One of the most perplexing and controversial commands in Scripture is to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17). A similar frustration is to know how to react when prayers are unanswered. Does God expect us to keep on praying and praying, or is it the better part of faith to entrust the matter to Him and just let go—moving on with our lives and praying about other things?

The question then involves persistence in prayer versus casting all our care upon God and leaving it there. You can find Scriptures that can support both viewpoints. I don’t claim to have the final word on prayer—I don’t think any magic answer even exists. After all, prayer is not science, like the laws of physics. Prayer is basically a relationship with God—a God whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts and whose ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9).

That said, we still need to know what to do when we don’t know what to do. We need to know how to pray when we don’t know how to pray. I think God has left us with a certain level of ambiguity. Yet certain principles about prayer have become clear to me over the past four decades. I offer them here for your consideration, in case you find value in them.

First of all, when a situation is ongoing, our prayer should be ongoing as well.

This doesn’t mean we think God hasn’t heard us last time we prayed, so we have to nag Him again. We are just claiming His promises anew for each new day’s situation, like the persisting widow in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). However, such continuing prayers cannot obsess our lives, leaving us unable to function in our daily responsibilities—or even free to worship God for ourselves because we’re worrying so much about getting Him to save our kids.

“Pray without ceasing,” as I see it, simply means don’t stop praying—in the same way that a healthy person doesn’t stop eating regularly. Now, we don’t eat all day long, and we don’t pray all day long. We eat when it’s time to eat and we pray when its time to pray about something—while always remaining in a spirit of communication with God. If the Lord brings a situation to our minds as we go about the day, we recast it anew upon God and then continue with our lives.

Mealtimes are specifically set aside to eat, and both personal devotions and family worship are specifically set aside to pray. Healthy Christians continue this balanced cycle throughout their lives, in both praying and eating.

By contrast, regarding issues of concern that are not ongoing—I think that usually we should pray about something in the past only as long as it takes for us to commit it to God and let go of. Some things need to be thoroughly processed before we let them go, at times with the aid of a qualified Christian counselor. But once we understand what happened in the past and how to deal with it, then we can commit it to God and let go of it.

So those are my thoughts, for whatever they are worth. Before signing off, I’ll say again that God has chosen to allow quite a bit of ambiguity to surround the subject of answered prayer; perhaps one reason for this is that it keeps us from becoming utilitarian in prayers. Remember, the basic reason to pray is not to get God to do things (even saving things) but to have a relationship with Him as His daughters and sons.