Do I have a prayer life, or do I lead a life of prayer? No simple question, and it immediately leads to more questions:
- How would I tell the difference?
- Is the former adequate?
- Is the latter more desirable?
- If I have the former, and want the latter, how do I get it?
- What transforms me from a man who prays, to a praying man?
Inevitably, I have more than a mouthful; it’s now turned into a meal.
The apostle Paul told the Thessalonian church to ‘Pray without ceasing.’ 1 I get a vision of someone on his knees from morning to night, getting up only for food or relief.
There are stories told of great prayer warriors who spent so much time in prayer that there was a groove worn in the floor where they knelt, and a rubbed-raw forehead-sized spot on the wall. Or they would kneel in the snow long enough to come away with bloody knees.
Do I really need to do any of that to ‘pray without ceasing’? I could. But not necessarily. There may be a more subtle answer.
Some Useful Advice
Theologian N. T. Wright describes the verses in and around ‘Pray without ceasing’ as a type of memory device for the young Christians in Thessalonica:
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophecies.
Examine all things.
Firmly hold onto what is good.
Abstain from all appearances of evil.’ 2
Wright says in his ‘Paul for Everyone’ series that these are aids such as we’d use for learning grammar rules, like ‘I before E except after C’. The reason we have them, he says, is so we learn them until they become second nature to us, and we no longer have to think about them.3
Back to my original question then. Do I have a prayer life? Or do I live a life of prayer?
A Life of Prayer
The term ‘prayer life’ describes something I take on and attach to my inner world through some motivation. Like my ‘sleep life’ or my ‘eating life’ or my ‘work life’ or my ‘sex life.’ I’m involved in these things, but they are, in a way, detached from my personhood.
So a ‘prayer life’ seems like the rest of them. It’s like a garment, something I can don or doff at will, as it seems convenient, when it suits me.
A ‘life of prayer’ – now that sounds different. Internal. Personal. All-consuming. Imagine it in relation to the idea of a ‘life of sleeping’, or a ‘life of eating’, or a ‘life of work’ or a ‘life of sex’. All of them sound pretty radical, and would eventually lead to various levels of dissolution!
A ‘life of prayer,’ though, would be in a class by itself. Because it’s not about being obsessed with prayer to the exclusion of all else. Rather it’s looking for God in all the places of my life, even the broken ones (especially the broken ones) so that the idea of prayer infiltrates all these other ‘lives’ that I live and builds them up.
In other words, I bring my prayer life (which is my conversation with God) into the parts of my life that seem on the surface to be ‘non-God’: work, eating, sleeping, marriage, exercise, tying my shoes, taking out the rubbish, complaining, fearing, lusting, apathy, judging, scorn.
Yeah, especially those last ones. Prayer is the only tool I have for making progress against them.
It’s not coincidental that ‘Pray without ceasing’ is sandwiched between ‘Rejoice always’ and ‘In everything give thanks.’ Being grateful and full of praise leads to a light heart. And that makes the conversation of prayer much easier.
Now, to work on ensuring it’s a two-way conversation.
1. 1 Thessalonians 5:17
2. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22
3. Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, Tom Wright, pp 130-131