The Word of the Day is “always.” In today’s reading of 1 Thessalonians 5:14-23, we find the teaching “pray without ceasing” (OSB vs. 5:17). Today we will study the context of this short directive, a teaching that many Orthodox know and strive to practice.
Note that the two-word imperative comes in the middle of Paul’s concluding instructions to his congregation in Thessalonica. Notice also that it appears in a series of practices that the faithful should always carry out. The apostle writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks” (OSB vs. 16-18). The first and the last imperatives are a frame for the ideal of praying without ceasing. These bookends encourage the attitudes with which we should enter into ceaseless prayer.
Let’s look at these mandates separately. First, we might ask, what is continual rejoicing? And how is it possible to rejoice amid the struggles and trials of this world? The Greek term for “rejoice” means to “be happy”, “be glad,” or “be cheerful.” It was used as a greeting, an expression of good wishes (Strong’s #5463). Furthermore the word study of the Greek term for “rejoice” shows that joy, grace, and gladness are related because they share the same stem (2021). We might summarize that to rejoice is to be filled with overflowing gladness in the grace of God.
In this sense, we can “rejoice always,” because the grace of the Lord is constant. His love is steadfast. He never forsakes us. Thus, we can even rejoice in tribulation. Accordingly, the apostle writes, “But rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (OSB 1 Peter 4:13). We may be glad in the Lord even in persecution as Jesus taught, “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (OSB Matthew 5:11-12).
Give Thanks In Every Circumstance
In the same vein, the apostle writes that we should “in everything give thanks.” We get the word “Eucharist” from the Greek term that means to “give thanks,” “to be grateful,” “to express gratitude” and to “say grace” before a meal (Strong’s #2168). Along with joy, grace, and gladness, the term “to give thanks” has the same stem and so all four terms are related..
In giving thanks we acknowledge that ultimately everything comes from the grace and mercy of God. There is nothing that we have and are that has not been given to us, even our life itself. Therefore the apostle teaches that for all that God gives us, we should “give thanks in all circumstances.” That means we should express thanks to God in plenty and in want. Has our heavenly Father not promised to give us what we need? Has the Lord not said, “Do not worry saying ‘What shall we eat? Or what shall we drink? Or What shall we wear? For all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father know you need all these things?’” (OSB Matthew 6:31-32).
The Definition of Prayer
Between encouragements for us to rejoice and give thanks, Paul speaks of constant prayer. The Greek term for prayer has the root meaning of “to make a request” (Strong’s #4336. 213 and #2171, 107). Paul uses a related Greek word that adds “toward” (Strong’s #4314, 212) to the idea of making petitions. The addition of this prefix indicates that praying, is more than wishing. Prayer makes its requests to the One who has promised to hear and answer them. It is as the Lord promised, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you shall find” (OSB Matthew 7:7). But more than that, prayer bring us into the presence of God and creates a bond between the One who asks and the one who receives.
Praying Without Interruption
To prayer, however, Paul adds the quality of constancy. The Greek term has the sense of “without interruption or omission” (Strong’s #89, 6). The word means that there is never a time when we should not be praying. How is this possible? To pray night and day, the Hesychast tradition of Orthodox contemplation advises the constant repetition of the “Jesus Prayer.” This sentence, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” overcome distraction and by the grace of God descends into the heart. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Blessed Memory wrote, “More than any other prayer, the Jesus Prayer aims at bringing us to stand in God’s presence with no other thought but the miracle of our standing there and God with us, because in the use of the Jesus Prayer there is nothing and no one except God and us” (Bloom 1966).
Joy, Thanksgiving, and Ceaseless Prayer Go Together
However, the point is that Paul places constant prayer in a three-part series of other practices that we should do at all times and in all circumstances. The Philokalia, indeed, links these habits of devotion together. For example, about rejoicing, St. Hesychios in The Philokalia counsels, “Let us hold fast, therefore, to prayer and humility [with watchfulness]. If we do this, we shall daily and hourly be able to celebrate a secret festival of joy within our hearts” (Nikodimos 1979, Kndle Loc 4722)
Moreover, concerning thanksgiving, St. John Karpathos advises in The Philokalia, “Do not rebel against Him who called you to pray and recite Psalms, but cleave to Him throughout the years of life in pure and intimate communion, reverent yet unashamed in His presence, and always full of thanksgiving” (Nikodimos 1979, Kindle Loc 7762)
Our study today offers us a valuable insight into the practice and attitude of prayer. We should be prayerful at all times, keeping ourselves, our attention, and our endeavors before the Lord as if we are standing in prayer night and day. But our prayer should be accompanied with rejoicing and thanksgiving. In other words, we should pray with joy and thanksgiving as we have described these dispositions of the heart.
2021 “Helps: Word Studies.” Bible Hub. https://biblehub.com/greek/5463.htm. Bloom, Metropolitan Anthony. 1966. The Jesus Prayer quoted in Orthodox Church of Estonia. Nikodimos, St. . 1979. Edited by G. E. Palmer, The Philokalia: the Complete Text: Farber and Farber.