I wrote this post almost one year ago as part of a synchroblog on prayer (“Pray without ceasing (synchroblog)“). In the last few years, as God has been teaching me about communicating with him, 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (“Pray without ceasing”), has been both a troubling and an eye-opening passage for me. God has helped me understand how I can recognize that I am in a constant communal relationship with him, which includes communication. I am not claiming to be an expert on prayer. But, perhaps this post will help others as well.
I have been taught many things about prayer. I’ve learned that some of these things have more to do with tradition than with communicating with God (i.e., bowing your head, closing your eyes). Other things that I have been taught or have learned have proven very beneficial. For example, a long fast once taught me how to rely on God instead of material things that I thought I needed to be happy or to survive. I’ve learned how to spend long times of quiet solitude talking and listening to God. I’ve learned how to rest in his presence.
I have gone through many seasons of prayer in my life. Some seasons were marked by times of long prayers in the mornings. In other seasons, I mostly prayed at night. There have been times when songs and psalms dominated my prayer. There have been times of lament, and other times of praise. In each of these seasons, I’ve learned more about prayer, more about myself, and more about God. More importantly, in each season, I have found that God is speaking and communicating whether or not I am listening.
A few years ago, a new friend (at that time – now a dear friend) began to remind me often of 1 Thessalonians 5:17 – “Pray without ceasing”. This is a verse that has scared me in the past. I never understood how I could pray without ceasing. I wanted to pray longer. I wanted to pray more often. But, there was always something that would interrupt my times of prayer – and that something was usually life. Life happens. And, when life happens, life interrupts prayer. Right?
At first, it was easier to simply mark up 1 Thessalonians 5:17 as an example of hyperbole – exaggeration. Paul did not really mean that we should pray without ceasing; he simply meant that we should pray as much and as often as we possibly could. This was a nice, clean, doable answer for me. And, there is the problem. It was doable. This means that I could pray more and longer and feel good about myself. Thus, in this vein, prayer becomes an effort to reach God instead of the grace of God communicating with me.
But, if “pray without ceasing” is not hyperbole, then how should I understand it? Not too long ago, I was reminded about a little book by Brother Lawrence (1610-1691) called The Practice of the Presence of God. In the “Fourth Conversation”, Brother Lawrence says:
[W]e might accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with Him, with freedom and in simplicity… [W]e need only to recognize God intimately present with us, to address ourselves to Him every moment, that we may beg His assistance for knowing His will in things doubtful, and for rightly performing those which we plainly see He requires of us, offering them to Him before we do them, and giving Him thanks when we have done.
In this short passage, I think Brother Lawrence hits on a key to prayer: recognizing God as intimately present. God’s intimate presence is not dependent upon my activity or lack of activity. God’s intimate presence is not dependent upon silence or lack of silence. God’s intimate presence is not dependent upon solitude or lack of solitude. God is intimately present with his children through his Spirit at all times, in all places, in all circumstances and situations. Thus, prayer as communication and communion with God is possible at all times, in all places, in all circumstances and situations.
Through the short passage from Brother Lawrence, I learned about a misconception that I had about prayer. Prayer is not simply a two-way conversation between God and myself that can be interrupted by life. Instead, prayer is a two-way conversation between God and myself that, when life happens, turns into a three-way conversation between God, myself, and life. Thus, life does not interrupt God’s conversation with me; instead, life enters into God’s conversation with me as a third conversation partner. God does not stop communicating with me when life happens. It is possible that I stop listening to God when life happens, but that does not mean that God has stopped communicating with me or that I must stop communicating with God.
I love to sit in a group of friends as we talk with one another and listen to one another. I love the interaction and the symphony of many voices reaching understanding. I do not consider it an interruption when there is more than one other person present. In the same way, God is always a conversation partner – a constant, dependable, trustworthy, and true conversation partner. In fact, God is the only constant, dependable, trustworthy, and true conversation partner. The only difficulty in praying without ceasing is choosing to listen to God’s voice over the roar and den of the world as life happens. God is speaking. But we must listen.
Do I pray without ceasing? In some ways, yes, because God is always a part of my life and conversation whether I recognize it or not. But, in another way, I do not pray without ceasing because I do not always recognize and respond to God’s constant and intimate presence. Do you pray without ceasing?