Persistence in Prayer
As many of you know, I used to be a lifeguard. For the most part, life-guarding is a pretty simple job. When you are on the stand, you are supposed to be watching people to prevent them from doing things that might be dangerous. To be honest, however, most of the time you are more concerned with working on your tan or making sure you don’t hit yourself with your whistle as you twirl it around your finger to pass the time. When you’re not on the stand, you often find yourself taking care of other things, like serving little kids nachos, or cleaning up the nachos that little kid spilled on the ground, or scrubbing the bathroom floors. All these jobs are important and they are things that need to be done, but the one thing everyone knows is that when somebody gets hurt, the lifeguard will drop everything to come to the rescue. A good lifeguard is supposed to know what is most important—and at the top of that list is protecting the people who are swimming.
People don’t hesitate to talk to the lifeguard when they have a need, because they know he or she will help them. If there is a big problem at a pool, the first thing people will say is, “go get a lifeguard.” No lifeguard in their right mind would dare to simply let someone drown because it was inconvenient for them to help—everyone knows that. At the same time, we also know that it’s not often that you see a lifeguard jumping off of their stand or dropping everything and running to take care of someone’s problem. The reason is that a good lifeguard understands that sometimes things can wait—not everything requires immediate action. Most people trust that, and reason that if the lifeguard isn’t worried, they don’t need to be either.
In our passage this morning, Jesus continues his teaching on prayer, reminding us that God is even more dependable than the lifeguard at a pool. He knows what is most important and is happy to meet the needs of his people. He doesn’t need to be cajoled into action; He is willing to act in His perfect timing. Jesus tells us that since we can be confident that God is listening and ready to act, we should constantly be coming to Him with our needs, concerns, and questions.
The passage we are looking at this morning immediately follows Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, and is in fact a continuation of Jesus’ teaching on prayer. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray and He gave them an example of the kinds of things they should pray for. He then gave additional instruction on the attitude they should pray with by sharing a parable, which is what we will be looking at today.
Jesus tells the story of a man who had a guest show up at his house in the middle of the night. As was customary, the man happily welcomed his guest in despite the late hour, and, like many of us would do, he offered his guest something to eat. Unfortunately, when the man went to the cupboard he found that he was out of bread, but he still wanted to feed his guest so he went to his friend’s house to ask him for bread. When he arrived at the house he knocked on the door, but his friend told him to go away.
There’s a good chance that this man lived in a single room house, and he and his wife and kids all slept together next to the fire. He knew that if he got up, lit a lamp, and started rummaging through the cupboards, he would probably wake up his whole family. As I think about the way he probably responded to his friend, I imagine that it was with that whispered scream that you would use when your child is asleep on your chest and someone is threatening to wake them up. But this didn’t deter the man; he continued to knock on the door begging his friend to give him the bread he needed. I don’t know how long this went on, but eventually the friend recognized that the right thing to do was to give his friend the bread (he may have even thought about what would happen if the tables were turned), so he got up and gave him what he needed.
The question that we ask is, “What does this have to do with prayer?” Some believe this passage teaches us that if we really want something from God, we need to keep asking Him and He will eventually give in. I don’t think that is the point at all. The man in this story doesn’t represent God; he is being contrasted with God.
Jesus was teaching us that since even a neighbor who is selfish will eventually give in and give his friend what he needs, how much more is it true that our heavenly father will provide for our needs! In case the disciples missed the message, Jesus also told another story that illustrates the same point. He said,
11Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13, NIV)
Jesus injects a bit of humor into his illustration. If he were telling the same story today, he might say: Suppose you went with your son to a restaurant. You ask your son what he would like to eat, and he tells you he’d like a hamburger. Which of you would go, find a rat, fry it up, and put it on a bun for your son? It’s an absurd question. Most fathers, if they recognized their son was hungry would happily order him whatever he wanted.
Jesus’ point is that any decent father will give his children what they desire when it is good for them to do so, so we should certainly expect that our heavenly father would do the same. The point at the heart of these two stories is this: we should never be afraid to ask God for what we need, because He will not deny us what is best for us.
Having made this point, Jesus then moves on to his application, which is another word picture. He says,
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10, NIV)
Jesus says that since we can be confident of God’s help, we should ask, seek, and knock. It’s interesting to look at the three words he chooses here, because they indicate an increasing intensity.
“Ask” implies humbly requesting help in meeting a conscious need. “Seek” implies asking but includes acting. “Knock” includes asking plus acting plus persevering. Jesus tells us that when we pray intently to God we also continually work to put ourselves in the best position possible for God to answer us. Think about it like this, suppose two farmers pray that God would give them a good harvest. One farmer stops at asking God to provide the harvest, and the other goes out and prepares and plants his fields. Which farmer do you think really trusts in God? Which farmer do you think God will reward with a good harvest? When we truly believe God is willing and able to meet our needs, we don’t just ask Him to do something and then sit back and wait. We look to see if there is something we can be doing to prepare our fields.
Sometimes it seems as though there isn’t much we can do—and in those situations we are to continue to pray intently to God, asking Him to act, trusting that He knows what is best. The fact is, though, that in many situations, there is a great deal that we can be doing while we wait for God to answer our prayers. For example:
- When we ask God for wisdom, we must also seek wisdom by studying the Bible and learning from those who are godly and spiritually mature. We should learn from those who have demonstrated wisdom in their own lives.
- When we ask God for healing, we should also seek healing by going to the doctor or taking the medications prescribed to us, and by learning about our disease. Doing this doesn’t demonstrate a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal; it demonstrates a trust that God can use medicine to bring about healing.
- When we ask God for help in dealing with a difficult person, we should also seek reconciliation with them by going to them and trying to restore our relationship.
- When we ask God to help us with our kids, we should also seek help with our kids by reading Christian books on parenting, getting them involved in the ministries of the church, and if necessary seeking counseling or other professional help.
- When we ask God to provide for us financially, we must also seek financial stability by learning to live within our means, by making a budget and sticking to it, and by making tithing a priority.
- When we ask God to strengthen our marriages, we must also seek to strengthen our marriage by reading books on marriage, attending marriage seminars, and learning how to look beyond our own needs, to forgive, and to communicate with our spouse.
- When we ask God to provide us with a job, we must also seek employment by sending out resumes, filling out applications, and going to interviews. It may mean that we seek employment by getting additional education.
- When we ask God to comfort a friend, we must also seek to comfort that friend by spending time with them, trying to understand what they are going through, and letting them know they are loved.
Let me be clear—I am not saying that we are supposed to answer our own prayers. Jesus is calling us to pray prayers of faith. That means that we trust that God can do what we cannot—but that God also expects us to do what we can.
Notice the last thing that Jesus said we should do—we should knock, or be persistent in prayer. It’s interesting that in the original language the words ask, seek, and knock are all written in a way that indicates persistence. A better way to understand what Jesus is saying is, “Ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, and knock and keep on knocking.” Jesus indicates that we should be people who are persistent in prayer—that we should keep coming to God for the things we desire most.
But this raises a question doesn’t it? Why do we need to be persistent in our prayers? We don’t need to be persistent to convince God to do what we want; we need to be persistent because it helps us to focus on what’s really important.
Suppose one day a friend comes to you and asks you to pray for them about something going on in their life. You pray for them that night before you go to bed, but then you forget to the next day, and the day after that, and every day for a year. Obviously what you prayed wasn’t that important to you because you forgot about it.
Contrast that with a parent who has a sick child. They will pray every day, often many times each day, asking for God to heal their child, to take away their pain, to help them to be strong. Their prayer is persistent, because it is something that is very important to them.
I don’t think God needs us to remind Him of what is most important to us, but I do think God wants us to focus on the things that are most important to us and commit to persistently asking, seeking, and knocking. Part of the reason for this is that when we continually ask God for something, He begins to change us and draw us closer to Him.
When I was in college I was assigned a roommate who was not a Christian. Louis and I actually got along really well, but in the back of my mind I was acutely aware that he would spend eternity in Hell if he died. So I began to pray every day that God would change Louis’ heart, and that he would eventually become a Christian. I have since lost contact with Louis, but the last I knew he had not become a Christian. So what good was it for me to pray so fervently that he would?
God changed me in the process. I was constantly looking for ways to share my faith with him, and I was constantly aware of what was at stake. I found that the more I prayed for Louis, the more I became aware of opportunities to share my faith with other people and the greater the urgency I felt to tell others about Jesus.
I’m still haven’t given up hope that God will change Louis’ heart, and there are still days that I pray for him, but I also recognize that my prayers may ultimately have as much effect on me as they do on Louis. We should be persistent in prayer because God uses our prayers to change our priorities, and the more we come before God asking, seeking, and knocking, the more He changes us to be like Him.
Another question raised by this passage is if we will just pray more fervently and persistently, does that mean God will give us whatever we want? Some people say that if we are sick, or if we don’t have wealth, or are facing struggles in life it is because we haven’t been persistent in asking God for what we want. That just isn’t biblical, and our experience in life simply doesn’t bear this out.
Sometimes God does not give us what we ask for. There are many reasons why this might be. It may be because we are being selfish or indulgent. In James 4:3 we read,
When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
When we approach God as a genie in a bottle or Santa Claus, there is a good chance that He will not give us what we ask for. God wants to give us what is best for us, and what will make us more like Christ. So when we pray that God would give us a million dollars so we can quit our job (or some other selfish request), He tells us no because indulging our selfishness isn’t what is best for us.
God may also tell us no because we are trying to justify sin. When we ask God to do something that Scripture has condemned, God’s answer will always be no. Similarly, when we ask Him to keep us from experiencing painful consequences from our sin, He will also tell us no. Sometimes people pray that God will make something bad happen to someone else because they have bitterness in their heart toward them, or they may ask God to cause someone’s marriage to end so that they can start a relationship with them without technically committing adultery. We may ask God to give us more money so that we can continue to waste it on sinful or frivolous things. I had some friends who thought it was perfectly acceptable to order dessert and then pray God would take away the calories before they ate it. Any time we ask God to allow us to indulge in sin or to avoid the consequences of our sin, we should not be surprised when His answer is no.
Finally, God may tell us no because He has something better in store for us. The apostle Paul had a painful physical ailment, and he prayed to God three times to take it away from him. God finally answered Paul, telling him that he wouldn’t remove his painful ailment because it would remind him that his strength was in God—and that God’s strength was more than enough for him. At the time, Paul only saw the immediate circumstance, but God knew that allowing this difficult situation would bring an even greater blessing to Paul.
Parents do this with their children all the time. Children live in the moment, but parents see the big picture. How many parents have had their child come to them an hour before dinner and ask for a snack. Most parents will tell their child to wait until dinner. The kids get upset—they argue, but I’m hungry now! But you know that by waiting until they can eat a good meal, they will be better nourished in the long run than if they eat some candy now. Sometimes children think their parents are cruel or unfair, but a good parent will refuse their request because they know there is something better in store for them.
Like a good parent, God knows what is best for us, and while He won’t hesitate to give us everything we need, He will also not give us things that will be hurtful to us or that we aren’t ready to handle. The challenge for us is to trust God’s judgment above our own—to trust that if He tells us no when we ask for something, it is because He has a good reason, not because He wants to make us suffer.
There are basically two lessons that we should take from this passage. First is that we should bring everything before the Lord. God wants to give his children what is best, and we should be eager to pray to God, knowing that He stands by, ready to answer us. We shouldn’t be fearful that God won’t give us what we want, but we should be confident that God will give us what is best.
Second, we are called to persistence in prayer. Persistence is a by-product of really caring about something. As I’ve been preparing for this sermon, I’ve been acutely aware of my own prayers. I’ve learned that my prayer life tells me a great deal about where my priorities are, about what is most important to me—and that there are a lot of times when I am anything but persistent in asking God for something.
If you’re like me, I suspect that we often aren’t persistent in our prayers because we only pray about the moment. We often don’t focus on the big picture—the things that are actually of greatest importance. We learn from this passage that we should pray to God not just about the minutiae of our lives, but that we should continually pray about the things that are most important to us. Look at your life and consider what you think are the most important things to you and start praying about those things, and then be persistent in asking, seeking, and knocking.
When I worked as a lifeguard I discovered that the people who spent the most time at the pool were the people who also thought the most like lifeguards. They had learned what constituted an emergency and what didn’t. They began to understand why the lifeguards did the things they did—and ultimately they gained an even greater trust in the lifeguards.
The same is true in our prayer lives. The more time we spend with the Lord—the more often we ask, seek, and knock—the more we will learn to trust God and we will start to ask for things that are consistent with the heart of God. We will learn that prayer isn’t always about changing our circumstances…often it’s about changing us.