In the parting words of Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica, he admonished them with several imperatives, including “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17).

Many Christians have struggled to make sense of Paul’s admonition because it’s evident that we cannot literally pray without ceasing. At the very least, we would have to stop praying when we go to sleep at night. Even if Paul was only talking about our conscious hours, one cannot pray while they are talking to other people, concentrating on their work, etc. Many Christians, wanting to affirm the sense of “continual prayer,” have taken this verse to mean that we should continually be in “a spirit of prayer.” This is often construed along the lines of always having a prayerful attitude even when we are not praying to God (which should be a frequent affair throughout one’s day). What exactly a prayerful attitude is, is not entirely clear. Others take it to mean that we should pray about everything.

While I agree that we should pray often and about everything, I think Paul’s point is being over-interpreted. His point is simple: Keep praying! He was not admonishing the Thessalonians to pray every second of the day or to pray about everything, but rather to keep up the practice of prayer. Prayer is not something we do when we start our faith journey, but then stop as we “mature” in Christ. Prayer needs to be a regular discipline in the life of a Christian. In other words, Paul is encouraging us to make a habit of praying.

This force is brought out in a number of translations:

  • “Pray regularly” (CJB)
  • “And never stop praying” (CEV)
  • “Never stop praying” (ERV, GW, ICB, Phillips, NOG, NIrV, NLV, NLT, NTE)
  • “Always keep on praying” (TLB)

I particularly like The Living Bible’s characterization as “always keep on praying.” Paul’s concern is not so much the amount of time we are spending in prayer each day as it is the longevity of our prayer life. Prayer is a spiritual discipline that we should be in the habit of doing day-after-day. Like Dory in Finding Nemo, we need to “just keep praying, just keep praying, just keep praying praying praying.”