Prayer: shameless persistence

Then, teaching them more about prayer, he used this story: “Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him, ‘A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.’ And suppose he calls out from his bedroom, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.’ But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence.“And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Luke 11:5-13 NLT

This story is straightforward. Jesus says simply that when we pray we should not give up. We should keep on praying: keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. Persistence will be rewarded with results.

Yet as simple as it sounds, it raises all sorts of questions about God and us. Questions that I find difficult to answer. Firstly, is God like an irritated neighbour, who responds to our requests with a “Don’t bother me… I can’t help you”? Is this the way a God who loves his followers responds when they are in need? Secondly, when we don’t get what we want immediately, is it because God is testing us? How long should we persist? When should we give up? Does God always give us what we ask for, as long as we keep asking long enough? Does God ever say no to our requests?

There are no simple answers to all these questions. But I suspect I am making it more complicated than Jesus intended. I suspect that this story was not meant to teach us about God, but about ourselves, and how we should pray. I don’t think Jesus meant his listeners to use this illustration as a theological foundation for understanding why some prayers don’t get answered, or why it sometimes takes a long time before they are answered, or indeed for understanding the character of God. I suspect that Jesus’ message was simple: a central part of being a disciple is prayer, and when we pray we should not give up just because the initial request seems to fall on deaf ears. Keep praying. Don’t be ashamed of asking repeatedly for the same thing. 

But the reality is that we don’t always get what we ask for and given Jesus’ teaching here, it’s hard not to ask why. Perhaps the answer lies in what we are praying for. This story could be interpreted to say that prayer consists of presenting a wish list to God every day, and then continuing to ask until each of the things on the list has been ticked off. But I suspect this was not Jesus’ intention, because this story comes directly after He taught his disciples the prayer we have come to know as The Lord’s Prayer. The two parts go together. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us what to pray for: the honouring of God, the kingdom of God, our daily bread, the forgiveness of our sins, the deliverance from evil. This story teaches us how to pray: with perseverance, never giving up. Perhaps the reason we don’t always see the answers we want when we pray, even when we are persistent, is that we are praying for the wrong things, things that fall outside of the scope of the prayer he taught his disciples.

Prayer is not like going to the supermarket to get all the things we have on our shopping list. Rather it is an invitation by God to be involved in his purposes for the world. Having said that, the Father knows that we need certain things to live – our “daily bead” – and he urges us to present those needs to him each day, believing that he will provide. If it seems initially that God doesn’t hear us, because he does not immediately provide, he urges us to be persistent, shamelessly persistent, to use the words in the above translation. Keep asking, and he will respond.

But our prayer life is about more than our own personal daily needs. It is about entering into God’s desire and purpose for the world, that his name would be honoured, that his kingdom would be established, that we would be reconciled to God and to each other, that we would in his strength triumph over the evil within and the evil without. It is a glorious thing, so much more than just our small desires.

Jesus included this story in his teaching about prayer because he knew that, like me, so many of us give up too easily. He challenges us to get his prayer priorities embedded into our hearts and minds, and then to keep going, to never give up. If we pray according to his will I believe we will see answers. Continuous daily prayer for a lifetime is hard. But it is a habit that is worth developing and maintaining if we want to be disciples of Jesus and see his kingdom come.

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