Pray Without Ceasing
1 Thessalonians 5:17
A man took his small son with him to town one day to run some errands. When lunch time arrived, the two of them went to a familiar diner for a sandwich. The father sat down on one of the stools at the counter and lifted the boy up to the seat beside him. They ordered lunch, and when the waiter brought the food, the father said, “Son, we’ll just have a silent prayer.” Dad got through praying first and waited for the boy to finish his prayer, but he just sat with his head bowed for an unusually long time. When he finally looked up, his father asked him, “What in the world were you praying about all that time?” With the innocence and honesty of a child, he replied, “How do I know? It was a silent prayer.”
This is a short verse (3 English words, 2 Greek), though it is rather profound.
It is amid several short exhortations Paul gives to the Thessalonians (5:14-22).
But what does it mean to pray without ceasing?
Does that mean we must pray all the time?
What about when we are sleeping, or working, or driving?
Is it really possible to pray without ceasing? Is this an impossible command?
“Without ceasing” is one Greek word: ἀδιαλείπτως (adv).
It is used four times in NT, three of which in 1 Thess. (1:3; 2:13; 5:17).
Always remembering you in our prayers (1:3; Rom. 1:9).
Continually thanking God for their acceptance of the gospel, which is a type of prayer (2:13).
Pray always (5:17).
Looking at this, we find that it uniquely describes prayer.
The adjective form of the word also refers to prayer, as Paul remembered Timothy in his prayers continually (2 Tim. 1:3).
But it also describes the grief that Paul felt about so many Jews not obeying the gospel (Rom. 9:2).
There are a few possibilities for what it means.
It could mean praying constantly, never stopping, always in prayer, like a monk, but that’s impossible—especially if we are to pray with the understanding (1 Cor. 14:15)—so we must find another definition.
It could mean being in a constant prayerful attitude as many contend, but that doesn’t seem quite right, either.
It could be an exaggeration simply meaning pray frequently. This is very likely, I think.
But the most likely meaning, I think, is to make it a regular habit. Make it a part of who you are.
Today we are going to look at a few examples of righteous men in Scriptures.
When did they pray? How often?
What kind of prayers did they make?
Did they ever cease to pray?
We are going to look at David, Daniel, and Jesus.
Of all 150 Psalms, David is said to have written about 75 of them.
Of the ones that are attributed, he wrote the lion’s share, about ¾ of them.
And many of them, we see, are actually written as prayers.
Psalms as prayers.
“Have mercy on me, and hear my prayer” (Psa. 4:1).
“The Lord has heard my supplication; The Lord will receive my prayer (Ps. 6:9).
“Hear a just cause, O Lord, Attend to my cry; Give ear to my prayer which is not from deceitful lips” (Psa. 17:1).
“Hear my prayer, O Lord, And give ear to my cry” (Psa. 39:12).
“Hear my prayer, O God; Give ear to the words of my mouth” (Psa. 54:2).
“Give ear to my prayer, O God, And do not hide Yourself from my supplication” (Psa. 55:1).
“Hear my cry, O God; Attend to my prayer” (Psa. 61:1).
“O You who hear prayer” (Psa. 65:2).
“But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer” (Psa. 66:19).
“But as for me, my prayer is to You, O Lord, in the acceptable time” (Psa. 69:13).
“Prayer also will be made for Him continually, And daily He shall be praised” (Psa. 72:15).
Looking at all these Psalms makes us realize that we actually have many examples of prayer.
In that last one (Psa. 72:15), he says that He will be prayed to continually.
Well, that reminds us of 1 Thess. 5:17, doesn’t it?
If you recall, there is a particular trait in Hebrew poetry called parallelism.
Very often, they present things in two lines that are closely related.
Sometimes they are synonymous, sometimes opposites, sometimes the second line offering clarification of the first.
Here we see that these two phrases are synonymous.
It indicates to us that praying to God continually means doing so daily.
But how often daily? Once, twice, three times?
Well, when we look at another psalm, we see another indication of frequency: “evening and morning and at noon” (Psa. 55:17) – hold on to this.
What can we learn about the length of our prayers?
The longest is 176 verses, but the shortest is only 2.
Doing a statistical analysis of length reveals some interesting things.
The average psalm length is about 16 verses.
But the median psalm length is only 12 verses.
This indicates that there are more shorter psalms than longer ones.
Most fall between 8 and 20 verses.
Yes, many are songs, but they can also be prayed.
The point is that these inspired prayers and songs are not long at all, which is a great indication that ours don’t need to be, either.
What about repetition?
When you read through the Psalms, how many times do you notice that they repeat themselves.
So repetition in prayer is expected!
How many times do we read of David praying for deliverance, mercy, and forgiveness?
How many times do we read that things seem hopeless, but God also saves the righteous and destroys the wicked in the end?
There are, after all, only so many ways to pray for health and for our sins to be forgiven.
The more you pray, the more likely you are going to repeat yourself.
We must make sure, however, that our repetitions are not done in vain (Matt. 6:7).
He was known in his time to be faithful to God (Eze. 14:14).
He had a very active prayer life.
If you recall, he prayed three times a day (Dan. 6:10).
We find in that passage that this “was his custom since early days.”
We might even assume this was his custom while he was a young man taken captive to Babylon in Dan. 1.
By the time we get to Dan. 6, we find that the Medo-Persians are in charge.
The Babylonians had been conquered, and Darius the Mede was in charge there.
He liked Daniel and put him in a high position of authority, one of three governors (Dan. 6:2).
The king was even thinking of giving him even more authority, so the other two governors and the satraps under him tried to find some dirt on him.
But he was squeaky clean, as any good man of God should be.
They said, “We shall not find any charge against this Daniel unless we find it against him concerning the law of his God” (Dan. 6:5).
I pray that could be said for all of us!
So, they had Darius the king make prayer to God illegal for 30 days.
Recall, it was Daniel’s custom to pray three times a day.
This law demanded that one could only pray to the king, something Daniel could not do.
Sometimes I feel like the Medo-Persian kings often signed decrees without reading them thoroughly or considering their full implications (this and Esther).
After all, he liked Daniel. Didn’t he think that might have hurt him?
Anyway, the law in that kingdom was immutable—not even the king could alter it.
Thankfully there was a sunset clause on it, only lasting a month.
Did Daniel falter or fail? No.
Regardless of the new law and the penalty—being thrown into the lions’ den—he knew what he had to do.
Like David, he still prayed three times a day: evening, morning, and at noon.
Devout Muslims today pray five times a day—fine (assuming you pray to the right God) but unnecessary.
You see, these righteous men, David and Daniel, purposefully planned and diligently carried out their prayerfulness three times a day.
Certainly there is an example for us to follow here.
Despite its being illegal, Daniel still prayed without ceasing.
Like any good child of God, he chose to obey God rather than man (cf. Acts 5:29), and he was thrown to the lions.
Of course, the Lord preserved him, but that’s not the point.
What excuses do we have that can even compare? Too busy, just forgot?
If he prayed without ceasing, what do you think our Lord did?
How often did Jesus pray?
We are not told specifically, which suggests that three times a day is a good rule of thumb.
There are 18 instances where it is recorded that Jesus prayed.
Nine are specific prayers, another nine just state that He prayed.
Surely He prayed more often than this, though it is not recorded.
Since the frequency of His prayers is not found, what about their length?
He prayed short prayers.
He gave thanks and blessed food, the feeding of the 5000 for instance (Matt. 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16; John 6:11).
He prayed while He was being baptized, likely right after He came up out of the water (Luke 3:21).
He prayed for his friend Lazarus and for God’s glory to be revealed (John 11:41-44; 12:27-28).
He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane three short prayers expressing His anguish at what He was about to face (Matt. 26:39-44; Luke 22:41-44).
He prayed on the cross, while He was writhing in pain and agony (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34; Luke 23:34, 46).
He prayed long prayers.
His longest recorded prayer can be read in 3 ½ to 4 minutes (John 17). So should it be considered long? Well, it’s longer the some of the others recorded.
He prayed well before daylight until people wondered where He was before deciding upon going on and preaching in other towns (Mark 1:35).
He prayed on a mountain alone from lunchtime to evening after hearing of John the Baptist’s death (Matt. 14:23; Mark 6:46).
He prayed all night before choosing disciples (Luke 6:12).
Yet He did not pray every second of every day.
So did He violate the command to pray without ceasing? No.
He prayed continually by praying regularly.
He had a very healthy prayer life, offering long prayers when big decisions were upon Him or when He was in distress and offering short prayers other times.
He prayed without ceasing.
Prayer is an important aspect of a Christian’s life.
Our prayer life should reflect that of these righteous men.
So, what does this mean for us?
How often should we pray? What kind of prayers should we offer?
Based on what we find here, I recommend carving out a small portion of time three times a day to pray to our God. As I said earlier, it seems like a good rule of thumb.
But don’t hesitate to offer short prayers here or there when you might feel compelled to do so.
And if something big is coming up, pray long and hard as Jesus did.
The more you pray, the more likely you will repeat yourself, and that’s okay, just don’t let them be vain repetitions.
A good place to start is Kenny’s text that he sends out every day.
Another good place is to pray with us during our regular live streams.
Early African converts to Christianity were earnest and regular in private devotions. Each one reportedly had a separate spot in the thicket where he would pour out his heart to God. Over time the paths to these places became well worn. As a result, if one of these believers began to neglect prayer, it was soon apparent to the others. They would kindly remind the negligent one, “Brother, the grass grows on your path.”
Let’s build up our prayer lives, don’t let the grass grow on your path, let’s pray without ceasing.
We know that God does not hear the prayers of sinners (John 9:31; James 5:16).