Ceaseless Prayer

…pray without ceasing;… (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Don: What does this statement mean? It appears within a set of instructions on how to live and behave given to members of the growing Christian church in the Greek city of Thessaloniki by the Apostle Paul:

But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.
Brethren, pray for us.

Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss. I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-28)

The Greek word for “without ceasing” as used in “pray without ceasing” is adialeiptos (ἀδιάλειπτος) which means constant, incessant, unceasing, unremitting. It occurs in several other passages in Scripture (bolded):

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. (Romans 1:8-10)

We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3)

For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

It seems much is required of us. If we obey all these instructions, there would seem to be not much time for anything else! Taken all together, do they help us to understand the phrase at issue: “pray without ceasing”?

There are various interpretations of the phrase. One is that it means we are to be at all times in an attitude of prayer, though what that means is itself questionable. Another is that we are to be always focused on God. But given the demands of life, how could we possibly be in a continual state of prayer? We have diapers to change, laundry to do, lunches to pack, traffic to fight, a timeclock to punch, bosses to please, a spouse and children to nurture, homework to finish, baths to give and to take…. There is no end to the things we must do.

So how can we incorporate prayer along with everything else? Is there a prayer for changing a diaper, and all the other things that demand our attention in daily life? Would such prayers (if they exist) be prayers for relief? For help in meeting the demand? For removing obstacles from fulfilling the demand? Would prayer work like an app for helping us? Or is prayer something completely different, something fundamental, to which Jesus alluded when He said we don’t know how to pray, and to which the disciples alluded when they asked Him to teach them how to pray?

In his blog “Jesus Alive” Steve Shirley counted the instances in which Jesus was mentioned in the Gospels as praying. (See this link.) He prayed alone, in public, before meals, before important decisions, before and after healing people, at his baptism, the morning before leaving for Galilee, before choosing his disciples, while speaking to the Jewish leaders, when feeding the 5,000 and the 4,000, before walking on the water, before Peter called him the Christ, at the Transfiguration, at the return of the disciples, when teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, before raising Lazarus, before laying hands on the children, asking the Father to glorify His name, at the Last Supper, for the faith of Peter, for Himself and His disciples just before his arrest, in Gethsemane before his betrayal, right after being nailed to the cross (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”), while dying on the cross (“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”), with his dying breath (“Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit”), before dining with others after His resurrection, and to bless His disciples, before His ascension.

Shirley concluded that Jesus came closer to continual prayer than anyone who has ever lived. Jesus certainly showed that prayer can be prayed any time, anywhere, for just about anything. Does ritual prayer fit into this scheme, or just personal prayer? Does the example set by Jesus answer the question of how to “pray without ceasing”?

Donald: The educational discipline “Communication” is about how we communicate with one another through speech, writing and other media. If we take prayer as a form of communication with God and with others, then how we communicate in general may serve to demonstrate our relationship with God. Doing good and loving one another are achieved through communication, without necessarily involving a direct conversation with God.

Aishwarya: To me, to pray without ceasing is to communicate with God as often as possible. When we arise every day and greet our loved ones, when we delight in accomplishing some task, and even when we are happy about a new dress we bought, we are in essence ritually thanking God for the blessings of being alive, of having loved ones, of being able to make a contribution in life, and of being grateful for our gifts. It is a form of prayer, and (conceivably) it can be done unceasingly.

Jay: In Scriptural context, the statement “pray without ceasing” is immediately followed by “in everything, give thanks.” But do we really give thanks for everything, or only for the things we like? To me, to pray without ceasing requires an adjustment in attitude away from what we like and want and towards what God wants. This is supported by the statement immediately following “in everything, give thanks”, namely: “…for this is God’s will….” Bad things are included in the “everything” for which we must give thanks. This is difficult, but it seems to be necessary for building a relationship with God. It is a sort-of give and take, which is necessary even in building and maintaining our human relationships. No relationship can exist without it. If we expect otherwise, we are bound to be disappointed.

David: The OED says “to pray” comes from the Latin precare, meaning “to entreat”. But the Scriptural examples suggest a much broader definition of “to pray” as “to live life in a way that God approves”. Until we die, we live constantly, incessantly, unceasingly, and unremittingly, therefore we can pray without ceasing by living a life of which God would approve. Unless prayer is inherent to behavior, I do not see how it is possible for it to be unceasing otherwise.

Mikiko: The Ruler of the universe is deeply interested in our prayer. He wants to know about us and how we are feeling and what problems we face:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Jay: That’s a good quote for what it does not say: It does not say that God will grant your requests, but, rather, that the peace of God, which we can’t hope to understand, will guard our hearts and minds. It does not say “Ask and you shall get what you want” but “Ask and God will give you something inestimably greater than what you ask for: He will give you His peace.”

Michael: I think personal prayer with God may be effective (though not prayer for magical solutions), but there are too many unknowns about other people for prayer prayed on behalf of others to be effective. We can be more effective by just expressing our sympathy to someone suffering, or feeding someone who is hungry, rather than by praying for them.

David: More-or-less scientific studies of the effect of prayer on healing (see here) concluded that it has none.

Don: James would agree with Michael:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:14-17)

Kiran: Primal decisions are taken when we have primal needs, such as to eat. We will take any food at hand if we are hungry. But the rational mind can overrule the primal mind, as (for example) when the food belongs to someone else. A study found that Buddhists, who meditate a lot, tend to be far more rational than primal in their decisions. It would seem irrational to keep praying prayers that never get answered.

Donald: We all have moments we wish we could expunge from the record. Behavior can be a form of prayer, but obviously not at those moments. Prayer for others may be meaningful to them in that it shows your concern for them, but I agree that it ought to be accompanied by tangible help for them.

Don: It seems easy for a cloistered monk to pray without ceasing, in contrast to those of us who have a myriad worldly duties to take care of every day.

Kiran: Pentecostals especially, and Catholics, seem to pray more than we do. However, we believe that reading the Bible and listening to the word of God is a form of prayer.

David: I wonder how other religions feel about praying without ceasing.

Kiran: The Jains pray often.

Michael: But it’s impossible to pray without ceasing. What about when we sleep? Can it be prayer—resting is necessary for the health of the body—is that a way of praying?

Donald: What is the relationship between the quantity and the quality of prayer? If our relationship—our connection—with God is good, like a good Internet connection, isn’t it always on?

David: In previous meetings we have talked about prayer as focusing on the will of God. If the requirement is to pray without ceasing that God’s will be done, then the Muslims would seem to do best at it, since at the end of almost every sentence they add Insh’Allah—“God willing” or “If it be the will of God”.

Don: Why can’t God take some responsibility for meeting us halfway in prayer, by responding to us?

Aishwarya: Perhaps it’s because God is bigger than us. My grandfather was always counting and telling his japamala (prayer beads), so he was in effect constantly praying.

Mikiko: God hears whenever you pray, even in sleep.

Chris: A married man is in a constant relationship with his wife. He may not be talking with her or even thinking about her all the time, but the relationship is always there in the background. Perhaps our relationship with God is like that, and is a form of prayer.

Jay: The relationship with a spouse is a background, subconscious. relationship but it depends upon physical proximity of the spouses. It has a strong influence on our lives. How can we establish proximity to a God who is not physically present? Prayer trains my being to understand this relationship, and Scripture tell us what that relationship should be: Feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, visit those in prison, clothe those who are naked, and so on. But that does not seem like what we think of as a relationship, so we must make a conscious effort to achieve it, and that conscious effort is via prayer.

Kiran: My thinking tends to be chaotic. Some of it is good, some bad. But when I pray, I realize which is which and feel cleansed of the bad thoughts and more certain of what is good. It’s like plugging into the network and receiving a download. The outcome, usually though not always, is that I end up doing something unselfish.

Michael: We know that God is bigger than us and certainly capable of taking some responsibility in our relationship, yet we blame ourselves if the relationship is bad. That doesn’t seem right.

Donald: I have confidence that my desk lamp will light when I turn the switch, knowing that there is a powerful and competent force (the electric company) working ceaselessly to keep the electrons flowing. All I have to do—but HAVE to do, if I want light—is turn on the switch.

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