Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5.16-18
A Call to Prayer
Prayer pops up everywhere I turn, in discussions and correspondence, in comments here, on other blogs I follow, and in several sermons of late. A call to prayer has regularly emerged in my daily meditation, turning my thoughts to 1 Thessalonians 5.17: “Pray continually.” As the world’s worst procrastinator, I set it aside until it wouldn’t be ignored. I knew this verse by heart from the King James Version: “Pray without ceasing.” There, it’s a single-line statement—one of 10 admonitions stacked atop each other. When I opened the New International Version, though, finding it nestled at the center of a tri-part sentence opened my eyes to see it in an entirely new way.
Paul’s call for continual prayer becomes the link connecting constant joy with total gratitude. He wraps them as all of a piece and attaches a lovely bow: “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Remaining joyful, prayerful, and grateful are not expectations, which is how they come off in the KJV. They’re gifts—things God desires us to have as privileges of our life in Christ. And when we equate prayer with joy and gratitude, we approach it from an angle we may not have considered. The call to prayer becomes an invitation, not an obligation.
Every blue moon I scoot by secular gay discussion boards that include religion/spirituality forums. The nature of their subscribers creates more confusion than clarity, as skeptical members pounce on every chance to belittle faith. I usually don’t comment, having learned the posts quickly ramp into shouting matches. A couple years ago, however, one post compelled me to speak up. A gay teenager wrote of struggling to believe God will hear and answer his prayers. A cynical lurker advised the kid to forget prayer, citing a quasi-scientific study that found prayer had no positive impact on cardiac patient survival. “Nobody can prove it works,” he said. After tracking down the study and checking its data—which shaded reports of answered prayer with random probability—I wrote, “Scientific inability to prove prayer’s effectiveness proves why it works. If we understood it, we wouldn’t need it. Prayer surpasses understanding to enter the realm of faith. It exchanges knowledge for belief.” The lurker replied, saying he understood what I meant but my logic was flawed.
I missed the mark by taking the bait. I should have led the teenager toward a broader awareness of what prayer is. Conceiving it as a sort of celestial help desk no doubt limited his prayers to questions, leaving him to feel stuck on hold, waiting for answers. Experiencing prayer’s power begins with redefining it. Prayer is more than an intervention line. It’s an ongoing dialogue with our Maker, an endless conversation with Someone always eager to hear what we think and feel. Because He knows more about us than we do, there’s nothing we can’t discuss with Him. Thus, prayer becomes a worry- and guilt-free outlet of expression. It’s where we articulate doubts and failures, frustrations and fears, and hopes and aspirations. Prayer becomes our platform to talk things through.
Honest, ongoing communication with God often results in expedited answers we won’t find if we reduce prayer to a Q&A session. When we talk to Him, as with anyone else, we’re aware of Who He is and what pleases Him. We hear Him by knowing Him. Just telling God we feel animosity toward someone who insults us opens our ears to His insistence we must forgive. Admitting impatience with Him brings reminders to trust His faithfulness and wisdom. After showing Him bruises of rejection, we listen to His healing words of acceptance. Frank, open-ended prayer strengthens the bond we share with God. It elevates our image of Him from Problem-solver to Companion. When our conversation with Him changes, our relationship develops into one of absolute love, trust, and pleasure.
This is why Paul places continual prayer between constant joy and total gratitude. Endless conversation with God lifts our spirits. It hones our desire to thank Him for every blessing in our lives. It eases our discomfort with negative emotions and circumstances by allowing us to discuss them without fear of being misunderstood or criticized. No better example of continual prayer exists than The Psalms—150 dialogues with God that cover the spectrum of life, from its most tormented and doubtful to its most enraptured and assured. Throughout, we read dozens of claims like David’s in Psalm 40.1: “I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.” By fostering joy and gratitude, continual prayer bolsters our ability to trust God for answers we don’t readily receive. Knowing He knows is all we need to know.
Limiting our concept of prayer to a sort of celestial help desk misses the joy and gratitude we gain from endless conversation with God.
(Tomorrow: Asking Too Much)