The recent election and more particularly the reactions to it in on my Facebook news feed, caused me to reflect on a book title I read in college- Politics by Other Means. The book was assigned for a government class called Comparative Models of Democracy. To the chagrin of my former professor, I retain only incomplete and elusive memories of this book. What really stuck with me was the intriguing and suggestive title.
I began considering this question recently when I came across a post from Better Bibles Blog on how to translate 1 Thessalonians 5:17:
“One can not unceasingly pray in the world as we know it. God can do it (I would think). Although, if he would do it in front of us (aka Jesus), we probably wouldn’t perceive it being done. Also perhaps, we’ll be able to do it with resurrection bodies.”
In answering the question, “Can we pray without ceasing in this life?” complicated ideas that plunge into the erudite are brought up, such as: collocational clash, words and reality semantics, and relevance theory.
Reading the comments was like walking through an exegetical minefield. I don’t think God requires that we understand complex ideas like this to understand His word, for at least three reasons:
- 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God desires all men to come to the full knowledge of the truth. “All men” means all men, not excluding the uneducated. Some of the most crucial, early disciples were uneducated men (Acts 4:13).
- John 6:63 says that God’s words are spirit and life. This indicates that a primary function of God’s word is to nourish us with life, so all doctrine should to lead to Christ as life in our experience. We are to be ministers not of the letter but of the Spirit who gives life (2 Cor. 3:6)
- 1 Timothy 1:4 explicitly tells us not to give heed to teachings which produce questionings rather than God’s economy. This is not to say our mind is useless and unemployed in reading the Bible. But this does keep Christians out of the realm of tangential doctrinal debates. Also check out 2 Tim. 2:23.
Bringing in complex ideas like this can help sometimes but usually they are more of a distraction from enjoying the Person in the Word.
Points of truth however interesting, scriptural knowledge however profound and extensive, Biblical criticism however accurate and valuable, may all leave the heart barren and the affections cold. We want to find Christ in the Word; and having found Him, to feed on Him by faith.
Another commenter ultimately concludes by designating this Scripture hyperbole. Saying, “A good question to ask: Why is it that most readers, when they approach the Bible, won’t understand hyperbole as hyperbole?”
So then, is this a case of hyperbole?
The immediate context of 1Thes 5:17 suggests no, since this verse is sandwiched in between two other imperatives—“always rejoice” and “in everything give thanks”—which most definitely are possible. To top it off, Paul ends by saying, “This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” So let me ask, is the will of God for you possible? I think so. Otherwise we are bordering on very complex, existential, and endless queries. Finally, Titus 1:2 says God cannot lie. This statement is in context of the full knowledge of the truth. Based on that I’m pretty sure unceasing prayer is most definitely possible!
Witness Lee treats this question in the Life-Study of Philippians from another angle. Lee’s approach here is the experience of the divine life.
What does it mean to pray unceasingly? Although we may eat several meals a day and although we may drink many times during the day, no one can eat and drink without ceasing. But we certainly breathe unceasingly. Paul’s command to pray without ceasing implies that unceasing prayer is like breathing. But how can our prayer become our spiritual breathing? …The way to do this is to call on the name of the Lord… This is the way to breathe, to pray without ceasing… Just as we must breathe in order to live physically, we must breathe spiritually in order to live Christ.
As I read this, I recalled Lamentations 3:55-56, “I called upon Your name, O Jehovah, from the lowest pit. You have heard my voice; do not hide Your ear at my breathing, at my cry.”
Unceasing prayer really gets at what Christ is after in us personally. He isn’t a convenience store that we swing by, in prayer, to pick up some last minute items that we need. This involves a life of continually contacting Christ in our human spirit and calling on His name in every place. This also leads us to practice the church life in our community as 1 Corinthians 1:2 indicates,
“To the church of God which is in Corinth… with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place…”
Unceasing prayer must be possible because it facilitates what God desires and it must be attainable for every believer because it is in God’s word. We may not be there today but at least we know where we are going.