October 23, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — 1 Thessalonians 5:17
Pray without ceasing.
When the Bible tells us to “Pray without ceasing” it’s not suggesting that we should actually talk to God during every waking moment. Rather, “Pray without ceasing” encourages us to live our whole lives in light of God’s presence.
This devotion is part of the series: Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians
1 Thessalonians 5:17 was one of those Bible verses that worried me when I was a boy. It seemed to require what was difficult if not impossible. My logic was simple: “Prayer is talking to God. This verse says we’re supposed to pray without ceasing. Therefore, we should always be talking to God.” But this just didn’t make sense to me. I reasoned: “At least some of the time we need to talk with other people. In fact, Jesus did that. He didn’t spend all of his waking moments talking directly and only to his Heavenly Father.” So I put 1 Thessalonians 5:17 in the “Bible puzzles to be solved later” box and left it there.
In retrospect, I would say that my boyhood version of prayer was not incorrect, but rather inadequate. Yes, prayer is talking to God. But it’s more than just that. It’s laying your soul out before God even when you have no words to say. As the psalmist once wrote, “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation” (Psalm 62:1).
Prayer is also listening to God. It’s more of a two-way conversation than a one-way presentation. But 1 Thessalonians 5:17 and other passages like it in Scripture suggest that prayer is more than communicating with God. It is bringing all that you think, all that you feel, all that you say, and all that you do and offering them to the Lord. Prayer is living consciously in God’s presence, leaving open all channels of communication between you and God, even when they’re not active in the moment.
I would confess to you that I have always found this kind of prayer difficult to experience. I’m pretty good at the “talking to God” sort of prayer, and somewhat decent at the “listening to God” part, but living with an awareness of God’s presence is not my strong suit.
This has been true of me for decades. In the late 1980s, my friend Tod and I had the opportunity to meet with Henri Nouwen, one of the world’s wisest and most influential writers on Christian spirituality. While enjoying pizza in a town north of Toronto, I was sharing with Henri my dilemma concerning whether or not to continue my PhD dissertation work. Out of the blue, he said to me, “You have a hard time praying, don’t you?” Now ordinarily if someone who hardly knew me were to say that to me I’d have been defensive, even though it was true. But Henri spoke with such kindness and love that I found it easy to admit he was right, wondering, of course, how he knew that.
Later, when Tod and I talked about our conversation with Henri, we agreed that my having a hard time praying wasn’t about saying the right words or doing it enough. Henri wasn’t accusing me of missing my quiet times. Rather, he sensed that I struggled to experience God’s presence in my life, especially in my academic work. For him, prayer was mainly a matter of being consciously in the presence of God.
It turns out that our interpretation of Henri’s comment was spot on. Ten years before he hosted us for pizza, Henri had written an article for America called, “Unceasing Prayer.” (You can find a reprint here.) In that article he worked on the meaning and implications of 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Here are three excerpts:
Paul does not speak about prayer as a part of life, but says it is all of life. He does not mention prayer as something we should not forget, but claims it is our ongoing concern. He does not exhort his readers to pray once in a while, regularly or often, but without hesitation admonishes them to pray constantly, unceasingly, without interruption. Paul does not ask us to spend some of every day in prayer. No, Paul is much more radical. He asks us to pray day and night, in joy and in sorrow, at work and at play, without intermission or breaks. For Paul, praying is like breathing. . . .
My central question, therefore, is: “How can we turn our perpetual mental activities into perpetual prayer?” Or, to put it more simply: “How can thinking become praying?”
To pray, I think, does not primarily mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God. As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put Him in a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings. Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone, prayer can eventually become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts beautiful and ugly, high and low, prideful and shameful, sorrowful and joyful can be thought in the presence of God. . . .
Henri Nouwen went to be with the Lord over 26 years ago. But if we were to share a pizza today, I expect he’d look at me with his gentle eyes and say something like: “You still have a hard time praying, don’t you? But it’s different now, isn’t it? You are more aware of being in God’s presence than you were so many years ago. God is there, Mark, right there with you. Always. Keep learning how to pray without ceasing.”
When you read “Pray without ceasing,” how do you respond? What thoughts come to mind? What feelings?
Have you ever known anyone who seemed to be continually aware of God’s presence? If so, who? What was this person like?
What helps you to be aware of God’s presence in places such as your work, the grocery store, your neighborhood, your doctor’s office, your friend’s house, etc.?
Using your watch or phone or computer, set a reminder for yourself every couple of hours. When the reminder gets your attention, take a few moments to consider the fact that God is with you. Be aware of God’s presence and offer thanks for this presence.
Gracious God, though I can easily take prayer for granted, when I step back and reflect it is an amazing thing that I am able to talk with you and hear from you. More amazing still is the fact that you are present with me, not just when I’m actually praying, but at all times, in all places, no matter what I’m doing or thinking. What a wonder!
Help me, dear Lord, to learn to pray without ceasing. Enable me to be more and more aware of your presence. May I learn to be in dialogue with you throughout the day, and even the night. Teach me, I pray, to listen to you more attentively. May I live my whole life with you, before you, and for your glory. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Henri Nouwen.
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.