Recently, just after morning prayer at “The Birdhouse” community where Trudi and I live, I got into a short conversation with a couple of our residential college students about 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “pray without ceasing.” We realized as we talked that we often tend to think of this command as pointing toward some sort of constant, ongoing state of prayer. But as we talked I suggested that something from intermediate Greek grammar might help us understand this aspect of prayer. (Note that both of them know Biblical Greek).
Greek grammar! Are you kidding?! I thought we were talking about prayer!
Hear me out. Second year Greek students not only have to be able to identify that a verb is, say, in the present tense (…they learned that during their first year!), they have to learn what kind of present it is. It isn’t the form of the verb that tells them this information; they have to figure it out from the way a present-tense verb is being used in a sentence—which, honestly, isn’t always easy to decipher.
But one of their options for a present-tense verb (whether indicative or imperative) is iterative. What is iterative?—you ask. It simply means that the action is done over and over again (that is, there are repeated iterations of the same action…)
Example: You check your phone over and over again. You are not in an undefined state of constantly looking at your phone (unless, of course, you’re addicted). You are simply repeating the action of picking up your phone to look at it…followed by doing it again…and again.
It is likely that Paul’s instruction that we “pray without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 is not a directive to be in some sort of constant state of prayer, but simply to pray again and again. Dan Wallace writes about this verse: “The idea of the present imperative is not that believers are to pray every minute of every day, but that we should offer prayers to God repeatedly. We should make it our habit to be in the presence of God.”
How might this help me in my prayer life? It helps me because I have a really hard time trying to figure out how to be ever-and-always in a constant state of prayer, but I can wrap my head—and heart—around the idea of praying over and over throughout the day. This thought encourages me to pray in the morning, then again in the morning, then again in the morning…and in the afternoon, then again in the afternoon…then in the evening…and a hundred times in between.
Now, if I’m honest, I have noticed that when I do pray repeatedly throughout the day, I develop an overall open-heart posture toward God. So maybe there is something to the constant state of prayer thing….
Still, 1 Thessalonians 5:17’s “pray without ceasing” should probably be categorized as an iterative present command rather than encouraging some sort of nebulous state of ongoing prayer.
I’d like to finish this short reflection with an example of someone who prayed iteratively: Patrick of Ireland. I recently finished reading a good little biography of Patrick, one of the greatest missionaries of all time. As I thought about this idea of iterative prayer, I remembered that Patrick was an excellent example of praying again and again and again.
Patrick grew up in a Christian home in Britain toward the end of the Roman Empire, but was kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a slave when he was 16 years old. Until then, he had cared little about the faith of his mother and father. But in the midst of his loneliness and under the heavy burden of his servitude, he began to cry out to the God of his parents, and came into true faith in Christ. Then Patrick began to pray. Iterative prayers! Over and over and over again. Listen to how he describes these prayers in his own words:
“But after I came to Ireland—every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed—the love of God and his fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night.”
Perhaps like Patrick we can learn to pray a hundred prayers a day. Iterative prayers.
This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.
 I’m using “grammar” in the general way to include the whole system of how a language works, not simply to refer to morphology.
 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Zondervan, 1996), 521.
 Patrick, Confession 2, trans. Bieler, 21, altered by Michael A. G. Haykin in his book, Patrick of Ireland: His Life & Impact (Christian Focus, 2014), 36.