You Can’t Pray Too Much

Some years ago I stood by the bed of an elderly Pentecostal woman in mountains of East Tennessee. She was dying from respiratory complications – I was visiting her as a Hospice chaplain. We chatted about many things – mostly the things of God. She showed me a well-worn Bible she had owned for most of her life. In the front she had marked down the date for each occasion when she had finished reading the Bible from cover to cover. There were over 95 such dates – more than the years of her life.

As we were finishing the visit I offered prayers for her. I prayed for 5 or 10 minutes – a respectable length of prayer in the mountains. When I finished she looked up at me and said, “May I pray?” I told her, “Of course.”

She then began to pray, quietly, her breaths labored. Her prayer rose in fervor as did the shortness of her breath. Her prayer had to have lasted at least 20 minutes – it was mostly a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.

At last, her breath gave out and she whispered an Amen. I could not move from the spot. I said to her, “Sister, that was a fine prayer.”

She looked up at me with a wry smile and whispered, “You can’t pray too much!”

I have carried that scene around in my heart for about 10 years. I have hoped that my last breaths would be shaped into such words of praise.

There is a failure in much of modern Christianity – a failure that is marked by a passivity in our approach to God. Some would justify such passivity by deriding certain actions as an example of “works righteousness,” mistakenly thinking that being saved by grace and not by works means that all we should do as Christians is believe. This is not even good Protestantism.

It is interesting to take a short look at what St. Paul actually wrote about being saved by “grace through faith.” One of the most oft-quoted passages on the topic is found in Ephesians 2.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Many will cite by memory the first part of this statement, but forget (or never knew) the second part. To be in Christ is to be a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). But the nature of that “new creation” is clearly described here by St. Paul. To be a new creation is to be ourselves the “workmanship” of God, that is, creations of grace. But he clearly states that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”

Thus it is that as Christians we are enjoined to:

Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thes. 5:16-18).

To this could be added admonitions to “walk in love,” to “forgive our enemies,” to “give without expecting in return.” The list of New Testament commandments, clearly intended for us as we walk the path of grace, is quite extensive – together pointing towards the call of God in our lives to be conformed to the image of Christ.

A friend recently told me of a conversation with a non-Orthodox Christian who could not understand the many hours of prayer and thanksgiving that mark the Orthodox services of Holy Week. To this Christian, such activities seemed like “works righteousness.”

The Orthodox do not pray because we think we will gain any merit by such action, but because we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in.” The goodness of God transcends our ability to give thanks.

In the simple words of a dying Pentecostal in the mountains of East Tennessee, “You can’t pray to much.”

I am reminded of a saying in the Desert Fathers: Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath.

I’ve not only read this statement – I’ve actually seen it. May God grant me the grace to struggle so until my last breath.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


8 responses to “You Can’t Pray Too Much”

  1. fathergregory Avatar

    That was beautiful Father.
    Thank you.

    This is one I will remember.

    Deacon Gregory

  2. Christopher Hall Avatar

    Thank you for such a fine post. If I had heard a 20 minute prayer, I’m afraid my flesh would have rebelled, sinner as I am.

    How different is the phrase, “You can’t pray too much,” than the clinker, “All we can do now is pray!” The first, faithful. The second, an appeal to God as if He were the last resort and not He in whom we live and move and have our being.

    Thanks again, Father.

  3. Sasha Avatar

    … and you can’t remind of that too much. 🙂

    Christ is risen, dear father!

  4. […] Fr. Stephen on prayer: Their is a failure in much of modern Christianity – a failure that is marked by a passivity in our approach to God. Some would justify such passivity by deriding certain actions as an example of “works righteousness,” mistakenly thinking that being saved by grace and not by works means that all we should do as Christians is believe. This is not even good Protestantism. Posted by: JS Bangs @ 3:19 pm | Trackback | Permalink […]

  5. Ezekiel Avatar

    Marvelous, Father!

    Thank you so much!

  6. joel Avatar

    Lovely testimony. There are many such precious souls in Appalachia. When I was a child growing up there, a jovial old man I had never met greeted me and my family with singular warmth. I asked my dad, Why is that man so happy? My dad explained, He’s just a Christian.

  7. jamesthethickheaded Avatar

    What a faithful, prayerful woman she must have been. I think we can but wonder at the good that is hidden around us that we seem to rush to dismiss with another tossed off sense that somehow it is outweighed by certain unbecoming things we see more readily… and our view of the world has darkened.. or decayed from the golden age of Christianity – whenever that was. I often wonder that we aren’t snared into these views and need to be careful: We tend to think “the good stuff”, the right and holy is kept sacred only here or there… or somewhere in the past; but clearly God is everywhere present.. and fills all things… even (and especially!) people well beyond our walls… such as this woman and so many more. I don’t want to sound Pollyannish as surely there is enough pain to go around and more added by the day… but though I know I’m an odd man out… or just an odd man 😉 …. it often seems to me as a sometime student of history that all ages are dark in their own way, and the task of sharing the light might well begin in meditation on this woman, her prayer, and her ability to thank the Lord for all as she lay waiting at his door.. surely in pains both emotional and physical. A very good, and humbling story… thank you.

  8. Alexandra Avatar

    I pray for my for my partner Slavko that the Lord heals him from his gambling and drinking problem.

    I pray that somehow the lord can restore our relationship and bring love and kindness back to it, and that we stop our fighting and arguing.

    I pray with all my heart and soul to give our son the family life he deserves, and a happy and loving life. Please help me pray that my partner realises how much we love him and need him, that we marry soon and have more children, and that God touches his heart.

    Many thanks Alex

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