January 10, 1999
Bethlehem Baptist Church
End of Prayer Week
John Piper, Pastor

PRAY WITHOUT CEASING
(1 Thessalonians 5:12-18)

But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. 14 We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. 16 Rejoice always; 17 pray without ceasing; 18 in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

Last week we ended abruptly in our exposition of Psalm 1 at the word "delight." So I would like to go back there to deal with that, and then make a connection to today's text.

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night." (Psalm 1:1-2)

We talked about the blessedness that comes from meditating on the law of the Lord day and night. It makes you like a tree planted by streams of water: 1) fruitful in ministry to others; 2) durable, as your leaf remains green in the midst of dry blasts and seasons of drought; and 3) prosperous, in that all the work of faith will have enduring significance even to eternity. Nothing you do in dependence on God will be done in vain, even if it looks like a failure here.

We pointed out that meditating on the Word of God day and night probably requires memorizing portions of Scripture so that they are there to ponder throughout the day or night without taking the Bible in hand or even turning on the light. And I encouraged you to be a part of the Fighter Verse strategy.

What If Meditating on God's Word Is Not a Pleasure?

Then, at the end, I said that the key to this kind of meditation is delight. The deepest mark of this happy person in Psalm 1 is that he delights in the Word of God. Bible reading and Bible memory and meditation are not a burden to him, but a pleasure. This is what we want. What a sadness when Bible reading is just a drudgery. Something is wrong.

What shall we do? We struggle with Bible reading and memory and meditation because we don't find pleasure in it. It feels like a burden and a mere duty that does not attract us. We have other things we want to get to more. Breakfast or work or newspaper or computer or TV. Our hearts incline to other things and do not incline to the Word. And so it is not our delight.

Did the psalmists ever struggle with this? Yes they did. Take heart. We all struggle with this. There are seasons in the best saints' lives when spiritual hunger becomes weak. How shall this be changed? The answer I want to give this morning is prayer. Delight in the Word of God is created and sustained through prayer. So the outline I want to follow today is to address three things: That we should pray, How we should pray, and What we should pray in order to delight in the Word of God.

Be sure you see the order of the thought - the order of your life:

1. Our aim is to be fruitful people of love whose lives are nourishing for others; we want to be durable in that and not wither when the heat comes; and we want to be eternally significant or prosperous. That's our goal, because when we are fruitful like that in the midst of the drought of hardship, God will get the glory.

2. But the key to that kind of fruitfulness, we have seen in Psalm 1, is meditation on the Word of God day and night. We must be a Word-saturated people.

3. And the key to continual meditation is memorizing portions of the Scriptures so that we can keep them ever before us and savor them all the time.

4. And the key to memorizing and meditation is delighting in the Word of God. Such continual meditation will not be sustained by mere duty. And if it is, the effect will probably be pride, not humble fruitfulness for others. The soul that never gets beyond spiritual discipline to spiritual delight will probably become a harsh and condemning soul. The sweetness and tenderness and humility that come from the Word of God grow out of the delight and wonder of grace, that we have been granted to know God.

Now I am turning to a fifth step in the order of thought: the key to delight is prayer. Or, more accurately, the key to delight is God's omnipotent, transforming grace laid hold on by prayer.

So let me try to awaken your desires to pray by showing you that we should pray for delight and how we should pray and what we should pray.

THAT We Should Pray for Delight

Now we turn for a moment to our text in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Here is a simple command: "Pray without ceasing." You might ask, Why choose this verse from all the verses in the Bible that command us to pray? Why use this one in answer to the question: What is the key to delighting in the Word of God? The answer is the connection between 1 Thessalonians 5:17 and the flow of thought leading up to it. It is substantially similar to Psalm 1.

1 Thessalonians 5:14-15 says, "We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people." Now that is a very fruit-bearing life. He is telling us to be like trees planted by streams of water that bring forth fruit. Look at all these needy people draining you: the "unruly" are challenging you; the "fainthearted" are leaning on you; the "weak" are depleting you. But you are called to encourage and help and be patient and not return evil for evil. In other words, you are called to have spiritual resources that can be durable and fruitful and nourishing when others are unruly and fainthearted and weak and mean-spirited.

How? Well, verse 16 says, "Rejoice always." That corresponds to "delight" in Psalm 1. Presumably, this rejoicing is not primarily in circumstances, but in God and his promises, because the people around you are unruly and fainthearted and weak and antagonistic. This would make an ordinary person angry and sullen and discouraged. But you have your roots planted somewhere else and are drawing up the sap of joy from a source that cannot be depleted -the river of God and his Word.

What then is the key to this rejoicing, or this delight? Verse 17 says, "Pray without ceasing." And verse 18 says, "In everything give thanks." So the answer seems to be that continual prayer and thanksgiving is a key to the rejoicing or the delighting in God and his Word that makes a person fruitful and durable and spiritually prosperous in relation to all kinds of people. (See in Philippians 4:3-6 the same sequence of thought from fruitful people-helping that is rooted in joy that is rooted in prayer.)

So I think it is fair to say that one Biblical key to maintaining delight or rejoicing in God and his Word is prayer. Which leads to the second observation, namely, how to pray.

HOW to Pray for Delight

The one point to make here is that our praying should be "without ceasing." If you want to be fruitful for people and not wither under the pressures of unruly, fainthearted, weak, and hurtful people, then you must, as verse 16 says, "rejoice always" or "delight in the word of the Lord . . . day and night" (Psalm 1:2). And to do that, as verse 17 says, we need to pray always -without ceasing.

What does it mean to pray without ceasing?

I think it means three things. First, it means that there is a spirit of dependence that should permeate all we do. This is the very spirit and essence of prayer. So, even when we are not speaking consciously to God, there is a deep, abiding dependence on him that is woven into the heart of faith. In that sense, we "pray" or have the spirit of prayer continuously.

Second - and I think this is what Paul has in mind most immediately - praying without ceasing means praying repeatedly and often. I base this on the use of the word "without ceasing" (adialeiptos) in Romans 1:9, where Paul says, "For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you." Now we can be sure that Paul did not mention the Romans every minute of his prayers. He prayed about many other things. But he mentioned them over and over and often. So "without ceasing" doesn't mean that verbally or mentally we have to be speaking prayers every minute of the day. But we should pray over and over and often. Our default mental state should be: "O God . . ."

Third, I think praying without ceasing means not giving up on prayer. Don't ever come to a point in your life where you cease to pray at all. Don't abandon the God of hope and say, "There's no use praying." Go on praying. Don't cease.

So the key to delight in the Word of God is to pray continually - that is, to lean on God all the time. Never give up looking to him for help, and come to him repeatedly during the day and often. Make the default mental state a Godward longing.

I think it would be good to notice here that in real life some discipline in regular prayer times helps keep this kind of spontaneity alive. In other words, if you want to have a vital hour-by-hour spontaneous walk with God you must also have a disciplined regular meeting with God. Daniel had some remarkable communion with God when it was critically needed. But look what it grew out of. The decree was passed that no one could pray except to the king, under penalty of death. But notice what Daniel does, according to Daniel 6:10. "Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously." The point here is that Daniel lived a life that combined discipline (three times a day) with spontaneous encounters with God. So it will be with us: if we hope to pray without ceasing day and night - enjoying a continual coming and communion with God - we will need to develop disciplined times of prayer. Nobody maintains pure spontaneity in this fallen world. (See Psalm 119:62; 55:17.)

Finally, then, what are we to pray in order to have the delight in God and his Word that will keep us meditating and fruitful and durable and spiritually prosperous?

WHAT We Are to Pray

The psalmists point the way here. They struggled like you and I do with motivation and with seasons of weak desires. What did they pray to keep the fires of delight in God's Word burning? Three examples from the prayer life of the psalmists:

1. They prayed for the inclination to meditate on the Bible -for the "want to". If you lack desire, don't just have a defeated attitude and say, "I can't enjoy it because I don't have the desire." That is the way atheists talk. God is in the business of creating what is not. So the psalmist prays in Psalm 119:36, "Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to gain." We admit to God that our hearts incline to the computer or the newspaper or the TV and we plead with him that he reach in and change our inclinations so that we love to read and memorize and meditate on the testimonies of God.

So few people deal with God at this level! We are psychological fatalists. "This is just the way I am." The psalmists were not that way, and we should not be that way. They saw their stubborn inclinations, and, instead of fatalistically giving up, they pleaded with God to change their inclinations and make them want to meditate on the Bible.

2. Secondly, the psalmists prayed that they would have spiritual eyes to see great and wonderful things in the Word, so that their desires and delights would be sustained by truth, by reality. Psalm 119:18: "Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law." If we are going to be inclined to the Word and stay with it and delight in it and memorize it and meditate on it, we must see more than dull facts, we must see "wonderful things." That is not the function of the natural mind alone. That is the work of the Spirit to give you a mind to see great things for what they really are. Delight-giving Bible reading and Bible meditation is a work of God on our hearts and minds. That is why we must pray continually for that divine work.

3. Finally, the psalmists prayed that the effect of their inclining to the Word and their seeing wonderful things in the Word would be a profound heart-satisfaction that would sustain them through droughts and make them fruitful for others. Psalm 90:14, "O satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days."

We ask God to awaken the delight that Psalm 1 says we should have. Delight in God is a miracle. This is what it means to be a Christian, and being a Christian is not a mere choice to believe a fact. Being a Christian is believing the truth of God because there is a spiritual apprehension of its beauty and glory. When that soul-satisfying glory starts to fade, we must fight off the deadly effects of worldliness and immerse ourselves in the Word where his glory is revealed, and then pray and pray and pray, "O satisfy me in the morning with Your lovingkindness, that I may sing for joy and be glad all my days."

So you can see how prayer and the Word are tied together this week. The Word is the means God uses to fill our minds and hearts with truth about himself that makes us fruitful and durable in drought and prosperous into eternity. Nobody becomes like a tree planted by water by prayer alone. It is by the delighting in the Word and meditating on it day and night.

But nobody is inclined to the Word, or sees spiritual wonders in the Word, or is satisfied with the Word, who does not pray and pray and pray the way the psalmists did. So I plead with you to pray without ceasing this year. And as an aid to that wonderful spontaneity of day and night praying and meditation, build disciplined times of prayer and meditation into your life. Maybe once or twice or three times or seven times a day (as the psalmist in Psalm 119:164, "Seven times a day I praise You, because of Your righteous ordinances.")

Copyright 1999 John Piper


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