Pray Without Ceasing
Can we really maintain an attitude of prayer and thankfulness in the midsts of life's ups and downs? Join us this week as Dr. Marty Baker takes us through 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18 and helps us understand how we can always keep our hearts and minds centered on Jesus.
Prophecy is always motivational. Take 2 Peter 3:10; the disciple describes the climatic cosmic judgment at the close of the 1,000-year reign of Jesus,
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.
In an instant, the Lord, who created the cosmos, will vaporize it to expunge it of sin and the adverse effects of sin. After this, He will create a new heavens and a new earth for saints to enjoy for all eternity (Isa. 65:17; 21:1).
In light of the coming ominous judgment of the Lord, note Peter’s logical counsel in the following verse:
11 Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness . . . (2 Pet. 3).
God’s future definitive cleansing of evil should, by definition, cause saints to deal with it daily so they represent Him well. How are you doing? Is holiness spreading in every facet of your life? Are you making forward spiritual progress? You should be because God opposes wickedness and desires us to embrace godliness.
Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 concerning the Rapture of the Church, which precedes the judgment Peter mentions by 1,007 years, is also highly motivational. How so? It’s life-challenging insofar as believers know they will give account to Christ for the quality of their Christian service of Jesus (Rom. 14:10-12). This judicial reality leads Paul to answer a highly practical question in chapter 5:
How Should We Live In Light Of Christ’s Arrival? (1 Thess. 5:12-14)
You should be living for Jesus and not loafing. You know you are living for Him when your character, thinking, and actions reflect that of Christ, your Lord. Specifically, this eschatological truth should impact, according to Paul, three distinct areas of your life:
• Our Duty Toward Leaders (1 Thess. 5:12-13). When the Lord judges you, how will you fare in this crucial area?
• Our Duty Toward Followers (1 Thess. 5:14-15). Is how you are responding to all the people in your life, believers first and unbelievers next, possess the kingdom principles Jesus laid out in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Do you lovingly call sin, sin? Do you show love and compassion to those who are hurting and troubled? Are you willing to take it on the chin when you are unjustly wronged? Are you known for doing acts of goodness, even if it is toward an enemy?
Third, Paul turns and speaks about . . .
Our Duty Toward The Lord (1 Thess. 5:16-22)
The first rule is clear: “Rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16). A maturing Christian always has an inner, inexorable joy about them because they understand the practical ramifications of Christ’s absolute sovereignty over their lives (Deut. 4:39; Psalm 75:6-7; Isa. 46:10). How is your level of joy? It is intrinsically linked to knowing and trusting the Lord’s leadership in your life and world.
From this emphatic command in the Greek text, we pivot to the next one:
The Second Rule (1 Thess. 5:17)
This command is just as jaw-dropping as the last one:
17 pray without ceasing; (1 Thess. 5).
Are you kidding me? Does God expect me to quit my job, drop all my responsibilities to my wife and children, check into a monastery, and pray 24/7? The short answer is, No. Let’s drill down into this divine command to understand it better so we can properly apply it.
First, as with the last command, the adverb adialeiptos ( ἀδιαλείπτως) precedes the command, meaning in the Greek text, this statement is highly emphatic. Paul does this to underscore that it is certainly not a mild suggestion but is a decree God wants you to build into your life.
The second, verbal command, is built on the primary word for prayer in Greek. As such, it denotes prayer in all of its forms: standing, sitting, kneeling, etc. The present tense nature of the verb notifies us that it cannot be classified as a durative because it would be impossible to fulfill. Paul mended tents, debated in synagogues, had conversations with saints, and so forth, so from his life, it is clear he didn’t pray 24/7. Grammatically, we can safely classify the present tense use here as iterative, meaning it “describes an event which repeatedly happens in the present time . . .” Think of a strobing light on a high tower, and you have the meaning of this classification. The light doesn’t always strobe, but it is on quite often. Ostensibly, this means that when you “pray without ceasing,” you live in a habit and attitude of prayer.
• When you face a challenging problem at work, you silently pause to pray about it.
• When your marriage hits a relational snag with mother-in-law mayhem, you pray.
• When a friend shares a personal problem with you, you pray publicly (then) and silently (later).
• When you receive an unexpected but exciting job offer, you pray.
• When you rise early in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, and head out to the patio, you pray.
• When you get up at 2 a.m. to go to the bathroom and have a friend or situation on your mind, you pray.
You get the picture. When you “pray without ceasing,” you are in constant communication and communion with the Lord. He doesn’t just hear from you when someone at church calls on you to pray. No. He hears from you quite often throughout each day without any prompting. Is this an apt description of your inner spiritual life? Is there any room for improvement?
Paul practiced what he preached. He prayed frequently for the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:2; 2:13), and he didn’t forget to bring the Roman believers (Rom. 1:9) and Pastor Timothy quite often before the Lord’s throne by name (2 Tim. 1:3). We are still talking about Paul’s life impact after 2,000 years because he was a man of perpetual and pointed prayer. May God increase our life impact as we, too, devote ourselves to staying in close contact with Him.
The Realities of the Rule
Thinking about maintaining a life of prayer leads me to make five observations.
One, possessing an attitude of prayer illustrates that you are cognizant of God’s presence in your life. When Jesus said, “. . . and, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of age” (Matt. 28:20), you believe Him. You know He is with you wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, so you talk openly, honestly, and often with Him. Paul’s version of this truth is from his letter to the Philippian believers: “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Phil. 1:3, NIV). When you head to college at the end of the summer, and your parents drop you off and then say “Goodbye,” you naturally stop and offer a prayer, “Lord, thanks for my parents and how they’ve blessed my life.” When you head to Ranger school, you’ll talk with your Lord, “Lord, thanks for this opportunity. Give me strength to finish this testing time well, and help me impact others in my unit for you.”
Two, a habitual prayer life is needed because we always need more wisdom. Life is complicated at times. Sometimes so much is thrown at us all at once that we don’t know what to do. Sometimes we have two great opportunities and don’t know which one to take. Sometimes one of your children proves to be a little more challenging than the others. Sometimes we’ve acted so inappropriately so long toward our wife or husband we hear them when they say we need to change, but we don’t know how to go about it. All of this, of course, calls for divine wisdom. How do we get it? James tells us:
5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him (Jas. 1).
Instead of using your limited mental abilities to solve your issue, why not pause and pray for God to give you some much-needed wisdom from on high? When I finished my first series of golf lessons, the golf pro took me out on the course to play. Whenever I didn’t hit the ball well, I’d ask him, “Ok, what do I need to do to correct that slice?” He’d offer some sagacious advice, I’d apply it, and I’d have instant success with the next drive. Amazing. This is what it is like walking with and talking to God and asking Him for some wise coaching advice. Need some wisdom? Ask. Three, a habitual prayer life is warranted because the Devil never sleeps. Peter tells us this much:
8 Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5).
Your Adversary is always looking for ways to trip you up, get you to compromise, and get discouraged and disillusioned with your faith. Think of Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus on that fateful evening. Instead of prayin’, he was playin’ by sleeping. Later his spiritual and physical napping caught up with him when he denied three times that he even knew Jesus (Matt. 26:69-75). Demas eventually deserted Paul and the missionary team over the “love of this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10). I’m sure that love didn’t start in a major but a minor fashion. Instead of sleeping out in the open with Paul, he grew accustomed to the warm bed at home. Instead of going without food as they walked from town to town, he didn’t want to drift far from the excellent restaurants in his hometown. Instead of wearing a tunic tattered by the wear and tear of missionary trips, he started liking the custom tunics available at all the classy shops in town. Had he been a man of prayer, I doubt the Devil would have done a number on him in this weak area of his life.
What about you? Are you praying’ or playin’ ? A prayin’ saint is stayin’ saint because the Devil has difficulty getting to him.
Four, a habitual prayer life leads to results. Jesus taught this truth:
7 Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened (Matt. 7).
The three commands here are in the present tense, and as with Paul’s command in 1 Thessalonians 5, verse 17, they call for perpetual activity. Our prayer lives are, according to Jesus, to be focused on continually asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of heaven. Those who live this way get results.
Why doesn’t God give us what we pray about instantly? Good question. It would not give Him ample time to work on us spiritually and emotionally. If He always gave us our requests right away, we’d get spoiled (and cocky) and be prone not to lean on Him. Conversely, when He hears us knocking on His door concerning something, He sees just how important it is to us . . . and we, too, grasp this truth. Think about King Hezekiah. When the ruthless Assyrian warlord bore down on him with his unstoppable troops, the king turned to God and immediately asked for assistance (2 Kings 19:15-20). God heard that lone, desperate prayer and acted definitively and miraculously to deliver the king and Judah. At other times, as when Paul prayed three times for God to remove a physical malady that plagued him daily, the Lord informed him that the issue was there to stay because it achieved spiritual purposes in Paul’s life (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Even our Lord prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane for the cup of crucifixion to pass Him by. Still, the Father kept that cup before him so loftier spiritual goals, like the salvation of sinners, could be realized through His Son’s substitutionary death (Matt. 26:30-46; Luke 22:39-42). Regardless of how He answers, we are called to walk by faith by asking, seeking, and knocking more often than not.
One caveat is in order, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 7.
9 Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? 11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him (Matt. 7)!
His argument here is from the lesser to the greater. Since earthly fathers will only give their sons what is best and helpful for them, how could we think the heavenly Father would act differently? He wouldn’t and won’t. Couched differently, as you ask, seek, and knock, you need to realize the Lord who loves you as His child will respond (in due time), and it will be what He knows is best for you. Sometimes He’ll move miraculously and deliver you from a tricky predicament based on one prayer. At other times, He’ll leave something complex and challenging in your life after many prayers, but He will give you the grace to endure it to His glory. And He frequently gives you an answer that will be more exciting than what you sought.
As I’ve told you, after nineteen tough years at the spiritually sick church plant I took over to lead in California in 1989, I asked God to release me . . . many times. When I applied at churches on the West Coast, I’m sure He smiled from His throne. After months of sending out applications, He finally wore me down to consider looking anywhere. When I sent my application back here, I told Liz an East Coast church would never hire someone from California. Well, they did, and the rest has proven to be one of the greatest blessings of the Lord on my life and marriage. I asked for bread, and He didn’t give me a stone. No, He gave me an opportunity to shepherd I thought I’d never see in my lifetime and a location I thought I’d never live. God is good, isn’t He?
Your Lord is waiting to hear from you, to hear your heart’s desires, to listen to what you are facing, to hear what you need, and to hear your praise. He wants to have a vibrant and authentic relationship with you as He did with David, and this only comes when you consciously work to have an ongoing conversation with Him. What are you waiting for?
The Third Rule
This command is as jaw-dropping and startling as the others.
18 in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess. 5).
Really, God wants His children to be thankful for everything they face in life? The short answer is, Yes. Once more, the command is a present tense verbal formula calling for a habitual lifestyle of giving thanks. So, what about it? Are you, by nature, a thankful believer? Thankfulness is the mark of a maturing, growing saint. Unthankfulness is the mark of an immature, stagnate saint.
How is it possible to give thanks for everything? As with the command in verse 16 to “rejoice always,” a thankful lifestyle is directly related to how well you understand the absolute sovereignty of the Lord. Many Scriptures remind us of God’s rulership over all of His created order:
9 The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps (Prov. 16).
21 Many are the plans in a man's heart, but the counsel of the LORD, it will stand. (Prov. 19).
37 Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it (Lam. 3)?
Scripture is clear that we have free wills; however, our free will choices can never thwart God’s purposes.
Jerry Bridges offers this great definition of God’s sovereignty in his book Trusting God,
God is in control; He is sovereign. He does whatever pleases Him and determines whether we can do what we have planned. This is the essence of God’s sovereignty; His absolute independence to do as he pleases and absolute control over all His creatures' actions. No creature, person, or empire can either thwart His will or act outside the bounds of His will.
And because He is an excellent sovereign God, He rejoices in doing good toward His children (Jer. 32:41). Did you get that?
Even when circumstances do not outwardly appear to be worthy of any thanks, the wise, growing saint knows to give thanks because His good Lord is always at work on his behalf. Consider the evidence:
• Joseph’s brothers setting up a situation where he’d be sold into slavery in Egypt didn’t appear optimal on this side of heaven; however, God worked over the challenging, tumultuous years to position His follower to be right where He wanted him to save His family and God’s chosen people during a terrible famine (Gen. 37:1-50:26).
• Ruth, a Moabitess, married to a Jew (contrary to the Mosaic Law, Deut. 7), did not seem to be in an optimal position when she and her sister-in-law lost their husbands tragically. Yet, her choice to move to Israel with her god-fearing mother-in-law, Naomi, eventually positioned her to “just happen” to meet the unmarried and wealthy landowner and farmer Boaz. And he “just happened” to be a descendant of King David. Their marriage, as you know, “just happened” to position them to be the progenitors of the Messiah, Jesus (Ruth 1-4).
Your sovereign Lord is doing no less in your life right now. Did you know that? I hope so. I don’t care what you are facing, be it good or bad; the Lord calls you to give Him thanks because He is at work in ways you can’t see at times and in ways you can see at other times. Either way, He is working in the hardness and the softness.
I remember that after my father’s first heart attack, they placed him in the cardiac wing of the hospital. I didn’t like seeing him in there, to be truthful. It was a hard place to give thanks to God; however, I did live to see the wisdom of God at play.
One day I learned that Dr. Buckman, a lifelong family friend, had a heart attack at the same time as my father. Just a coincidence, right? I had NEVER had a spiritual discussion with this upright, moral agnostic, but God set up the conversation. While visiting my father one day, a nurse informed me that Dr. Buckman wanted to see me in a private room just down the hall from my father.
Shocked, I walked over to see the good doctor. Walking into his room, it didn’t take long for him to get down to business. “Say, Marty, could you answer a question for me?” “Sure,” I replied. “Well, last night, I laid in this bed staring at the quiet room after they stabilized me. Suddenly, at the foot of my bed, I saw a kind, loving man standing there, smiling at me. I knew right away who it was. It was Jesus Christ. What do you think? What do you think He wanted?”
Two heart attacks simultaneously between two lifelong friends set up a rendezvous which moved the one unbelieving friend into God’s family. Again, I say, is God not good? Is it not all wise? Is He not worthy of our thanksgiving in all things? Indeed, He is.
Why should we give thanks like this? Paul tells us:
The Reason For The Rule
I love how Paul answers this question:
18 in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess. 5).
If you are wondering what God’s will for your life is, you need to look no further. He wants you to be known not as an ingrate but as a thankful saint in everything you encounter. Start that life of thanksgiving right now: “Lord, forgive me for being like the nine lepers who didn’t thank you for their healing (Luke 17:12-19). Help me be like the man who turned back to thank you. Let me begin this new lifestyle by thanking you for something tough and challenging.” Name it, then give Him the thanks He deserves because He is the Lord lovingly working out a spectacular plan for your life.