Persist in Prayer

by Pat Lee

(Based on Luke 11:1-13; Gen 18:20-32; Psalm 138)

Clearly this passage in Luke is about prayer, but not just prayer. It is actually about life in general.

The first word that came to mind when I read the readings for today was persistence, so I was pleased to find that Elisabeth Johnson in her commentary supported me in this thought. The word used in the NRSV is the Greek word anaideia, which translates as persistence. But a better translation may have been ‘shamelessness’. I will come back to this later.

Parents and grandparents know how persistent children can be when they want something. “Mum, can I have an ice cream? Dad, can you fix my bike? When can we go to the beach?” and, of course,  when we’re going somewhere that takes a while, “Are we there yet?” They will ask a million times until they get what they want or are told very strongly not to ask again.

But if we need to keep praying persistently, is it because we think that God is deaf or is not listening, or that once is enough and that God does not need to be bothered any further? Be assured that God is not deaf and is always listening. Someone has written, “Persistence in prayer is the test to determine whether or not we are really serious about our request.” Further, “All worthwhile goals in life are reached by disciplined efforts. Why should we expect less in our prayer efforts?”

In today’s Genesis reading, the Lord was considering hiding from Abraham what he was about to do to the city of Sodom, but decided against it because he had chosen Abraham to become the father of a great nation, that would keep the way of the Lord.
So, in the verses that follow we see a great example of persistence or shamelessness. This is a few verses on from last week’s passage when Abraham had three visitors. When the three men left, Abraham went some of the way with them. When they set out towards Sodom, Abraham stayed, standing before the Lord.
He began asking the Lord if he was indeed going to sweep away the righteous as well as the wicked, even if only fifty righteous people were found in Sodom. Abraham kept asking boldly, some may say, audaciously, until he got down to asking if just ten righteous people could be found. Abraham was persistent, shameless, in his asking. We don’t know why he kept asking: perhaps it was because he knew his nephew Lot and his family lived there. (Reading on in the following chapters we find that Lot was indeed saved from the destruction of Sodom.)

To illustrate that God can be trusted to respond to our prayers, Jesus tells the parable of the persistent friend who goes to a friend at midnight.

Hospitality was of paramount importance in the biblical world, and when the guest arrived – even unexpected, at midnight – there was no question that hospitality must be extended. But the man does not have the provisions to do so, so he goes to his friend to borrow some, even though he must wake up the entire household.

 I wonder how we would have reacted? Some of us would have been pretty upset, especially with that persistent knocking on the door. We feel empathy for the woken friend. Elisabeth Johnson says that in the culture of the biblical world, it is the woken-up friend who is behaving badly. The ability of his friend to provide hospitality, and thus his honour, is at stake. The woken-up friend would incur dishonour if he failed to help in this essential obligation. So, he will respond because of social pressure at the very least.

Jesus then continues, “So I say to you, ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (11:9-10)

Johnson says this is the most difficult part of the passage to preach because our experience contradicts Jesus’s words. So often we have asked and not received; searched and not found. In spite of our most fervent prayers for their health and safety, we have lost loved ones to illness and senseless accidents. In spite of the fervent prayers of people around the world, daily we hear of tragedies of violence, hunger, disease, and natural disasters.

If God is a loving parent who desires what is good and life giving (11:11-13), why do so many prayers seem to go unanswered?

There is no simple answer, although answers are often given. Another writer says, “I don’t know why some prayers seem to be answered and others are not. I don’t have any good answers or explanations but I have heard some really bad ones: ‘You didn’t pray hard enough.’ ‘You didn’t have enough faith.’ ‘You were asking for the wrong thing.’”

Elisabeth Johnson writes, “What can we say about unanswered prayer? It is wise to be wary of saying more than we can possibly know. We can, however, affirm what Scripture tells us: that God is all-powerful, yet God is not the only power in the world. There are other powers at work, the powers of Satan and his demons, the powers of evil and death often manifested by human sin.”
1 Peter 5:8,9 says, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”
Johnson again: “Although God has won the ultimate victory over these powers through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the battle still rages on.”

So, we dare to be persistent in our prayers, to keep bringing our needs and hopes to our heavenly Father, because Jesus tells us to do so, as he himself did, trusting in God’s loving purpose for us; and remember to give thanks. Psalm 138 tells us to give thanks with our whole hearts, and 1 Thessalonians 5:17,18 says, “Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
I believe we should always thank God when we have asked, even before we receive the answer, because this shows we have faith in God. 

Be persistent, and give thanks. Whatever the outcome.

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