We begin the week with a question from Zach, a listener to the podcast, who writes in to ask about prayer. “Hello, Pastor John! Thanks for being such a great resource and answering hard questions in this podcast. My question for you is this: In your own words and application, what does it mean to ‘pray without ceasing’?”
Let’s get the text in front of us with a little bit of context, because that really has significant things to say about the little phrase. Here is 1 Thessalonians 5:15: “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always [note that word always] seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”
I start here with verse 15 just so that we can see that Paul’s burden is not just a kind of private piety when he comes to speak of prayer. This is a radical call to counterintuitive, countercultural love. Don’t repay people evil for evil. Do good to everyone always.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16 Paul says, “Rejoice always,” which is not the kind of emotional response one would ordinarily have to being mistreated and treating others better than we are treated. You might be wounded. You might be spurned. You might be in jail if people have treated you badly.
This is a really amazing way of life in Paul’s mind — a miraculous one. Being treated badly, returning good for evil, and all the while rejoicing. Always. Always doing good to those who do bad to you, always rejoicing. This is incredible.
Life in the Absolutes
And then comes the phrase that Zach was asking about, and it makes a little more sense now: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). If that life sounds hard to you — “pray without ceasing” — then he gives a specific example of the kind of prayer in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. It is not just, “Help, Lord,” which, of course, we would pray all the time. I need help to live this way. But he goes on and says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
“Paul’s burden is not just for private piety when he teaches about prayer.”
Let’s keep in mind two things about that context. One is the everys and the alls: “Do good always to everyone.” “Rejoice always.” “Pray always [or without ceasing].” “Give thanks always [or in every circumstance].” The other contextual observation is that there seems to be a deepening to the question “How? How to live?”
Answer: Do good always to everyone, even when they don’t do good to you. How? Rejoice always. Find your joy in something other than the way you are treated. How? Pray without ceasing. How? Be in a continual disposition of thankfulness to God.
So, in those contexts, what does “pray without ceasing” mean? That is what Zach asked. I see at least three things here that it means.
1. Spirit of Dependence
First, it means that there is a spirit of dependence that should permeate all we do. This is the very spirit and essence of prayer: dependence. So, even when we are not speaking consciously to God, there is a deep, abiding dependence on him that is woven into the very essence of our faith.
In that sense, we are praying. We are experiencing a spirit of dependence continuously, and that kind of disposition is, I think, right at the heart of what God creates when he creates a Christian.
2. Repeated and Frequent
The second meaning that it has (and I think this is probably the one that is foremost in Paul’s conscious intention here) is that praying without ceasing means praying repeatedly and often. I base that on the way he used the word unceasing (Greek adialeiptōs) in Romans 1:9. Listen to how he uses the same word for without ceasing. He says, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing [adialeiptōs] I mention you.”
“This is the very spirit and essence of prayer: dependence.”
Now, we can be sure that Paul did not make mention of the Romans in every minute or second of his prayers or his days or his preaching. He prayed and he spoke about lots of other things besides the Romans. But he mentioned them over and over. He mentioned them often. He mentioned them regularly. So he says, “I mentioned you without ceasing.”
It doesn’t mean that he was verbally and mentally always, every second, mentioning them. It means that over and over, always, repeatedly, without fail, when I get on my knees, you are in my prayer. That is basically what I think he means by “pray without ceasing” — repeatedly and often.
3. Staying Steadfast
The third thing I think he means is this: not giving up on prayer. “Without ceasing” means you should never come to a point in your life when you say, “Prayer doesn’t work. I am done. I am giving up on prayer.” That would be the very opposite of “without ceasing.” It means, “Don’t ever do that. Don’t ever get to that point.”
So, the key to rejoicing always is to pray continually — that is, to lean on God all the time and to call to him repeatedly and often. Never give up looking to him for help. Come to him repeatedly during the day, and come often. Make the default state of your mind a Godward longing and a Godward thankfulness.
Discipline in Prayer
One last thing. Maybe it would be helpful to say that I think it is important to notice that, in real life, some discipline in regular times of prayer during the day keeps this kind of “without ceasing” prayer alive. I have heard enough people say that they want to pray spontaneously. They want to be always in a spirit of prayer. They don’t need set times of prayer. That is legalistic, they say.
I think that is ridiculous. I think it is unbiblical, and I think it is unrealistic if they just knew themselves, because it is disciplined, regular times of prayer that fit us for the kind of spirit that enables us to enjoy the hour-by-hour, spontaneous walk with God.
“The key to rejoicing always is to pray continually.”
Good old Daniel in the Old Testament is a great example of this, because we know that Daniel, in critical crisis moments of his life, offered up quick prayers to God: “O God, help me. I am being asked something here that I don’t have an answer for.”
Where did that come from? Well, Daniel 6:10 says, “When Daniel knew that the document” — namely, that nobody can pray except to the king — “had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.”
That was his pattern. He continued his pattern of disciplined, three-times-a-day prayer: praying and giving thanks “before his God, as he had done previously.” So, the point is that Daniel lived a life that combined discipline — three times a day — with spontaneous encounters with God, and I think that is the way it should be with us.
If we hope to pray without ceasing day and night in the way Paul calls us to, enjoying that kind of continual communion with God and that repeated coming to him, we are going to need to develop disciplined times of prayer as well.