When I was young, my mother gave my siblings and me 5 cents for each Bible verse we memorized. This motivated us to look for the “low-hanging fruit” of short verses, finding in 1 Thessalonians 5 a treasure trove. First Thessalonians 5:16 states, “Rejoice evermore.” Verse 18 says, “Always give thanks for this is God’s will for you.” Verse 19 tells us, “Quench not the Spirit.” Verse 20 enjoins, “Despise not prophesying.” Verse 22 admonishes, “Avoid the appearance of evil.”
I loved these terse, money-making verses. First Thessalonians 5:17, however, not only provided me with 5 cents but with a question. The text says, “Pray without ceasing.” Three simple words, but what could they possibly mean? I pondered the question: “Is it possible to pray nonstop?”
I was puzzled by this verse, “Pray without ceasing.” Did Jesus pray nonstop? The Bible says (Luke 2) that he was a carpenter for at least 18 years before being baptized by John in the Jordan River. Surely this work prevented Jesus him from continuous prayer, yet this Bible verse challenges us to pray continuously — to bathe our years, months, days and moments with prayer: “Pray without ceasing.”
As I grew and matured spiritually, I began to believe that it is indeed possible to pray nonstop. It’s possible because we can cultivate a spirit that is habitually devotional, keeping our hearts attuned to the transcendent. The Greek word for “without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonian 5:17 is adialeiptos, which doesn’t mean nonstop — but actually means constantly recurring. In other words, we can punctuate our moments with intervals of recurring prayer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist, brings some clarification on this theme in his sermon “Pray Without Ceasing.” Emerson made the following observation: “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” (Thevalueofsparrows.com2014/02/02/).
To illustrate further, while in college, I fell in love with the woman I would eventually marry. That romantic experience helped me better frame this biblical command to pray continuously, punctuating one’s life with prayer.
I knew intuitively that it’s possible to love without ceasing, for the presence of one’s beloved engenders recurring adoration. For me, that adoration has continued unabated for decades.
So, adoration for God can enable you to be continuously aware of His presence, creating a desire to punctuate your days, hours and minutes with the communion and fellowship of prayer. This adoration can transform sporadic and stammering prayers into a constant and characteristic attitude of reverence and dependence on a higher power.
I remember fondly an old 1950s Jimmy Stewart movie, “Harvey.” Stewart plays Elwood P. Dodd, an eccentric bachelor who interacts constantly with an invisible 6-foot-3-inch rabbit named Harvey. Throughout the entire movie, Stewart’s character is aware of interacting unceasingly with his imaginary friend.
The eternal God, our friend, isn’t imaginary. The glory of the sunrise and the majesty of the sunset remind us that He is alive and well. Songwriter Ervin Drake wrote: “Every time I hear a newborn baby cry or touch a leaf or see the sky, then I know why I believe.” This song, “I Believe,” reminds us of the God to whom our prayers ascend, who inspires us to punctuate our lives with joyful and recurring intercession.
You see, it’s possible to keep your mind consciously in God’s presence. Perhaps this is what the psalmist was suggesting when he declared, “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praises will continually be in my mouth” (Psalm 34:1). This may also be what the prophet Isaiah is attempting to emphasize when he says, “God will keep them in perfect peace whose minds focus on Him” (Isaiah 26:3).
• Retired Navy Rear Adm. Barry C. Black is the 62nd chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Elected in 2003, he became the first African-American and the first Seventh-day Adventist to hold this position. He was formerly chief of chaplains of the Navy, and chief of the Navy Chaplain Corps.