“Pray without ceasing.” I Thessalonians 5:17
The difference between the words “continuous” and “continual” is important in understanding this brief text. To do something continually, is to start and stop on a regular basis. To do something continuously, however, is to start and never stop. The inspired command to the church in Thessalonica and to the church today is not unto a continual activity that stops periodically, but unto a continuous, non-stop activity. Pray without ceasing! What a command! Is that humanly possible?
Many weaken the force of this text by calling it a hyperbole—a figure of speech that exaggerates a point for emphasis and, therefore, is not to be taken literally. In that case, all we have here is Paul telling us that we need to pray more often. This softening of the command to unceasing prayer is probably due to the uneasiness felt when we compare our lack of prayer life to such a seemingly impossible calling. We struggle enough in our bustling busyness to pray for mere minutes a day, and here we find that prayer ought to be a round-the-clock pursuit. That cannot be, can it? Yes, it can. Because of our sinful nature, there is really no command of God that we can obey perfectly. This one is no exception. But our inability to obey is no basis for diminishing this demand of unending prayer.
“Pray!” Jehovah, our covenant God, says. He means, “Communicate with Me while conscious of My presence!” As a true friend desires face-to-face communication with his beloved, so God desires the same with His covenant people. While we may not and cannot picture the face of God, prayer involves awareness of His eyes looking in favor upon us, and His ears open to our cries. With a mindfulness of His amiable presence, we communicate with God. That is the essence of prayer.
Normally, we communicate with words—words in our hearts and minds that we say both audibly and inaudibly. However, though the clearest communication is through words, we know from our interactions with spouse, children, and other loved ones that we communicate in a variety of ways. It is not only the content of our speech that communicates, but additionally, the manner of our speech. The tone, the facial expression, the eye contact, the body language all send messages. We say that actions sometimes speak louder than words. And so it is, that prayer to God, while often with words, may be through sighs and groans that we ourselves do not fully understand (see), with upward looks and by simple cries of “Help, Lord!”
Prayer not only may be through non-verbal means, but prayer should be such. This is how we “pray without ceasing.” Prayer becomes a way of life. Not needing to fold our hands and close our eyes, we continue through our days and nights with the consciousness of God’s face before us. Before the face of God (coram Deo in the Latin), we make every movement of our body and soul communication with God. Whether working, playing, or resting, life becomes one continuous prayer, until such covenanting with God is perfected in glory.
Such non-stop prayer may be illustrated in our advanced technological age by Skype, Facetime, or some other video-calling program or app. Ceaseless prayer is like having ceaseless video communication with God, with one difference: while He can see our every movement, we cannot see His. With this realization, we make our lives a constant communication of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication to the omnipresent God.
The calling to pray without ceasing is not a requirement to a live in monk-like seclusion, with our eyes closed and hands folded, doing nothing else in life except for private, focused prayer with words. If this is the meaning, then yes, the text would be physically and mentally impossible, not only for us but also for Jesus when He lived on this earth. In fact, if our life on earth consisted only of constructing sentences to God on our knees, we would be disobeying our Master in heaven who requires a much greater variety of work and service to Him. Therefore, let us live vibrant, full lives, directing every part as another meaningful expression of prayer to God.
But let us not abuse this idea either. Our naturally deceptive hearts can skew the holiest of doctrines to excuse our sins. Let us not take this teaching of ceaseless prayer to mean that there is no need for set times of prayer in worship and devotions. Some imagine that since they pray continuously in the manner formerly described, there is no need to pray any other way.
But can we not sense and have we not experienced the reciprocal relationship between these forms of prayer? How do we jumpstart our day of ceaseless prayer except through focused, private prayer in the morning? How do we help ourselves and families in ceaseless prayer unless we have family devotions? How do we remember God’s presence ceaselessly unless we frequent His house of prayer? And what enriches the content of prayer in worship and devotions but prayer without ceasing? There is a mutual effect between ceaseless prayer and formal prayer.
The calling to unceasing prayer is for all believers. We might wrongly imagine that such holy living is only for those who have matured to a high degree of spirituality. But what we find inis a command to a church that was barely half a year old—recently converted from idolatry to serve Christ. Yet Paul does not shy away from calling these young Christians to such a life of prayer. This is the holy life every believer, young or old, must pursue in ardent love and thanks to God for gracious salvation.
In this way of ceaseless prayer, God by His Spirit also helps us in the battle against sin. The constant consciousness of God’s face in such unceasing prayer makes it more difficult to sin. How can we sin while praying before the face of God? When we “pray without ceasing,” we are led also to “rejoice evermore” and “in everything give thanks,” which “…is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” ().
This life of prayer is not only a command; it is a privilege. In our struggle, let us not forget that ceaseless prayer is indeed a blessing of salvation! On our own, we sinners have no ability to pray, nor do we even have the right to approach a holy God. But Christ by His death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven earned us that right and sends His Spirit so we are able to enjoy sweet communion with God—not only periodically but without ceasing! “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” ().