By J.R. Miller
"Pray without ceasing." 1 Thessalonians 5:17
What place should prayer have in a Christian's life? Should we pray little or much? Should we confine our praying to certain days--Sundays, for example; or to certain hours or moments of our days--mornings, for example, than evenings? Should we pray only about certain things, certain affairs, certain portions of our life? Are there things we have no permission to take to God in prayer? Should we pray only in certain places--in our accustomed closet or room at home, or in places set apart for divine worship? Is there any place, where we may not pray?
There is a verse of Paul's which seems to answer all these questions. "Pray without ceasing." That means, pray always and everywhere. There is nothing we may not take to God in prayer--asking for His help. There is no hour of the day when we may not turn to God--and find Him ready to hear and bless us. The gates of prayer are never shut, by day or by night.
There is no place where we may not pray. God is as accessible to us on the street, in the desert, in the midst of a great storm at sea, or in the most debased spot of the earth--as He is in our own sacred closet of prayer, in a consecrated building, or at the Lord's table. "Pray without ceasing."
But how is it possible to obey this teaching? Are we to spend all our time on our knees? This certainly is not the meaning. We have our duties, our tasks, our work to do. Suppose that men should spend all their days at home, praying, for a month, for a year--what would become of their business? What would their families do? Suppose that women should give up all their duties--their household duties, their social duties, all the work that now fills their hands--and literally pray without ceasing the remainder of their days, would they please God?
Evidently we are not to interpret the lesson that way. We are put here to work. "Six days shall you labor." Our duties fill our hands every hour. We sin against God, when we neglect any of these. I can conceive even of a kind of praying that would be sinful--praying when some imperative task demands attention, when someone needs help, neglecting a duty of love, that you may attend some religious service or keep some appointment for devotion. There are times when prayer is not the duty of the hour. What, then, are we to understand by the counsel, "Pray without ceasing"?
For one thing, prayer is part of the expression of the Christian's very life. One who does not pray--is not a Christian. He may be a moral man. A gentleman said the other day of a certain prominent business man, "He is the most moral and the least religious man I ever knew." He meant that the man is honest, honorable, just, generous, charitable, very careful and exact in all his relations to men--but that toward God he is utterly indifferent, never thinks of Him, never recognizes Him in any way, never prays. So far as he is concerned, there is no God. This man would not himself admit as much. He would say he believes in God. But practically, he is an agnostic or an atheist. He is utterly without true religion, which means knowing God, recognizing God as Father and Friend, living in personal relationship with God.
When the Lord would make Ananias understand that Saul the persecutor, was now a Christian, he said, "Behold he prays." When a man begins really to pray--there is no doubt of his conversion. Saul prayed a great deal before he accepted Christ. He was a rigid Pharisee and was very religious, so far as forms of religion were concerned. But he had never prayed before--as he prayed that day after he had seen Christ. The Christian should know God intimately. One writes, "I talk to God as to a companion, in prayer and praise, and our communion is joy." That is true religion, and prayer is the heart of it! It is not a matter of times and places. Wherever we go--we are with God. Whatever we are doing--our hearts are going out to Him.
"Prayer is the Christian's vital breath--the Christian's native air."
God is our Father and we are His children. We can easily think of the child of a good, noble, and loving father, who is entirely out of relations with that father. One was telling of a young man who has not spoken to his father for five years. He is estranged from him. The father is a most worthy man--the fault is not his. He has a heart of love--he loves his estranged son and longs to give him back his place of confidence and honor. But all these years the son has lived as if he had no father in the world.
God is our Father, with infinite love in His heart for us, ready and eager to help us and bless us in every way. We can cut ourselves off from Him if we will. Religion, faith, is putting ourselves in the children's place toward God. We do not then pray to make God willing to give good things to us--He is always willing to give. The Master said: "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?" Prayer then, is going to God, believing in His love for us, knowing that He wants to help us, and asking Him as children ask their parents for the things we need.
The true child always has the child's place in the home. He is not granted the privileges of a child only on certain days or at certain hours. To pray without ceasing--is to be always in happy relations of love with our Father.
If we always keep ourselves in the relation of children to God--loving, obedient, trustful, submissive to His will--we shall really pray without ceasing. Every act--will then be a prayer. Every word--will be a song of praise. All we do--will then be reverent worship.
Again, to pray without ceasing is to do everything with prayer. This does not mean that every piece of work we undertake, must be begun with a formal act of prayer--stopping, kneeling down, and offering a spoken petition. To pray without ceasing is--to have the heart always in converse with God. It is to live so near to God--that we can talk with Him wherever we go, ask Him questions--and get His answers, seek His help, His wisdom, His guidance--and obtain what we ask.
There is no habit that we should more sedulously form, than that of talking with God about everything we do. We are often told that we should begin every day with prayer. That is very needful and beautiful. The first face our eyes see in the morning--should be Christ's! His too should be the first voice we hear, and to Him our first words should be spoken! Ten minutes in the morning, yes, two minutes, spent really with Christ, will change all our day for us. A day without prayer--is a day of spiritual darkness and sadness.
It is often said that we should 'count that day lost' in which no kindness is done, no deed of love to anyone, no help given. But sadder far--is a day without prayer! It is a day without God, without heaven's light shining into it, a day unblessed! The morning you forget to pray--is an unhappy morning for you.
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Philippians 4:6
"Pray at all times and on every occasion in the power of the Holy Spirit." Ephesians 6:18
But besides beginning each day with prayer, we should live all the day with prayer. We should form the habit of praying at every step, as we go along. That was part of Paul's meaning when he said, "Whatever you do, in word or in deed--do all in the name of the Lord Jesus." He would have us include every word we speak--as well as every deed we do. Think what it would mean to have every word that passes our lips winged and blessed with prayer--always to breathe a little prayer before we speak, as we speak. This would put heavenly sweetness into all our speech! It would make all our words kindly, loving, inspiring words--words that would edify and minister grace to those who hear. We can scarcely think of one using bitter words, backbiting words, unholy words--if his heart be always full of prayer, if he has trained himself to always pray before he speaks.
But we are to do all our deeds, too, in the name of the Lord Jesus. That means that we should do everything for Him, to please Him. If we could get this lesson learned, if we would really pray without ceasing--how beautiful our lives would be! How well we would do all our work! Only think of a man in business doing all his day's business in a spirit of prayer--breathing a little prayer as he makes a bargain, as he writes a business letter, as he talks with other men. Think of a woman amid her household cares--taking everything to God for His blessing, for His approval, for His direction. These are not by any means impossible suppositions. Indeed, this is the way a Christian is to live, should always live--doing all in the name of the Lord Jesus!
We are exhorted elsewhere, too, to make all our requests known to God in prayer. We do not know what we miss--by leaving God out of so much of our life. We wonder often why we fail, why so little comes of our efforts, why we do not get along better with people, why we are not happy, why joy is so lacking in our experience, why we are so easily fretted and vexed and made discontented, why we fall so easily into surliness and bad temper. It is because we cease to pray!
"O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer."
You say you haven't time to pray so much.
"Haven't time?" You have time for everything else--time for many things, perhaps, of questionable importance. Have you not time to look into God's face for a moment--before you begin a new piece of work, before you make a new investment, before you start on a business trip, before you go out to spend an evening, before you open a new book?
"Haven't time?" Does it seem wasted time when you stop to eat your meals? Do you regard your hours spent in sleep--as lost hours? Does being courteous waste time? Nor is time spent in getting God's blessing ever lost time. The Sabbath hours given to worship are not wasted hours.
But really the habit of unceasing prayer--does not require time. It is but looking into God's face and saying, "Lord, help me in this." "Lord, bless me as I do this."
A certain godly man was mighty in prayer. God's blessing seemed to be on everything he did, on every word he spoke. One who loved him desired to learn the secret of his devotions, and watched him to see how he prayed. All he saw was this--again and again, he was heard saying, with bowed head and clasped hands, the name of Jesus, "Jesus! Jesus!" That was the way he prayed. He did everything in that blessed name, and all the power of Jesus was in what he did. It wastes no time to speak that name as we enter a new path, or begin a new task, or go out to a new duty. Yet that is what it is to pray without ceasing.
It is well for us to learn this lesson--to take everything to God in prayer, to pray as we go from task to task--always silently, unostentatiously. We need to guard against making a show of our praying, talking about it. But we may form the habit of putting up little 'sentence prayers' continually. When you feel an inclination to speak bitterly, to answer sharply; when you have been stung by another's speech or act; when you are tempted to refuse a request for help, to do some selfish thing, to pass by a human need, to speak an untruth--lift up your heart in the prayer, "Jesus, help me to do Your will." Or if you meet a sudden temptation and are in danger of being swept away, look up and cry, "Jesus, save me!"
Do you suppose that God is far off from you these days, any day? Do you suppose that Christ ever leaves you alone for an instant, anywhere you may chance to be? No, no! He is nearer to you all the time--than your dearest nearest friend, now close by your side. Believe this, and when you feel any need, any heart hunger, any sense of loneliness, the creeping over you of any shadow of danger, the coming upon you of any enemy; when you fear you will fall, or stumble, or say some word you would not say, or let some evil feeling into your heart you would not admit there; if you are growing discontented or discouraged, speak His name. That will be prayer enough.
It is impossible to tell of the blessing of such a spirit and habit of prayer. Those who have not learned to pray "without ceasing" have no conception of what they are missing. If we all had learned this lesson, what a company of overcoming Christians we would be! The world would have little power over us--we would tread it under our feet! We would be strong--where now we are so weak. We would be victorious over temptation, where now we fail so sadly. If you knew that Christ was always actually walking with you--how strong you would be!
Some people seem to think that all prayer is request, asking favors from God. They never go to God, unless they want Him to give them something, to do something for them, or to get them out of some trouble or danger. But if we pray only when we have a favor to ask, we do not love God as we should. Really, request is but a small portion of truest praying.
You have a dear human friend whom you love very much. You greatly enjoy being with this friend. You say it strengthens you, cheers you, helps you, to spend an hour with him. Now when you are with this friend, what do you talk about? Do you do nothing but make requests and ask favors, and beg your friend to do things for you? I am quite sure, that is not all you do. Ofttimes you pass the whole hour that you are together, and do not make one request nor ask one favor. You commune--that is the word. You sit together, your friend and you, and talk of many things that are dear to you both. Then sometimes, you do not talk at all. It is just enough to be with your friend, to have his presence near you, to look into his face, to know that he loves you. It strengthens you just to be with him.
The same is true of communion with Christ. It is not all request. We come to Him many times with no definite favor to ask. We want just to be with Him, to look into His face, to sit in the sweet atmosphere of His presence, to let His love pour into our hearts!
There is no lesson we need to take more to heart--than this lesson of unceasing prayer. This is not a praying age. Every call is to work, to activity. We are living in most strenuous times. The pressure of active duty is tremendous. In all departments of life, this is true. Men have little time for leisure. In the church, too, the call is to activity. The cry is for the evangelizing of the world. It is a missionary age in which we are living. Christians hear but little about the duty of meditation, of devotion, of prayer--rather they are called out into the field to Kingdom work.
This is well. Every redeemed life should be consecrated to service. But there is danger in this intense activity. The danger is not that we become too strenuous in carrying the gospel to men--this never could be--but that we get too little quiet in our lives for the cultivation of our own heart piety! There must be root--before there can be strong branches and much fruit. We must sit at Christ's feet to be fed--before we can go out to feed others! Not a word should be said to restrain earnestness, to check enthusiasm in Christ's work, to hold anyone back from the service of Christ. But in our much serving and work--we should never forget the necessity of Bible reading and communion with Christ, to prepare us for the noble work we are striving to do. All the best things of Christian life--are the fruit of silent meditation.
Life is not easy for any of us. We can live nobly, purely, Christly--only by being much with Christ! We will rob ourselves of Divine blessing, of beauty of character, of power in service--if we fail to make room in all our busy days--for quiet retreats from the noise and strife, where we may sit at Christ's feet to hear His words, and lie on His bosom that we may absorb His spirit, to prepare us for the toil of the day!
It is only in the "valley of silence" with Christ--that we can dream the dreams and see the visions which we would translate into noble living, Christly character, and worthy deed, out among men. We must hide away much in prayer--if we would get strength for valiant struggle and effective service for our Master!