Paul tells the Church in 1st Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing,” but when our days are full of appointments and meetings and making meals and trying to hang out with friends and catching up on the latest show and a thousand other things, how can we find time to pray? How do we pray consistently while still living our day-to-day lives?
We spoke with Skye Jethani, author of What if Jesus Was Serious… About Prayer?, to hear his thoughts on the issue. Jethani gives us a better understanding of what prayer as a Christian truly means and what it looks like practically to pray consistently.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Almost every religion have its own prayer practice. What do you think makes Christian prayer unique?
What you see Jesus modeling is not a form of prayer that is an attempt at controlling the Father, but a form of prayer, which is primarily focused on relating to the Father, of communing with God. You see that in the Lord’s Prayer and in the parables.
The primary difference is pagan prayer at its core is about trying to get something from God, whereas true Christian prayer, the kind of prayer that Jesus models, sees God Himself as the goal. It’s not about what you get from God. It’s about the fact that you’re with God in the process of prayer, and that’s the ultimate goal. That’s the ultimate desire. By all means, in the context of that relational connection, you will have requests and desires that you make known to your Heavenly Father. And He graciously says yes very often to those things.
And He also graciously says no. But that’s not the centerpiece of prayer. It’s a peripheral element of prayer, but it’s not the core. Another way of putting it would be this. A lot of us think that prayer is primarily communicating with God. And I think what Jesus reveals to us is prayer is primarily about communing with God. And sometimes that communion requires communication, but sometimes it doesn’t.
What does that sort of prayer look like?
We’re familiar with the stories in the gospels where Jesus retreats by Himself to the wilderness or to the mountain, and He prays all night to the Father and things. Then He comes back and engages in active ministry and healing and preaching and all the things that He did. One question I like to ask people to get a sense of their view of prayer is, “was Jesus in any less communion with the Father when he was engaged in active ministry versus when He was alone in solitude?” But it’s evident in scripture that He was in communion with his Father all the time. It’s just that sometimes the external activities of His life got to cease, so He could solely be focused on that communion with God. But when He engaged in active ministry, His external activities continued at a rapid pace, but He was still in commune the Father.
You see Paul talk about this in 1st Thessalonians when he says, “We should pray without ceasing.” I don’t think he was using hyperbole there. I think we are to pray or to abide in the presence of God and be aware of His presence with us continually even in the activities of our day. So when you ask, what does prayer look like? Well, it can look like reciting the Psalms. It can look like the Lord’s Prayer. It can look like solitude and silence.
But it can also look like doing an interview, like we are right now. It can look like writing a book. It can look like gardening or farming, or working in an office. You can be in prayer in communion with God in the activities of your day. Prayer doesn’t just look like being on your knees and saying these words. If you understand prayer to be communion with God, then our goal should be to let that permeate into every part and activity of our life.
How can people practically implement this daily, consistent prayer into their busy schedules?
I think we can introduce small disciplines into our lives that begin to build the capacity and grow our capacity to have that kind of ongoing communion with God. I’m a big fan of taking time — whatever you can find to steal away and take a few minutes — to engage in a practice that recenters your mind and imagination on Christ, whether that’s through reading scripture or praying or some other resource. I’ve also had mentors that have taught me at different times to have triggers, good triggers that remind you of God’s presence.
The Celts had little prayers they would use for the ordinary activities of the day, right? A prayer for washing dishes, a prayer for folding clothing, a prayer for eating your meals. Those little prayers are meant to be small disciplines that remind you of God’s presence. And when you practice that kind of stuff, gradually, you stop segregating your day into spiritual activities and earthly activities. The two become intertwined throughout your day. And before you know it, you realize, “Oh, I’m kind of more aware of God’s presence all the time.” Ordinary mundane, even profane activities of the day, suddenly take on spiritual significance and importance. And not because the activities themselves are important, but because you’re aware of God’s presence amid that activity.
Growing up, many of us were taught that “close your eyes, bow your head, fold your hands” was what prayer was about, and if you’re not doing that, then maybe it’s like a lesser form of prayer. But you’re saying there’s a time and place for both that traditional prayer practice and a use for the kind of prayer that you’re describing.
Definitely. Again, the core focus should be a desire for God Himself. And based on personalities, the way we’re wired, our circumstances of life, we may discover that there are different forms of prayer in different seasons of life that help us experience that communion better than others. I’m certainly not here to judge or grade or put a hierarchy in place of which ones are best. That idea of prayer being, you got to bow your head, close your eyes. The reason we do that is because we are easily distracted. And by closing our eyes and being in a quiet place, there’s a sense of, well, now I can focus now on one thing.
When we’re just beginning the process of learning to commune with God, then maybe we do need to set aside structured space and isolation and close off distractions in order to really focus on God and abide in his presence. But hopefully, as we mature and grow in our faith, we will, like Jesus, learn to pray without ceasing and discover that we’re just going throughout our days with an awareness of God’s presence. It’s just an ongoing reality of our lives, like breathing.
And yet, there are still times where I sit down in a quiet room, and I spend an hour or two just reading a book without wanting to be distracted because I take such joy in that process. Similarly, there are times where I want an hour or two to just be alone and reflect and invite God’s presence with me to deal with what I’m dealing with, to be honest, and transparent with Him. So it isn’t like you ever graduate out of one form of prayer to another. It’s just adding multiple forms and manifestations of that communion with God, from what starts as hopefully a juvenile simplistic way of praying into a beautiful, multifaceted, mature vision of prayer and communion with God that just keeps growing as we get older.
What If Jesus Was Serious …About Prayer? is available now.