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In 1 Thessalonians 5, we find the apostle Paul making this bold declaration of what God wants from believers:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of Yahweh in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thess. 5:16-18)
So then, do you pray without ceasing? Of course you don’t, and for many earnest Christians, the fact that they are such miserable failures in the unceasing prayer department results in all kinds of needless guilt. Well, it’s time to stop letting a man who you never knew act as your spiritual supervisor in life. The God who put you together intentionally designed you to be an extremely limited creature who finds it impossible to do any voluntary task “without ceasing.” So no, you’re really not some spiritual slacker because you find unceasing prayer to be a very tedious concept.
PAUL & PRAYER
The apostle Paul is not God, he’s just another human being, and no human is perfect. Paul’s soul is currently residing in either Heaven or Hell. Given his denial of the Divinity of Christ, his poor understanding of Yahweh, and his misplaced priorities, Hell is the far more likely option. While he was traveling around the Roman Empire spreading his own mangled version of “the Good News” and patting himself on the back for being oh so dedicated, Paul was also a horrible model of prayer. In his epistles, he lists many things that he is personally praying for, and he also tells his fans how they ought to pray. In short, the man prayed like Christians are taught to pray today: he constantly told God what to do.
Now Paul didn’t accept that Jesus was God, so it was Yahweh that he prayed to. Since he believed that Jesus was functioning as Yahweh’s top Assistant in eternity, and since he imagined Jesus and the Holy Spirit as playing an intercessory role between us and the only real God, Paul didn’t mind using Jesus like a relay station for his prayers. This is why Paul speaks of passing his prayers through Jesus, but he is always praying to Yahweh.
As far as Paul is concerned, Yahweh is the One with the power. Yahweh is the One who we all should be praying to and Yahweh is the One who deserves the credit for all God-related activities. The Holy Spirit and Jesus merely function as lower ranking middlemen. Start paying attention to Paul’s use of the terms “to” and “through” in the epistles and you’ll notice an alarming pattern of Jesus constantly being demoted as lower than Yahweh. Paul doesn’t believe in this nonsense about a Triune God. When he says that Yahweh does something through Christ, he’s thinking of the same dynamic as when a human ruler sends some lower ranking official to go run some errand on the king’s behalf. The official certainly outranks the common people, but he’s nowhere close to being the king’s equal. To get an appreciation for how Paul demotes Jesus in every area of Divine activity, let’s look at some examples.
First, I thank my God [Yahweh] through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. (Rom. 1:8)
Who is Paul thanking? His God, who is Yahweh. How does Paul send messages to Yahweh? Through Jesus, Yahweh’s official Courier.
But thanks be to Yahweh, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:57)
Who do we thank? Yahweh. Who gives us victory? Yahweh. Yahweh works through Jesus, but it is only Yahweh who Paul prays to.
Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. (Eph. 1:3)
Who are we praising? Yahweh. Who has blessed us? Yahweh. What role did Christ play? He was just the conduit of those blessings, but He wasn’t the Source of them. Christ can’t be the Source of Divine power, because Christ is not Yahweh’s equal. This is why Paul rejects the concept of Christ raising Himself from the dead. Performing such a miracle is beyond human ability, and since Christ is only human, Paul says that Yahweh was the One who raised Christ (see Who raised Jesus from the dead?).
Yahweh demonstrated this power in the Messiah by raising Christ from the dead and seating Christ at Yahweh’s right hand in the heavens—far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (Eph. 1:20-21)
Paul has no problems acknowledging that Christ is superior to us—but he’s quite clear that Christ was made superior by Yahweh. Christ didn’t start off as superior—He started off as our equal on earth. But then He so impressed Yahweh with His good behavior that Yahweh gave Christ a fat promotion on the other side. And hey, if human Christ can score so big, why can’t we? Paul wants to believe that he, too, can earn a Christ-like promotion if he strives and strains enough on earth. Bring on that persecution—Paul figures it’s all going to get translated into glory and power as soon as he dies.
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. (Eph. 1:17)
Wait—if Christ is God, how could someone be God over Him? They couldn’t. But Paul teaches Christ is just a man, therefore the glorious Yahweh is the God of Christ.
Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to Yahweh. (Philip. 4:6)
Paul always tells his people to pray to Yahweh, the only real God. You don’t pray to Christ—you only send messages through Christ to reach Yahweh.
And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the Name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to Yahweh the Father through Jesus. (Col. 3:17)
Yahweh is the One you thank. Jesus is just the One who you relay your thanks through. Promote the Name of Jesus, but don’t treat Jesus like a God.
But we must always thank Yahweh for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning Yahweh has chosen you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. Yahweh called you to this through our gospel, so that you might obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thess. 2:13-14)
See? We can all obtain the same mega-glory that Christ has raked in for being a good little human on earth. This is Paul’s whole purpose in schmoozing Christ: to get a piece of what Christ has. Paul tells us all that if we make smart choices on earth, then we can get our hands on a piece of all of that power, glory, and acclaim that Christ received from Yahweh. Because Yahweh might have given Christ some grand pile of rewards, but we’re equal to Christ, thus we can make Christ split His “inheritance” with us.
Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of Yahweh and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in Christ’s sufferings in order that we may also share in Christ’s glory. (Rom. 8:17)
Well, how very carnal and irreverent. How do you think Yahweh and Christ feel about the way Paul constantly minimizes who Christ is? This is the same dolt who you are taking prayer advice from. Paul says we should pray without ceasing. But he also says we should only pray to Yahweh and treat Christ like some lucky human who we can steal goodies from in the future. No, we really don’t want to imitate Paul.
BOSSING GOD AROUND
Look through Paul’s letters and you’ll notice that while the man is constantly demeaning Christ, he’s also treating Yahweh like his personal lackey. Paul prays like modern believers pray: he’s always instructing Yahweh on how to run His own universe. First Paul decides what Paul wants, then he tells Yahweh to give it to him. Then he writes a letter telling a bunch of other Christians to join him in nagging Yahweh to give Paul what Paul wants.
Paul was big on the power of nag. He boasts of talking to Yahweh as if Yahweh is some gullible halfwit who not only needs to be told how to mature humans, but who can also be worn down by constant repetition.
I thank my God [Yahweh] every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that Yahweh who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philip. 1:3-6)
Paul claims to be confident that Yahweh can be counted on to handle the task of maturing believers. But if Paul really believes this, why does he talk about praying for those same believers? What’s to pray about if he thinks Yahweh is handling it? Well, he doesn’t really think Yahweh is handling it. It’s more like he thinks Yahweh has great potential for accomplishing something if guys like Paul keep cracking the whip over Him. But clearly Paul feels Yahweh needs to have someone spell out for Him exactly what these believers need.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of Yahweh. (Philip. 1:9-11)
Here’s the list of things Paul is telling Yahweh to give believers: greater love, greater knowledge, depth of understanding, better discernment. Wow. Way to treat God like He has the IQ of a tomato. “Dear God, Christians can’t get anywhere until You actually give them understanding. So please give them understanding. They need more than they have. So please get off the stick and give them more. Amen.” Is this a respectful way to talk to God? It’s actually quite insulting. Whenever we tell any one of our Gods what other believers need, it’s the same as saying we’re wiser than They are. Now there’s a joke. But pompous little Paul has no problems with instructing Yahweh day and night.
For this reason we have not stopped praying for you since the day we heard about you. We ask Yahweh to fill you with the knowledge of His will through every kind of spiritual wisdom and insight. (Col. 1:9)
Wow, really? So Paul and his gang are praying, “Yahweh, please tell these new Christians what You want. Yahweh, please tell them what You want. Yahweh, please tell them what You want.” Paul says they are praying this same lame prayer continuously. In other words, they never take a break from insulting God. What is Yahweh supposed to say to such an idiotic request? “Explain to people what My will is? What a smart idea! And here I was going to not tell them anything and see if they could figure it out on their own. Thanks, guys! What would I do without you?”Are you seeing the problem here? Paul is totally insulting Yahweh with the kinds of prayers he prays. There is simply no reason to plead with God to teach people His will unless you think He’s refusing to do so.
Now certainly we all get frustrated with God’s silence in our own lives, and such frustrations need to be discussed with God. But Paul isn’t praying for himself here. He’s gotten news that there are some new converts to Christianity in some other city and those are the folks he’s nagging Yahweh about 24/7. Where does Paul get off instructing Yahweh on how to mature other souls? And the things he asks for are so insultingly basic. Suppose some nosy neighbor started coming over to your house every day saying:
“You need to feed your children today. Kids need food, you know. I don’t expect you to understand that, because you look entirely stupid. So I’m here to tell you that children need food to grow, so make sure you feed them. I’ll check back in with you in ten minutes with another reminder to make sure you feed them.”
Wouldn’t you find such comments insulting? Of course you would, because even though you’re just a human, you have enough intelligence to know that your kids need food to thrive. Well, when we pray to our Gods we’re not just talking to humans. We’re talking to the Creators of all things. Our Gods are not idiots, yet so often we talk to Them as if They were far dumber than we are.
NAG WITHOUT CEASING
Once you understand how Paul personally viewed prayer, then you can understand that when he tells people to “pray without ceasing,” he really means “nag without ceasing.” Paul has no respect for Yahweh’s intelligence, and in his letters, he teaches other believers to join him in his irreverent practices. Then he praises them for being as snarky as he is and tells them that their prayers are very effective in cattle prodding stupid Yahweh into action.
Yahweh saved us from these great dangers of death, and He will continue to save us. We have put our hope in Him, and He will save us again. And you can help us with your prayers. Then many people will give thanks for us—that Yahweh blessed us because of their many prayers. (2 Cor. 1:10-11)
According to Paul, Yahweh has to be prodded into saving the struggling apostles by getting nagged to death by countless believers. Paul is a big believer in the notion that we can coerce God into giving us what we want by relentlessly pestering Him. At the time he wrote this passage, Paul and his buddies were in some kind of trouble which they wanted to be delivered from. First Paul arrogantly announces that he is certain that Yahweh will do exactly what Paul wants—now there’s a fine example of domination. Then Paul demonstrates how uncertain he really is by urging other believers to nag Yahweh on his behalf. But notice that last line where Paul says everyone will be praising the power of prayer once Yahweh rains down those blessings. Do you think this attitude pleases Yahweh? Do you think our Gods like it when we sit around today boasting of how fervently we prayed for other believers as if our prayers were the thing that made the difference? When we talk this way, are we not boasting of what good little God managers we are? Isn’t it condescending when a miracle is shared and someone says, “Praise God! That’s just what I was praying for”? What’s your point in making such a remark? Your point is to try and pinch off some glory for yourself. You’re trying to say that your prayers were part of the reason why God did what He did. Well, no, they weren’t.
Now let’s be clear: in your own walk with God, it is appropriate for you to make certain requests. It is your soul’s choices that you will be judged by, and when you pray something like, “God, make me all that You want me to be,” you’re expressing your desire to fully please God. But you’re also expressing submission: you’re asking God to do what He wants. You’re putting His will above your own in importance.
When it comes to your own relationship with Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, They want you to talk to Them about anything and everything. But we all need to move away from this bad habit of talking down to our Gods and trying to constantly instruct Them. “God, I so want to know You better,” is a prayer that pleases God. But, “God, You have to give me a deeper understanding of You,” is too directive. God doesn’t “have” to do anything. When we get bossy like this, it’s because we aren’t respecting who God is. We’re talking to Him like He’s our subordinate. And after we talk this way to God for years and years, we’re not going to revere Him. We’re not going to be submitting to Him, and we’re not going to trust Him. You simply don’t trust Someone who you are always instructing because before you can even believe God would benefit from your guidance, you have to believe that you are wiser than He is.
You see, your beliefs build on each other. You can’t pray badly and at the same time thrive in your relationship with God. How you talk to God has an enormous impact on how you relate to Him. This is why it is so important to really think about your prayer life, listen to the things you are saying to God, and think about their implications. Ask yourself, “What must I believe about God before I can conclude that this is a useful prayer to pray?” Clearly you don’t think God is doing a very good job of running this world if you’re giving Him tips on how to direct world affairs. Clearly you think you’re a better parent than He is if you’re always asking Him to help your kids. Clearly you don’t have much respect for His wisdom if you’re always asking Him to undo things that He’s done.
We are constantly declaring what we really believe about God through the way that we pray. If you pray like Paul, you’re going to stagnate in your walk with God. You’re going to undermine your own faith, dissolve any trust that you have, and never grow in the area of submission. So no, you really shouldn’t “nag without ceasing” which is what Paul really meant when he was passing out the blunt directives in 1 Thessalonians 5. When you talk to God, you need to focus on treating Him like God, not like a nimbus.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD WE PRAY?
So now that we’ve talked about prayer content, what about frequency? How should you respond to all of these guilt trips that you’re not spending enough time in a prayer closet? Well, for starters, we’re not all closet people. The most accurate definition of prayer is this: prayer is your soul communicating to God using its own spiritual language. You don’t have to use your vocal cords to pray. Prayer is a soul thing. You don’t have to get in a certain position or be in a certain place (see Prayer Posture & Location). But if you want to actually benefit from praying, then you need to be honest. Saying a bunch of guff you don’t mean just to fill in the silence is not being honest. God wants you to talk to Him about anything and everything, but He wants you to be real when you do talk to Him. He doesn’t need formal greetings and sign-offs (see In Jesus’ Name, Amen: How does God feel about the traditional Christian sign-off?). He doesn’t need a bunch of fancy Thees and Thous. God wants you to be real with Him, and being real is going to look different for each of us because our variety loving Gods did not make us all the same.
Some of us are yackers. Our minds are always racing and we just never run out of things to say. If that’s who God made you to be, then be real with Him and yack away. Share every thought that passes through your busy little brain. You can’t talk God’s head off—He loves a plethora of words when they’re coming from one of His talkative types. He never tires of listening to you when you’re being who you really are, but He has no use for you trying to act like someone else just to please Him.
As far as God is concerned, there is no ideal personality that we should all be striving to imitate. God hates uniform. He loves variety. Some of us just can’t stop talking, others of us are deeply reflective, others of us go a long time without a single thought forming in our minds. There is no quota of words that you have to get in every day. God wants you to be you. If you’re the kind who just doesn’t have much to say, fine. But when you do start contemplating something, involve God in your thoughts.
The goal we want to be moving towards is learning to consciously live our lives with God instead of trying to live our lives apart from God and then viewing prayer as our occasional check in. Picture two humans sitting on a bench watching the sun set. They can either be sharing the experience of that moment or they can each be experiencing it separately. No one has to say anything for communion or isolation to happen—these things are mental attitudes. Communion is when you choose to focus on the fact that you’re in the company of someone else. Isolation is when you try to mentally tune that other person out. God wants to mature us to the point where we are always communing with Him. It doesn’t mean we’ll always be saying something to Him, but we will be aware of the fact that He is with us and receptive to His input.
Communing with God takes on many forms. There are quiet forms and talkative forms. Depending on how God made you, you’ll favor one more than the other. Some of us are already good at talking to God about everything, some of us need to learn to share more than we currently do. Some of us are already good listeners, others of us need practice to listen better. Is God annoyed that we’re all bumbling around in various stages of immaturity? No.
We humans don’t get mad at our infants for being helpless lumps. Good parents find something to enjoy at every stage of their children’s development. Babies have their own sweet delights, and so do toddlers and young children, tweens, teenagers, and young adults. We’re excited when our kids say their first word, we’re excited when they drive their first car, and we’re excited when they get their first job. We enjoy sharing the many exciting milestones with our kids, friends, and loved ones. It’s the same with our Gods. They thoroughly enjoy every stage of our development when we’re listening to Them, and They aren’t the least put off by our bumbling about. They don’t expect us to know everything. They expect us to have a lot of wrong ideas about Them, and then They thoroughly enjoy slowly teaching us better. They aren’t in some flaming hurry for us to become perfect. They enjoy the journey. So when it comes to learning to commune with Them, we need to expect a learning curve. Over time, They’ll teach us how to keep improving the way we relate to Them. The learning is the exciting part, and we want to be able to enjoy new insights without getting depressed by how far we still have to go. Our Gods love sharing the whole journey with us, so there is no need for guilt when it comes to how we pray. If we are receptive to learning anything They want to teach us, then They will take us to fabulous places.
Learning from the Prayers of Paul
Practicing Submission in the Way that We Pray
Praying for the Sick
Communing with God: The Language of Your Soul