How do you feel when you hear the command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)?
Those three words can feel like a flunking grade to a tender conscience. The vague fear that we are failing the Christian life has once again been confirmed. Others of us struggle to see this call as anything other than an impossible ideal, perhaps attainable for pastors, but not for mothers with four children or businessmen with sixty-hour workweeks.
Still others hear the command to pray without ceasing as we might hear the command to jog without ceasing. We know prayer is good for us, and we genuinely want to pray more, but we still feel prayer as more of a burden than a blessing, more of a drain than a delight.
“One day soon, you will not struggle to pray. Prayer will feel as natural as breathing.”
None of these feelings, however, captures the essence of “pray without ceasing.” This command from God is not a guilt trip, a monkish dream, or a summons to drudgery. It is, rather, a call to become who you were made to be. It is a command to live up to your privileges in Jesus Christ. It is an invitation to enjoy your God, not just once in the morning, but all day long. And for those who are in Christ, no matter the stage of life, it is possible.
“Pray without ceasing,” of course, does not require us to spend every hour on our knees. The same apostle, in the same letter, commands all sorts of other duties that forbid literally constant prayer. The Thessalonians must “work with [their] hands,” “build one another up,” and “admonish the idle,” for example (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 5:11, 14) — all activities that send us out of our prayer closets and into the world.
What, then, did Paul envision when he wrote this command? “Pray without ceasing” comes sandwiched between two similar commands: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18).
Surely, Paul writes always, without ceasing, and in all circumstances to cast a net over everything we do. Along with joy and gratitude, prayer must pervade every part of life — waking and sleeping, eating and working, serving and resting. We may not pray every moment, but we do, over time, bring prayer into all moments. We may not walk with our heads always bowed, but we do always walk in a posture of dependence, ever ready to pour out our hearts to God.
Those who pray without ceasing find themselves, like Paul, breaking into prayer spontaneously (1 Thessalonians 3:11–13; Ephesians 3:14–19). Prayer invades the hours after morning devotions as we turn every burden into “Help me,” every pleasure into “Thank you,” every temptation into “Deliver me,” and every opportunity for obedience into “Strengthen me.” Prayer is more than a slot in our schedule; it is the reflex of our hearts, the aroma of our waking hours.
Practices for Unceasing Prayer
How, then, do we do it? To be sure, no one can manufacture this spirit of dependence through a series of steps; no one can self-help themselves into unceasing prayer. At the same time, however, no one drifts into such prayer without effort. To grow in praying without ceasing, then, we can begin by rethinking some of our spiritual practices and expectations, and asking God to train us by his grace.
Disciplined, scheduled times of prayer are not the enemy of spontaneous, effusive prayers. Just the opposite. Spontaneous prayer is like the glory that shone from Moses’s face, which rested upon him after he spent time in the tent of meeting (Exodus 34:34–35).
“Prayer is more than a slot in our schedule; it is the reflex of our hearts, the aroma of our waking hours.”
Unceasing prayer depends upon scheduled times, vigilantly guarded, where we cease from everything but prayer. For many of us (certainly for me), “vigilantly guarded” is a necessary reminder. Too easily, a planned half hour of prayer becomes, over time, twenty minutes, then fifteen, and then a few quick words on the way to work. I may have “prayed” morning by morning, but hurriedly, distractedly, settling for a mere Godward glance when I could be gazing on his glory. Other tasks, many of them good and upright, have slowly edged out the “one thing . . . necessary” (Luke 10:42).
Scheduled, daily prayer — the kind that creates spontaneous, unceasing prayer — calls for godly discipline. If we want to carry on a lively communion with God, we will need to follow the pattern of psalmists, apostles, and our Lord himself, who diligently devoted portions of their day to get alone with God (Psalm 119:62; Daniel 6:10; Acts 3:1; Luke 5:16).
Carry God’s word with you.
In Scripture, prayer is our response to God’s revelation, the human answer to divine speech. We can address God only because God has first addressed us — in creation, certainly, but especially in his word.
Hence, the Bible’s book of prayers begins with an exhortation to meditate on God’s word (Psalm 1:2). The praises, laments, and confessions that follow are all the fruit of delighting “in the law of the Lord” and meditating upon it “day and night.” The psalmists, having breathed in God’s word, cannot help but breathe out prayer.
We will grow to pray without ceasing, then, only when we carry God’s word with us. When we find ourselves with a few minutes to pray as we wait for a friend, we might begin by rehearsing a word from our morning devotions. If we aim, along with Charles Spurgeon, to “put a few words of prayer between everything I do,” we might use memory passages as prompts. As we kneel beside our beds at night, we might read a psalm beforehand to guide our words.
Just as children learn to speak by hearing their parents’ voices, so we learn to pray by listening to our Father. The more his words rest in our hearts, the more readily we will speak them back to him.
Focus on the God who hears you.
Michael Reeves, in his helpful booklet Enjoy Your Prayer Life, writes,
When you default to thinking of prayer as an abstract activity, a “thing to do,” the tendency is to focus on the prayer as an activity — which makes it boring. Instead, focus on the one to whom you’re praying. Reminding yourself whom you are coming before is a great help against distraction, and changes the prayer. (30–31)
Too often, I forget whom I am talking to in prayer. I say, “My Father,” but they are just words; my mind is focused on the activity of prayer instead of the God who hears me. Prayer has become a “thing to do,” a task as impersonal as doing the laundry.
“Unceasing prayer is our birthright and privilege as children of God; we are not ourselves without it.”
We might find ourselves praying more often, and with more relish, if we took a moment at the start of each prayer to remind ourselves of whom we are addressing. When we open our mouths in prayer, we have the attention of our Almighty Father, at once exalted above the heavens and acquainted with all our needs (Matthew 6:7–8). We come before him through the merits of his Son, whose blood and righteousness grant us access to God’s throne (Ephesians 2:18). And we do so through the strength of our Helper, the Spirit who meets us in our weakness (Romans 8:26–27).
If prayer is merely an activity to do, then “pray without ceasing” will sound oppressive. But if prayer is communion with God — communion with this Father, Son, and Spirit — then we will hear the command differently: “Enjoy God without ceasing. Depend on God without ceasing. Gain strength from God without ceasing. And find that he is ever near, always faithful.”
Believe that you were made to pray.
Of course, none of these spiritual practices will destroy all our difficulties in prayer. We have not yet shaken off this cumbersome flesh, nor left the devil behind. But in all our stumbling efforts to pray without ceasing, and at the end of every prayerless day, and in moments when our prayers seem to go no farther than the breath that carries them, we would do well to remember: God made us to pray.
We may persevere for a time in something that we were not really made for — but only for a time. A tone-deaf woman may try to sing in the opera, or a clumsy man learn to juggle, but their limitations will eventually catch up with them. They simply weren’t made for the task. Such is not our situation when we come to pray.
Every Christian, no matter how immature, has the Spirit of God within him, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). Every Christian, no matter how distracted and inarticulate, was made to “call upon the name of our Lord,” along with all of God’s people (Genesis 4:26; Psalm 105:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2). Every Christian, no matter how small in faith, is invited to ask, seek, and knock at their Father’s door (Matthew 7:7–8). Unceasing prayer is our birthright and privilege as children of God; we are not ourselves without it.
One day soon, you will not struggle to pray. Prayer will feel as natural as breathing, as pleasurable as tasting fruit from the trees of the New Jerusalem. Until then, persevere to become the person God is remaking you to be. Ask, praise, thank, and confess to your Father — and find that he hears and helps without ceasing.