Paul says to us in three brief words in 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.”
How do we do that? If prayer was just an exercise that we go through that required us to assume a certain posture and recite certain phrases, then following Paul’s commandment would be impossible. But prayer is much more than that. It’s not just something you do occasionally, or even for a few minutes every day. Prayer, when “applied” to your life the way God intended it to be, is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week conversation with God. It is a lifestyle. It should be like breathing.
So, how is it that we can put the Holy Spirit’s commandment, given through Paul to the Thessalonians, into practice? How can we pray without ceasing? How can we develop what surely would be a blessed, healthy “lifestyle” of prayer?
We Learn to Pray by Praying
When I first began ministry at a mission church in the Thumb of Michigan, a mentor pastor in the area recommended that I read Richard Foster’s book entitled Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. In the first chapter of this book, Foster shares one of the most important principles (maybe the most important) on how to pray. Here it is: we learn to pray by praying.
All of my life it’s been modeled for me that I should pray. Indeed, most of my life I have been taught that I should pray. I grew up praying the Lord’s Prayer every week in church and daily at home. I went to schools where we prayed together each day one or two times. When I was young, my parents came each night before bedtime to pray. Today, my bookshelf probably has three dozen books on the subject of prayer. But, I am still learning to pray by praying.
You’ll find this is true in your life also. You can listen to messages about prayer, listen to podcasts on prayer, read books explaining, describing, theologizing prayer, all of which can be helpful. But you’ll learn the most about prayer by praying.
I’d like to share some considerations related to developing a healthy lifestyle of prayer. Again, I come NOT as an expert, but as a continual learner … who wants to be healthy. First of all …
Begin Where You Are
Don’t try to clean your life up first. Don’t try to make yourself “worthy” to be heard in prayer. It doesn’t work that way. You don’t clean yourself up for God, you come to Him to as you are and He does the cleaning.
Most of us understand this principle when thinking about our salvation—that we could never earn or deserve God’s forgiveness, and it is only through His grace and mercy that we are saved. However, because of our sinful nature and human frailties, after experiencing His grace at salvation, we often try to earn His continued acceptance through our own good works. There have been times in my life when I’ve fallen out of intimacy with God and have become a little too familiar with sin. At those times, when the subject of prayer comes up, my first reaction is: “I can’t even think about praying right now … I’ve got to get my life straightened up. I doubt God would even want to listen to me right now, and he’s certainly not going to answer any of my prayers.”
The part about needing to clean our lives up is correct, but there’s a crucial distinction to be made here. We cannot get the cart before the horse. We don’t clean ourselves up so that we can come to God; we come to God so that He can clean us up. When your life isn’t where it should be, the first step toward getting things back on track is prayer—talking with God—humble prayer, confession, repentance.
There’s a great example of this in Luke 18. Jesus told the story of two men who came into the temple to pray. Here’s the story: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This tax collector understood the principle of beginning where you are in prayer. He was a sinner and he knew it, so he came to God confessing it.
Too often we find ourselves in the tax collector’s shoes, and instead of turning to God right then, we start thinking of things we can do that will enable us to pray the Pharisee’s prayer. That’s not the kind of prayer life God wants from us. He doesn’t want (or need) us to recite our perceived spiritual “resume” to Him. He wants us to begin right where we are, to be absolutely honest with Him and with ourselves in the process. In fact, I’d like to suggest—even encourage—inviting God into the sin area in your life.
Begin today, this moment, where you are! Secondly …
Be Absolutely Honest With God in Your Prayers
In the movie Vacation (starring Chevy Chase) (I know that I am showing my age), the Griswold’s Aunt Edna dies, so the mom, Ellen Griswold (played by Beverly D’Angelo), decides to say a prayer for her. Now, everyone in the Griswold family disliked Aunt Edna because she was harsh and abrasive, and she contributed a great deal to making the Griswold’s vacation miserable. However, when Ellen prays she adopts a voice filled with fabricated emotion and says something along the lines of … “Dear Lord, Aunt Edna was such a dear, sweet woman, whom we loved with all our hearts, and we will miss her terribly …” and so on.
It’s funny because it’s so realistic. That’s how we, sometimes, approach prayer. We may be tempted to say things that we know aren’t true, and that we know God knows isn’t true … but we say them anyway. That’s because we think of prayer as a polite ritual in which we whitewash our words in order to make them somehow acceptable to God.
In contrast, I am shocked at the brutal honesty of some of the prayers that are recorded in the Bible. Some of the great men of God said things in prayer that most of us would never dream of saying. And yet, God responded to their prayers. For example, the prophet Jeremiah once prayed … “O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me” (Jeremiah 20:7). Can you imagine daring to say such a thing to the Almighty God? “Lord, you lied to me!”
There are many such examples in the book of Psalms; one can be found in Psalm 73, in which David cries out: “In vain I have kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning” (Psalm 73:13–14).
Can you imagine saying something like that to God? David was saying: “Lord, I have been good, and it has been a total waste of effort. You bless everyone but me.” (PS: read the rest of Psalm 73.)
Or how about Job? Talk about brutal honesty! When Job went through his time of trial, in which he lost his family, his fortune, and his health, he cried out to God on numerous occasions. Listen to few of his pleas:
“The arrows of the Almighty are in me, my spirit drinks their poison; God’s terrors are marshaled against me” (6:4).
“Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the schemes of the wicked?” (10:3).
“Why then did you bring me out of the womb? I wish I had died before any eye saw me. If only I had never come into being …” (10:18).
“Surely, O God, you have worn me out; you have devastated my entire household” (16:7).
“I cry out to you God, O God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me. You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm. I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living” (30:20–23).
When I read these words spoken by a mere mortal to the God of the universe, I can only say: Wow! Do WE dare be that honest in our prayers to Him?
The answer is … Yes. You can be absolutely honest with God in your prayers, and for a very obvious reason: He already knows everything anyway! It’s not as if you’re honesty will take Him by surprise, and He’ll say, “My goodness! I never knew you felt this way!” He knows. You know that He knows. He knows that you know that He knows. So be honest with Him about what you’re going through, so that he can help you deal with it. But PLEASE talk with Him about … whatever!
In each of the cases mentioned above—Jeremiah, David, and Job—these men were restored to a right relationship with God and their situation improved.
Don’t Give Up
The strength of this kind of prayer is not only its honesty, but its tenacity. Even if your prayers are full of misconceptions and self-pity and bad theology, as long as you’re crying out to God, He can reach you. He can help you get to where you need to be. It’s when you STOP crying out to God, when you turn your back on Him and reject Him, when you give up on Him … that the doors of “possibility” close in your life.
It’s not unlike a marriage. As long as a married couple is willing to communicate with one another, talk through their problems, honestly listen to one another, and “talk” to God together—prayer—there is hope for any marriage to survive. But when a couple stops working at the marriage, stops talking to one another, stops living together, the chances for the survival of that marriage become far more tenuous.
Ted Turner (the founder of CNN and TBS, among others) was/is one of the most vocal non-Christians in America. He has made headlines (and drawn criticism) for calling Christians “losers;” for saying that he doesn’t need someone to die on the cross for his sins; for saying the 10 Commandments are obsolete, for making fun of the Pope, and for ridiculing some Christians who worked for him as a “bunch of Jesus freaks.”
Why is Ted Turner so adamantly non-Christian? Because many years ago his sister died. At the time, Ted considered himself a Christian, but God didn’t answer his prayer. So, Mr. Turner made a life-altering decision. He turned away from God. Instead of pouring out his heart to God in absolute honesty, he ended the conversation altogether and walked away. When he did, he closed the door to all that God could possibly do in his life. (May God grant him a spirit of repentance.)
Prayer is a Gift
Prayer is that wonderful, gracious gift of God whereby he helps, encourages, and inspires the door to our hearts be kept open. He said, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).
With the Spirit’s help, keep the lines of communication open with God. As long as those lines are open, God can continue to work in your life.
If your attitude is wrong, He can help you correct it.
If you have sin in your life, He can forgive it and help you overcome it.
If you’re feeling sorry for yourself, He can help you develop a more accurate perspective on life, and guide you in the necessary changes.
As long as you’re willing to communicate with Him, He can communicate with you. Don’t play games. Be absolutely honest with Him about what you’re going through, and let Him do his work in your life. C.S. Lewis said that when we pray we should “lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” [Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer]
Finally, I hinted at something earlier: tenacity. We need to …
Continue The Conversation All Day Long
How many of you remember seeing the main character Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof? In Fiddler, Tevye has an on-going conversation with God. He doesn’t pray fancy prayers; he just talks to God. That’s a good example for us to follow. We need to develop the habit of talking to God all day long. He is right there with you; why ignore Him?
Steven Curtis Chapman wrote and sings one of my favorite songs on prayer, “Let Us Pray.”
Let us pray, let us pray, everywhere in every way
Every moment of the day, it is the right time
For the Father above, He is listening with love
And He wants to answer us, so let us pray
So when we feel the Spirit moving
Prompting, prodding and behooving
There is no time to be losing, let us pray
Let the Father hears us saying
What we need to be conveying
Even while this song is playing, let us pray
And just because we say the word, “Amen”
It doesn’t mean this conversation needs to end
Let us pray, let us pray, everywhere in every way
Every moment of the day, it is the right time
Let us pray without end and when we finish start again
Like breathing out and breathing in, let us pray
“Let Us Pray” by Steven Curtis Chapman © 1996 Primary Wave Brian (Chapman Sp Acct) (Admin. by BMG Chrysalis US). Sparrow Song (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing). CCLI License# 995516
It would be good to think of this often. Whether in my office working, or out driving, or taking a walk, or talking to a friend on the phone, God is here with me. The conversation never needs to end. The more we become aware of God’s presence in our lives throughout the day, the more common prayer becomes, the more of God’s peace and power we experience.
Perhaps for these reasons and more Paul wrote, “Pray without ceasing.” You can’t spend the day in ceaseless prayer if your concept of prayer is limited to kneeling with your head bowed and your eyes closed and hands folded in front of you. But you can, if you choose, carry on an endless conversation with the One Who is your constant companion.
Summing It All Up
There’s no “trick” to making prayer a part of your healthy life. You can develop a prayer lifestyle by just doing it. You learn to pray by praying.
So, why not begin today, right where you are. Be absolutely honest about what’s going on in your life, so that God can do His work in you by purifying your heart, cleansing your motives, removing your sinful attitudes all through the precious blood of Jesus.
Keep the doors of communication open. Keep the conversation going all day long.
Pray without ceasing.
Why not right now?