On Sunday afternoon, at small group, we sat in a circle and shared about people in our lives, important people, who may not know the Lord. We shared our hearts for them, and our desire to see God move in their lives, perhaps even during this season of Easter. Some shared passionately, others matter-of-factly. But what we shared reflected the deepest longings of our hearts for people we love.
And then we bowed our heads to pray.
It made me wonder, did we have to close our eyes for God to hear us? And I began to think again about the command to pray without ceasing. What does it really mean?
It lives in a long list of ideas for how to live in Christian community—found in 1 Thessalonians 5, beginning in verse 12. It’s really three separate lists… in verse 12, there are the requests which address how we should relate to our leaders: appreciate and esteem your pastors, and live in peace.
Beginning in verse 14 are things we are urged to do, these things define how we should treat those we lead: correct, encourage, support, be patient, and help them live in peace with one another.
Then, beginning in verse 16, there is a different kind of list. Things we should do—really things we know we should do, like pray without ceasing—but that, really, are impossible. Every one of the items in this list has an exclusive qualifier: always, everything, never, and completely.
How am I supposed to rejoice always? Even in the face of pain, and trial, and failure? Of course I know I should, but I also know I can’t.
And pray without ceasing. Continuously? All the time? No breaks. No peeking. No wandering. No distraction. I wonder if God really understands how my brain works. I can barely pray for a few minutes. I know I should be in continual communication with God, but I also realize—like many—It’s just out of my league to focus that long. Is this really what it means?
How am I supposed to give thanks in everything? Should I give thanks when I don’t get what I want? Sure, but how about if I don’t get what I need? In every circumstance? I know I should, but I also know I don’t.
Never quench the Spirit. Never despise the prophetic. Examine everything carefully. Sometimes I just toss out things that don’t make sense… things that seem far fetched or a little too supernatural. But just like I should not accept these things without careful consideration, I also should not discard them without that same careful consideration. Perhaps God is trying to speak to me.
Verse 22 uses a double dose of this qualifier. Abstain means to avoid completely. So we are to completely avoid every kind of evil. Everything. All sin. All that causes us to sin. All that causes another to sin. Avoid it completely. It’s a tall order. I know I should… but I realize, on my own, I just can’t.
And then there is good news. All these things we know we should do—the same things we beat ourselves up over not doing—apparently God does have a plan. There is hope for us. Keep reading. Because God does not just require of us this complete sort of godly living, He does all the work to make it possible.
The next verses are the list of what He is going to do, and each one also has a qualifier.
Remember the call to live at peace? God is not just a peaceful God, he is the God of peace.
Remember the call to avoid every kind of evil? God will not only forgive you, He will sanctify you entirely. He will make you completely free of sin. He will make you completely pure. He will protect your entire person—spirit, soul and body—and present you without blame when Christ returns.
And, finally, in verse 24 we find that, not only has God called us to live in community, to live a holy life, to be continuously rejoicing and giving thanks and praying… not only has He called us to all of this, but He will make it all happen.
Even when I am not thankful, the rocks will cry out. (Luke 19:40)
Even when I sin, He will forgive me. (Romans 5:8)
Even when I am angry, He will be bring about peace. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Even when I ignore the still small voice, He will continue to speak to me. (1 Kings 19:12)
Even when I am not bowing my head and folding my hands, he will hear my cries. (Lamentations 3:55-60)
So, can I really pray without ceasing? Well, I certainly can’t spend every moment of every day with my eyes closed and my hand folded. But I can be assured of this: When I speak or think or write about the deepest longings of my heart, God hears me.
And I know, all these other things, God will bring them all about. His grace is always with me. His grace is completely with you.
A friend of mine, Mary Armstrong, shared this guide with us, which she put together several years ago. May it inspire you as you continue in prayer.
Click here to view the Prayer Alphabet.