Frederick Buechner tells of meeting Agnes Sanford, who wrote books about healing prayer. What stuck with him was the vivid image she presented of Jesus standing in church services all over Christendom with his hands tied behind his back, unable to do any mighty work because the ministers who led the services didn’t dare ask. They feared Jesus wouldn’t answer them and then their own faith and the faith of their congregations would be threatened. Agnes Sanford explained that in prayer, we must ask and expect an answer.
We don’t always ask. A great deal of public prayer seems almost like reading God the newspaper. Even when we speak words out of our deepest need and fear, we may not really expect much in return.
Luke begins this chapter with the short version of the Lord’s prayer. The prayer contains a list of imperatives: Give us this day our daily bread, Forgive us our sins; Do not bring us to trial Jesus instructs his followers to pray, recognizing both our need and the source of our help. We seek from God what we cannot do on our own.
Jesus tells a story about a man desperate for help in the middle of the night. He goes to a friend to ask for bread when late guests arrive. But his friend refuses saying, “Do not bother me; the door is locked, my children are in bed.” But the man keeps asking until finally his friend relents.
Jesus finishes the story by urging the disciples to keep at it with prayer: to ask, to seek, and to knock. But the prayer he taught is probably not exactly what they had in mind. They probably wanted to learn the secrets to powerful prayer, the kind of prayer that changes things, fixes things, and gets you things you want.
Does the parable of the man’s persistence and his reluctant friend really tell the story of a reluctant God who is difficult to find and hesitant to answer? The resistance is on our part. Do we really believe that God will act or answer? Maybe, we are afraid that God really will answer our prayers but not in the way we imagine.
Jesus says that the bread the friend finally provides is not because of friendship but because of the man’s persistence. How do we change the reluctance on our part to persistence? Jesus adds an interpretation to further clarify God’s response. Ask, and it will be given, but only if we ask. Knock and it will be opened, but only if we knock. Seek and we will find, but only if we seek.
The model calls us to ask. We normally ask for what we think we need. What if instead we ask to be shown how to deepen our trust? What if we ask how to give up our need for control and all the answers?
The model calls us to seek. What if we sought wisdom to better use what we already have? What if we sought a deeper relationship with God?
The model calls us to knock. What if we knocked on opportunities that we have been too afraid to imagine? What if we knocked even when we are afraid of who or what might answer that knock?
Walter Brueggeman writes that this text “re-characterizes God; this God is not like a helicopter parent who hovers over us to cater to our every urge and whim. This is a God who has a life to give, who sleeps in weariness, who does not want to be interrupted. This is a God who must receive bold wake-up calls.” We must arrive at a “deep honesty” and boldness about our need and have a “deep amazement” concerning God’s generosity.
Are we resistant to pray, to ask? Or is God the resistant one to answer unless we persist? The scripture is about persistence.
Indeed, it is our faithful persistence that unbinds the hands of Jesus.
What if our prayers came from a deep trust that the One who is at the other end of our asking, seeking, and knocking is a trusted friend, companion, and guide? Jesus says that God will give even more by giving us the Holy Spirit, the force of life that we cannot make for ourselves.
Psalm 85 speaks of confidence in God when the people were hammered with losses and disappointments. The Israelites were fondly remembering the glories of the past amid present difficulty. While the Psalm is a plea for God to act, the final verse is a clear reminder that God is not unwilling or distant but God is near.
Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that we pray persistently so that we become as familiar with God as we are our neighbours and friends. You’ve heard it said that prayer changes things and that is true. But the most powerful aspect of prayer is that it changes us. It makes us flexible when we don’t feel flexible. It causes us to love when there is little reason to be loving. And it enables us to forgive even when we don’t have any desire to forgive.
As a result of having our lives changed by God, we find ourselves empowered to change the world. Hearing this makes me less afraid and more grateful, less critical, and more trusting. Are you perhaps more willing to ask, “Teach me to pray?”