Have you ever tried to play a 40 page Beethoven sonata from memory? Believe me; trying to remember the fingering and the notes, not to mention getting the nuances just right, takes all the concentration you can muster. How about singing German lieder? As an American who does not speak the language, trying not only to remember words that sound like gibberish to me, but knowing when the “ch” sound is a frontward cat hiss and when it is a backward throat scrape, takes all the brain power I have. I am sure that some of the things you do take equal concentration—one cannot do them and pray at the same time, nor even have a prayerful attitude. And I defy anyone to have a prayerful attitude while they are asleep!
One of the works of the Holy Spirit was to take God’s words and put them into words we humans could understand, 1 Cor 2:6-13. The way to understand 1Thes 5:17 is simply to use words and phrases the way they are ordinarily used.
Suppose you have a checkup with your doctor. He says your cholesterol and blood pressure are both up, and asks, “Have you stopped taking your medicine? Have you stopped exercising?” No, you tell him, but instead of believing you he says, “How can you lie to me like that? I am standing right here in front of you and you are neither exercising nor taking your medicine at this very moment!” I hope you would get a new doctor immediately because you certainly cannot communicate with this one. You have not stopped taking your medicine because you still take every dose on schedule. You have not stopped exercising because you walk every morning. Nothing has caused you to change those habits. Just because you are not doing it at that particular moment does not mean you have “ceased,” and anyone with common sense would know that.
How about a Biblical example? Daniel prayed three times a day, Dan 6:10. When his enemies tricked the king into making the law that anyone caught praying to anyone besides him would be cast into a den of lions, did Daniel cease to pray? We all know he did not. He still prayed three times a day.
So the passage means “Don’t stop praying.” If you begin to have one problem after another, don’t blame it on God and stop praying. If unbelievers make fun of you, calling you a superstitious fool for believing in a higher power, don’t be embarrassed and stop praying. If you have great successes, don’t start relying on yourself, forgetting that God can take it away in a flash--remember the great privilege you have, and don’t stop praying. Pray without ceasing.
Bow down your ear, Oh Jehovah, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my soul, for I am godly. Oh my God, save your servant, who trusts in you. Be merciful unto me, O God, for I cry unto you all day long, Psalm 86:1-3.