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Ask, Seek, Knock
All the quotations below are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Prayer: Does It make Any Difference?” published in 2006.
... And if by prayer
Incessant I could hope to change the will
Of Him who all things can, I would not cease
To weary him with my assiduous cries. John Milton
Jesus' story about village neighbours must have provoked smiles and chuckles in his first-century audience. A man opens his door to an unexpected guest late one night---not uncommon in a desert climate that encourages travel after sunset---only to find his pantry bare. In a region renowned for hospitality, no decent person would turn away a weary traveller or put him to bed without nourishment, so the host sets off to a friend's house to ask for bread.
Kenneth Bailey, a Presbyterian missionary who lived in Lebanon for forty years, illuminates some of the cultural nuances behind the story. Palestinians use bread as Westerners use silverware: they break off bite-sized pieces, dip into a common dish of meat and vegetables, and eat the entire sop. The man with empty cupboards was likely asking his friend for a main course as well as loaves of bread, and even that was typical. Villagers frequently borrowed from each other in hospitality emergencies. Bailey recalls one instance: `While living in primitive Middle Eastern villages, we discovered to our amazement that this custom of rounding up from the neighbours something adequate for the guest extended even to us when we were the guests. We would accept an invitation to a meal clear across the village, and arrive to eat from our own dishes which the villagers had borrowed quietly from our cook.'
In Jesus' story, though, the neighbour stubbornly refuses the request (see Luke 11). He has already gone to bed, stretched out with his family on a mat in the one-room house---and, besides, the door is bolted shut. `Don't bother me,' he calls to his neighbour outside. `I can't get up and give you anything.'
A Middle Eastern audience would have laughed out loud at this lame excuse. Can you imagine such a neighbour? Jesus was asking. Certainly not! No one in my village would act so rudely. If he did, the entire village would know about it by morning!
Then Jesus delivers the punchline: `I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness [his persistence, his shamelessness] he will get up and give him as much as he needs.' The application to prayer follows immediately: `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.' Luke positions this story right after Jesus' teaching on the Lord's Prayer, drawing a sharp contrast between the reluctant neighbour and God the Father. If a cranky neighbour who has turned in for the night, who wishes more than anything you would go away, who does his best to ignore you---if such a neighbour eventually rouses to give you what you want, how much more will God respond to your bold persistence in prayer! After all, what earthly father would sneak a snake under his son's pillow when he asks for a fish, or drop a scorpion on his daughter's breakfast plate instead of an egg?
The Lord's Prayer, often reduced to a mumbled ritual, an incantation, takes on new light in this story abutting it. We should pray like a salesman with his foot wedged in the door opening, like a wrestler who has his opponent in a headlock and won't let go.
The God `who watches over you will not slumber,' promises a psalm of comfort. Even so, sometimes when we pray it feels as if God has indeed nodded off. Raise your voice, Jesus' story implies. Strive on, like the shameless neighbour in the middle of the night. Keep pounding the door.
Battering the Gates
A few chapters later Luke records another charming story, this time featuring a nagging widow as the unlikely heroine. Some of Jesus' parables left his disciples scratching their heads, but this one came with an unmistakable point: `to show them that they should always pray and not give up.' The story takes the even riskier step of comparing God to a callous, corrupt judge who has to listen to the widow's loud grievance.
Today, many cities have a free legal aid clinic to help poor and under-served clients negotiate a confusing system of courts and depositions. To illustrate the very different situation in Jesus' day, Kenneth Bailey cites a scene witnessed by a Western traveller in nineteenth-century Iraq:
On a slightly raised dais ... sat the Kadi, or judge, half buried in cushions. Round him squatted various secretaries and other notables. The populace crowded into the rest of the hall, a dozen voices clamouring at once, each claiming that his cause should be the first heard. The more prudent litigants joined not the fray, but held whispered communications with the secretaries, passing bribes, euphemistically called fees, into the hands of one or another. When the greed of the underlings was satisfied, one of them would whisper to the Kadi, who would promptly call such and such a case. It seemed to be ordinarily taken for granted that judgment would go for the litigant who had bribed highest. But meantime a poor woman on the skirts of the crowd perpetually interrupted the proceedings with loud cries for justice. She was sternly bidden to be silent, and reproachfully told that she came there every day. `And so I will,' she cried out, `till the Kadi hears me.' At length, at the end of a suit, the judge impatiently demanded, `What does that woman want?' Her story was soon told. Her only son had been taken for a soldier, and she was alone, and could not till her piece of ground; yet the tax-gatherer had forced her to pay the impost, from which as a lone widow she could be exempt. The judge asked a few questions, and said, `Let her be exempt.' Thus her perseverance was rewarded. Had she had money to fee a clerk, she might have been excused long before.
Jesus' story has fewer details and only two characters but otherwise reflects a nearly identical setting. The judge finally yields to the plaintiff's pleas: `Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!' (The phrase `wear me out' actually translates a boxer's term for a repeated blow under the eye.)
Once again Jesus is presenting a parable of contrasts. In our prayers we may sometimes feel like the widow: alone, powerless, a victim of unfairness, disregarded, the least and last person in line. The truth, though, is the opposite. We have both an advocate and a direct line to a loving Father who has nothing in common with the insensitive judge in the story. When God seems slow to respond, we may suspect a lack of concern. Jesus corrects the misconception, pointing beyond how we may feel to an assurance of God's mercy. If even this widow gets justice from a heartless judge, how much more will `God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?'
And then, just as the audience settles back in comfortable reassurance, comes the sting in the tail: `However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?' The disciples would have known exactly what Jesus meant, for he had just been talking about his eventual return, the Second Coming. Justice will surely reign one day. Appearing this time in power and great glory, the Son of Man has pledged to turn the tables on this violent planet, righting every wrong and restoring the world to what God intended: a world without unjust judges and neglected widows; without any poverty, in fact, or death, suffering, or rebellion. Until that future day, some will be tempted to doubt, to disbelieve in God completely or to see God as a merciless judge.
Years after hearing this parable in person, the apostle Peter wrote that in the last days some will scoff at such prophecies: `Where is this "coming" he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.' And after twenty more centuries of waiting, the conditions of this unredeemed planet further tempt us to give up, to lose faith in a powerful, loving God. Jesus told the story of the nagging widow to teach us to `always pray and not give up'. History is a test of faith, and the correct response to that test is persistent prayer.
Older versions of the Bible apply the little-used word `importunate' to the widow and the borrower in Jesus' stories. Sometimes our requests will seem annoying, as that word implies. I think of William Wilberforce submitting the same bill, year after year, before Parliament as he argued importunately for the abolition of slavery. Or of Senator William Proxmire giving a speech every day on the floor of the Senate---3211 speeches delivered over nineteen years---until his colleagues finally passed a bill outlawing genocide. I think of Sister Helen Prejean, portrayed in the movie Dead Man Walking, who tirelessly crosses the United States pleading against the death penalty. And of Martin Luther King Jr as he addressed the bloodied Selma marchers from the steps of Alabama's state capitol, voicing again and again their question about justice: `How long?. . . How long? ... How long will it take?'
Activists who take up a cause---third-world debt, AIDS in Africa, homelessness, abortion, sexual trafficking, racism, hate crimes, drink driving, health care, unjust wars, the environment, pornography, prison reform, terrorism, human rights and a hundred others---will doubtless grow weary and may be tempted to give up the fight. To them, God must resemble the callous judge or the crotchety neighbour in Jesus' stories. Jesus insists otherwise. Unlike the judge and the neighbour, God has infinite tolerance for our requests and demands, especially those supporting the cause of God's own kingdom. Why else would the Bible include so many importuning psalms, so many prophetic laments?
In his sermon `The Parable of the Importunate Widow', Helmut Thielicke notes that `God is doing nothing less than offering to his praying church a part in his government of the world.' The giants of history, Thielicke says (thinking of his contemporaries Hitler and Stalin), stride across the stage under the delusion that they are directing the drama of the world, whereas in reality they are only bit players permitted on-stage for a moment. Real power rests in those who perceive history as God's own drama, who tap into a power accessible only to those who ask and seek and knock. Prayer sets God loose. As we revolt against the world's disorder in our actions and in our prayers, refusing to resign ourselves to evil, we demonstrate that there remains, in Jesus' phrase, `faith on the earth'.
Generations may pass before persistent prayer receives its answer. How many soldiers died before Thielicke's own prayers for peace and justice in his homeland Germany were answered? How many Jews died praying for a future at a time when it seemed the entire race was being incinerated? Filipinos prayed importunately for relief before People Power brought down a corrupt regime. Millions languished in prison camps before the Iron Curtain fell to the ranks of peaceful protestors. How many Chinese Christians still suffer imprisonment and torture while outside the prison walls an unprecedented spiritual revival continues to gather steam?
On a more personal level, how many abuse victims plead for healing and still wake up every day feeling wounded and ashamed? Addicts pray for deliverance and then rise each day to fight the same relentless battles. Parents grieve in prayer over children who seem determined to live self-destructively.
I will always remember an alcoholic friend who expressed to me his frustration at praying daily for God to remove his desire for drink, only to find each morning his thoughts turning to Jack Daniel's whisky. Was God even listening? Later, it dawned on him that the desire for alcohol was the main reason he prayed so diligently. Persistent temptation had compelled persistent prayer.
Evil looms like a great iron gate---`the gates of hell' in Jesus' image----and prayers hit against it like hammer blows. Gates don't threaten or even advance. They just stand there, awaiting the onslaught. Our prayers may seem as hollow as the sound a hammer makes when it bounces off a sheet of metal, but we have Jesus' strong promise that the gates of hell will not prevail. They will surely fall, shattering into pieces like the Berlin Wall that once divided Germany, like the Iron Curtain that once divided Europe.
Once Is Not Enough
Author Jerry Sittser sees persistence through the eyes of a parent. `My kids have asked me for many things over the years---a CD player, bicycle, boat, car, house, exotic vacations ... You name it, they have asked it. I ignore them most of the time. I am as hardhearted as they come, a parent made of granite. My ears perk up, however, when they persist, because persistence usually means they are serious about something.'
Unlike a human parent, God knows my true motive, whether pure or impure, noble or selfish, from the moment of the original request. As I ponder Jesus' stories, I cannot help wondering why God places such a premium on persistence. If I find it tedious to repeat the same requests over and over, surely God tires of hearing them. Why must I pound on the door or elbow my way into the courtroom? Why won't a single sincere request suffice?
In search of clues, I turn first to the account of Jesus' life, and in several scenes I can see the value of persistence. After Lazarus died, his two sisters, the industrious Martha and meditative Mary, both accused Jesus: `Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.' They vented their accumulated grief and frustration, so much so that Jesus, too, sank into sorrow ---before granting their deepest wish in one of his greatest miracles.
In another scene, a Canaanite woman pestered Jesus about her afflicted daughter. `Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us,' urged the disciples, reminiscent of the hard-hearted villains in Jesus' parables. Even Jesus brushed her off, first ignoring her request and then challenging her right to make it. The foreign woman persisted and Jesus, impressed, granted her wish and then held her up as a model of faith.
Beside a well in Samaria, Jesus parried with a woman about her lifestyle and her religious beliefs. On the way to Jerusalem, he engaged a rich young man in a discussion on the dangers of wealth. The woman persisted and found her life transformed; the rich man gave up and turned away sad.
From these scenes I learn about God's interest in the process I go through. Always respectful of human freedom, God does not twist arms. God views my persistence as a sign of genuine desire for change, the one prerequisite for spiritual growth. When I really want something, I strive and persist. Whether it's climbing Colorado's mountains, chasing the woodpeckers away from my roof, or getting a high-speed Internet connection for my home, I'll do whatever it takes. Do I show the same spirit in prayer?
`Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.' Soren Kierkegaard may have first made that remark, but I have seen it repeated in a dozen books and articles. For reasons discussed in the last chapter (mainly the Bible's own testimony), I cannot fully agree with the first half of the formula. God wants us to bring our requests boldly and without reservation. By failing to do so I will likely miss out on some delightful surprises. What if the ten with leprosy by the side of the road had not shouted out to Jesus for healing, or if the Canaanite woman had shyly abandoned the request for her daughter?
All too often pray-ers use God's presumed changelessness as an excuse not to pray: `If God has already decided the future, why bother?' That very fatalism, ironically, defeats the second half of the formula, for we do indeed change in the very process of storming heaven with our prayers. If I stop believing that God listens to my requests---the emphatic point of Jesus' two parables---I will likely stop praying, thus closing off God's primary mode of relationship with me.
Persistent prayer keeps bringing God and me together, with several important benefits. As I pour out my soul to God, I get it off my chest, so to speak, unloading some of my burden to One who can handle it better. Little by little, as I get to know God I learn that God has nothing in common with an unjust judge or a stingy neighbour, though at times it may seem so. What I learn from spending time with God then better equips me to discern what God wants to do on earth, as well as my role in that plan.
Cicero gave a blunt assessment of the purpose of pagan prayer: `We do not pray to Jupiter to make us good, but to give us material benefits.' For the Christian, something like the reverse applies. We may approach God with some material benefit in mind, and sometimes, blessedly, we receive it. But in the very act of praying we also open up a channel that God can use in transforming us, in making us good. Persistent prayer changes me by helping me see the world, and my life, through God's eyes. As the relationship progresses I realise that God has a clearer picture of what I need than I do.
When I persistently pursue another person, I am usually trying to persuade that person to adopt my point of view. I want the car salesman to match my price, the neighbour to vote for my candidate. I may, especially in the early stages of prayer, approach God the same way, but inevitably I find that God is the wise and senior partner in the relationship. I find, in fact, that God has been asking, seeking, knocking too, in the subtle ways I so easily ignore.
`A God that should fail to hear, receive, attend to one single prayer, the feeblest or worst, I cannot believe in; but a God that would grant every request of every man or every company of men, would be an evil God---that is no God, but a demon,' said George MacDonald. Prayer is not a monologue but a true dialogue in which both parties accommodate to the other. Although I bring my honest concerns to God, over time I may come away with an entirely different set of concerns. When Peter went on a roof to pray (Acts 10), he was mainly thinking about food. Little did he know that he would descend from the roof convicted of racism and legalism. In persistent prayer, my own desires and plans gradually harmonise with God's.
Winning by Losing
`Why should I spend an hour in prayer when I do nothing during that time but think about people I am angry with, people who are angry with me, books I should read and books I should write, and thousands of other silly things that happen to grab my mind for a moment?' Henri Nouwen posed that question in different forms, toying with different answers. Sometimes he fell back on the need for spiritual discipline, for being faithful even with no apparent reward: `We must pray not first of all because it feels good or helps, but because God loves us and wants our attention.'
In the end, Nouwen concluded that `sitting in the presence of God for one hour each morning---day after day, week after week, and month after month, in total confusion and with a myriad of distractions---radically changes my life.' He learned humility and dependence, and after hours of persistent prayer with no obvious sign of fruitfulness, he realised that a small, gentle voice had indeed been speaking all the while.
`Prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays'? Perhaps, sometimes, the internal changes wrought through prayer make possible the answers that we have long been seeking ---the `change' in God if you will. Persistent prayer leads us into a new spiritual state for God to deal with. Perhaps that is why Abraham, Moses, Jacob and the others found themselves wrestling so fiercely: the apparent struggle against God was developing in them the Godlike qualities that God wanted all along.
`Isn't it the greatest possible disaster, when you are wrestling with God, not to be beaten?' asked Simone Well. To put it another way, what feels like a defeat at the time may emerge as an enduring victory. Jacob the cheat walked cockily on two good legs; Israel limped into history as the father of nations. The real value of persistent prayer is not so much that we get what we want as that we become the person we should.
Whether climbing a mountain or writing a book, I have a goal-oriented, accomplish-the-mission attitude toward life, and prayer stops me in my tracks. I learn that I cannot `fix' the people I am praying for. I cannot get everything I want in the time frame I want. I must slow down, and wait. I have to present my requests in a manner that seems at first like surrender. I `give them up' to God, and through that act of submission God can at last begin to grow in me the qualities, or `fruit', that I needed all along: peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
A person prays, said Augustine, `that he himself may be constructed, not that God may be instructed.' I examine my own erratic prayer life and see it as a time when God has indeed worked to lop off the protuberances and smooth the rough edges. I see defeats and victories both. Like a child who quits badgering a parent, I have sometimes found that I get an answer to my persistent request after I have learned to do without it. The answer then comes as a surprise, an unexpected gift of grace. I seek the gift, find instead the Giver, and eventually come away with the gift I no longer seek.
Luke's version of the parable of the crotchety neighbour ends with these words, `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!' Matthew repeats the same saying, with one change: `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 good gifts to those who ask him!'
In prayer we present requests, sometimes repeatedly, and then put ourselves in a state to receive the result. We pray for what God wants to give us, which may turn out to be good gifts or it may be the Holy Spirit. (From God's viewpoint there is no better response to persistent prayer than the gift of the Holy Spirit, God's own self.) Like Peter, we may pray for food and get a lesson in racism; like Paul we may pray for healing and get humility. We may ask for relief from trials and instead get patience to bear them. We may pray for release from prison and instead get strength to redeem the time while there. Asking, seeking and knocking does have an effect on God, as Jesus insists, but it also has a lasting effect on the asker-seeker-knocker.
`For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works,' Paul wrote to the Ephesians. `Workmanship' conveys rather clumsily the meaning of the Greek word poiema, origin of the English word `poem'. We are God's work of art, Paul is saying. Of all people, Paul with his history of beatings, prison, shipwreck and riots, knew the travail involved in the fashioning of that art---and the role that prayer played. Prayer offers an opportunity for God to remodel us, to chisel marble like a sculptor, touch up colours like an artist, edit words like a writer. The work continues until death, never perfected in this life. [136-145]
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