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Does God Expect Us to Pray without Ceasing?

Does God Expect Us to Pray without Ceasing?
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“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). 

How can anyone pray all of the time? Was the Apostle Paul telling the Christians in Thessalonica that they must not sleep, or that they could not think about anything except prayer? Were they to leave their old legalistic ways for another type of religious slavery? Here are some ways to approach the idea of ceaseless prayer.

Meaning of "Pray Without Ceasing"

According to John Piper, author of Desiring God, the Apostle means “at least three things:” 

1. “Even when we are not speaking consciously to God, there is a deep, abiding dependence on him that is woven into the heart of faith.” One might pray that the wordless “meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Some part of the Psalmist’s being is constantly calling out to the Lord, perhaps without his awareness. 

This is part of the relationship established with God when one believes in His Son for salvation; a piece that develops while filling oneself with the gift of His Word. Moreover, the Holy Spirit within a person connects with the Father: “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26).

2. Piper suggests that Paul isn’t being literal; he means for us to pray “repeatedly and often.” Piper refers to a verse in Romans 1:9 where Paul writes “without ceasing I mention you,” which is impossible. Paul was spreading the gospel and writing letters to other churches; he did not have time to speak ceaselessly about Christ’s followers in Rome. Paul also wrote in Greek, where ceaselessly adialeiptós — means “properly, nothing left between, i.e. without any unnecessary interval.” Prayer should take place daily, multiple times a day, and not be neglected. 

3. Piper’s third point is that it’s easy to get tired, to give in to despair, and give up. “Don’t abandon the God of hope and say, ‘There’s no use praying.’” He reminds us that in Luke 18, Jesus encouraged the disciples to “pray and not lose heart. He knew our experience in prayer would tempt us to quit altogether.” 

Paul is talking about “a lifestyle of prayer” which is not merely routine and duty, but which absorbs a person. This is a discipline to nurture, a lifetime commitment. Christians go through ups and downs in their prayer life, where they are devoted to the discipline sometimes but forget to pray regularly for a season. 

Yet, as Joel Beeke writes, a mature Christian finds himself praying a little bit every so often during the day, perhaps using “little darts” of prayer when sudden needs arise for strength or direction. “Daniel, in critical crisis moments of his life, offered up quick prayers to God.” In other words, “our default mental state should be: ‘O God, help….’” 

Prayer as Dialogue

One impediment to prayer is picturing a structured act in a certain place, in a specific posture, involving particular words. Praying “as I walk through my day” means being in “dialogue” with the Lord” according to Beeke, so Christians can talk to God during all his activities in a companionable way. We are really talking to God; He responds or even initiates conversation through His Word, through the indwelling Spirit, and through people. 

This dialogue can take place while we wash dishes, drive to work, or take out the garbage. Conversation between loved ones is spontaneous and comfortable or purposeful and intimate. It moves through greetings, praise, recollections, thanks, requests, questions, and disclosures. Likewise, God invites and accepts easy ramblings, curious ponderings, and deep needs. 

Successful communication involves putting time aside and not being rushed. This could be during dinner or on the ride home from school or while waiting for a child’s hockey game to start. Good communication with those close to us should be purposeful and regular. 

The same is true for prayer life with God. Failing to set time for regular dialogue with God does communicate something: lack of interest in the relationship. There is “proof in the pudding” or “evidence that demonstrates a truth.” Neglecting to pray is “proof” that God isn’t as important in one’s life as one might claim. 

Ceaseless prayer also requires patient listening. If prayer is a dialogue, then both parties are silent at times, respectfully listening. Although God also listens to us, He already knows the answer. In the Christian’s case, that silence can seem to stretch out for a long time, and the answer might be unclear. Jesus offers hope in Matthew 7:7 — keep praying, keep asking, and keep knocking. 

Commitment to listening is essential to a faithful prayer life. Christians hear the Lord in quiet moments of surrender, during attentive Bible reading, or while speaking with friends who are devoted to prayer. Sometimes they can clarify what God appears to be saying.

Prayer Life Hack

It’s not as hard as we think it is to pray; there are no rules, and God isn’t grading Christian prayer. We often hear pastors and leaders say that simple is best; don’t make it complicated. 

Yet, starting is sometimes difficult. If this is the case, the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4, Matthew 6:9-13) provides a way in.

1. Acknowledge “Our Father in Heaven” in loving, respectful greeting. Submit to His omnipotent love. He is holy (hallowed), even when we suffer. Begin with reverence and recognition.  

2. Saying “Your kingdom come” is the equivalent of praying with open hands, knowing that God’s will is good. This leads to a posture of submission.

3. “Give us this day our daily bread” demonstrates “a spirit of dependence that should permeate all we do.” God has cared for His people in every barren place of their lives, often with real food, but what we need more is “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) We must be aware of our need and dependence daily.

4. Ask for forgiveness and the ability to forgive others. Jesus taught “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). Forgiveness and repentance clear the way for full transmission of God’s voice and vision, like cleaning a flute to get a good sound or washing the windows in order to view the horizon.

5. Ask for deliverance from sins and the sins of others, in the knowledge that God is in perfect control and only He has the power to change lives. One purpose of praying all the time is to help one avoid sin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipline, talks about “cheap grace” whereby “grace does everything [...] so everything can stay the same.” The Father sent His Son in order to free believers from sin. Repenting, forgiving, and deliverance point to the fact that our freedom “cost God the life of His Son” which should motivate one to pray and not remain the same as we were before. 

6. The Lord’s prayer leads to “God’s Kingdom.” In the long run, Jesus did the Lord’s work to glorify Him, and one day “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord” (Romans 14:11). Prayer fixes one’s gaze on Christ Who is victorious. In Him, believers are also victors.

The Discipline of Prayer

A ceaseless or regular prayer routine can feel robotic, like “a doctrine, a principle, a system,” according to Bonhoeffer. On the contrary: it should be full of life. “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.” But “some discipline in regular times of prayer during the day keeps this kind of ‘without ceasing’ prayer alive.”

Daniel was referenced for the value of spontaneous prayer, but he was also a “disciplined, three-times-a-day prayer: praying and giving thanks” regularly. “Daniel lived a life that combined discipline with spontaneous encounters with God, and I think that is the way it should be with us.” He gave his complete attention to God, allowing time to hear from the Lord. 

As with any relationship that matters, one must set regular time aside to talk and to listen. God is always ready and waiting for His people to talk to Him, but He also answers prayer. If we want a heart to pray like Daniel, “Delight in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). That is, He will implant a desire to pray.

Encouraging Bible Verses about Prayer

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. - Philippians 4:6

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. - Mark 11:24

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. - John 15:7

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. - Romans 8:26

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. - Matthew 6:6-7

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. - James 5:16

Read more Bible verses about prayer

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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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