Pray Without Ceasing: A Pastor's Prayer Journey
“Pray without ceasing.” These are the words of St. Paul found in a letter to the Thessalonians that New Testament scholar Raymond Brown identifies as, “the oldest preserved Christian writing.” Paul’s admonition is both simple and demanding. When I read these words they always hit me with an accusatory tone, because lex semper accusat: the law always accuses. I know what my prayer life is…and 1 Thessalonians 5:17 it is not.
What exactly does Paul mean when he says, “pray without ceasing,” or “pray continuously” as I learned it in the NIV growing up? The exact parameters of this admonition are still up for debate. Too literal a reading would suggest that anytime you go to bed for the night you are failing to do as God commands through His servant Paul. I think Greek scholar Daniel Wallace offers a helpful comment on this passage when he categorizes the Greek grammar found in these words as an “Iterative Present.” He says, “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.” Wallace’s words provide a reasonable understanding of the text, and not because Wallace wishes to “take the edge off the law” or somehow make God’s law more manageable. The two words preceding 1 Thess. 5:17 are “rejoice always,” yet we know from Ecclesiastes that there is a time for every matter under heaven, including a time for weeping and mourning. But then again, bolstered by the victory of Jesus Christ of sin and death, Paul will also offer up the paradox that even while sorrowful we are always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10).
1 Thess. 5:17 reminds me of the questions I get as a pastor regarding tithing. “Pastor, how much money should I put in the offering plate?” I often reply, “Ten percent of your income is a good place to start.” This is often met with a follow-up question. “Gross income or net income?” The answer to that question is that I don’t care. I really don’t, because at this point of the conversation I realize I’m not actually talking to someone who's interested in rendering unto God the things that are God’s, but someone who is seeking to be justified on the basis of the law.
If our approach to understanding the proper parameters of 1 Thess. 5:17 is merely an attempt to put a check mark next to Paul’s words, “Pray without ceasing” and say “Mission Accomplished” then we have miserably failed to understand Paul’s admonition at all. Paul didn’t write these words and then think to himself, “I hope this spurs those Thessalonians to pray enough to satisfy the demands of God.” Paul wrote these words because Christians ought to pray. There are people and things to pray for. There is a God worthy of thanks and praise. The Christian does these things…or, at least, he should.
When I left the seminary, I had to fill out a form called a Self-Evaluation-Tool (SET). One of the questions it asks you is “Describe the areas of your ministry needing improvement and what you are doing to improve them.” The same question could have been worded this way, “What are your weaknesses?” I wrote, without hesitation, “My prayer life is sorely lacking. There’s no routine or structure. I go days where the only prayers I offer are those I say before a meal.”
That was five years ago. Today the answer to that same question is different. I now consider my prayer life an area of strength. What happened?
I taught a Bible Study on prayer. That’s what happened. Nothing forces you to learn a subject matter quite so quickly as when you are put into a position of having to teach it to others. The Bible study lasted seven weeks. I couldn’t possibly rehash in blog post a fraction of what I learned teaching that class, but through the teaching of the class I developed what was for me the single greatest tool for strengthening my prayer life - a prayer journal. There’s nothing new about prayer journals. I certainly didn’t invent the concept. But I did develop one that works for me.
Like preparing to run a 5k or marathon, having a plan in place is often as important as anything. Keeping that plan to a manageable size and having a rationale for the plan is also important.
If you struggle with your prayer life and are looking for a plan to help you, I’d like to share with you mine. It’s not a silver bullet. It’s not magic. And I’m not even remotely suggesting that your prayer life must look like this. I’ve shared this plan with my friends and some parishioners. I don’t know of a single person who has adopted it. But when I recently shared it with another pastor earlier this week, he encouraged me to type up its structure and rationale and make it available to others. This is a plan that works for me, and with minimal adjusting I’m confident it can work for you too. Again, the goal of the prayer journal wasn’t so I could boast about meeting a requirement of Paul from 1 Thessalonians 5:17. The goal of the prayer journal was to keep me praying, repeatedly. And I can say with confidence that to this end, it has been successful.
The format and rationale to my prayer journal is printed below. It is my prayer that you benefit from it as well.
The prayer journal cycles every sixteen days. There is nothing magical about a sixteen day cycle. Honestly, it’s a sixteen day cycle because the physical size of my prayer journal is easily divided this way. This is the book I use. I physically draw in the partitions with a pen and a ruler (and I only need to do it once every eight days). If the pages were taller or wider, it might be a ten or twenty day cycle. But they aren’t, and so I found myself working with a sixteen day cycle.
Every day I pray ten petitions. Why ten? Mostly because ten is a manageable number to do in a day. If I pray these ten petitions without distractions, it’ll take about twenty minutes to say the prayers. Furthermore, the ten petitions allow my prayers to be structured while allowing adequate room for variety to pray for those unpredictable matters that crop up day to day.
The structure of the ten petitions is as follows. Petition #1 is a “prayer of the month.” It’s the first petition I offer. I offer it every day, and it only changes at the beginning of the month. This month, my petition is for my godchildren. Previous months have been for persecuted Christians, for specific missionaries, appeals for reconciliation between me and someone else, etc. Just pick a subject matter, and pray for it every month.
Petitions #2 and #3 are for members of my congregations. I have my membership lists taped to the wall of my office, and I go through them alphabetically. I serve two congregations, so Petition #2 is for a member from Concordia. Petition #3 is for a member at Immanuel. If I were a pastor of a single point parish, I’d make Petitions #2 and #3 the names of two members from my congregation, and knowing my personality…Petition #2 would go in alphabetical order, and petition #3 would probably go in reverse alphabetical order. If you’re not a pastor, you can still use these two petitions to pray for the members of the congregation to which you belong. Just ask your pastor or church secretary for a membership list. In Luther’s Small Catechism in the Table of Duties, prayer is listed as something that is owed “to everyone” on the basis of 1 Tim. 2:1.
Petition #4 is for my family.
Petition #5 is “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1). This one cycles over the sixteen days. On Day 1 I pray for the President of the United States. Day 2 I pray for the Governor of South Dakota (you’d adjust this based on where you live…though I doubt Governor Daugaard would object to prayers from those outside of South Dakota). Day 3 is for one of SD’s two senators, and Day 4 is for the other one. Because all fifty states have two senators, this wouldn’t change based on your location, except for the names. Day 5 is for SD’s Representative to the House. Because of SD’s low population, we only have one. California has over fifty. You could just make this a day to pray for all the representatives of your state, or you could pick a different representative by name every cycle. Again, this prayer journal is a plan that should work with minimal adjustments. Day 6 is for the Supreme Court of the United States. On Day 7 I switch from political authorities to ecclesiastical ones. Day 7 is for the President of the LCMS (adjust according to your faith tradition). Day 8 is for my District President (adjust according to your faith tradition). Days 9,10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 are for parishes in my “circuit.” (Depending on the structure of your church body, this might look differently. Adjust accordingly). Day 16 is for the parish I serve.
Petition #6 is the prayer that is found on the LCMS “Pray For Us” prayer calendar. These monthly prayer calendars can be found and downloaded from here. Obviously, if you’re not LCMS, you could put a different petition in this slot.
Petitions #7–#10 are miscellaneous prayers. This is where the variety comes in. These are the petitions where I put the prayer that I offer up in response to the Orlando shooting at Pulse Nightclub, or for Dallas shootings victims, or in response to the massacre in Nice, France. These are the petitions where you ask for successful surgery for an uncle, safe travels for a friend, or prayers for wisdom and understanding in day-to-day life.
And that’s the structure and rationale of my prayer journal. Recently, I wrote a review of the Concordia Psalter, you can read it here. The way I have incorporated the Psalms into my prayer life, is that between each petition I pray a Psalm. This has increased the time required to say my prayers from twenty to thirty minutes, and it’s been worth every extra second.
Lest I be accused of faithless rigidity, I do say prayers throughout the day. I say many other prayers over the course of the day which are not recorded in this book; but these are written so that I might be kept honest and set a pace for the day.
Another feature worth noting, as you’ll notice in the picture, is that there are five extra lines on the bottom of each page. I use these lines to “journal” about my week. It’s just a snap shot of my life. Just a few highlights over the course of the days, but it is an added feature. Of course, if you use a different journal, these lines might not be there, or if you use the same journal, you could use them for something else.
Tomorrow (July 29th) will mark the last day of my journal. All 144 pages will be full. I started on October 2nd, 2012. Contained in this book are nearly four years of prayers (I missed and skipped some days). It’s a precious book to me. It speaks of my life of faith. It shares a history. Skimming through, I can see how the Lord has answered prayers as I’ve desired, and places where He hasn’t.
I already have a second book in place, ready to use on July 30th, and if blessed with four more years of life, I hope to have a third book in place around this time in 2020.
Until then, I hope this has been helpful to you. May the Lord bless you with the desire and the will to meet Paul’s injunction and pray without ceasing.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch
 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday: New York, 1997), 456.
 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1996), 521.