October 17, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — 1 Thessalonians 5:16
“Rejoice always” should not be understood as demanding that we never feel or express sorrow. As it says in Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccles 3:4). Yet, even in our weeping and mourning, there can still be an element of rejoicing. We can still be glad for God’s goodness and grace. We can still look ahead with joy to the life of the age to come.
This devotion is part of the series: Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians
If you were to ask the average Christian, “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?” it’s likely that you get this answer: “Jesus wept.” That’s the King James Version’s translation of John 11:35. That sentence has two words in English, with only nine letters in total. The NRSV adds a couple of words and several letters to more closely capture the meaning of the original Greek, “Jesus began to weep.” The Greek actually has three words and 16 letters: edrakusen ho Iēsous, or “wept the Jesus.” Greek often puts the definite article before a name. (In Greek, Luke 20:30 has three words but only 12 letters, kai ho deuteros. In English has three words and 12 letters “and the second.”)
Now, you may be wondering why I’m yammering on about the length of these verses. There are a couple of reasons. The first is that today’s verse from 1 Thessalonians 5:16 is also one of the shortest verses in the Bible. “Rejoice always” has two words and 13 letters in English. The Greek original – pantote chairete – has two words and 14 letters. So, arguably, this could be the shortest verse in the New Testament, depending on how you’re counting. I bring this up as one who, admittedly, sometimes gets into Bible trivia.
However, there’s another and better reason for considering “Jesus wept” at the same time as we focus on “Rejoice always.” Please allow me to explain.
There are Christians who believe that “Rejoice always” implies that sadness, weeping, and the like are always inappropriate for Christians. I have heard this opinion taught even by some influential pastors (none of whom were my own pastor, by the way). They assume that since we should always be rejoicing there’s no room in the faithful Christian life for grieving, crying, and so forth.
There are many problems with this idea, but one of the biggest is the example of Jesus himself. We know from John 11:35 that Jesus wept as he drew near to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, who had recently died. The most obvious reading of this verse is that Jesus felt deep sadness over the reality of his friend’s death and he felt empathy for those who loved Lazarus and were grieving for him. Some Christians argue that Jesus really wasn’t sad in that way, but that he wept over the unbelief of the people. That seems to me a forced reading. But even if it’s the right interpretation, you still have Jesus weeping, not pretending to weep, but actually weeping. You don’t see Jesus rejoicing always at the moment, at least in any obvious way.
What I’m saying here might seem obvious to you and hardly worth mentioning. But I am concerned about how many Christians have been led to believe that “Rejoice always” means “Never, ever be sad or express sadness.” I once attended a memorial service for a baby who had died. The baby’s parents spoke, and all that talked about was how happy they were that their baby was in heaven with Jesus. I’m sure that was real. But I worried that they were burying their grief in a way that was neither honest nor healthy. When you do that sort of thing, your grief inevitably shows up in ways that are not so healthy or helpful.
You may remember a devotion I wrote a few days ago based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13. It was called “The Secret of the Missing Comma.” In that devotion I talked about how people misread what Paul and his colleagues want for the Thessalonians. The writers did not want them “to grieve as others do who have no hope.” Rightly interpreted, this verse does not prohibit grief or its expression. Rather, it invites us to grieve with hope. When a brother or sister in Christ dies, we are free to feel sad, but our sadness is mingled with confidence that they are with the Lord.
Similarly, “Rejoice always” should not be understood as demanding that we never feel or express sorrow. As it says in Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccles 3:4). Yet, even in our weeping and mourning, there can still be an element of rejoicing. We can still be glad for God’s goodness and grace. We can still look ahead with joy to the life of the age to come.
In tomorrow’s Life for Leaders devotion I want to work a little more on what it means to rejoice always. Here’s a clue. It doesn’t mean “Just be happy.” Stay tuned.
Have you known people who rejoice always in a way that is honest, healthy, and fully human? What do you think enabled those people to rejoice in that way?
How are you doing when it comes to rejoicing always? Is this something that you are able to do, at least most of the time? If so, why? If not, why not?
When in life are you most able to rejoice always? Why at this time?
Take some time to offer glad thanks and praise to God for God’s gifts to you.
Gracious God, today I’m reflecting on the short exhortation in 1 Thessalonians 5:16: “Rejoice always.” It may be short, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Indeed, I need to take this verse to heart once again. And I need to put it into practice.
Sometimes, Lord, I can get so caught up in the frustrations and sorrows of life that I stop rejoicing. I overlook your blessings, your grace, and your presence in my life. Forgive me!
There are times when sorrow is appropriate, when grief needs to be expressed. Help me not to squelch my genuine, human feelings. But, even as I grieve, may I also offer praise to you for your kindness and love.
Thank you, dear Lord, for your amazing and transforming grace. Thank you for your comforting and abiding presence. Thank you for helping me to rejoice in you at all times. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Is It Okay to Grieve? Or Should You Just Be Quiet?.
Subscribe to Life for Leaders
Sign up to receive a Life for Leaders devotional each day in your inbox. It’s free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.