Pray without ceasing?

How many times have we heard the familiar quote: “Pray without ceasing”? How do you feel when you hear this? A little guilty? After all, you know you don’t pray nearly as much as you probably should. Maybe confused? Even frustrated? I mean, how are we supposed to pray without ceasing anyway? Does this mean we’re somehow supposed to pray 24 hours a day?

I get questions about this every now and then. Some of you have asked about it recently. Actually, when we look at this verse in a clear translation of Scripture, our discussion might seem anticlimactic. We find this instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Here’s how the verse reads in the New Living Translation:

Never stop praying.

Oh. This gives it a slightly different twist, doesn’t it? This is an example of why I urge people—when they choose a standard reading Bible—to choose one that doesn’t just “literally” translate the individual words, but one that conveys the actual meaning of the phrases and paragraphs (which is how we communicate, but that’s a topic for another post).

“Pray without ceasing” conveys an expectation that the activity is going to be without any breaks, every second of every minute of every day . . . . Some have concluded from this that the Bible routinely asks us to do things that are simply impossible. So they just shrug their shoulders and give up. “Who can do that?” Even if we were to plug some other activity into the phrase—say: “read your Bible without ceasing”—it still suggests the same expectation, this time reading your Bible around the clock. Is this really what the Bible means in 1 Thessalonians 5:17?

What if the apostle Paul had been visiting our church. Now he’s leaving us with some final, encouraging instructions, and he tells us: “Never stop reading your Bible.” How would you understand that? You wouldn’t confuse it with: “Read your Bible 24 hours a day,” would you? The meaning is clear. Don’t stop your practice of reading the Bible. The same would be true if a coach was retiring and he told his team: “Never stop practicing.” He wouldn’t be telling them not to eat or sleep or do their homework, but only practice. Just, ‘don’t stop practicing,’ right? It really makes perfect sense when the meaning is clearly translated.

So, we’re not to stop our practice of praying. Got it. But this isn’t just a warning about what not to do; it’s an encouragement of what we should be doing regularly. It’s like a doctor talking to a recovering patient, telling them to “keep eating healthy foods,” or “keep drinking plenty of fluids,” or “keep getting enough sleep.” Prayer is essential for a healthy Christian life. It should be a regular, ongoing part of our lives.

The Jews at that time, and even some of the Gentiles, were accustomed to praying at certain times of the day. ‘There, I’ve recited my prayer at the set time—I’m all done spending time with God until the next scheduled prayer.’ To them, “never stop praying” may have challenged their perception of spending time with God in prayer.

Many of us today think of prayer like a “SitRep.” SitRep is military jargon for a ‘situation report,’ which is pretty much what it sounds like: a report giving the pertinent details of your situation. Sometimes we approach prayer this way. We tune in at the appropriate time, rattle off all the essential details (using the proper code words), and then sign off until we make our next report tomorrow.

But, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, prayer is part of the communication process in a relationship with God. If you don’t believe this approach is inadequate for real relationships, you guys try getting by with occasional “SitReps” to your wife for awhile! I’m telling you right now, that is not going to fly! God doesn’t want us to file a daily report or check something off our spiritual checklist. Amen doesn’t mean “over and out.”

We need to regain the idea of communion with God. Have you ever been on a long trip with someone you’re very close to? If you see something interesting, and you want to point it out to them, do you have to reintroduce yourself every time? Formally establish a new conversation? “O Kelley, my wonderful wife, it is so nice to be traveling with you on this trip. I want to thank you for being here with me now. You were here at the beginning of this trip, and you’ll be here at the end of the trip. But now, I’d like to take just a few moments and lift up to you the glorious splendor of the sunse—oops, sorry, it’s gone.” Do you feel the need to pray that way every time you talk with God?

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t regularly invest time in purposeful, intentional, deep prayer. We need to have our “quality time” with God. And I don’t encourage a casual, flippant attitude toward God, as if we could punch him in the arm and say: “Hey buddy, look at that.” But we should feel such an ongoing connection with him that we can spontaneously say, “Wow, Lord, what a gorgeous sunset!” Don’t feel as if each prayer needs to have an opening, three points and a closing. I think “Lord, that is so cool!” may sometimes be the most spiritual thing we can pray.

I need to have regular heart-to-heart conversations with my wife. But every time we talk it doesn’t have to be a super-serious, soul-baring, get-it-all-out-there kind of moment. We also need to laugh together. Spontaneously giggle together over silly things that happen during the day. We need to share the sad times, and the daily frustrations. We should have such a strong connection that we can talk about little, trivial things without feeling that we have to turn it into capital C “Communication.” Actually a big part of real communication is the little things. The more we share the little moments, the more the quality time happens naturally. And the more we spend regular time with God in prayer—the big moments and the little moments—without pressuring ourselves to make every time a “Prayer Session,” the more we’ll begin to really feel as if we’re spending time with someone we know. God will become more real to us, and we’ll come to truly experience our relationship with him.

When should I pray?
Most of us have read books about how real men and women of God get up at 4:00 in the morning and spend three hours in prayer—on their knees—before they do anything else. In some circles, there is some kind of standard that all serious Christians should have their prayer time early in the morning.

Now, there are passages that speak of praying in the morning (Psalm 5:3, 59:16), some speak of praying at night (Psalm 141:2, 22:2, 42:8), some speak of praying both morning and night (Psalm 92:2), some speak of praying morning, noon and night (Psalm 5:14), and some speak of praying all night long (Psalm 77:2)! Are we back to “praying without ceasing”? No, this just shows there’s no wrong time to pray—and no single right time, either.

Actually, if we want to find a biblical principle to follow, it would probably be to give God our best time instead of the leftovers. Some people bounce out of bed in the morning, ready to leap into the day with both feet. If you’re like this, then the morning would be a wonderful time for you to spend with God. But if you’re barely able to drag yourself out of bed, and need a couple of hours before you can communicate in whole sentences, then the morning is probably not the best time for you to try to do much praying. Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t say anything at all to God until it’s our official “prayer time.” I have friends who aren’t morning people, but they still acknowledge God first thing in the morning. “Today is yours, Lord. Please help me to live it for you.” Short and sweet, and not too painful. Like saying ‘Good morning’ to your spouse when all you want is a cup of coffee.

Be creative with your prayer time. If you like kneeling at your bedside, more power to you. But don’t think this is the only way to pray. There are no scriptural rules about closing your eyes or bowing your head. The Bible actually shows a rich diversity of ways to pray. I love going for a walk and praying. I have some of my best times with God when I’m out walking. Some people use their driving time for prayer. (It’s probably a good idea to not close your eyes while praying if you try this!) Others talk with God while they’re drawing or painting or doing woodwork. Some need to remove all distractions to have a good conversation; others talk better while they’re doing something with their hands. [Maybe some of you could share in the comments your favorite ways to spend time with God in prayer.] God will meet with you any time, any place, so just seek to give him your best.

Next week, we’ll talk more about how we should pray. Should we expect to always receive exactly what we ask God for? Should we just leave it all in God’s hands . . . and not really expect anything to happen? Check back next week as we look for a biblical balance. This week, I want to leave you with some words from a song by Chuck Girard:

Talk to me
Talk to me
I’m waiting in the morning
I wait throughout the day
How sweet it is for me to hear all the things you have to say
How lovely is the music of your heart
Talk to me, my love

Prayer series:

“Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?”

Prayer: Learning from the pros

Pray without ceasing? [see above]

Prayer: Expecting an answer

Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up