When I was a child, one of the games that I used to play when I was in the bathtub was to see how long I could hold my breath under water. So, I would get out my stopwatch, take a deep breath, and plunge my head under the water. After about a minute or so, my cheeks would begin to pop out and exhaled air would start leaking out of my nose and mouth. Inevitably, it would not be long before I could not take it any longer, and then I would desperately yank my head out of the water to take in a deep breath of fresh air.
The longest time that I ever remember holding my breath for was somewhere around a minute and a half; I could never make it to the two-minute goal for which I was reaching. However, on June 8, 2009, 37-year old French free diver Stéphane Mifsud set an amazing world record by holding his breath for an astonishing 11 minutes and 35 seconds. What about you? For how long do you think you can hold your breath? Why not try it right now? Could you hold it for one minute? Two minutes? What about three?
Pray Without Ceasing
It is obvious then that our greatest physical need, more than food and water, is to breathe. For without breathing, we will die in just a matter of minutes. Have you ever actually stopped to think about your breathing? (Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out…). And just as great as our need to continually breathe, the Bible says there is something else we need to do continually — “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Some have been puzzled by this command. Maybe you are one of those who have read this text, only to say to yourself, “That is just impossible! How can I pray continually, all day and all night? I would not be able to do anything else in this world except pray!” But let me ask you another question. Do you breathe without ceasing? And are you able to do other things at the same time in life besides breathe?
Then prayer must involve more than just what we thought it involves. It must be deeper than simply the conscious act of talking to God, because we cannot do that continually. Instead, perhaps it describes a state of being in continual union with God (resembling something like breathing, which can be done even unconsciously). Consider the following quote:
"Unceasing prayer is the unbroken union of the soul with God, so that the life from God flows into our life; and from our life, purity and holiness flow back to God.”1
Did you see the breathing metaphor in this quote? Through union with God, we breathe in His life and breathe out what?: Purity and holiness. As we can see, our conversion is rooted in our connection. Unceasing prayer then is the constant surrender of our will to God, and the constant receiving of His will in return. It involves a constant silent, “Yes” to God, all throughout the day and night.
I do not know about you, but this conception of prayer reminds me of the four living creatures in the heavenly throne room who “do not rest day or night, saying: 'Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!'”(Revelation 4:8). Have you ever read this text and thought, “What a boring, monotonous existence?” But as we can now see through this new paradigm, their cry really expresses a beautiful prayer that flows through the life of those who are totally captivated by the love of God.
Praying According to Our Desires?
This foundational understanding of prayer actually helps us to understand other more difficult to interpret teachings of Jesus on prayer, becoming a foundation upon which we can build in our contemplation about prayer. “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). If you just read this text on the surface, it would seem to indicate that if we are Christians, whatever our heart’s desire may be, we can ask anything from God, and it will be given to us.
But there is a major problem with that interpretation. First of all, it changes our understanding of prayer from a constant surrender of our will to God and the constant receiving His will in return — to instead mean that God surrenders His will to ours, so that we can have whatever we want in return. Through this false paradigm of prayer, God becomes a genie in a bottle that we can pull out and rub three times, whenever we want something. In reality, such thinking puts us in the place of God.
Furthermore, being a false interpretation, those who do interpret the text that way put themselves in danger of great disappointment. We may pray and ask God for anything: to spare the life of a loved one (spouse, son, daughter, mom, or dad); for healing for ourselves; or for a particular job. But if we do not get what we want, and we cling to this false understanding of prayer that we have been discussing, then we may be tempted to blame God, becoming bitter and resentful toward Him because he does not bend His will to our own.
How many of us have known someone who left the church, giving up on God completely because He did not answer a prayer according to that person’s desire? But what if our expectations are mistaken? What if our “faith” is in reality presumption? You see, if we look at this text through the paradigm of prayer as a “constant surrender of our will to God,” then our understanding can harmonize with its true meaning. “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). If you what? Abide in me and my words abide in you.
You see, the conditions to answered prayer presuppose two things:
- That we are abiding in (connected to) Christ (in other words, our will is surrendered to God).
- The Word of God abides in us (in other words, God’s will lives in us, uniting with our very being).
Then, with God’s will living in us, it makes perfect sense that we will receive whatever we ask for in prayer, because our desires will only ever express the will of our heavenly Father. True prayer then becomes this beautiful heavenly cycle of receiving and giving. As we constantly surrender our will to God, and constantly receive God’s will in return, our prayers will flow from a heart that reflects the will of God. Thus, our prayers to God will reflect His own will, and our willing consent (for reasons that we may not fully comprehend) gives Him permission to answer prayers powerfully in our lives.
Jesus, of course, exemplified for us all, a life of praying without ceasing. “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38). Jesus was constantly surrendering His will to His Father, while receiving the will of His Father in return. He never made any decisions apart from His Father’s will. When God told Him to be baptized, He was baptized; when God told Him to go fast in the wilderness, He went; when God told Him to preach, He preached; when God told Him to heal, He healed; when God told Him to serve, He served; and when God led Him to die a shameful death on the cross, He willingly died.
A Surrendered Will
The will of Jesus was so surrendered to the will of His Father that Their wills were inseparably one. So much so that Jesus could say, “I and My Father are one” (John 10:30). “'Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner'” (John 5:19).
Such entire surrender is why Jesus’ prayers were so powerful. He was a living embodiment of praying without ceasing. When Jesus prayed, His Father listened, because He was simply reflecting back to the Father His own will, and so the Father could in righteousness gladly supply all the power necessary to answer His prayers.
Even in Jesus’ darkest hour, when the weight of the sin of the whole world was crushing out His life, and the Father began to separate Himself from His Son, so that He could lay upon Him the iniquity of us all, and when every part of His human nature was recoiling from what He was about to experience, He prayed, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).
Jesus was honest about His feelings — His human nature recoiled at the thought of going to the cross that next day to endure indescribable suffering on behalf of our fallen race — yet He was submissive, concluding His prayer for deliverance with “not as I will, but as You will.” And as He continued surrendering His will to God (three times!), He received His Father’s will in return, together with the strength and assurance needed to face suffering and death head on.
But perhaps the prayer that was on Jesus’ mind more than any other was His concern for His disciples. We are told that Jesus often spent entire nights in prayer for His disciples. His prayer in John 17 epitomizes His concern for them:
"I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are" (John 17:9-11).
Jesus’ desire was that His disciples would have the same unbroken union with Himself, as He shared with the Father. Such was the reason that He came into this world of sin in the first place.
"To bring humanity into Christ, to bring the fallen race into oneness with divinity, is the work of redemption."2
And so, just as Jesus prayed for His disciples when he was on this earth, so He continues to pray for us today as our High Priest in heaven. “Therefore, He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). His desire today remains that each of us can experience what it means to pray without ceasing — to have such an unbroken union with God that we are constantly surrendering our will to Him and constantly receiving His will in return.
In fact, in that same prayer that He prayed for His disciples two thousand years ago, He explicitly prayed for you and me today:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. (John 17:20-23)
Call to Action
Is it your desire to have that kind of continual intimate relationship with God? And is it not awesome to know that it is God’s express will that this prayer becomes your reality!
All scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1892), 98.
- Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958), book 1, 251.