...pray without ceasing... 1 Thessalonians 5:17
Short. Pithy. Punchy. In the midst of other exhortations near the close of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, these three simple words can be glossed over or seen as a given, a spiritual cliché that is taken for granted. In the context of the entire epistle and particularly in its final chapter, Paul's emphatic desire is for believers of all ages to be prepared for the ever-nearing return of the Lord Jesus. Could it be that Paul understands something about prayer that many of us are slow to perceive about such a familiar practice?
I am becoming more and more convinced that there's something about unceasing prayer that is so potent and life-transforming that it actually prepares us for the return of Jesus.
I'll admit, I'm not certain that I've exhausted the fullness of what that something is. I may not know everything about prayer, let alone unceasing prayer, but what I do know is that words like Paul's in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 make me ask some pointed, personal questions. Sure, it makes me consider how much I actually pray. But more than that, it makes me ask the quality question behind the quantity question: what is prayer to me? Think about it. The fact that Paul counsels us to "pray without ceasing" says something about what he views prayer to be, i.e. something we need 24/7, every minute of every day. So what is prayer that it ought to bear an unceasing dynamic in our lives?
LAYING HOLD ON GOD
Let me share a quote that has both inspired and challenged me in regard to unceasing prayer:
Prayer is the breath of the soul. It is the secret of spiritual power. No other means of grace can be substituted and the health of the soul be preserved. Prayer brings the heart into immediate contact with the Wellspring of life, and strengthens the sinew and muscle of the religious experience. Neglect the exercise of prayer, or engage in prayer spasmodically, now and then, as seems convenient, and you lose your hold on God. The spiritual faculties lose their vitality, the religious experience lacks health and vigor.... (E.G. White, Prayer, 12)
For prayer to ever become an unceasing reality in our lives, it ought to be seen in vital terms. Inasmuch as we cannot survive physically without breathing, you and I cannot survive spiritually without praying. Why? Because prayer brings us into immediate contact with God Himself, and it's in HIM that we live and move and have our very existence (Acts 17:28), not ourselves. We need prayer because we need God. Prayer is not a luxury. It's a necessity. Furthermore, it's a constant necessity. We need unceasing prayer because we need an unceasing hold on God.
But here's the rub. While prayer is an absolute necessity, it doesn't come naturally. Physically speaking, we have an involuntary nervous system that, when functioning properly, ensures that our respiratory system will inhale and exhale whether or not we consciously tell our body to do so. With the spiritual practice of prayer, however, we don’t automatically pray without ceasing. We don’t come out of the womb naturally holding on to God with a vicegrip. Unceasing prayer requires intentionality, constant effort and deliberateness.
LOVING OTHERS, LOVING GOD
Lately, I’ve been reading through the life of Samuel. To many, Samuel is probably best known for his availability to God in his youth, ministering to the Lord in the tabernacle as a young child, and becoming acquainted with the voice of the Lord at a very early age. But lately I’ve been struck by Samuel’s example of unceasing prayer throughout the rest of his spiritual leadership into his more aged years. As both prophet and priest, Samuel modeled a kind of leadership that was wholly dependent upon God and led others to be dependent upon God too. In his life can be seen servant leadership, selfless service, and genuine love for others’ best interest…even when they didn’t deserve it. I would venture to say that the most prominent expressions of this others-centered love can be seen in his commitment to unceasingly pray for the people around him. Just look at this string of references from Samuel’s ministry:
So the children of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that He may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” And Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. Then Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. 1 Samuel 7:8-9
Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you; but I will teach you the good and the right way. 1 Samuel 12:23
Now the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the Lord all night. 1 Samuel 15:10-11
Without going into too much detail, what’s clear from the above passages and their contexts is that Samuel led God’s people through intercessory prayer and did so particularly in times when they had royally messed up.
In other words, Samuel prayed unceasingly for those he led when they least deserved it but most desperately needed it.
So what was prayer to Samuel? It was the best way he knew to love others. Though slighted personally, though offended on behalf of God, though grieved over their rebellion, Samuel engaged unceasing prayer because that was the best way for him to love and lead the people around him. Furthermore, he held it a sacred calling and a sin against God were he to do otherwise. Apparently Samuel’s practice of unceasing prayer was to him the best way he could love God and stay faithful to Him.
So what is prayer to you and I? And how does our answer translate into how much do we pray? May we give God permission to increase our sense of need for prayer. May God give us a spirit of supplication (cf. Zech. 12:10) that educates our hearts to regard prayer as the most loving thing we can do for others and a way to remain faithful to our God. May we discover prayer to be our soul’s very breath through which we lay hold on God so that we it becomes our natural rhythm and impulse to pray without ceasing.