing that can rob us of our joy. Can you imagine going into the holidays with a heart overflowing with joy and thanksgiving? My prayer is we will enter into this Thanksgiving season with a heart overflowing with gratitude knowing Jesus is all we need, and hopefully, He is all we want!
Further Reading Philippians 1, Psalm 13:5, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18