“Pray without ceasing”

What’s the best translation for 1 Thessalonians 5:17?

Pray without ceasing.

Pray continually.

Don’t cease praying.

Something else?

The Greek is, ἀδιαλείπτως προσεύχεσθε. Short. Sweet. To the point.

What’s the point?

For ἀδιαλείπτως, lexicons have glosses like ‘unintermitting’, ‘incessant’, even ‘continuously’.  ‘Incessant’, in English, means “to continue, seemingly without an interruption.”  Is that what the sentence is saying?

If one searches for other places where the idea of unceasing prayer might occur, you’ll find the following three.  There might be others I missed.  If you find some, please comment with the reference.

Acts 12:5:

    προσευχὴ δὲ ἦν ἐκτενῶς γινομένη ὑπὸ τῆς ἐκκλησίας πρὸς τὸν θεὸν περὶ αὐτοῦ
    but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.[KJV]
    But the church earnestly began to pray for him.[My translation]

Luke did not use ἀδιαλείπτως here. He used ἐκτενῶς, and I think it is more likely in the sense of ‘earnestly’ or ‘eagerly’ than’continually’.

Romans 1:9:

    ὡς ἀδιαλείπτως μνείαν ὑμῶν ποιοῦμαι
    that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers[KJV]
    that I’ve never stopped thinking about you in my prayers.[My translation]

2 Timothy 1:3:

    ὡς ἀδιάλειπτον ἔχω τὴν περὶ σοῦ μνείαν ἐν ταῖς δεήσεσίν μου νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας
    that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day;[KJV]
    that I haven’t stopped thinking about you in either my daytime or evening-time prayers.[My translation]

I think there’s an intensity inherent in the words ἀδιάλειπτος or ἀδιαλείπτως.  That’s why I like the more verbose stating the positive by negating the negative (“have not stopped”).

I think translating 1 Thessalonians 5:17 with the words “without ceasing” carry the idea of “unending, continuous prayer” to the English mind.  I think such an action is impossible and others think so, too.  So, they interpret it to mean “be in a continual state of prayer”.  However, that doesn’t seem to fit the other similar occurrences. So, I don’t think that is accurate.  I think the sentence should be translated as:

    Don’t stop praying!

Short.  Sweet.  To the point.  What do you think? And why?

24 thoughts on ““Pray without ceasing”

  1. Iver Larsen says:

    Mike,

    I think I would agree with you. Although the word literally means “unceasingly” and it also occurs in 1 Thess 1:2 and 2:13, I take it as a hyperbole.

    When I checked how we translated in, I could see that we had “pray without getting tired”.

  2. WoundedEgo says:

    This might suggest that whoever wrote that verse had heard of this:

    Luk 18:1 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;

    The concept here is “not giving up.” In other words, “be persistent [until you wear your father out, and obtain what you desire].

    In other words, this is nice advocating endless repetition, but purposeful badgering:

    1Co 9:26 I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:

    In other words, this is a contact sport. One is not to think that one is heard for repetition of vocalization, but one is to expect one’s father to act by much and fervent imploring.

    Mat 6:7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

    Rather, make pointed, fervent appeals, mixed with faith, and you will prevail:

    Heb 5:7 Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared;

    So I offer, “Implore, without giving up.”

  3. Bob MacDonald says:

    “I think such an action is impossible” – this is the worst possible reason for translating something differently. What is my thought that it is important to the world?

    In this case, here is my thought on your thought about this word to Thessalonica from what is likely Paul’s earliest surviving epistle.

    The problem is what you think you are doing. Prayer is not our action but God’s action in us. There is no doubt that this was the experience of the psalmist. “When I awake you are still with me” is the ultimate statement both of sleep and resurrection. It is a disputed text these days, (see this post for my thoughts) but it is my thought that the translators have missed the point of both the psalm and the psalter. Sleeping and waking are a vital trope in the psalms that reveals to faith what God does in the elect and in the elect for the world. This action of God is more than ‘meaning’ and ‘getting the point’ and ‘thought’.

    So I think that in this passage, Paul has that invitation to faith which will result in the hearer really turning to God and allowing the action of God to work from faith to faith in the receiver of the word. This is prayer without ceasing.

  4. John says:

    “Don’t stop praying” sounds a little to me like, “You’re doing a good job of praying often—don’t let go of this habit.” Not that I have a better translation to offer…

    I agree that prayer is not just what many of us take it to be. It can be something that fills our minds and hearts even when we are not consciously moving our lips.

  5. Mike Sangrey says:

    “I think such an action is impossible” – this is the worst possible reason for translating something differently.

    It’s not a reason for translating something differently; it’s a reason for translating something accurately. If one’s exegesis determines a meaning which is, in fact, impossible, then it’s a wrong exegesis.

    Now, let me nuance that a bit (particularly since miracles are, by definition, impossible events occurring in the real world). Also, please don’t make this into a silver bullet that slays all exegetical werewolves. I don’t intend it as such.

    By way of example: If my exegesis of a sacred and practical text leads me to believe the meaning is: Green love affairs should strain with smelly devotion, then my exegesis is wrong. Love affairs can’t be green and devotion can’t be smelly. The exegesis does not synch with the real world. And, therefore, the exegesis can’t be true. Again, let’s keep firmly in mind I’m talking about a practical text–I have to do this.

    Obviously, my example shows a collocational clash. One could argue that “ceaseless prayer” is not a collocational clash and therefore my example is moot. However, what makes a collocational clash a collocational clash?

    That question gets us into the whole “words and reality” question and the very nature of semantics itself. Without opening up an entire oil tanker of worms, it’s my understanding that a collocational clash occurs when the lexical semantics of two or more words do not coalesce into a meaning perceived as potentially realizable within our experience. This segues into Relevance Theory since perception of meaning is a two dimensional activity intended to obtain Relevance. The issue of hyperbole flutters over this Relevance Theory pool, too.

    One can not unceasingly pray in the world as we know it. God can do it (I would think). Although, if he would do it in front of us (aka Jesus), we probably wouldn’t perceive it being done. Also perhaps, we’ll be able to do it with resurrection bodies. But, the text before us is a Greek Imperative addressed to people like you and me living on this planet. I certainly can’t unceasingly pray. But, I can pray again, and again, and again, and…

  6. Mike Sangrey says:

    Hyperbole has been brought up. True enough. (See Praying Without Ceasing and Hyperbole, too)

    The question is how the English hyperbolic clause “pray without ceasing” is immediately understood by the majority of people. I think it is generally understood to mean a command to pray more often than you already are. So, the text turns into, “Fail to pray unceasingly, but at least try harder!” In contrast, while “don’t stop praying!” also sets a lofty goal, it additionally incorporates a punctuated sense which renders it realizable. Somewhat ironically, one does not fail when one stops praying at the end of a specific prayer. Interestingly, the irony subtly points to the slight hyperbole in the statement don’t stop praying!

    I also think we need to consider 2 Timothy 1:3. Is Paul telling Timothy that all throughout the day and night he prayed? Given the culture where specific times of prayer were normative (see the plural προσευχή–“prayers’ in Acts 2:42), it seems to me people would immediately understand Paul’s use of νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας (“night and day”) as referring to the occurrences of prayer during a 24 hour period. It’s metonymy.

    We Westerners don’t have many “religious duties.” Since our linguistic world is structured differently, we don’t immediately interpret a text such as this along the lines laid down by planned, prescribed, devotional rituals. We tend to dismiss them (in our linguistic world) by thinking of them as “ritualistic.” Therefore, when we understand a text, we dismiss such an understanding as not Relevant (there’s that technical word again). Obviously, different people are different so this comparison is not to be understood as black versus white (but this fact simply underscores the Relevancy aspect).

    The goal of good translation is to create a text which turns on (ie fires up) the most likely meaning first within the reader’s mind.

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    Iver mentioned 1 Thess. 1:2. Thank you, Iver, I’m going to use that. 🙂

    NIV2010:We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers.

    If ἀδιαλείπτως is “without ceasing”, then should my prayer for Iver be something like: “Iver, Iver, Iver, Iver, Iver, Iver, Iver, Iver, Iver, Iver, Iver…”?

    Obviously not (and Iver certainly didn’t intend such). It means every time I pray, I think of Iver.

    Lastly, please note that the ‘you’ is plural, so I’ve slightly twisted the sentence.

    And second lastly, I know Iver well enough to know he would not really appreciate the first interpretation; but, he sure would love the second. 🙂

  8. Gary Simmons says:

    A good question to ask: Why is it that most readers, when they approach the Bible, won’t understand hyperbole as hyperbole? What is it about our perception of Holy Writ that prevents us English-speakers from getting it? Or, is our approach to Scripture even what the issue is?

  9. Bob MacDonald says:

    Thanks for the lesson in relevancy theory. There are two examples of praying without ceasing that come to mind, besides what I already mentioned from the psalms. 1. The spirit praying in us with unutterable groanings (Romans 8 ) and 2. Jesus praying – John 11:42. Hah – so I have pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Those are ‘god’ examples, and so not fair. I am not into trying harder. I have no other way to say that Paul’s instruction is hyperbole if you like it that way but that’s not how it grabs me. But you know me, I am not into meaning and I may be like Ben Zoma the one who went in to PRDS sane and and came out mad.

  10. Sidney W. says:

    Do you guys think Ephesians 6:18 is also a parallel:

    18 praying at all times in the Spirit,
    with all prayer
    and supplication.
    To that end keep alert with all perseverance,
    making supplication for all the saints,

    Schwandt, J., & Collins, C. J. (2006; 2006). The ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament (Eph 6:18). Logos Research Systems, Inc.

  11. Mike Sangrey says:

    Gary asked: A good question to ask: Why is it that most readers, when they approach the Bible, won’t understand hyperbole as hyperbole?

    Yeah, that sure is a good question. 🙂

    My view? Many readers have burned-in presuppositions concerning the mechanisms communication uses to convey truth. Their presuppositions are wrong (did I write that out-loud?), but it appears to be the way many people are wired. Somehow or other the popular expectation is that Spock or Data exhibit better examples of truth telling. Somehow, there’s this little twinge of disingenuity when someone says, Would you mind passing the salt? when what they mean is, Please give me the salt.[1]

    We see this conceptual metaphor concerning truth telling in certain words. For example, ‘literal’. In certain contexts this word is meant to convey ‘accurate’[2]. Another good example is the word paraphrase. It’s often meant to convey ‘inaccurate’. However, there certainly are many cases when the process that one uses to produce paraphrase ends up producing a more accurate translation, and doing a “literal” translation of a specific text produces an inaccurate result. Many seem to have this model in their heads of how truth telling works when it comes to a sacred text. And, truth telling must be straight-forward; the language has to work differently in this special case. My own view is quite different: God spoke human language and, translators using the language as it has been given to them is the best way to get God’s message into the minds, hearts, and lives of the readers.

    In a nutshell: I think it’s more of an exegetical misunderstanding. We tend to practice Spockian exegesis, since (we think) drifting away from such exegesis is drifting toward a place where God is disingenuous. The assumed rule is: If the literal sense is not nonsense, look for no other sense.[3] In my view, the rule naively dismisses linguistic insight. It puts in place a mechanism which assumes way too much about the text (and language, and communication) before the text is properly, linguistically analyzed.


    [1] There’s no disingenuity at all since there are other layers of intended meaning. Or, to say it differently, the mapping between form and meaning is quite complex but highly compact.
    [2] I’m honestly intrigued by the many times the word ‘literal’ is not used literally. But, instead, it is used to convey the other layers of meaning which come along for the ride.
    [3] Which, ironically!!!, belies its own use given the polysemy.

  12. Mike Sangrey says:

    Sidney asked: Do you guys think Ephesians 6:18 is also a parallel?

    Good observation! And, it turns out to be a big question. 🙂

    The ESV’s use of all prayer and all perseverance is poor English, so working from such a text makes it much more difficult to understand it. Let me try to clarify that first.

    The word πᾶς (“all”) is an adjective used to mark one of two characteristics in our conceptual world: something that has a number of parts and the author wants the reader to “look” at each and every one of them, individually, but, still it’s a group of these pieces–ie. the trees. And, two, something that has a number of parts and the author wants the reader to “look” at the whole of it–ie. the forest. In either case, the core idea is one of completeness or totality. Even when it carries the sense of any the idea is to consider any of the “all” of them.

    There are two other things going on here that have to do with how the article interacts with the noun which πᾶς modifies and the position of πᾶς relative to its noun. In this case, there is no article (which is observationally important).

    First off, πᾶς is working more like a quantifier than a descriptive adjective. A descriptive adjective would send us toward thinking of πᾶς προσευχή as talking about “a whole prayer.” However, here we’re thinking more in terms of a quantification of prayer.

    Additionally, it means we’re very likely not talking about “every prayer”. So, it’s not that kind of quantification. If we had διὰ πάσης τῆς προσευχῆς (“DIA PASHS THS PROSEUCHS”) we would translate literally as “through every prayer.” But, that’s not the case here.

    So, what on earth is all prayer?”

    Well, what does a quantity of prayer look like?

    Close your eyes and think about praying a prayer that has some quantity to it, some prayer mass, some prayer density, if you will. And this isn’t a prayer for Aunt Millie’s big toe. This is an Elijah prayer (see 1 Kings 18:36-37). I’ve often marveled at how short Elijah’s prayer was. And he didn’t even mention rain! It was short. It was “sweet”. But it was a big prayer. Well, maybe it wasn’t sweet.

    How do you describe that prayer in English?

    I’d probably translate διὰ πάσης προσευχῆς καὶ δεήσεως (Lit: “through all prayer and pleading”) something like: with a full, urgent prayer, [pray…].[1] Note that the English “pleading“, as also the Greek, carries the idea of asking with urgency.

    The ESV’s at all times (Gr: ἐν παντὶ καιρῷ; Lit: “in every occasion”) is good English. However, I think something else would be more accurate. I would probably translate as, on all occasions. καιρός (KAIROS) carries the idea of, “points of time consisting of occasions for particular events” (from Louw & Nida). The “trees” are different occasions, not simply different times. This leaning of mine stems from my thinking that the original audience had times specifically set aside for prayer. Paul wasn’t thinking of someone walking through a shopping mall parking lot. ESV’s at all times does not convey particular events.

    This additional use of πᾶς brings up another exegetical issue to consider when πᾶς is used: quantitative versus qualitative nouns. ‘Prayer’ is more qualitative; occasion is more quantitative. This lexical semantic difference ends up meaning that one can accurately translate ἐν παντὶ καιρῷ, even though there is no article, as “on every occasion.” Interesting, huh?

    So, yeah, I think the theme of Eph 6:18 is quite similar, if not identical, to what Paul says in 2 Thess. 5:17.

    Very good catch. Thanks! One reason I appreciate this is the commonality of the theme supports the exegesis. A theme can be expressed in a variety of ways, and we see that happening here.


    [1] Another thing going on here in my translation has to do with my understanding of the Hebraic construction “[modifier] X and Y”. It works more like a single unit than the same construction in English. Getting into that here is too much of a tangent.

  13. Mike Sangrey says:

    Wayne, I think that works quite well.

    Also, I just noticed what the CEV has for Eph 6:18:

    “Never stop praying…”

  14. Mike Sangrey says:

    Bob, I don’t see how Romans 8:23 or John 11:42 refer to “ceaseless prayers.” I still don’t know what a “ceaseless prayer” would look like.

    However, there’s a magician that pulls a hat out of a rabbit. I’ve never seen it; but, I’m told it is completely hilarious. 🙂

    Whoops, sorry, this is a Bible Translation blog. I should have said, “all hilarious.”

  15. John says:

    From St Gregory Palamas (†1359):

    “There are countless numbers of others who, living in the world, were entirely given over to ceaseless prayer, as can be testified by historical writings. And so, my dear brothers in Christ, I entreat you—I together with St John Chrysostom—for the sake of your soul’s salvation, do not neglect this prayer. Imitate the example of those of whom I have spoken, and follow after them as much as possible. At first this may seem very difficult, but be assured, as if this were from the Almighty God, that the very name of our Lord Jesus Christ, ceaselessly invoked by you, will help you to overcome all difficulties,—and with time you will become accustomed to this and you will taste how sweet is the name of the Lord. Then you will know by experience that this activity is not impossible nor difficult, but both possible and easy. This is why St Paul, knowing much better than we what great benefit comes from this prayer, exhorted us to pray without ceasing. He would not have required this of us had it been so very difficult and utterly impossible, knowing beforehand that in such a case, being unable to fulfill this task, we would inevitably be disobedient to his command and become transgressors of it and thereby make ourselves worthy of judgment and punishment. But this could not have been the Apostle’s intent.

    “In order to pray in this way, we must bear in mind the method of prayer, how it is possible to pray without ceasing, i.e. to pray with the mind. We can always do this, it only we desire it. While we are occupied with handiwork, while we walk, while we eat or drink—we can always pray with the mind, or perform mental prayer pleasing to God, true prayer. With our body let us work, but with our soul let us pray. Let our outer man perform all his bodily activities; but let the inner man be completely given over to serving God and never cease this spiritual activity of mental prayer as Jesus the God-Man commanded us in the holy Gospel: ‘When thou prayest, enter into the closet and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret’ (Matt. 6:6). The closet of the soul is the body: the doors are our five bodily senses. The soul enters its closet when the mind does not wander here and there pursuing worldly matters, but when it finds its place in our heart. Our senses shut the themselves up and remain that way when we do not allow them to cling to outward sensual matters, and, in this way our mind remains free from all worldly attachments and by means of the hidden mental prayer unites itself to God its Father.”

  16. Bob MacDonald says:

    Mike – you don’t see how Romans or John refer to ceaseless prayer? I feel a Satchmo coming on – “Man if I gotta tell you, you’ll never know”

    Jesus never left the bosom of the Father. Every thought and action is his following what he hears. He does nothing of himself. Sorry, for you, that should read ‘by himself’.

    The Spirit in us similarly works. I mean the Spirit works in us in a similar fashion. Or The Spirit so works in us – living in us as its temple. So we are not necessarily aware or conscious of the Spirit’s working but it is unceasing, just as the one who ever lives and makes intercession for us. And we, one in him, and he in us are invited into the Holy of Holies – to use Hebrews terminology or we are prayed by the prayer of consecration of John 17 into unity with him.

    This is perhaps what Paul was referring to in 1 Thess 1:9 and 2:1 when he said to them to remember the manner of ‘entering in’ that was done among them. (Same word in Hebrews 10:19) – accuse me of absolutism if you like – but the language is more living than that and I don’t fear either the Biblish or the paraphrase. But I don’t much like dumbing down or any suggestion that the old language is not good English.

    I think I lost my comment on Johnson’s change of heart away from absolutism in his creation of his dictionary. But as you believe the words have life, so the life is in the words for you also even if it be in an unconscious way.

    So Pray without ceasing (and add unconscious though it may be rather than pray unceasingly at the liturgical times of prayer when you can do this thing). But I add – and put up with liturgy if you can and let it be a drama of your whole life and not the only time you think you are praying.

  17. Mike Sangrey says:

    John and Bob,

    From my perspective, here’s what you’re up against…

    If what you’re saying above is what ἀδιαλείπτως προσεύχεσθε actually refers to, then we need to convey that reference with English words and grammar. That is, we need to translate it. In John’s case, that might be as easy as “do not cease mental prayer”. In Bob’s case, it’s a bit more difficult since his understanding is much more mystical. Perhaps, “do not cease unconscious prayer”. Using simply “do not cease prayer” wouldn’t be clear and, in fact, would not accurately convey the meaning to a reader.

    However (and this, as I see it, is the larger hurdle and a much too high hurdle for either of you to clear), you also have to show from the original text how the author is conveying that reference and/or how the original audience would have made that connection. You haven’t done that. You need to point to the text and explain using the text. Or you need to point to something one can reasonably discern within the interpretive context (the mental model) of the original audience and use that to explain the text. You’ve gone far outside that natural, communication boundary.

    I see no way to get directly from the concept of “ceaseless” to “mental and attitudinal”. Nor can I see any way to get from “ceaseless” to “mystical and unconscious.” Or, more specifically, I see no way to get directly from ἀδιαλείπτως to any of those concepts. As John has shown, one can get there through a rich commentary that explains the how of being ceaseless in prayer. But, one would not expect a lexicon to explicate ἀδιαλείπτως in such a way. Nor, as in Bob’s case, would I expect the original audience to make such strained connections between the divinity of Christ and the word ἀδιαλείπτως when Paul uses the word to modify the word pray in the Thessalonican letter.

    Now, I think (at least with Bob) that Bob isn’t constrained by the text. For him, and I hope, Bob, you’ll correct me if I’m misunderstanding you, there’s no requirement to reproduce in one’s “exegesis” what the original author intended. That is, the modern “exegete” can simply use the text as a way of expressing some meaning. I can’t say that you are saying any meaning as if the text isn’t even considered. But the connection is, from my perspective, extremely loose if not totally non-existent.

    If I’ve understood Bob right, then I don’t see that as translation; it’s simply writing one’s own story using rather arbitrary, self-generated connections between the original text and one’s understanding.

    People are free to do these sort of things. But, it’s not translation.

  18. Bob MacDonald says:

    Mike – you do not have my meaning. Pray incessantly or continuously or without ceasing or without signing off is just fine as it is. No other words are needed. Whatever you do here, do also in Romans 1:9 and the other two spots in Thess. This is one of Paul’s inclusio markers in 1 Thess.

  19. John says:

    I do think Paul may be referring to ceaseless attitudinal prayer. If that is the case, I would think that ‘prayer’ is fine as a translation for προσευχή. The Greek would be no less vague than the translation; even if it’s referring to mental prayer, that is not one of the lexical denotations of προσευχή.

    It might be (and I consider this less likely) that Paul is referring to just not stopping the habit of prayer. However, it still might be hyperbolically expressed; in other words, that the Greek more or less implies the same thing as ‘pray without ceasing’.

    In either case, ‘pray without ceasing’ seems to express the meaning of the Greek pretty well. Or, more idiomatically, ‘pray non-stop’. I also really like Wayne’s ‘keep on praying’, because it seems to capture the two senses, which may in fact have been both intended.

  20. Alexander Bartsch says:

    Hi Mike,

    it is refreshing to see someone actually dealing with the wider New Testament context concerning “unceasing prayer”. Thank you for pointing out that Paul does not refer to some mystic unheard non-stop prayer but rather he wants us to go into prayer very often during the day. I have had a discussion with a fellow who equates the Christians constant communion with God with prayer. Now it is true that prayer is always based upon our communion but it is not a congruent concept. The obvious question then is: Why would Paul command something that takes place by default anyway. If you want to check out that discussion it can be found under: http://jamaljivanjee.com/2012/05/in-order-to-pray-without-ceasing-you-must-quit-praying/

    Blessings from Germany,

    Alex

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