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23 September 2015

How often ought we pray?

Most of us would probably answer, “More often.” But why?

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

Well, nuns, monks, and people who staff prayer rooms, might be exceptions. Yet even some of them will claim 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. Or 30. Or an hour. Or even longer.

Okay, now let’s stop doing that for a moment 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 have with your friends? (And considering how much of those conversations consist of really dumb stuff, should our prayers become that dumb?)

“Pray without ceasing.”

The reason a lot of Christians have this idea of prayer as a marathon race, comes from 1 Thessalonians 5.17: A-dialíptos prosévhesthe/“not-breaking, pray.” As the KJV puts it, “Pray without ceasing”; as 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 usual way “pray without ceasing” tends to be interpreted: Constant, unrelenting, unending prayer. We get the idea that no matter how much we do pray, God isn’t satisfied. He’s like a mother 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”? No.

Dialíptos means “[one who] falls down, takes a break, drops the ball, skips, slacks.” It doesn’t mean “[one who] stops.” It’s the apostles’ instruction to the Thessalonians to keep up their 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. (Sound like anyone you know?) They were so fixated on the idea the End was coming, they dropped the ball on various things we Christians need to do. Like caring for the needy. Like obeying God’s commands. ’Cause why follow commands? The End is near!

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 so. If you don’t… well, pray the Lord’s Prayer at least. Check in. Keep an ear open in case he 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 those folks 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 lot. (Not everybody. Ignore those folks who insist it’s everybody.) Certain women and men have dedicated 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 prayer is their job. Several times a day—and once in the middle of the night, ’cause to them prayer is more important than sleep—they drop what they’re currently doing and go pray together. They live together in a prayer community, called an abbey, cloister, convent, friary, nunnery, priory, or monastery.

Newer charismatic churches likewise have prayer teams, but don’t always live together, and tend to leave the prayer community to do their day jobs. Their prayer sites are either at churches, or special prayer centers, houses, rooms, or towers. They pray the same things monastics do, but in a more contemporary style—more recent worship music, fr’instance.

These groups will 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.