Teaching series from 1 Thessalonians

Building A Healthy Prayer Life

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Teaching t22472


Brief review of setting. In this section of his letter (4:1-5:23), Paul urges the Thessalonian Christians to keep growing spiritually. Paul calls it “sanctification” (4:3a) – the process of allowing God to set us apart from sin to serve Him. He then says that God is working to sanctify many areas of Christians’ lives, including our sexual lives, an eternal perspective, how we lead and follow in the church, how we love one another, etc. It also includes building a healthy prayer life. This is what Paul describes briefly in 5:16-18 (read; note “this is God’s will” in 4:3 and 5:18b). Let’s burrow down into this passage by asking three questions: What? Why? How?

WHAT kind of prayer life does Paul emphasize?

Paul gives just three short sentences in 5:16-18a. But they teach us a couple of really important things about a healthy Christian prayer life.

First, Paul emphasizes talking to God in an ongoing and personal way. Notice the adverbs: “always, without ceasing, in everything.” Also, each of the verbs is in the present tense, and could be translated “keep rejoicing, keep praying, keep giving thanks.” This also implies a personal relationship, because frequent communication of this sort (briefly explain the 3 verbs?) is the very heart of a personal relationship.

This is the opposite of religion, in which prayer is both formal and limited to certain times (ME AS A KID). God is a distant, abstract authority figure, so you talk to Him only when you have to and in formal (even memorized) words.

This kind of ongoing personal relationship with God is “His will for us in Christ Jesus” (5:18b). In other words, this is the great gift that God offers to us by uniting us to Jesus (read Rev. 3:20 NLT). The imagery here is not that of a visitor or house-guest, but that Jesus wants to “move into” the home of our souls (“I will come into him”)—so that we can have an ongoing and deepening relationship with Him (“we will share a meal together as friends”). This is God’s will for you and me. How can we have this?

It begins by actually opening the door and inviting Him in. He wants to come in, and He is knocking through various means—including your Christian friends, the need and emptiness you sense in your soul, and even through this teaching. But He is polite—He won’t do a forced entry. You don’t have to clean up your “house” first. He already knows all about the mess inside, and He died on the cross for it. He doesn’t want to rebuke you as an enemy; He wants to share a meal with you as a Friend. It’s your move...

Once you have invited Jesus into your heart, it is God’s will for you to get to know Him better and better. And one key way to get to know Him better is by simply talking with Him throughout the day—when you get up, on the way to work, while you feed the kids, etc. That’s what Paul is urging us to do in these verses—which bring us to the second emphasis in these verses...

Second, Paul emphasizes expressing gratitude to God. “Rejoice” is virtually a synonym with “give thanks.” They even have the same root in the Greek (more on this later). “Pray” is a general word, usually referring to expressing dependence by asking God to meet our needs. So Paul is saying something like: “Keep being grateful! Keep asking for what you need, but by all means keep being grateful!”

This emphasis on cultivating gratitude as a key part of our prayer lives is a huge theme throughout the Bible (dominant theme in Psalms, the preeminent Old Testament book on prayer; chairo: 74 times in New Testament; eucharisto: 39 times in New Testament). This leads us to our second question...

WHY are rejoicing and giving thanks so important?

Most us (including me) find beefing up this part of our prayer lives a real challenge. We need practical ways of working on this (HOW?), but they won’t help much unless we have biblically-informed convictions about why rejoicing and giving thanks are so important. Consider thesethree biblical reasons...

Because a true Christian has so much to rejoice in and give thanks for! In fact, a grateful attitude is perhaps the surest indicator of our spiritual sanity. When one of my daughters was 3, she had a little wardrobe of hand-me-down play dresses. One day I saw her standing in front of the wardrobe crying, “I don’t have anything to wear!” I didn’t get troubled; I just realized that she was momentarily insane. She had so much, but she was ignoring what she had and focusing on what she didn’t have. What a picture of my own mind-set so often!

Why do I say this? Because the difference between what we had before receiving Christ and what we now have in Christ is so great that rejoicing and giving thanks is the only sane response. This is why Paul rejoices in Rom.5:1-5 (ESV).

  • “I used to be under God’s condemnation; now I am in permanent right standing and at peace with God.”
  • “I used to be alienated from God; now I have free access to God.”
  • “I used to be headed for eternal judgment; now I look forward to eternal life in God’s glorious presence.”
  • “I used to be alone in my difficulties and they beat me down; now God works through them to make me stronger and more godly and hopeful.”
  • “I used to be a total stranger to God’s love; now I have experienced God’s love.”

These provisions meet our greatest needs, they make us rich regardless of whatever else we may lack! And they are permanent, unlike temporal blessing which come and go. Therefore, they merit our rejoicing and thanksgiving, and rejoicing and thanking God for them increases our appreciation of them!

Because building this habit will result in greater joy! Our culture constantly tells us (in very sophisticated ways): “How happy a person is depends upon how many breaks he gets” (EXAMPLES). But God says: “How happy a person is depends upon the depth of his/her gratitude.” Do you believe this?

This linkage comes across in the Greek words for “rejoice” (chairo), “give thanks” (eucharisto), “grace” (charis) and “joy” (chara). They all share the same root. As we choose by faith (often in spite of our feelings and circumstances) to rejoice in the Lord and give thanks for His grace, this increases the capacity of our hearts to receive the joy He wants to give us. This doesn’t mean that thankful people are never sad or depressed (ME). But it does mean that they are sad less often and depressed less deeply, and that practicing thankfulness often lifts them out of this.

“Over time, choosing gratitude means choosing joy. But that choice doesn’t come without effort and intentionality. It’s a choice that requires constantly renewing my mind with the truth of God’s Word, setting my heart to savor God and His gifts, and disciplining my tongue to speak words that reflect His grace and goodness—until a grateful spirit becomes my reflexive response to all of life.”

Because ingratitude is the taproot that feeds many of our other sins. Imagine someone trying to deal with a dandelion epidemic by snipping them off at ground level! You have to get at the below-ground taproot that feeds the above-ground plant. Rom.1:21ff. teaches that all kinds of sinful habits (e.g., sexual impurity, materialism, abusive relationships, etc.) are ultimately begun and fed by a refusal to give thanks to God for what he has already given us. Commenting on this pattern, Martin Luther said: “See, then, how great an evil ingratitude is: it produces a love of vanity; and this results in blindness, and blindness in idolatry, and idolatry brings about a whole host of vices.”

Yet many of us try to deal with our sinful habits mainly by exerting our will-power to stop the sinful actions—and wonder why the “dandelions” keep growing back. For example, a habit of angry outbursts often has its roots in expecting certain people to meet our needs for identity or significance or security that God has already met through Christ. Yes, I need to bite my tongue when I am angry. But more importantly, I need to cultivate gratitude to God that He has met this need so I don’t have to expect others to meet it. This mind-set unleashes the power of God’s Spirit to gradually transform me in this area by replacing the anger with love (Rom.8:4-6). This is one of the reasons why it is emphasized so much in the sanctification section of New Testament letters.

This is why Nancy DeMoss says: “So powerful is the influence exerted by ingratitude, that when we displace it with gratitude, we will likely find a multitude of other sins dislodged from our lives.” (PROMOTE THIS BOOK)

HOW can we make progress in rejoicing and giving thanks?

I urge you to really ponder these answers to the WHY question, and ask God to convince you from the heart on this. But you also have to begin to actually practice more rejoicing and thanksgiving—and this is where the HOW becomes crucial. There is no one-size-fits-all way to do this; each of us has to go at this in ways that fit our personality, life-situation, etc. The important thing is that you stay at this and make progress over time. Here are some suggestions that may be helpful:

Whenever you feel blessed, give thanks consciously to God. We will also need to learn to give thanks to God by faith (when we don’t feel blessed), but we can start by doing this! Does the sunshine warm your heart? Thank God. Did a friend encourage you? Thank God. Was your car repair cost less than you expected? Thank God. This will strengthen a “vertical response” habit.

Schedule regular times of focused thanksgiving. I have to walk my dog every day for at least 30 minutes. Since I have to do this, I might as well also pray while I do it. Except for emergencies, I try to only thank God during the first half of my walk. Over time, walking out the door with my dog on the leash actually makes me think about thanking God (most of the time).

Use biblical passages and songs about God’s love. This is what we did earlier with Rom.5:1-5. It’s good to memorize short passages like this, and then use them to help you remember what to thank God for when your mind is blank and/or your heart is negative (as mine often is). Short Psalms or short passages from longer Psalms are especially helpful (e.g., Ps.16; 23; 73:18ff.), because they are already thanking God. Songs provide you with words, and can sometimes warm your heart.

Thank before you ask. If you read Paul’s letters, you will see that he normally thanks God for the recipients—and then he asks God for something to help them grow. There is a practical reason for this. Beginning normally with asking often only feeds our discontent and anxiety—which can make us aversive to prayer. But beginning with thanks reminds us of God’s goodness and power, which often changes the nature of our requests (pray bigger; more confident; etc.). This is important both in private prayer and in group prayer.

Help one another. “It takes a village to raise a child,” and it takes a church to help me become more grateful! There are so many ways we can do this. We set an example of expressing thanks around one another. We can gently protest and reprove chronic negativity. We can play the “thanks game” in various ways. We can ask for prayer and reminders when we’re stuck in negativity.


Jack Miller, cited by Ajith Fernando, The Fullness of Christ (Keswick Ministries, 2007)), p.89.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Choosing Gratitude (Chicago: Moody Press, 2009), p. 17.

Martin Luther, quoted in David W. Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 98.