Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pray Without Ceasing
A note on 1 Thessalonians 5:17

The Apostle Paul’s injunction to "pray without ceasing" (KJV) or "pray continually" (NIV) is a familiar scripture to which evangelicals often appeal, but it is also one that often occasions frequent discussion due to its apparent impossibility. How can one pray while going about one’s daily business, for example? How can one continue to pray throughout a day? How can one pray while sleeping?

The standard answer to this problem lies in redefining the word "pray." We are to "pray" continually by having a "prayerful attitude" at all times; i.e., by meditating on the things of the Lord, by silent prayer throughout a day, etc. The objection concerning sleep or other states of unconsciousness is met either by asserting that the mental processes going on while falling asleep continue throughout sleep, by claiming that certain states of mind such as sleep are obvious and therefore inconsequential exceptions to the command, or that the command itself, like "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," is a goal to be sought, but is unachievable in our present life.

Watered-Down Prayer?

The problem with this line of interpretation is that it seems to water down the meaning of the word "pray" (προσευχεσθε) to a level that becomes effectively meaningless. Even leaving aside the problem of sleep, reducing our understanding of prayer to a mental state that can be maintained under all conditions, without regard for what the mind is otherwise concentrating on, would appear to be pointless. The likely effect on those who hear this teaching is to cause them to attempt to engender a vaguely pious feeling whenever they recall this passage. Aside from the fact that this seems hardly worthy of a command from the apostle, it doesn’t fall within the lexical range of the word προσευχομαι.

Although a middle deponent, προσευχομαι has the meaning of active communication with God throughout the New Testament. Out of 87 references in the New Testament[1], six refer to specific and recurring times of prayer (e.g. Matt. 6:5, "When you pray"; also Matt. 6:6, 7; Mk. 11:24, 25; Lk. 11:2). Twenty references are imperitival forms indicating commands or requests to pray for specific persons or in specific circumstances (e.g. Lk. 22:40, "Pray that you will not fall into temptation"; 1 Cor. 14:13, "Anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret").[2] Specific occasions of prayer, by particular people and in specific places or times (i.e., in narrative), occur in 49 places.[3] All of the above 75 references imply concreteness and specificity in prayer; i.e., praying at a specific time, or going to a specific place for the purpose of praying, or praying with a specific object in mind. There is therefore no support among these references to the idea of prayer as merely a "prayerful attitude." If such an interpretation can be supported, it must lie among the remaining twelve citations.

Of these, six refer to hypothetical situations; i.e., to discussions of prayer rather than incidents, commands, etc. These discussions, though hypothetical, do have concrete ideas about the prayers that are envisioned. Lk. 11:1 is the disciples’ question, "Lord, teach us to pray," and Rom. 8:26 refers to the Spirit interceding for us when "we do not know what we ought to pray for," both implying conscious volition in the prayers envisioned.[4] A prayerful attitude does not need to be taught (and Jesus’ response in the form of the Lord’s prayer certainly indicates concreteness and purposefulness), neither is there frustration in not knowing how to pray if a frame of mind is all that is intended. 1 Cor. 14:14-15 (four references) refer to praying "in a tongue" as opposed to praying "with my mind," and in this case alone does scripture specify prayer that is mentally (but not spiritually) nonvolitional. However, it is doubtful that anyone, including Pentecostals, would understand "pray continually" in 1 Thess. 5:17 as continuous praying in tongues (although they might see silent and verbal prayer in tongues as a part of the continual prayer we are to do). Moreover, Pentecostals view prayer in tongues as purposeful—as something done volitionally—and though Pentecostals praying in tongues may not know the subject matter of the prayer, they know that they are praying: they are making a choice to pray at that moment. It does not constitute a mere "prayerful attitude."

This leaves six references to continual or prolonged prayer. The first introduces a parable, in which Jesus demonstrates to his disciples "that they should always pray and not give up" (Lk. 18:1). Here, the two phrases form a hendyadis, in which always praying is synonymous with not giving up; that is, the opposite of continued prayer is to give up altogether. This is illustrated by the parable of the unjust judge that follows, in which a woman "kept coming to him" with her plea. It is not to be assumed that she continuously pled with the judge, but that she repeatedly did so, and did not cease these repetitive requests until they were granted.

Col. 1:3, 9; and 2 Thess. 1:11 occur within the opening sections of Pauline epistles and refer to the apostle’s prayer for the Colossian and Thessalonian churches respectively. In all these cases, it is inconceivable that Paul is praying continuously for these churches (while simultaneously praying for all the rest, writing the rest of his epistles, founding churches and suffering in prison, tentmaking, etc.; cf. 2 Cor. 11:23-28!). These passages are generally understood in context as referring to continuing, but periodic prayer.

Finally, we come to Eph. 6:18 and the passage in question, 1 Thess. 5:17; both are exhortations to continual prayer. The Ephesians passage stresses prayer "in the Spirit" for a diversity of reasons; other than that, it does not shed any more light on the issue. Therefore, in the absence of any support in the New Testament, other than prayer "in a tongue" in 1 Cor. 4:14-15, it is unreasonable to view the exhortations to continued prayer in Ephesians and 1 Thessalonians as referring to anything but volitional mental or verbal communication with God. It often presupposes an object for the prayer to be "about," it frequently involves removal to a particular place or the choice of a specific time. Of course, this does not resolve the difficulty concerning how we are supposed to continually pray in such a purposeful way.

It may be objected that keeping a prayerful attitude does not preclude specific times of more concentrated prayer, and that of course most references to prayer in scripture would be to such specific prayers. However, if it is shown that all other citations of προσευχομαι assume purposefulness, we may suspect that its dilution in this passage is invented to reduce its difficulty.

What does "continually" really mean?

I would submit that another line of interpretation is possible, by focusing instead on the word "continually" (αδιαλειπτως). This word only occurs four times in the New Testament; its adjectival cognate αδιαλειπτος occurs twice.[5] Aside from the passage in question, the three occasions of αδιαλειπτως in Rom. 1:9 and 1 Thess. 1:3; 2:13 refer to prayers or thanksgivings for the Roman and Thessalonian churches; i.e., with objects in view that could not literally be held in the mind continuously. Similarly with the adjectival αδιαλειπτος, 2 Tim. 1:3 speaks of constant prayers for Timothy, and Rom. 9:2 refers to unceasing anguish in Paul’s heart for the Jews who were not accepting Christ. Although one may imagine (regarding the Romans passage) that an undercurrent of regret for his kinsmen could have formed a constant backdrop in Paul’s mind, providing impetus for his tireless work for the gospel, it would again seem impossible for Paul literally to be praying specifically for Timothy (in the 2 Timothy passage) on an unceasing basis, if by unceasing we mean uninterrupted.

It would seem clear, then, that we must not force αδιαλειπτως to indicate perpetual action without interruption. It more clearly refers to action, whether continuous or intermittent, that does not come to an end, and whose regular performance is not omitted. This understanding of the adverb accords with the lexical range of the verb προσευχεσθε, which is in the present tense and the imperitive mood. Although the present tense is often understood as being strictly durative (or continuous, without interruption), it can also be iterative (or repeated).[6] It is even more important not to force a durative construction when the verb is in the imperitive mood, which occurs in only two aspects—present and aorist—and in which the temporal aspect is minimized. The general idea behind the iterative present would have to do with the faithful carrying out of the action of the verb.[7] This would accord well with the context: v. 18 reads "give thanks in all circumstances (εν παντι), for this is God’s will concerning you." "In all circumstances" suggests, again, not continuous action, but repetitive. Therefore, the imperitive to "αδιαλειπτως προσευχεσθε" in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 might best be interpreted, "Continue your practice of regular prayer without cessation or omission."

The implications of this study go beyond the mere interpretation of this verse. If it is shown that throughout the New Testament the verb "to pray" has the meaning of conscious, purposeful communication with God, something that one does at particular times and places, it precludes New Age ideas of "prayer" that minimize this aspect. Evangelicals over time have gone from a mentality that considered prayer legitimate only when on bended knee in a church or in one’s "prayer closet," to one in which we stress that prayer can take place at any time—while driving, working, etc. While doubtless this is true—conscious, purposeful mental prayer can occur under these circumstances—many may have used these teachings to avoid or omit particular times and places of prayer. If Jesus found it necessary to remove himself for private prayer at particular times, how much more may we have that need? We may in fact have substituted a pious sort of prayerlessness for the prayer that scripture enjoins upon us. We need to heed the apostle’s words: to pray (not merely keep a "prayerful attitude") without ceasing (regularly, without quitting or omitting times of prayer). Along with always being joyful and giving thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:16-18), the apostle writes that "this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."

© Keith Schooley 1999.


[1] Wigram, George V. and Green Sr., J. P., The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1982), p. 757.

[2] Also Matt. 5:44; 6:6, 9; 24:20; 26:41; Mk. 13:18, 33; 14:38; Lk. 6:28; 22:46; Col. 4:3; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1; 1 Tim. 2:8; Heb. 13:18; Jas. 5:13,14; Jude 20.

[3] Matt. 6:5; 14:23; 19:13; 23:14 (omitted in best mss. and NA26 text); 26:36, 39, 42, 44; Mk. 1:35; 6:46; 12:40; 14:32, 35, 39; Lk. 1:10; 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28, 29; 11:1; 18:10, 11; 20:47; 22:41, 44; Acts 1:24; 6:6; 8:15; 9:11, 40; 10:9, 30; 11:5; 12:12; 13:3; 14:23; 16:25; 20:36; 21:5; 22:17; 28:8; 1 Cor. 11:4, 5, 13; Phil. 1:9; Jas. 5:17, 18.

[4] If the Romans reference to "groans that words cannot express" (NIV) is construed to refer to "speaking in tongues," it would fall into the category of the following 1 Corinthians references.

[5] Wigram and Green, 16. A few other scattered references occur in early Christian literature—in Ignatius’s letters to the Ephesians and to Polycarp, in the Shepherd of Hermas, and in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians; cf. Bauer, Walter; Arndt, William F.; and Gingrich, F. Wilbur, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 17.

[6] Brooks, James A. and Winbery, Carlton L., Syntax of New Testament Greek (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1979), pp. 85-86.

[7] Snyder, Steve, "GL 201 Intermediate Greek Supplement," photocopied supplement to second-year Greek language class (South Hamilton, MA: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1988), p. 13.

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