Cultivating the Habit of Constant Prayer.
“Pray without ceasing” – 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
It’s been an average sort of a day for you. Not exactly great, but not too bad either. You got up later than you wanted to, mostly because you spent a bit too much time on your smart phone last night before sleeping. The first thing you thought about when you woke up was coffee, and the second thing was a twinge of regret as you realized you’d skipped out on your morning walk or run. As you rushed your breakfast down, you read a bit of your Bible, and prayed while walking to the train station. Well, you prayed for a bit before you got distracted thinking about your day. You listened to podcasts on the ride in to work, and then it was business as usual in the office. You got a few reports done, sent a few emails, and met with your boss to talk about your next project. You went for a nice walk at lunch in the gardens, and then it was back to work in the afternoon. You got home, caught up with your spouse, ordered take out, and then settled in for a night of episodes on Netflix. Maybe you fell asleep praying that night. Maybe you stayed up too late again.
There’s been plenty of puzzling over the years among Christians as to what it really means to “pray without ceasing.” Does this mean we shut ourselves up in a monastery? We devote every moment to prayer and nothing else? No, can’t be! That seems too unrealistic. Perhaps this verse is just rough short-hand for saying “pray regularly.” After all, it can’t literally mean pray without ceasing… can it? Well, whatever it may mean, it’s safe to say that ceaseless prayer is well and truly missing from the fantasy day I imagined in the previous paragraph. With these things in mind, I think we can agree that it is important for us to consider what this verse actually means.
In this verse we have three words in the English. In the Greek we have two. Now there are three things I want you to pay attention to here. The first is that this is a command. Just let that settle for a moment. Ceaseless prayer is a command. This is not just something that “super-Christians” opt in to do. It’s not something just for the mature in faith. It is a binding commandment for every believer. You, as a Redeemed child of God, are required to pray without ceasing. Let me put it this way, if we fail to pray without ceasing, we have sinned against God and must repent… and then pray without ceasing! Wowsers!! Ok, this just got serious. We actually have to take this verse seriously and seek to truly obey it.
Second thing I want you to notice in this verse is the subject of prayer. But what does Paul mean when he uses this word: “prayer”? What exactly is this thing that we are supposed to be doing ceaselessly? Well it’s quite simple: prayer in Paul’s mind here is spiritual conversation with God. It is a communion of our souls with God. Now having said that, we must also say that communing or conversing with God is different from a conversation with a friend. When we talk with other people, for example, often our whole attention is dedicated to the act of talking. If we import that idea to our communion with God, then we end up with ceaseless prayer holed up in a monastery. As you will see, however, this is far too restricting an understanding. Communing with God, while it may involve spoken words, actually occurs on a deeper, spiritual level, and need not be mediated by words. In Nehemiah 2:4, for example, we see Nehemiah’s prayer manifesting as a spontaneous thought directed to God. Now our human friends cannot see our thoughts, our thoughts must be mediated by words and actions. Not so with God. To God, our hearts and thoughts are open to Him as a book. He sees and knows all that we think and feel, and He understands the inner workings of our hearts with infinitely greater clarity and depth than even we ourselves.
With these thoughts in mind, we can then say that “unceasing prayer” kind of prayer consists in two things. First, it consists in an awareness of God’s ever-presence with us, and His ever-knowing insight into the very thoughts of our minds and feelings of our hearts. Unceasing prayer is an unceasing awareness of His presence, which the Psalmist in Psalm 139 so beautifully portrays and exemplifies. The second “component,” if you like, of unceasing prayer, is an engaging of the soul with God. It is one thing to know that He sees all of us, it is another to then engage in loving communion. As we sense His presence with us, then, and His intimate acquaintance with our thoughts, we respond by carrying on an inner-conversing with Him. Our very awareness of Him forms and shapes the thoughts and feelings of our hearts. This may work out in numerous ways. It may look like a simple contentment to be in His presence as you work, much as a husband and wife may simply enjoy one another’s company as they each read a book together. It may be a response of praise, as we are “singing and making melody to the Lord with our hearts” (Ephesians 5:9). In fact, singing can be a wonderful help for obeying the commandment to pray without ceasing. Another example is if we are in a situation of need, and then ceaseless prayer may consist of a spontaneous seeking for God’s help (Nehemiah 2:4). It may also manifest in focused, deliberate time conversing with Him while doing nothing else.
The third thing in the verse to notice is, of course, the adverb: “without ceasing.” Again, this is a requirement. Based on what we’ve seen so far, this requirement is a requirement to maintain a constant awareness of God’s presence with us, an awareness of His knowing of us, and an engagement with Him in our hearts in light of this awareness. That is what it means to pray without ceasing, and that is what it is that we must strive, in God’s grace, to do. And so remember, every time you lose a sense of awareness of God’s presence, you are sinning against God. For you cannot obey this command without such an awareness. And as you live in that awareness, raise and direct your thoughts and affections to God. This is ceaseless prayer. Why not repent right now for our failure to pray without ceasing? Why not seek the Lord’s help right now to obey in the future? Why not regularly ask Him to give you growth in ceaseless prayer?
Soli Deo Gloria!