Our small group of twelve (some may not consider that quite a “small” group) met back in April for our semi-monthly Bible study. We delved into what honestly struck me at first as a slightly odd question; but as the research and discussion progressed, I felt we all discovered two things. First, it’s easy to get tangled up in specific words and the perception and meaning we each infer/attach to them. Second, we don’t understand prayer as well as we thought.
The question was, essentially, what does it mean to “pray without ceasing,” referencing 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (NASB). How in the world can we pray without ceasing in a literal sense? I mean, we have to eat, go to work, sleep, do chores, shop for groceries… you get the picture. At this point, we were tempted to head in one of two directions: decide that “without ceasing” is not intended to be applied literally; or, re-examine our definition of prayer.
I don’t like to equivocate on the literalism of Scripture; one of the general principles of interpretation directs me to the most plain meaning as the correct one, with consideration of the when and how of its writing. Unless a passage is apparently figurative, I will start with the literal meaning and let the rest of the Bible redirect me via the Holy Spirit as needed. So, I picked the second direction. What is prayer? How does God’s word define it, describe it; how do those through whom the Lord moved to get His word written live praying “without ceasing?” What are all the “variables” (sorry, I’m an engineer by degree) in prayer, like location, posture, audible distractions, out loud vs. silent, individual vs. corporate? Are any of these more or less effective or valuable?
Contemplating these, there seemed to emerge the idea that there’s a type of prayer for every situation. But in my time of thinking and praying for insight, it occurred to me that this entire approach indicates a misapprehension, or at least confusion, of the purpose of prayer.
A brother and I wrestled with this again a couple of weeks ago during our weekly Monday evening meeting. Why don’t we pray more regularly? Or perhaps we do, but why not more intently, more honestly? We both acknowledged that our tendency is to pray when one of our “wheels” is squeaking; there’s a problem and we need help, and we want to obtain it with a minimum of commitment on our part. When life is cooking along, when difficulties don’t exceed our expectation, prayer somehow becomes less urgent. As we explored this, the same realization hit: we’ve missed the purpose, the reason for prayer.
If asked what that purpose is, what would you say? I’ve commonly considered and heard others describe prayer as an opportunity to get help from God, to worship God, even to calm ourselves or prepare for a challenging event. I agree wholeheartedly that these are reasons why we choose to pray, but are any of these the purpose? Are they not instead the effects, the results, of prayer?
My friend and I batted this back and forth for awhile and came to the conclusion that none of these was truly the purpose for prayer. Then the Holy Spirit brought us to the point of seeing it: the purpose of prayer is to be with God. That’s it. He wants me to be with Him, because in being with Him I become like Him, and I need that desperately, way more than I need to do well in an interview, perform at work, handle a crisis. Prayer is spending time with the One who loves me more than anyone else.
I was floored by this simple understanding, though it seems obvious, because now I see why we struggled so with the "pray without ceasing" instruction in our small group. God just wants me to spend time with Him because He loves me and desires me. And He knows that spending time with Him is going to bring me peace, make me a more godly man, equip me to deal with life in the world, all good gifts He loves to give! The Holy Spirit initiates this call to us constantly, every moment of every day. He draws us, arms waiting. Whether we are able to respond out loud or not, in a group or alone, on our knees or in any position, we must respond and do so genuinely. As for myself, I honestly find it nearly impossible to do this in an out-loud, liturgy-led group setting, and I'm not sure yet whether that's a weakness in me or something else.
The effects or results mentioned earlier–worship, help, comfort, strength, peace–come about when my heart is intimate with His. But when I treat prayer in my life as a tool, as a resource to help me accomplish my goals, and when I decide to schedule prayer along with all my other important tasks, then the road to futility and frustration lies before me. I’ve taken a sacred gift and relegated it to equal status with all my other desires, including those of the sinful nature. In that moment, I’ve begun using God.
Even now, as I type these words, I feel my heart break. Forgive me, Father, for treating you as a means to accomplish my plans. I’m face to face with my flesh again, stunned. How could I think of Him that way, after all He’s accomplished in my life?
Yet, He has given so much grace my heart is overflowing, even now as I repent. I think of my sons and daughter; how more than wanting them to say the right words or do the good thing, I want them. In the same way, He desires me, even jealously as His word describes in Deuteronomy 4:24. In my new heart, I want to desire Him with the same intensity, longing to be with Him, needing intimacy with Him more than breath or water or food. More than success or happiness or physical comfort. I want to desire Him so intensely that prayer is not something I “squeeze” into my daily busyness but rather becomes like breathing. I want to energize our relationship so it becomes a deep breath, an embrace unreleased.