Our culture despises those two little words. Hatred for weakness and inadequacy is why we tell our kids never to say, “I can’t.” It’s why we love the inspiring words of Thomas the Tank Engine: “Yes, you can!” The belief that we’re capable of anything, if we set our minds to it, pervades our worldview.
This “I-can” mentality also colors our reading of Scripture, specifically how we understand and respond to God’s commands. If we aren’t careful, we’ll be deceived into thinking we’ve “got this” apart from the power of the gospel motivating and empowering us.
When God’s Will Is Impossible
Consider a familiar passage. Many of us can recite it from memory. It’s one of the few answers we give to the common question, “What is God’s will for my life?” We affirm it—
But struggle to apply it:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
God couldn’t be clearer: His will for his people is a life steeped in rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving! We never have to wonder if we’re on the right and godly path with these actions. They are God’s will for us. Yet—
They’re some of the most difficult commands to obey.
Think about it:
- Why does God command us to “rejoice always”? Because it’s more natural for us to grumble and complain about our circumstances than to see God’s character and purposes at work in them.
- Why does he tell us to “pray without ceasing”? Because, in an age of distraction and entertainment, it’s easier to give our focus and time to nothingness, wasting it on self-centered, temporary pleasures, than to give ourselves to eternal, Kingdom matters.
- And what about his command to “give thanks”? We usually forget or refuse to because, somewhere deep within our hearts, we fail to remember that everything is a gift from God. We think we’re entitled to what we want and deserve an easy life.
Friends, I’m preaching to myself here. I often fail to fulfill God’s will in these particular commands. I’d rather complain about what he hasn’t given me than praise him for what he has; and I’d more quickly scroll social media for the umpteenth time than set aside what feeds my pride for the prayerfulness that will expose it. Turns out, these basic commands to do God’s will are much harder to obey than they seem.
Yes, on our own, obedience to God is impossible. We need his help and power, secured for us through our union with Christ, to do his will.
God’s Will in Difficult Circumstances
The original context of this well-known passage gives it special significance. Paul penned his letter to the Thessalonians for two main reasons:
- To encourage them about the contagious nature of their faith in Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:8; 3:6-7)
- To urge them to press on in that faith through various hardships (2:14-20; 4:13-14; 5:15)
In particular, these believers faced persecution, the absence and sufferings of their pastor (Paul), and the deaths of beloved brothers and sisters in the church.
Persecution. Worry. Death. Those were the “circumstances” in which Paul was exhorting this church to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks.” Those commands, among others at the end of his letter, had tougher soil in which to grow than we might expect.
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And isn’t that a similar soil to the one in which we’re seeking to grow day by day? We too struggle with hardships of many kinds. We deal with relational division (even in the church); we worry about those who are hurting; we grieve the loss of loved ones; we’re mocked and rejected for our faith. It’s in this context—difficulty and suffering—that Paul tells the Thessalonians, and us, to press on in doing God’s will.
But wait—as if obeying these commands wasn’t hard enough in times of ease and comfort, how can we possibly fulfill them in times of trial?
The Greatest Doctrine You’ve Never Heard Of
Only “in Christ Jesus.”
That’s the phrase that changes everything about this command: “…for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” It’s the difference between being enslaved by our inability to obey and being freed to obey.
According to Kevin DeYoung, “Union with Christ”—the elaborate phrase for what it means to be in Christ—“may be the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of” (The Hole in Our Holiness). But there is no Christian life, no doing God’s will, apart from it.
Union with Christ means we are in Christ and Christ is in us. It means we are no longer our own and destined for wrath, but are now hidden with Christ and given new life—his life. We are one with him, and clothed in his righteousness. Union with Christ says that everything that’s his becomes ours by faith.
This precious doctrine is our reality when we trust Jesus to save us from sin and death by his atoning sacrifice and raise us to eternal life through his resurrection. We are sealed by the gift of his Holy Spirit, who takes up residence in our hearts—the very life of Jesus, changing our desires and empowering us to please our Father and walk in his will.
How Doing God’s Will Is Possible
Augustine once prayed, “Give what you command, and command what you will” (Confessions). We echo his prayer and know God will answer it because, in Christ Jesus, he gives us what we need to desire his way and fulfill his commands.
Let’s consider how union with Christ affects our ability to obey 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:
- In Christ, we’re free to “rejoice always.” Rather than being emotionally enslaved to our always-changing circumstances and seeking happiness in fleeing highs, the Spirit sets our minds on who God is—the sovereign, unchanging Lord—and what he’s done for our souls. True joy is found in what will never fade and what can never be taken from us: peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. He empowers us to rejoice always.
- In Christ, we’re free to “pray without ceasing.” Rather than spending our days on self-centered, temporary pleasures that will never truly satisfy, the Spirit has given us a new desire to know God and effect his will on earth through moment-by-moment dependence on him. True purpose is found in communion with our Father who invites us to draw near to his throne of grace with confidence because of Christ’s righteousness. He motivates us to prayerfulness.
- In Christ, we’re free to “give thanks.” Rather than demanding certain outcomes from God in our blinding foolishness, the Spirit reminds us of all we’ve been undeservedly given in Christ: every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places and an eternal inheritance far surpassing any earthly gain (Ephesians 1:3). True thankfulness flows from recognizing what we deserve—condemnation for our sin—and rejoicing over we don’t deserve, yet have received: all the eternal fruit of Jesus’ finished work, and Jesus himself. He leads us to be thankful.
Hope for Imperfect Obedience
No matter what our “I-can” culture thinks, we can’t fulfill these commands by our own efforts and strength; nor does union with Christ mean we will live perfectly holy lives, for our battle with the presence of sin remains.
But we’re no longer controlled by sin. We’re dead to it, and alive to God in Christ—new creations—whose Spirit now lives in us (Romans 6:10-11)! His compelling presence means obedience is now possible when it was once impossible, that we now have everything we need for life and godliness because of our union with Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns in us (see Romans 8:7-10). To be in Christ is now who we truly are.
And one glorious day, when we’re with Jesus, sin will be abolished once and for all. What hindered us will be no more, and we’ll rejoice in the finished work God started when he united us to his Son.
To run, to work, the law commands,
The gospel gives me feet and hands.
The one requires that I obey,
The other does the power convey. (Ralph Erskine)