Friday, August 31, 2012

Pray Continually: Thoughts on Praying with the Church

I noted yesterday that I was posting some of the application material from my commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians. I am doing this to get some response from readers about the material. Thus, I thought I would continue that today by moving back a few verses in the chapter to 5:17 where Paul says:

“Pray continually”

The exhortation to “pray continually” is common to Paul’s writing and his life (Rom. 12:12; Eph 6:18; Col. 4:2; 2 Tim 1:3). Twice in this letter Paul tells them that he prays continually for them (1:2; 2:13) and he will request in 5:25 that the Thessalonians pray for the apostles. Some translations like the KJV and the NAS translate this verse as “pray without ceasing,” which could lead to the conclusion that one should never stop praying, that every waking moment should be devoted to some expression of prayer. But the word is better translated as “continually” or “constantly.” The sense of what Paul is saying here is that there is no restricted time or even place for prayer. Believers are in constant communion with God and therefore can be in constant communication with God and need not wait for a special hour or location. Moreover, in the context of community life, the exhortation to “pray continually” to a group that has experienced “severe suffering” (1:6) is a reminder that another function of community life is that they pray together regularly, not just as individuals, but as a community of believers.

I suspect that prayer is something with which many Christians struggle. I say this because it is for me. I have tried various ways of praying at various times of the day. Some have been successful, others not so much. Adding to my struggle is the guilt that has been handed to me over the years by well-meaning preachers, teachers and fellow believers who have made me feel ashamed because of the struggle. One memory that is seared into my brain is a time in summer youth camp. The preacher for the week told us that if “you don’t get on your knees and pray to God first thing in the morning then you are an idolater.” It is still so clear: “If the first thing you do is get a cup of coffee, then coffee is your god. If it is to take a shower, then that is your god.” I realize now how silly that is, but you can imagine the impact it had on a teenager wanting to live for God. If anything, this type of approach is more of a discouragement away from prayer than towards it. People need to be encouraged to pray and, as much as possible, to do it together. Using guilt will only discourage them more.

Paul seems to have realized the need to encourage the Thessalonians to pray together. The exhortations in 5:16-21 are given to the whole community in the context of worship. While Paul’s encouragement to pray, rejoice and give thanks certainly can be applied to us as individuals, it was given first to a group of people as they met together for worship. Prayer together is an important part of being a community. It helps to bring intimacy and identity to the community of believers. And it is something that should happen on a daily basis.

Corporate, daily prayer has a long, continuous history in the church. From the earliest days in Jerusalem believers have “joined together constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14). The Didache, the late first early second century Christian document we introduced above, suggests that believers pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (Did. 8.2-3). Around 150 A.D. Justin Martyr records in his First Apology that the Church gathered together on Sunday to hear from the scriptures and that before they partook of the Eucharist they first “all rise together and pray” (1 Apol. 67). In the late second early third century Hippolytus of Rome wrote in his Apostolic Tradition that Christians should pray every morning before they do any work. But if it is possible to go to the church to pray with other believers this is the better option (Trad. Ap.35).

As the church continued through history “fixed hours of prayer” were introduced whereby people could stop several times a day for a few minutes to utter a prayer. Today daily prayer based on this ancient model still exists among many Christian traditions. When I studied in Durham, England the Theology department was situated next to the cathedral. Three times a day people would gather for morning, noon and evening prayers. When you participate in something like the Morning or Evening Prayer service at Durham Cathedral you are participating in the ongoing cycle of prayer that goes back through history to the first century. The church has been praying continually since its earliest day. And when we take the time to stop and pray, whether in the church or at home alone, we are praying with the church and adding to the ongoing unbroken chain of prayer offered to God.

In our time it is not always easy for us to go to a church and pray with other believers. Indeed, it is not always easy to pray with our own family. But even though we may not pray in a church we can pray with the church. When we pray, whether alone or corporately and whether we realize it or not, we pray together with all the people of God. We are participating in the unbroken chain of prayer that extends back to the apostles themselves. But as I said in the beginning, prayer is a struggle for many. So while it may be encouraging to know that we are not alone when we pray, we still don’t always know how to pray. And we are not alone. 

In Luke 11:1the disciples asked Jesus “teach us how to pray” and Jesus responded by teaching them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. I can’t think of a better place to start than with that prayer. Think about it. When you say that prayer you are uttering the very same prayer that was taught by Jesus to his first followers and has been used for more than 2000 years of church history in many languages, cultures and traditions. If there is anything that symbolizes the church’s commitment to “praying continually” it is that prayer. I would suggest that you start by saying the prayer in the morning and the evening of each day. In time as you develop habit and the rhythm you can begin to expand. Those who write on the practice of prayer often recommend that you use each line of the prayer as a launching pad to other prayers. In his book Sacramental Life David Desilva demonstrates how the Lord’s Prayer can help to reflect on who God is, on the kingdom of God, that God’s will be done, that our daily needs be met, that we be forgiven and that we learn to forgive others.  

Although some are naturally suspicious of prayers in books or of using “rote methods,” many who pray this way testify that their prayer life takes on a new focus and determination. Those who would like to participate in the practice of fixed-hour prayer can go to where they will find, according to time zone, the prayers that are being said at those hours around the world. This means that those on lunch at work, for instance, can use those prayers to pray with the church as they “pray continually.”


  1. Great thoughts, Dr. Byron! One of my favorite descriptions of prayer comes from Clement of Alexandria: prayer is "keeping company with God." Not impressing, cajoling, or convincing. Keeping company, as one would with a life-long companion.

    One resource I've found particularly accessible and beneficial in cultivating that sense of intimate "company-keeping" with God is Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours (for different seasons of the year, spring, summer, etc). While the books are wonderful, there is an online resource to the text as well:

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts as you are working on 1 Thessalonians, John. I look forward to the finished product!


  2. The following is from my friend, Renee Mann who was unable to get blogger to work for her, so I am posting her comments here for her via Facebook.

    As one who has struggled with the guilt of doing it "right," I have found books of prayers have strengthened my prayer life.

    I like this quote by Calvin Miller in "The Path of Celtic Prayer." "You are on a pilgrimage, and even as you sojourn-while walking or traveling in any manner-you are talking to God."

  3. Good stuff.
    Ive used various versions of the daily office as a supplement to other ways of prayer. Whether the Roman or Anglican, both bring some good things to the table.
    The Philokalia suggests that the Jesus Prayer is a way that Christ-followers can learn to continually pray. By uttering it with every breath, a person may internalize it and find that, even while not being conscious of it, they are still praying it.
    A question about the verse...could Paul have also been encouraging the church to not stop praying? The exhortation could be stated, "Continue to pray; don't stop." Rather than constantly being in prayer, the idea would be to 'not forsake' prayer; either individual or corporate.

    1. Mike, Yes I suppose you could read the imperative verb that way. I think Paul was certainly trying to encourage them to keep on doing it.

  4. I have felt guided by the words of Brother Lawrence (Practicing the Presence of God)especially when determining the continued conversation with God. He described the frustration he encountered with the prescribed hour or disciplined times of prayer within his monastic life, and found that it was much more productive for his spirit and spiritual growth to talk to God all day long. Especially while he was working. He states, "There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of continual conversation with God. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because God would have us." Talking with God, working for God - it makes a difference for me. I drive differently, answer the phone differently, get the mail differently, etc. Brother Lawrence states again, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” Sharing things with God through the day makes a difference.

  5. I certainly relate to your comment about "...the guilt that has been handed to me over the years by well-meaning preachers, teachers and fellow believers who have made me feel ashamed because of the struggle." Though I don't have a specific instance in mind, I too have often felt guilty that I am not praying long enough, often enough, early enough, out-loud enough, "hard" enough (whatever that means), or with enough faith, etc. It has only been in recent years that I have begun to experience a new freedom and joy in prayer. Like most spiritual disciplines, it only become truly meaningful in my life once it was rooted in the grace of Jesus Christ rather than a works-righteousness. Perhaps that is why the "Jesus Prayer" (mentioned by Mike earlier). and the Lord's Prayer have been so important to me in discovering what it means to pray continually. As someone who is decidedly NOT a morning person, sometimes the Jesus prayer is all I can manage over my morning cup of coffee. Thanks for the post. Thanks also to jsi (comment above) for mentioning "Practicing the Presence of God." It has been on my "to read" list for far too long. Perhaps I'll get around to it finally!