“Pray without ceasing.”
It is one of the most familiar verses of the Bible. It comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, but you know the words even if you don’t know the chapter and verse. They’re so common in American vernacular that they almost take on a secular form of their own. They’re applied throughout our culture, used as inspiration that to turn to God is to find a solution for hardships and troubles.
1 Thessalonians 5:17 is so popular that even the famed literary giant Ralph Waldo Emerson chimed in, saying, “It is not only when we audibly and in form, address our petitions to the Deity that we pray. We pray without ceasing. Every secret wish is a prayer. Every house is a church; the corner of every street is a closet of devotion.”
It’s interesting, though, that the verses immediately preceding and following 1 Thessalonians 5:17 are somewhat less familiar to most of us.
1 Thessalonians 5:16 says, “Rejoice evermore.”
And 1 Thessalonians 5:18 begins, “In every thing give thanks.”
1 Thessalonians 5 is the final chapter of the Apostle Paul’s first epistle to the church in Thessalonica, written about 50 A.D. Paul spent the first part of the chapter warning the church to be vigilant because “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Then he devoted the last part of the chapter with greetings and salutations, words of wisdom for the young church. It is this part of 1 Thessalonians 5 that is a favorite of Sunday School teachers everywhere who are assigning memory verses to their young pupils.
Pray without ceasing.
There are a lot of essays that have been written by a lot of people who are very well-schooled in biblical texts — whether formally or informally — about what it means to “pray without ceasing.” I’m a nobody, so I’m definitely not qualified to go down that road. Suffice to say that “pray without ceasing” means to be persistently in prayer. It means exactly what the Apostle Peter said in 1 Peter 5:7, “Casting all your care upon him.” There’s much more to be said, but it’s best left to those qualified to say it.
What strikes me as interesting, though, and something that I’d never given any thought to until the pastor used this as his text a few weeks ago and pointed it out, is the chronological order of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 … or, more specifically, of the texts of the verses that sandwich 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.”
“Rejoice evermore.” “In every thing give thanks.”
It’s easy to rejoice and give thanks when life is good — when prayers have been answered. We know, of course, that prayer isn’t just asking of God; it is to dwell on Godly things, it is thanksgiving, it is to go through daily routines with a spirit of dependence that humbles us to our core. But maybe the most recognizable prayers are those that start, “Oh God, help…”
And therein, perhaps, is the essence of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. If we’re going to go to God to plead for his intercession on our behalf, and on behalf of our friends and family and neighbors, we have to be prepared to accept what we would consider to be answered prayers along with what we would consider to be unanswered prayers … and to recognize that even if the answer to our prayers isn’t the answer we want, or even if the answer is a long time coming, God is still God.
The single most difficult thing for any person to do is to accept that, as Isaiah 55:8 proclaims, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” All of us have been in situations where it’s almost impossible to comprehend that God’s will should prevail. It’s easy to pray, as Jesus did, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” It’s another thing entirely to pray it and mean it.
It’s hard because it’s human nature, even for Christians, even for the truest saints of God, to pray selfishly. We pray because we want. Some of our wants are more humble than other wants. We want health, we want healing; we want wealth, we want subsistence. We want to cling to those we care about who are on the verge of slipping from this life. We want better for our children. And we want all these things for those around us. But, at the end of the day, it still boils down to what we want. It boils down to us. It’s not about us; it’s about God. As the evangelist R.A. Torrey said, “The chief purpose of prayer is that God may be glorified in the answer.”
There are two songs that come to mind here. One is a gospel song. The other is definitely not.
Brad Paisley sings, “Make no mistake, every prayer you pray / Gets answered, even though / Sometimes, the answer is no.” There’s nothing about that song that makes it a praise-and-worship song. It is a secular song by any measure. But there’s truth in the chorus.
Laura Storey sings a song that is a praise-and-worship song. It is one of my favorites, and delivers a powerful message: “We pray for healing, for prosperity / We pray for your mighty hand to ease our suffering / All the while, you hear each spoken need / Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things.” Later, in the chorus, she asks, “What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?”
So Paul didn’t say, “In every thing that’s good give thanks.” He said, “In every thing give thanks.” He didn’t say, “Rejoice when we feel like it.” He said, “Rejoice evermore.”
No, I don’t think it’s coincidence that those verses precede and follow his demand that the church “pray without ceasing.”
And maybe when we’ve reached that place where we can rejoice and give thanks regardless of the answers to our prayers, maybe we can realize that no matter the answers, it is a privilege simply to pray in faith. And maybe then we can comprehend another teaching of the Apostle Paul, to the church in Philippi … and who better to write it than Paul, who was imprisoned when he penned these words in Philippians 4:7 — “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”