In the marshmallow test a researcher places a marshmallow in front of a pre-schooler and tells them that if they can wait about 15 minutes before eating it, they will get a second marshmallow. The choice is: one treat right now or two treats later. It demonstrates the power of habit and willpower (or self-control).
Our habits affect or control our lives. A habit is something we do regularly and that tends to occur subconsciously. It involves our attitudes, behaviors, characteristics and customs. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form. But it is possible to form new habits through the repetition of new actions in small steps (that take no more than 5 minutes). And It takes at least 60 consecutive days to establish a habit.
God lists three habits in the Bible that go together like the layers in a sandwich.
When he wrote a letter to encourage the Christians at Thessalonica who were enduring persecution, Paul said, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-18NIV). This is comprised of three commands: to be joyful, to be prayerful and to be thankful. It would have been easier if the Bible said, “Rejoice sometimes, pray occasionally, and give thanks when you feel like it”. Instead the standard is higher than that: always, continually, and in all circumstances.
These three commands cover our past, present and future. We rejoice in the present, pray for the future and give thanks for the past. Paul repeated them to Christians in Rome, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rom. 12:12).
The first command is to rejoice always.
“Rejoice always” means to be cheerful or joyful all the time, not just sometimes. This includes good and adverse circumstances. Paul was joyful when he heard about their ongoing faith in the Lord (1 Th. 3:9). But the Christians at Thessalonica were to rejoice although they were being persecuted (Acts 17:5-9; 1 Th. 2:14). And Paul and Silas sang joyfully in prison (Acts 16:25).
When we face difficulties, we have a choice: either we can focus on our trials and lapse into self-pity. Or we can set our minds on the things above, where Christ is at the right hand of God, and rejoice. Paul also said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). So to rejoice always means that we must make this deliberate choice to focus on the Lord and the inheritance that we have in Him, not on our difficult circumstances.
Joy is different to happiness. Joy is an inner attitude whereas happiness is an emotional response to good circumstances. Because it works from the inside out, joy does not depend on our circumstances. God and Jesus are the source and subject of our joy. Biblical joy comes from who God and Jesus are and what they do. And we know that God is in control of the circumstances. As joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit, it’s a consequence of a godly life (Gal. 5:22-23). It depends on our relationship with God.
So there is some truth in the Monty Python comedy song “Always look on the bright side of life”. For a Christian, there is always a bright side of life. And that’s eternal life.
The second command is to pray continually.
“Pray continually” means to pray at regular times and to be persistent in prayer. Our prayers should be frequent and persistent. It includes always being willing and ready to pray as the need arises. This indicates one’s dependence on God.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy continually prayed for them and Paul asked them to pray for him and his companions (1 Th. 1:2; 5:25). Likewise, we need to pray for one another.
Our communication with family and friends is hindered if our cell phone is switched off or the battery is flat. Likewise, our communication with God is hindered if we don’t pray continually.
The third command is to give thanks in all circumstances.
“Give thanks in all circumstances” means to give thanks in all circumstances because “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28). Note that it is “in” the circumstance, not “for” the circumstance. If we gave thanks “for” everything that would mean that we give thanks for Satan and his plan for the world!
Instead we thank God no matter what happens, as long as we don’t excuse sin. Whatever comes in our lives comes in by the will of God. Like joy, our thankfulness depends on our relationship in Christ rather than on the circumstances of life.
Paul also said, “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20).
Paul usually includes thanksgiving at the beginning of his letters. In this case, Paul thanked God continually because they accepted the message that he brought from God (1 Th. 1:2; 3:9).
Thanksgiving is the time of year when North Americans spend time with family and friends and reflect on all that they are grateful for. But God wants us to be thankful every day of the year.
Each of these three commands are God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.
In Christ Jesus
“God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” means that that God wants His people to be joyful, prayerful and thankful. In these areas of life we can know God’s will without a doubt. This part of God’s will is also especially revealed by the example of Christ Jesus. But we can only obey them if we are “in Christ Jesus”. Christians are in union with Christ because they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And they are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Paul told them that as Christians they are collectively and individually “in Christ” (1 Th. 1:1; 2:14; 4:16). And their hope was “in our Lord Jesus Christ” – they were waiting for His return (1 Th. 1:3).
Lessons for us
It’s God’s will for His followers to rejoice, pray, and give thanks. God wants us to do these three things regularly. Every day of our life. Jesus taught about them. And He modelled them in His daily life. Let’s imitate Him in being joyful, prayerful and thankful.
Written, March 2018
A national anthem is a song that celebrates a nation’s history, struggles and traditions. It’s a patriotic song that’s sung at important events. The book of Psalms was the Israelites song book. They would have memorized these songs and sung them regularly. The Hallel psalms (113-118) were sung at their three main festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Dt. 16:1-17). They seem to be equivalent to a national anthem in ancient Israel.
The Lord’s Supper was instituted at the last supper when Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples on the night before He was crucified. The Biblical account finishes, “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mt. 26:30; Mk. 14:26NIV). The hymn they sang (chanted) was probably one of the Jewish Hallel (praise) psalms (Ps. 113-118). Apparently, Psalms 113-114 were sung before the Passover meal and Psalms 115-118 after the meal. So, the final song may have been Psalms 115-118 or Psalm 118. The Hebrew verb halal (Strongs #1984) means to praise, celebrate, glory or boast. And Hallelujah (hallel-Yah) means to praise Yahweh (the Hebrew word for God).
The Hallel psalms show that God’s people can look back and ahead with thanksgiving and praise. This pattern of songs of praise and thanksgiving can be traced back to the exodus (Ex. 15:1-21). After the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, the Israelites sang a “song to the Lord” about what God had just done (defeated their enemy) and what He was about to do (the conquest of Canaan).
Here’s a summary of the Hallel psalms.
The theme is to praise God because He is great and gracious. To be gracious is to be kind and generous. He is great because He is matchless and omniscient (all knowing). He is gracious because he helped the needy then and He helps us in our spiritual need. So the Jews praised God because of His attributes and His actions. This psalm begins and ends with “Praise the Lord” (or hallelujah in Hebrew). We can also praise God for who He is and what He does. He is still great and His kindness is shown in the salvation He offers us through the sacrifice of Jesus. If you are needy, call upon the great God to be gracious to you.
The theme is to respect God’s awesome power in the Exodus. His power was shown in crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan River. And in the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai that caused the Israelites to tremble in fear (Ex. 19:16-18). And providing water from a rock. These miracles were a demonstration of God’s power. We can also respect God’s awesome power shown in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.
Before the meal
At the beginning of the annual Passover celebration, the Jews chanted psalms 113-114. This reminded them that their God was great and gracious and that this was demonstrated in the exodus. Like the Jews recalled psalms 113 -114 before the Passover meal, we can praise God when we recall God’s greatness and kindness shown in the salvation He offers us through the sacrifice of Jesus, and His awesome power shown in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.
So, let’s praise the Lord – “Now and for evermore” and “From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets” (Ps. 113:2-3). That means continually and everywhere! That’s what the Jews did in the Hallel and what Christians did in the early church (Acts 2:46-47).
The theme is to praise the Lord for His love and faithfulness. The absence of miracles caused foreigners to question the existence of Israel’s God. But Israel’s invisible God is greater than their idols. God is trustworthy and will reward the Israelites. It looks ahead saying that God will bless those who trust in Him. And it ends with “Praise the Lord”. We can also praise the Lord for His love shown through the sacrifice of Jesus. Let’s glorify God in all we say and do (1 Cor. 10:31). And not use Him like an idol to get what we want. Are we willing to trust God in difficult circumstances?
The theme is to praise God for deliverance from death. When in a dangerous situation, God heard the psalmist’s cry for help and he was rescued. His grateful response is to obey and serve the Lord. It ends with “Praise the Lord”. The Jews applied this psalm to their exodus from slavery in Egypt. We can also praise the Lord and obey and serve Him for our deliverance from spiritual death through Jesus and for the resultant spiritual blessings.
The theme is for the Gentiles to praise God for His great love toward Israel. God’s love for Israel affects their destiny. It ends with “Praise the Lord”. Indeed, today God’s salvation is available to people of all nations. We can also praise God for His great love for us in the salvation He offers us through the sacrifice of Jesus.
The theme is to thank God for deliverance from enemies. He answered their call for help. The psalm begins and ends with thanksgiving, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever” (v.1, 29). The Israelites give thanks for deliverance and victory over their enemies (v.5-21). They repeat “God has become my salvation (or deliverer)” (v. 14, 21). They are reminded of the exodus (Ex. 15:2). God rescued them from their enemies. And they respond with rejoicing (v.22-27).
They sing, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (v. 22). This probably referred to the king who was now exalted instead of being rejected. It’s a metaphor that describes his changed circumstances. He was like a stone which was discarded by the builders as useless, but now he is important to God like the cornerstone of a building. Imagine Jesus singing “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” on the night before He was rejected and crucified. The Bible applies this verse to Jesus (Mt. 21:42; 23:39; Acts 4:11-12; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pt. 2:7). We can also apply it to Jesus. Let’s exalt Him in a world that rejects Him.
They also sing, “This is the day the Lord has brought about, we will be happy and rejoice in it” (v.24NET). They were rejoicing on the day of their victory and deliverance. Imagine Jesus singing “This is the day the Lord has brought about, we will be happy and rejoice in it” on the night before He was crucified. He brought about a great victory and deliverance for us that we can be happy and rejoice in.
They also sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (v.26). This probably refers to the one who with God’s help has defeated the enemies. The crowds shouted these words during Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Mt. 21:9; Mk. 11:9; Lk. 19:38; Jn. 12:13). Imagine Jesus singing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” four days after the crowds had shouted it to Him and knowing what was about to happen! We can also apply it to Jesus. He indeed was sent by God the Father.
Psalm 118 ends with praise and thanksgiving, “You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you” (v. 28). And everyone joins in, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever”. God delivered the Jews physically, while Jesus delivers us spiritually. Let’s praise and thank God for delivering us from the penalty and power of sin.
This psalm may also be sung at the second coming of Christ by those who believe in Him during the tribulation. In this case it celebrates God’s final victory over evil.
After the meal
Like the Jews recalled psalms 115 -118 after the Passover meal, we can praise the Lord for His love in delivering us from spiritual death (which is the penalty of our sin) through the sacrifice of Jesus. That was a great victory for which we should be grateful, thankful, and joyful. It also means to respond by obeying and serving the Lord. It’s a change from slavery to service.
An anthem of praise
In the Hallel we see that God raises the needy (113), delivers the oppressed (114), is superior to idols (115); receives personal praise (116), national praise (118) and will receive global praise (117). Praise is mentioned nine times and thanks is mentioned six times. And four of the six psalms finish with “Praise the Lord”. So the theme of the Jewish “national anthem” is praise and thanksgiving.
In the Hallel the Jews looked back with gratitude to God’s past acts of salvation (the exodus and the giving of the Torah) and ahead with confidence to God’s future blessings. We can also look back and look ahead. Back to Christ’s death and resurrection, which is God’s greatest act of salvation. And ahead to the finalization of our salvation when we leave this earth to meet the Lord in the air. And to when Christ returns as the powerful Messiah to establish His kingdom on earth. That’s why we can look back and ahead with thanksgiving and praise. What’s your anthem? Is it characterized by praise and thanksgiving?
Written, July 2017
Although the Psalms were written about 3,000 years ago, we still benefit from meditating on them today. In Psalm 103 “praise the LORD” appears six times in its 22 verses. And David gives us five reasons to praise Him (Ps. 103:2-5 NIV).
- Praise the LORD – who forgives all our sins.
- Praise the LORD – who heals all our diseases.
- Praise the LORD – who redeems our life from the pit.
- Praise the LORD – who crowns us with love and compassion.
- Praise the LORD – who satisfies our desires with good things.
The result of being forgiven, healed, redeemed, crowned and satisfied is that our strength is “renewed like the eagle’s” (Ps. 103:5). The eagle is a symbol of strength.
The prophet Isaiah described it this way: “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isa. 40:31).
What a great promise for those who trust in the Lord! Each day God empowers believers to live for Him: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
God’s love for His people, like the expanse of the universe, is so vast that it cannot be measured: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him” (Ps. 103:11). Furthermore, it lasts forever, “from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps. 103:17).
This love is demonstrated by the fact that our sins have been forgiven and totally removed, never to be seen again: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our sins from us” (Ps. 103:12).
Micah expressed a similar thought, writing that the God of pardon, forgiveness, mercy and compassion “will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:18-19).
As our lifetime is brief compared to God’s everlasting love (Ps. 103:15-17), let’s remember again and again the good things God has done for us. Don’t take them for granted and don’t forget them (Ps. 103:2).
Remembering will lead us to praise and thank Him, and this is the right response for a forever forgiven people. That’s why David praised the Lord, and why we can join “His angels” and “all His heavenly hosts” in praising the Lord (Ps. 103:20-21).
David didn’t know how God would take our sins away through Jesus. But we do! And shouldn’t this lead us to even greater praise and thanksgiving?
Published, September 2009
Jesus healed many people while on earth. Once ten men with a skin disease like leprosy sought His help (Lk. 17:11-19). They stood at a distance and called out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” Jesus rewarded their faith by telling them to show themselves to the priests. In Jewish society, the priests confirmed when someone was healed of an infectious skin disease (Lev. 14:1-32). As they went towards the priests they were miraculously healed.
Then one of them returned to Jesus. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet, thanked Him and praised God in a loud voice. He was humble, grateful and thankful. This is surprising as he was a Samaritan, and despised by the Jews (Jn. 4:9). Jesus called him a foreigner (Lk. 17:18), a term also used to describe rebels (Jn. 8:48). Before He responded to the Samaritan, Jesus asked, “Where are the other nine men who were healed?” They didn’t return to thank the Lord.
Likewise, Jesus pitied humanity and came to rescue us from our sins (Mt. 1:21). He said that sin was like sickness (Mk. 2:17). Using this illustration, believers have been healed of the consequences of this disease. What is our response? If we have trusted in Christ’s miraculous work, are we like the thankful Samaritan or like the nine who forgot the Healer?
Christians should be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). This means being thankful in all circumstances and “overflowing with thankfulness” (Col. 2:7; 3:15; 4:2; 1 Th. 5:18). We should also praise God for the transformation in our life (1 Pet. 2:9). This is to be offered to God as a continual “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15).
Published: January 2005