How often ought we pray?

Ask any Christian, and we’ll likely admit we don’t pray as often as we ought.

Well, nuns, monks, and the people who staff prayer rooms, might be exceptions. Yet even some of them will admit they oughta pray more. Why is this? Well, some of it is because it’s true: We could pray more than we do.

For a lot of folks, other than saying grace, they don’t pray daily. Or they pray maybe two or three minutes a day… then beat themselves up for not praying 10 minutes a day. Or 30. Or an hour. Or even longer.

Okay. For a moment, let’s stop doing that and seriously think: How long does God reasonably expect us to talk with him?

Why should every Christian prayer become as long as the longest phone conversations you could possibly have with your friends? (And considering how much of these conversations consist of really dumb, frivolous, irrelevant stuff, should our prayers ever become that dumb?)

Much of the reason a lot of Christians have this idea of prayer as a marathon race, comes from this simple little two-word verse—

1 Thessalonians 5.17 THGNT
ἀδιαλείπτως προσεύχεσθε·

—and if you don’t know ancient Greek, that’s adialeíptos proséfhesthe, “unstoppingly pray.” Or as the KJV puts it, “Pray without ceasing.” Or the NLT, “Never stop praying.”

Never stop? Never ever stop? Is that even possible?

How do we physically do that? Don’t we need to take the odd break for, say, sleep? Should we band together in some prayer organization, like a “prayer watch” or monastery, which makes certain every day, 24 hours a day, someone is talking with God?

See, this is the traditional way “pray without ceasing” has been interpreted: Constant, unrelenting, unending prayer. We got the idea no matter how much we do pray, God isn’t satisfied. He’s like a helicopter mom who won’t be satisfied till we get a phone surgically implanted in our head so she can talk at us 24/7. Because God loves us so much, he wants us to talk to him all day long. Hence all the prayer centers and monasteries.

Is this what God meant by “Pray without ceasing”? Of course not.

You might recall the Genesis story of Eden, where the LORD used to personally hang out with the first humans. Was he with them all day long? Clearly not, ’cause the humans apparently had enough free time to go talk to serpents, and get talked into sinning. If chatting with us all day long was God’s original plan for humanity, we should see some of that in the Eden story, wouldn’t you think? Same as when Jesus more fully explained God to his students: Did he instruct them to have nonstop prayer gatherings?

Certainly there are times for nonstop prayer meetings. Like when the first Christians met to pray for the Holy Spirit to come to them. Ac 1.13-14 Sometimes we expect the Spirit to do something big, so we pray for that. The rest of the time, we pray as usual. And that’s what the apostles were instructing the Thessalonians to do in 1 Thessalonians: Pray as usual. And don’t quit praying as usual.

Dialíptos means “[one who] falls down, takes a break, drops the ball, skips, slacks.” It doesn’t mean “[one who] stops.” It’s an instruction to keep up our prayer life. Don’t take a break from it. Don’t skip it. Don’t slack on it. Don’t quit your regular practice. Keep it up.

When the apostles wrote to Thessaloniki, their readers were Christians who were overly concerned about the End Times. (Sound like anyone you know?) The Thessalonians were so fixated on End Times paranoia, they dropped the ball on various things we Christians oughta do. Like care for the needy. Like obey God’s commands. ’Cause why follow commands when the End is near? Start digging out that End Times bunker!

Likewise they slacked on their prayers. And that’s never gonna help. If you don’t stay in regular contact with God, you’re gonna go heretic on him.

So no, it doesn’t mean to constantly, never-endingly pray. Talk to God as long as you talk to God. If you need to speak with him more, do. If you don’t… well, pray the Lord’s Prayer at least. Check in with him. Keep an ear open in case God has anything to tell you. You’re not the only one who talks during prayer, y’know.

Don’t feel so guilty about not praying as much as other Christians. Honestly, you’re probably praying more. No, I’m not kidding. A lot of the people who talk a lot about their strong, devout prayer lives are giant hypocrites. And a lot aren’t—but it’s not your duty to play “Spot the Hypocrtite.” Just concentrate on yourself, and pray without slacking.

Those who do pray without ceasing.

However, some Christians are called to pray a ton. No, not everybody. Ignore those folks who insist it’s everybody.

Certain women and men dedicate their lives to prayer and good deeds, and function as professional prayer teams. In older churches they’re called monastics, or individually, nuns and monks. And prayer is their job. Yeah, they do other things, but those other things are side duties: Prayer is their job. Several times a day (and once in the middle of the night, ’cause they believe prayer is more important than sleep) they drop what they’re currently doing, and go pray together. They frequently live together in a prayer community, called an abbey, cloister, convent, friary, nunnery, priory, or monastery. But that’s not all of them; many groups live in their own homes, and only get together for prayer.

No, these monastics aren’t just not found in older, liturgical churches. Newer charismatic churches have rediscovered the idea, but don’t call themselves monastics, and put their own spin on what their prayer teams look like. Many of them have day jobs. Their prayer sites are either at churches, or special prayer centers, houses, rooms, or towers. They pray the very same things monastics do, but in a more contemporary style. More recent worship music, fr’instance.

All these groups pray several times, even 24 hours, a day. They pray formal prayers or off the top of their head; they pray the psalms and other scriptures; they pray for all the requests they have, or the requests others make of them. Anything and everything.

It’s a lot of prayer. And that’s not counting all the other prayer functions we Christians get involved in: Prayer-based small groups, the church’s prayer teams and prayer chains, vigils, and watches. Sometimes five times a day, sometimes more. Some of us Christians pray a lot.

And God might want you to pray just as often, and devote your life to prayer. That’s fine. But it’s not a ministry for everyone. Like I said, ignore those folks who insist everybody must pray that often. Pray as you can, when you can.

If you don’t pray five times a day, relax. God doesn’t require you to. It’s a nice habit to aim for, but first we need to start by praying once a day. Don’t run marathons when you’re winded after jogging round the block once. Start with once a day. Don’t push yourself beyond that till you feel ready.