It has been a couple of weeks longer than anticipated to make another post. Both Tillie and I got sick on our trip to China, and it took a couple of weeks to recover. In addition we made a trip to PA for Tillie’s dad’s ninety-first birthday. But we are back on a more regular schedule now. The following post is the last in the series on “Empowerred Discipleship.”
The last two essays in this series have focused on fasting and prayer. In this essay we are going to study two of Jesus’ parables on prayer, the two that teach importunity or persistence in prayer. The first is the parable of the “Friend at Midnight,” located in Luke 11:5-8. The context for this parable is seen in verse one of the same chapter. It says, “He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”
Jesus’ reply to the disciple’s request to teach them to pray was two-fold. The first part of his response was to give them the so-called Lord’s Prayer. We studied this prayer (as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount) in our last essay. Luke records the prayer, which Jesus may have given on several occasions, in this different context. The second part of Jesus’ reply was the parable of the “Friend at Midnight.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread: for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answered from within, ‘Do not bother me: the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything, because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”
The point of this parable is fairly obvious. Be persistent in prayer. But it is important to realize two things as we ponder that truth. First, it is crucial that we understand that the parable is not about God. That is, Jesus was not saying that God is like the neighbor who didn’t want to help his friend. On the contrary we know from many other scriptures that God is the opposite of that neighbor. He always is ready to receive us and help us.
To put it another way, Jesus was not explaining why God doesn’t immediately answer our prayers the way we would like. All too often we pray naively, thinking that prayer is a means of getting God to grant our desires. We forget that prayer is a means of honoring and glorifying our heavenly Father, a means of communion with our creator, and a means of receiving spiritual nourishment. As we saw in our study of the Lord’s Prayer in the last essay, even when we talk with God about our material, spiritual and moral needs, it is our relationship with him that is central, not what he can do for us. And we must never forget that.
Thus the parable of the “Friend at Midnight” is not about the way God answers our prayers. Rather it is about our reactions to situations where our prayers are not answered the way we would like. We may not understand why God does not answer our prayers, as we would like, but we understand that God cares about us and about the situations we bring to him. Therefore we can pray persistently in the confidence that our relationship with him will somehow bring us through.
The second thing we must realize as we ponder the parable of the “Friend at Midnight” is the context. As Warren Wiersbe reminds us, it is significant that the parable is linked with the Lord’s Prayer. Although the parable illustrates persistence in prayer, it is based on friendship, whereas our relationship with the One to whom we pray is one of father and child, not friendship. Again I remind you, it is the relationship that is the key.
In the parable, the man finally gets what he needs from his friend, because of his persistence. So how much more will persistence in our prayers to our heavenly Father bring blessings to us. In the parable, the man with the need was merely a friend. He was outside trying to get his friend to unlock his door and help him. But we are children. Therefore we are inside the family, which means that we are inside the house with a loving Father. What a difference!
Our Father does answer our prayers, though not always as we ask or desire. He answers, because he loves us. But he always answers in ways that bring glory to his name. That is why Jesus taught us to pray, “hallowed be your name.” There is a sense in which we sully God’s name when we pray in ways that do not hallow or glorify his name.
Finally, persistence in prayer must not be thought of as a means of getting God to change his mind about something. Again in the model prayer, as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are to be persistent in prayer not to get what we want, but to get what he wants. We must learn to trust God as a child. We must learn to trust his answers to our prayers whatever they may be.
The other, similar, parable that Jesus gave his disciples on persistence in prayer is called the “Persistent Widow.” It is found in Luke 18:1-8.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
The context for this parable is quite different from the first. Jesus gave this parable about persistence in prayer in a context of teaching about his Second Coming (17:20-37). Interestingly, Luke provides an application of the parable before he reports the parable. It is “about their need to pray always and not lose heart” (v. 1).
In other words, be persistent in prayer. We cannot give up (“lose heart”); we must keep praying; that is, we must maintain our relationship with God no matter what happens. Of course that is very similar to the parable of the friend at midnight.
Once again, the parable is not about God. God is a righteous Judge. And once again it is our relationship to God that is important, not getting particular “answers.” We as God’s people are not like the widow. She had no social standing, because women had no rights in that society. As a widow she had no husband to look out for her interests. And as a widow she would have been poor and unable to bribe someone to get her case heard. To the contrary we are God’s children and have the privilege of access to the ultimate Judge.
In summary, if a widow can obtain justice by continually calling on an unrighteous judge, who fears neither God nor man, how much more should Christians be encouraged to persist in their cries to the Judge of all the earth (who also happens to be our heavenly Father), who always does what is right.
Some have questioned the truth of the first part of verse eight. God’s justice does not always seem to come quickly. But they forget that God’s perspective of time is totally different from ours. From God’s perspective his justice comes quickly. And what seems like delays to us are part of God’s larger purposes. So we are to be persistent in prayer.
Returning now to the larger issue of persistent prayer, we still need to know why we are taught to be persistent in prayer when our legitimate prayers seem not to be answered. There are at least three reasons why we need to be persistent in prayer when our prayers are not answered. First, the answer to a particular prayer may be delayed by conflict in the spiritual realm. In Daniel 10:12-13, we are told there that Satan (symbolized by “the prince of the kingdom of Persia”) delayed for 21 days the angelic messenger of God who answered Daniel’s prayer. In other words there is activity in the spiritual realm, which we cannot see, that affects what is happening in our world. This is especially true when we enter the spirit world by means of prayer. So events in the spiritual realm may hinder our prayers.
Second, we may need to be persistent in prayer, because it is important for us to maintain close contact with God about the matter. That is to say, it may be important for us to keep praying about a particular matter, even though the prayer cannot be answered the way we would prefer. Why? Because the persistence in prayer can keep us close to God; it can keep us comforted; it can keep our hearts soft; it can strengthen us, etc.
And third, persistence in prayer may be needed, because other people with free will are involved in the situation about which we are praying. As you know God generally does not violate the freedom he has given to his higher creatures. When we pray for the conversion of a loved one, we may have to be persistent, because that person is stubborn and resists God successfully. When we pray for someone’s healing from an addiction, we may have to be persistent, because the person refuses to give up certain lifestyle habits that keep him or her trapped in the addiction. When we pray for peace in a given area of the world, we may have to be persistent, because many people there refuse to give up their hatred of others.
In conclusion, we are to be persistent in prayer. Such persistence might be necessary because of unseen spiritual conflicts; it might be necessary because of our own personal spiritual needs; or it might be necessary because of the stubborn self-will of people involved with the situation for which we are praying. Generally we will not know why we must keep praying, but we must.