Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (ESV)
What does it mean to “pray without ceasing?” I once heard a pastor give a sermon on this passage and he interpreted the words in their extreme literal sense. For him, to pray without ceasing meant to always be praying every minute of every day! His entire sermon was focused on teaching us how we can accomplish this in our lives. You see, it is easy to get distracted from praying when you are working on other things that necessarily have to be done. But if you practice at just “having an on-going conversation with God as you do your other tasks”, you will be praying around the clock in no time.
Forgive me if I seem skeptical, but I do not think that is what this passage is about. Is Paul’s (the biblical author) point that we should literally be in constant prayer around the clock? What about while we are sleeping? Can we train ourselves to pray in our dreams? What about when we are doing something that requires our undivided attention? Does God want us walking around with our focus divided between him and our task at hand?
A better way to understand these verses would be to understand that Paul is using a figure of speech. He is telling his readers to be prayers. They should pray all of the time. It does not mean that they never stop praying in the literal sense, but that they continually go before God in prayer (over and over again). Much like when I tell someone, “Stop by my house any time. I am always home.” Well, I am home a great deal of the time, but I do leave once in a while. I do not mean I am never gone.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 instructs Christians to be people of prayer. It should characterize our lives. Do not get discouraged if you have been unable to pray around the clock as some either have or are attempting. It is not possible and it is not God’s expectation.