Pray Without Ceasing, Really?

So. yeah, the Bible says to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

For the longest time I thought that was sort of metaphorical. What Paul the Apostle really meant was “pray regularly” or “pray a lot.”

Not any more.

Paul was on to something vital to our spiritual formation—something profound and…beautiful.

We can and should “pray without ceasing,” but the reason why I thought is was metaphorical is because of some basic misunderstandings about some really important realities.

The Nervous Pray-er

I learned what I initially learned about prayer mainly from watching men at church lead public prayer.

Way back in the 90s’ I had a group of young friends at church and some of the young men wanted to get better at participating in public worship. So they would get together with some of the young ladies a bit early before Sunday evening service and practice leading singing, speaking, and praying.

One of my closest buds was Chad. He was just a fantastic joy-filled guy and we hit it off. One Sunday afternoon before the usual practice time he sat down and asked me, “Steve, I’m okay with leading singing or speaking, but praying to God in front of all these people just scares me.”

I knew what he meant, and I at least knew perhaps the first step toward removing the fear of the perceived audience, “Chad, don’t think about the people you are standing in front of, instead think about the fact that you are talking the to Creator of the Universe who is powerful and awesome.”

His eyes got big, he laughed a little, and said, “Thanks, I’ll never pray again!”

You see, the problem too often with us taking public prayer as our model for our prayer life is that too many of the men who stand in front of us are understandably more aware of the people in front of them rather than the One being spoken to.

Chad was (and I assume still is) a really sharp guy—he suddenly realized that talking to the God who gives us life and every good thing is an awesome and weighty thing. It is so nearly incomprehensible that it does make the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes pop-out:

“Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on the earth. Therefore, let your words be few.” (Eccl. 5:2)

While we in our culture become accustomed to speaking of the Creator in light terms—and even believers lightly use the phrase, “Oh my God!” with very little thought given, it would be good on a regular basis to spend time with our Lord in Scripture and envision what his word teaches us about people who encountered him discovered.

The Train of His Robe Filled the Temple

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah received a vision of the Lord, let’s experience this with him:

“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is. 6:1-5)

Use your imagination here; from the prophet’s response we can discern that it wasn’t just what he saw that made him become acutely aware of his “unclean lips” and his “woe,” there is something in the very presence of God—power, love, grace, mercy, and other-ness that always causes those who first experience the glorious presence of God to realize who they really are and usually fall flat on their faces.

There is something about being in the presence that is far beyond anything we humans normally experience. Our Father himself confirmed this in his time with Moses. When Moses asked “Please, show me your glory” (Ex. 33:18) our LORD was willing, but properly cautious. “I will make all my goodness pass before you…but, you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Ex. 33:19, 20)

It’s a challenging passage, but from my experience with the glory of God I perceive there is something so overwhelming and consuming about who God is that it is just too much to be experienced all at once.

My young friend Chad had some early wisdom about speaking to God himself—this honor was no small thing. It is, in a way, appropriate to be fearful of speaking to the Dread Sovereign LORD of the universe.

But back to that story of Isaiah’s vision of the throne room, there is something beautifully wonderful that we need to know about the overwhelming prescience of God—something that can make us “pray without ceasing.”

Unclean Lips

Back to the writings of Isaiah, in Chapter 6, where he says he has “unclean lips.”

I suppose in our therapeutic age, someone might correct Isaiah and say, “oh no, you’re not that bad! You should have high self-esteem that your lips are as clean as they are!”

Well, self-esteem isn’t biblical.

And God doesn’t pat him on the back and tell him not to worry.

The One on the Throne basically says, “yep, dirty lips.”

He does so by dispatching one of the spectacular seraphim with a burning coal in his hands and with that Isaiah’s dirty lips are cleansed.

Amazing, wonderful, and encouraging.

Isaiah perceived that because he lived amongst sinful people as a sinner he could not be in the presence of such amazing holiness.

God’s actions demonstrate two things about that idea.

First, Isaiah was right. He could not be in the amazing presence of the Holy One. Sin cannot dwell with the perfect beauty and sinlessness of our LORD.

But the very fact that God chose to cleanse the sin from Isaiah’s lips tells us why we should strive to continually be in the presence and to seek the glory of our God; by cleansing the prophet he was letting him know that he wanted him in his presence!

While to us the very name “Isaiah” brings up something of a superhero image in a spiritual sense, we must remember that Isaiah was just a person like any of us. God called him to do a work just as he does all of us who care to listen.

The Creator of all good things wanted Isaiah in his presence.

That same Creator wants you in his presence too. Starting now.

Prayer is an intimate conversation with a beautiful and awe-inspiring being who longs for us to walk in continual closeness with him.

In order to have Isaiah close, the LORD used a burning coal.

With us, with you, he used blood to cleanse our nasty mouths.

He cleansed us not just to save our souls for eternity, but also that we might have life abundant (Jn. 10:10) through a continual walking and talking with him.

Yeshua the Messiah wants us close—and that blows me away…

Praying Continually

We are spirit-beings with a temporary physical body.

At our essence, we are spirit.

So is our Savior.

So is the Holy Spirit (the name kind of gives it away, eh?).

So the trick to this praying continually is learning to walk increasingly as a spiritual being now (not as a physical being who will someday be a spirit) and learning to perceive our triune God and stay close to him.

Perhaps this is a bit tricky, but then again Scripture shows us a simple reality.

In Acts 3 the Apostles Peter and John were heading up to the Temple at prayer time.

In our vernacular we might say they were “on their way to church.”

They “happen” across a man who had been unable to walk ever since birth, who ask them for some financial assistance.

Now get this, Peter and John are on their way to do a “spiritual” thing—meeting with others to pray. That is important and spiritual, right? And God’s Spirit will certainly be involved in that, right?

But it would seem that Peter and John, walking in the Spirit, perceive that God is directing their path—and that this man lame from birth is part of what the Lord is doing that day. They do not see this as an obstacle to their spiritual activities—but they instead see their LORD as the orchestrator and coordinator for every happening of their day.

So they stop, and allow God to work through them.

The man who had never walked now leapt and ran with them into the temple.

What does this have to do with continual prayer?

It’s just this—if our God is alive and dwelling in us (Jn.15) then speaking with him is as easy as thinking and inwardly speaking towards him.

Peter and John didn’t see a man in need as an obstacle to their spiritual activities—they saw him as the result of their walking with the Spirit throughout their every day. So they stopped and were faithful to what God put in front of them.

That same indwelling Spirit who directed Peter and John to someone God wanted to reach communicated with them in some way—even if it was just by putting the two disciples on the path to the lame man.

The Spirit who dwells in us also communicates to us. When we pray for guidance, the message isn’t coming from far above—it comes from the indwelling God who will never leave us or forsake us.

It’s cosmic, incomprehensible, and wonderful.

I know some believers object to this idea that the Spirit still communicates with us, but without getting into a discussion on the theological concept of cessationism allow me just to answer the question I get from my brothers and sisters who hold the view that all such things have ceased; “Do you hear a literal voice?”

Yes, of a sort.

That’s an infuriating answer—but it is a voice or a strong impression of words that I receive.

It has never been a revelation of something new, it is usually a strong impression of something simple such as, “Talk to her,” “Give that kid all your money,” (Yep, that happened, and that was just all the money in my wallet), or “Look around, this is the last time” (a fascinating confirmation that it was the Spirit and not just my imagination, perhaps more details in another post).

So, if the indwelling Yeshua/Spirit/LORD can answer my requests and direct my path—can the communication not continually flow the other way?

One of my daughters noticed and mentioned when she was still quite young that my “lips moved like I was talking to myself” a lot.

Yes, my lips move and I am talking—but it isn’t always to myself.

Sometimes I am rehearsing an upcoming sermon, lesson, or seminar topic.

Other times, I’m just talking with the God who loves and indwells me.

Continual prayer…

Prayer is just intimate communication with God.

I love being around young kids who talk a lot because of their continual sharing of what is on their hearts and minds. Those young friends who trusts me just talk about anything and everything that crosses their hearts.

It warms my heart to have a place of trust in the heart of a young boy or girl.

When we are in continual conversation with our loving Lord throughout our waking hours—does it not warm his heart as well?

Where did my love of listening to and talking with a sweet young friend come from after all? Is it not the image of the God of love within me?

Get in touch with the spirit that you are, and engage in an ongoing listening and sharing with the God who loved you so much he cleansed you with blood.

It’s the only way to live abundantly!

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