Pray Without Ceasing! Pray Without Ceasing? Really?

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.

A candid portrait of author Henri Nouwen by Frank HamiltonIn 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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One thought on “Pray Without Ceasing! Pray Without Ceasing? Really?

  1. Terry Lovelette says:

    Thank you, Mark. I appreciate all of your posts and insightful messages of hope. Keep them coming and thank you for sharing God’s Grace.

    A poem I wrote in the recent past. I offer it to you as a form of gratitude. All the best-Terry

    The Dawning at Lake Umbagog

    In the pre-dawn hour, the world is still
    Save for a few creatures, there is a quiet hush
    As the first rays of sun tickle the night sky
    Songbirds rustle in their nests

    It starts with a subtle peep
    A solitary bird sounds the prelude
    In rhythmic fashion others join
    An avian concerto creates a dawn chorus

    Unique to the day
    Harmonic tones echo in the woods
    A peek out of my tent invites me in
    The calm lake glows a peaceful aura

    Drawn by a kaleidoscope of colors
    I step into a world of solitude
    Perched on a rock at the end of a point
    The daily ritual unfolds before my eyes

    Light flows from beyond the distant mountain
    It touches the day
    In the hands of an artisan
    A vivid display of beauty is formed

    Mist from the shoreline dances across the water
    Twisting toward the sun, shapes appear
    Morphing and pulsating in the gentle breeze
    I delight in this recital of life

    With a flick of its tail a fish crests the water’s surface
    The Mayfly hatch brings opportunity
    Ripples emanate from the spot
    In perfect cadence with the evolving day, they flow

    An eagle flies toward the dawn
    Gracefully making its way to a favorite fishing spot
    In the calm of the moment
    I hear the swoosh of his wings and sense the beat of its heart

    In a state of the presence scenes unfold as they are
    Some are meant to be felt
    When we absorb those feelings
    We then have a chance to express their impact in words

    I don’t pretend to know what is good for anyone else
    Though I am grateful to know what is good for me
    Every now and again, we get a glimpse of what’s possible
    The universe presents us gifts everyday

    All is creation
    Inside of all is change
    A state of flux in perpetual motion
    Within the churn comes transformation

    As we navigate the daily chaos
    It can be difficult to find peace
    Yet a prayer unfolds in every sunrise
    Being witness to that daily gift opens a gateway

    With just a whisker of faith an ember sparks inside
    Hope for another day can be carried within
    The noise of the world melts away
    In its place a deep appreciation for life fills the void

    Equanimity grows when tranquil seeds are sown
    In turn we get to reap a balanced existence where shadow and light coexist
    The volume from the noisy world is reduced
    And the voice of a perennial philosophy whispers direction

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