Do you struggle with prayer? I sure do. I remember in high school when I first read Paul’s instructions to the church in Thessalonica:
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:16-18).
I could get my head around rejoicing “always” and giving thanks in all circumstances (these seemed like attitudes I could carry with me), but what in the world would it mean to pray continually?
Some translations say “pray without ceasing.” Is Paul saying that the goal is to become a monk, so you can devote the entirety of your time to prayer? What could “pray without ceasing” mean for people who have jobs and kids?
Learning to pray by praying
One mistake I see people often make in their attempts to pray without ceasing is to think they can jump right to the “without ceasing” part and skip the praying part. In other words, they think they can just “make their whole life a prayer” by trying.
But that never really works. You don’t learn anything by just trying. You have to engage in some training. Which means practice. Which means practicing something specific at certain times. Which means you can’t really learn to pray without ceasing until you learn to pray for a few minutes at a time.
So the first part of learning to pray without ceasing is to make sure you actually have some sort of rhythm of daily prayer. The only way to learn to pay attention to God with your whole life is to practice paying attention to God at specific times.
I recommend at least scheduling time for morning prayer, but committing to a short time of prayer at noon and in the evening has also been an incredibly fruitful discipline for me.
Learning from tradition is listening to dead people
Here’s where I always got tripped up, though. I would decide to get up at a certain time in the morning and pray for 30 minutes. I’d get up, make some coffee, sit in my chair, and… didn’t know what to do. I’d read my Bible for a bit, then try and think of something to pray about, then get distracted by something I forgot to do yesterday, and then usually end up checking my email.
Part of my issue was that I thought authentic prayer was the same thing as spontaneous prayer. I thought that prayers I “made up” on demand were “truer” than pre-written prayers. Nonsense.
Prayer is not just about me expressing myself to God, it’s about being formed by God into the image of Christ. Prayer is something we must learn, as the disciples intuited when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray.
As Brian Zahnd says, “The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do. The primary purpose of prayer is to be properly formed.”
One of the ways we learn to pray is by submitting to the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us in faith. That’s all tradition is: the collected wisdom of our ancestors in the faith. Why wouldn’t we pay attention to them? As G.K. Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving a vote to… our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”
This is part of the reason Brian Zahnd’s Prayer School was so helpful for me. It was training in a traditional method of prayer that could actually spiritually form me as I practiced it over time. I actually still use this prayer regimen every morning almost two years later. It completely transformed my prayer life.
Learning from dead people how to pray without ceasing
So there is tremendous wisdom in learning from tradition how to practice some kind of regular rhythm of prayer. But I’ve also discovered that, in addition to fixed rhythms of prayer, Christians have been finding ways to “pray without ceasing” for centuries.
One way that’s easy to start practicing is called the Jesus Prayer, and it comes from Jesus’ parable in which a Pharisee loudly thanks God that he’s so blessed, and a despised tax collector prays, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:10-14).
God hears the tax collector’s prayer, Jesus says. The prayer that developed in Christian tradition, then, goes like this:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Some people call it a “breath prayer,” because it is easily memorized, and because you can pray it under your breath,
- “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” as you breathe in,
- “Have mercy on me, a sinner” as you breathe out.
Playing the “game with minutes”
Praying this kind of prayer regularly throughout a day re-orients my thought-life toward God in humility. In fact, one way you can intentionally train yourself to pray without ceasing is by doing an exercise Frank Laubach called “The Game With Minutes.” Here’s how he did it:
During the course of his normal day (he was a literacy advocate and missionary in the Philippines), Laubach would seek to bring his thoughts back to God once per minute for an hour.
The Jesus Prayer is a great way to bring your thoughts back to God, and so I’ve tried this several times, using my phone’s timer app to remind me every minute. Every time the timer goes off, I pray the Jesus Prayer and reset the timer. Rinse and repeat for an hour.
A few things I discovered as I practiced this:
- It’s actually hard work to do this! I realized how quickly I “lost” my sense of God’s presence during my normal workday, and that training myself to pay closer attention to God took a bit of effort.
- It really did “pay off” quickly. Even though it was tiring to do so, I found the work I was doing while seeking to pray continually was just… better. It’s difficult to describe, but it seemed I was more effective in my normal work when I was praying continually. I was more confident, more filled with peace, more creative, more empathic and responsive to those around me.
A trinitarian take on unceasing prayer
Awhile back, I came across a modified trinitarian expansion of the Jesus Prayer from N.T. Wright. I really love this prayer as well, but you can’t quite pray it in one breath. But it works really well as a way to “prime the pump” of unceasing prayer in the morning.
I pray this prayer toward the end of my morning prayer regimen, and also before bed. It helps to turn my attention to God and orient my day toward working with him in his kingdom. It goes like this:
Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,
Set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God,
Have mercy on me, a sinner.
Holy Spirit, breath of the Living God,
Renew me and all the world.
I like it because:
- It’s trinitarian. Any spiritual exercise that orients us toward the Triune God is a winner, in my book.
- It balances individual concerns and community concerns. We ask for mercy and renewal for “me” but also ask God to set up his kingdom in “our” midst, and renew “all the world.”
- It forms our desires and imagination. It’s so easy to turn prayer into a wishing game, and God into a genie-in-a-bottle. This prayer trains us to want the things that God wants, to ask for the things that will truly bring our flourishing.
- It’s short enough to memorize easily. It’s theologically robust, but compact enough that most people can memorize it in a few minutes. If you pray it every day, it’s now available to you for the rest of your life!
P.S. We recorded a podcast episode with Brian Zahnd on his journey into structured, formational prayer if you’re interested in hearing more about it.
Questions for discussion
- Does pre-written prayer feel “dead” or inauthentic to you? If so, why do you think this is the case? Where did you get the idea that spontaneity was the same thing as authenticity?
- What prayer exercises have you found helpful in your quest to pay more attention to God’s work in and around you?
Leave a comment below to join the conversation!