Eric R. Hausler
Every now and then, you may breeze by a familiar passage in the Bible without seriously considering its implications. And then, if you do stop to consider it, the duty sounds so daunting that you feel inadequate and overwhelmed!
“Pray without ceasing”(1 Thess. 5:17)is probably one of those. Never stop praying? How is that even possible? What doesit mean, and why would the Lord command it? By taking a closer look at Paul’s directive and seeing its parallels in Scripture, you will see it is an essential part of Christian living.
“Pray without ceasing”is a short imperative, translating just two words in the Greek text, and follows instructions about life in the church: “Be at peace among yourselves.... Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted.... Always seek to do good to one another” (1 Thess. 5:13–15). Paul then addresses the Thessalonians’ inner attitude: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (5:16–18).
Certainly the Thessalonians would have initially rejoiced in having their sins washed away, but how could they maintain a joyful and thankful demeanor in the midst of the suffering and affliction that they experienced? How could they rejoice always, and give thanks in all circumstances? Without God’s help, it would have been impossible! They had to pray.
The Greek word Paul uses here for “prayer” is a broad term, which includes all kinds of expressions before the Lord. It means “prayer” in the widest sense and is the same word Paul uses elsewhere: “Be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12), “praying at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18), and “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Col. 4:2). Paul combines it with a word that means “without intermission” or “incessantly,” arriving at our translation, “Pray without ceasing,”or “Pray all kinds of prayers ... incessantly.”
Now, my hunch is that many Christians have no idea what that means—but whatever it means, it sure sounds unachievable! I asked a teenager in our church what he thought it means. He replied, “Well, I don’t think it means all day long we have to have our heads bowed, hands folded, praying ‘Dear God’ and ending with ‘Amen.’ ” Of course! The Christians in Thessalonica were ordinary people, who had work to do—which, in fact, Paul commanded them to do faithfully (1 Thess. 4:11). So what could it mean, besides abandoning all our responsibilities and devoting ourselves to a monastic life of prayer? As we use Scripture to interpret Scripture, two ways of understanding this command become clear.
First, it means you never abandon your life of prayer. You never call it quits and say, “Forget it! I’m done praying.”You might stop running because it hurts your knees, or stop drinking caffeine because it bothers you, but you must never come to a point in life where you abandon prayer. Rather, we say with David, “I will bless you as long as I live” (Ps. 63:4).
Examples of this are found throughout God’s Word. Certainly, when Jesus teaches us to pray for our “daily” bread, he implies that we are to pray daily. The parables of the persistent friend and the persistent widow teach that we are to keep asking God and never give up. Christ’s own example—rising early to pray, slipping away to pray, and praying on all occasions—shows us how he prayed without ceasing. Paul’s writing shows he lived this out: “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Eph. 1:16). “We pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face” (1 Thess. 3:10). “We always pray for you” (2 Thess. 1:11).
There are numerous other examples of those who never stop praying. Paul writes about Epaphras, “He is always wrestling in prayer for you” (Col. 4:12 NIV). Samueltells God’speople, “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you” (1 Sam. 12:23). Throughout their wilderness journey, Moses prayed to God while the Israelites faced one trial after another, as seen in the battle with the Amalekites, when Aaron and Hur helped him to pray without ceasing (Ex. 17:8–13). And consider Daniel, when it became illegal to pray to anyone other than King Darius. Daniel kept on praying: “He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had previously done” (Dan. 6:10).
Secondly, “Pray without ceasing” means that you are always in an attitude of prayer. Again, Paul does not command you to spend your day with your hands folded and your head bowed, beginning and ending each prayer with a certain formulaic expression. Rather, you delight in the presence of God all day long with all kinds of prayers: praising God, as his attributes come to mind; thanking God for his blessings; confessing your sins, as the Spirit convicts you; and crying out to him: What should I do, Lord? O Lord, watch over my son. Give me wisdom in this next conversation. Lord, guard my tongue. Help me to stay awake. Help me to go to sleep. Change my attitude. Restore my joy. Show me what to do, Lord!
To pray without ceasing means having the Lord in our thoughts all day long. But don’t just think about him, wondering, “Is this pleasing to God?” Rather, address him directly: “I need you, Lord!” “Does this please you, Lord?” Acknowledge every day, “You are with me, Lord!”
In essence, this is what it means to “walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8), just as Enoch and Noah walked with him. It means that instead of saying to others before some new undertaking, “Okay, wish me luck,” you say to God, “O Lord, help me.” Do as Nehemiah did when pressed by King Artaxerxes to explain why he looked so sad: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king ” (Neh. 2:4–5 niv). Praying without ceasing means always being aware that we are in the presence of the Lord and remembering that “the Lord is near ... to all who call on him in truth” (Ps. 145:18).
Although I’m sure you could come up with more of your own, allow me to suggest some reasons why the Lord commands us to pray without ceasing:
1. This is what brings peace and joy. It’s no accident that “rejoice always” is linked to “pray without ceasing” and “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16–18). Prayerfully remembering God’s blessings defeats a grumpy spirit and a nervous heart: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6–7 NIV).
2. This is how we are called to fight spiritual battles. Paul saw prayer as vitally connected to being clothed with spiritual armor: “Be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18 niv).Samuel Chadwick said, “The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work and prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray.” Why? Because “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).
3. This protects us from sin and discouragement. Jesus taught, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41).And David said, “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken” (Ps. 16:8). Disaster comes when we stop praying. John Bunyan picked up on this: “Prayer will make a man cease from sin, or sin will entice a man to cease from prayer.”
4. This helps us to be fruitful Christians.One of the qualities of a productive disciple is that he or she prayerfully meditates on the Word of God day and night (without ceasing). God promises that you will be“like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season” (Ps. 1:3).
5. This leads to godly choices. A practical benefit of praying without ceasing is wisdom in decision making. As the familiar proverb says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5–6).
6. This keeps us prepared for the Lord’s return! Jesus said, “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning.... Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes” (Luke 12:35, 37). As Peter wrote, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7).
God designed you to pray without ceasing, every day, all through your life. It’s a vitally important means of grace to give you joy and peace through all the seasons of life. He leads you beside quiet waters, restores your soul, and comforts you through dark valleys, as you praise him, thank him, confess your sins, and call on him for help, walking with the risen Savior, Jesus Christ, and abiding in his word.
Perhaps you needed this reminder today. Yes, Lord, I do need to walk with you! I need to pray without ceasing. Help me, Lord, “so I will bless you as long as I live” (Ps. 63:4). And remember the Lord’s faithful promise to you: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
The author is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Ada, Mich. He will soon be doing church planting in Naples, Fla. (see naplesopc.com). Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the ESV. New Horizons, June 2013.