This post is by Joanne Wu.
There is one particular Bible story that I’ve always had trouble feeling encouraged by, even though it seemed I was supposed to. It’s the story of Paul and Silas praising God in prison. The lesson to “praise God at all times and look what may happen” did not sit well with me. Paul and Silas were not only thrown into prison, they were beaten, flogged, dragged, and publicly mocked. And for what? Because Paul, in his annoyance, commanded an evil spirit--that kept proclaiming who Paul and Silas believed--to leave a female slave. Thus leaving her furious owners without a source of profitable income.
There’s an endless number of questions I have about this story. But the main one is how, after experiencing ALL OF THAT, could Paul and Silas still choose to sing hymns and praise God--and at midnight of the same day nonetheless! I can understand eventually accepting unfair circumstances after feeling down for a few days and then praising God. But singing hymns to God when their bodies are still feeling freshly flogged while in a dark prison cell with their feet chained? I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this. Naturally, I can’t help but wonder, “what daily habit did they have that made it possible for them to still believe and choose God even after having been so wrongfully treated for following and believing in God?
I believe this answer lies in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, where Paul encourages the Thessalonica church, who are also facing their own hardships, to “be joyful always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” This exhortation is so counterintuitive. Why choose joy in the midst of hardship? Why keep praying when circumstances don’t seem to change? Why give thanks for all circumstances? And seriously, how is this God’s will?
Up until a few years ago, I would cringe when I heard these verses. My experiences had made me believe that many Christians were disconnected with the reality that life is hard and painful, and that being joyful and giving thanks does not make things better. In my judgemental mind, it was nonsensical to accept the tension of being joyful in the midst of pain. I did not like it, and still don’t like it, when people said, “aw, it’s okay, it’s all in God’s will” when I shared a struggle. As a result, I immediately dismissed these verses and many Christians as unsafe people to share real life hardships with. I’m glad Paul and Silas could sing their hallelujahs in jail, but I was at a place where I expected to be freed before singing hallelujah.
But the freedom I prayed for never came.
It was around this time that I finally picked up and opened a devotional a friend gifted me with, One Thousand Gifts Devotional by Ann Voskamp. When I first received this book, I rolled my eyes at the cover and thought, “I’m not going to be one of those be joyful always people.” So I didn’t even bother reading it. Two years after receiving the book, I found myself drawn to it again and asked if any of my friends would like to go through the devotional and book One Thousand Gifts with me. Thankfully, one friend agreed and went through the growing pains of practicing the habit of naming gifts with me.
To my surprise, this book gave me the freedom I had been looking for. With personal stories, shared convictions, and the Bible, Ann Voskamp shares how to live and thrive in the tension of experiencing and knowing real pain and also believing and loving the triune God. But it took a full year for the practice and habit of choosing joy, praying continuously, and giving thanks always to become part of my everyday lifeline. Slowly, slowly, slowly, without even realizing it, I have become one of those “be joyful always” people I had always secretly scorned.
The habit of naming blessings and choosing joy did not happen overnight. It happened over the course of almost two years. But I’m here to share that it is truly possible to “be joyful always, pray continuously, and to give thanks in all circumstances,” without feeling like I have to pretend pain doesn’t exist. In fact, developing the habit to name gifts has actually given me the strength to embrace and endure all the hard that is a part of real living. Here are some quotes from the One Thousand Gifts Devotional about choosing joy, praying continuously, and giving thanks that I hope will offer encouragement to why it is so life-giving to build the habit to name blessings and gifts.
On joy - “While I may not always feel joy, God asks me to give thanks in all things because God knows that the feeling of joy begins in the action of thanksgiving.” (p. 150)
On prayer - “Grieving can be prayer, the way we cry and know God hears.” (p. 158)
On giving thanks - “Murmuring thanks doesn’t deny that an event is a tragedy and neither does it deny that there's a cracking fissure straight across the heart. Giving thanks is only this: making the canyon of pain into a megaphone to proclaim the ultimate goodness of God.” (p. 175)
I do not know how the year 2022 is going to play out. But I do know this: that whether it’s better or worse than 2021, I hope to keep practicing the habit of choosing joy--thus recentering my heart to what Jesus has already accomplished, praying continuously--thus reminding me of Who is actually in control even though it doesn’t feel that way, and giving thanks in all circumstances--thus living out the reality that God is still God in the good, the bad, and everything in between.
When Paul and Silas sang their hymns in the middle of the night, I do not think they expected their chains to be broken and their cell door to become unlocked. I think they just sang hymns because choosing joy and giving thanks was their lifeline. They knew that in all circumstances, God is still God and always worthy of praise. Even though it really makes no sense. So now when I read this confusing story, I don’t see it as “they praised God when it was hard and then life got better.” I see it as “they praised God because God was that real to them, even though their faith in God kept making life more complicated for them.”
Joanne is a SoCal native who currently lives in Taiwan with her husband of thirteen years. She is a mom to five beautiful children and one faithful Golden Retriever. She appreciates free time to take walks, sleep, and slowly eat her food. She shares about how she finds grace in the midst of everyday mess on Instagram @mom.of.wu .
Jumpstart your mornings with my free workshop and the 3-Minute Morning Kit.