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Lord, Teach Us to Pray: Persistent Prayer

January 29, 2006

Luke 11:5-13; Luke 18:1-8

Last night, I went to a bookstore to get a cup of coffee. One of our deacons was there, and we had coffee together and talked for a few minutes. Then we went our separate ways through the stacks of books. I browsed around, and he did the same. We met each other again just outside the store in the parking lot. He said, “Let me show you what I got.” He showed me the book he had bought, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Prayer. I thought that title was quite accurate. I asked him if I could borrow it just for the night so that I could take it home and read it. After I finished it, I called the bookstore just before closing and ordered a copy for me. I do recommend the book.

I have often recommended Richard Foster’s book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, a wonderful primer on the life of prayer. Dr. Timothy George, the Dean of Beeson Divinity School, endorses Foster’s book, stating that everyone needs a kind of primer on Christian prayer. I hope that if any concept has stuck with you through this series on prayer, it is that no one is really an expert on prayer; we are all learners. We will never discover all there is to know. We can never learn all there is about prayer. In many ways, we are all beginners. We all come to those times when we begin again.

I could not imagine leading this series without talking about the issue of persistent prayer, a topic that seems troubling to Christians. The parables in today’s scripture passages all point to the importance of being persistent in the life of prayer. Jesus tells the story of a widow who comes before a judge, pleading for simple fairness. This judge does not fear God, nor does he care about people. He has the reputation of being unjust and unrighteous. Because this widow continues to come to him with her requests, he finally gives in to her. Jesus tells this story to underline the importance of being persistent in prayer. We should always pray and be persistent in making our requests known to God, he says.

Jesus tells a second parable of a man who knocks on the door of his neighbor’s house after midnight. An unexpected visitor has arrived at the man’s house, and he needs some bread in order to be a proper host. The neighbor answers no because it would disturb the whole house if he came to the door. In order to understand this parable, you must know that homes built in first century Palestine were usually one room. The front part of the house had just a dirt floor where the animals stayed at night. The family slept on pallets on a raised platform at the back of the house. The neighbor would have to crawl over his wife and children and make his way through the sheep and goats to open the door. The neighbor is resistant, but the parable says that because the man was so persistent, the neighbor finally got up and gave him the loaf of bread.

In the third parable, Jesus says, “Listen, you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children. If your son asks for a fish, you would not give him a snake. If he asks you for an egg, you would not give him a scorpion.” Jesus’ point is, “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven know how to give good gifts to those who ask?”

One problem with these three parables is that we ask, “Does this mean that we must pester God, like the widow hounding the unjust judge? Does it mean that we are going to have to worry God to death before He finally gives in and grants our request? Is God going to be like this neighbor who is so resistant to grant what the man asks?” The key to understanding the parables comes in the words of Jesus at the end of the last parable: “How much more? If an unjust judge will finally give in because a widow persists in bothering him, how much more will God, a God of righteousness, a God of justice, be willing to grant your request? If this neighbor is so reluctant to give the bread that is requested, how much more would God be willing to give? If we, being evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more is God willing to give good gifts to His children?” These three parables are not analogous. They are parables of contrast. They are parables that tell us something about the nature of God. The point Jesus makes is that we must be persistent in praying.

During junior high school, I was issued a locker and a combination lock. I worked with that lock and thought I had finally figured out, so I put it on my locker. For several weeks, I could not get it open, though I tried my best and followed the directions. Trying to open it was so annoying that I just started carrying every book I had around in a backpack all day. I looked like a tremendous burden-bearer hunched over with all those books. I finally realized that I did not have a chance of unlocking the lock unless I was extremely careful and got the combination just right.

Are we are to think about prayer in the same way? Are we to view prayer as a very difficult code that we must dial exactly right in order for the channel to heaven to be open? Must everything mesh just like that combination lock, in order to have access to God? Do we have to say just the right words, in just the right order? Must we be close to perfect in our own lives, with perfect timing?

I am afraid that too often, we think about our relationship to God in mechanical terms. Have you ever tried to buy a soft drink in a machine that requires a dollar bill? I have put a dollar bill in those machines as many as five or six times before the machine quit spitting it back to me. Maybe I have it upside down or backwards. Sometimes I flatten out the corners to be sure the bill is going in straight. Unless you insert that bill exactly right, the machine will not accept it and dispense a soft drink. Do we think of prayer in the same way? Do we think we have to get it exactly right before God can dispense whatever blessing we are seeking?

Already in this series of sermons on prayer, I have asked you not to think of your relationship to God through prayer in mechanical terms. I am asking you again. Prayer is not like a combination lock. It is not like a soft drink machine. Prayer is, first, a relationship with a Father in heaven who loves us very much. Remember though, that it is not a relationship of equals. We are not buddies with God. God is the Sovereign; we are the subjects. God is the Creator; we are the creation. God is our heavenly Father; we are His children. We must remember that clear lines of authority exist.

The Bible makes some very bold statements about the relationship of prayer. In Luke 11:9-10, Jesus encourages us to keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. You will notice the verb tense expresses continuous action. In the Greek language, the tense is called the imperfect tense. Again, Jesus emphasizes the importance of persistence in this remarkable promise: “For everyone who asks, receives; he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Scripture tells us that even in persistent prayer, we can expect our prayers to be answered. In Mark 11:24, Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” In Matthew 18:19, Jesus claims, “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Jesus makes incredible promises about God’s willingness to answer prayer in these passages.

You may respond, as so many do, “It just has not worked out that way for me. I have prayed, but nothing has happened. Maybe I did not ask long enough, but that is not the way it has been for me.” The Bible gives us wonderful accounts of people whose prayers were answered. Moses prayed that God would deliver His people from bondage in Egypt. Forty years later, God answered the prayer. The Israelites experienced forty years of wilderness before they finally came to the Promised Land. Paul prayed that God would remove his “thorn in the flesh” (II Corinthians 12:7). God refused to take away this “thorn.” Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed earnestly, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). It did not happen. The issue is not whether or not we get exactly what we pray for; the issue is how God answers.

Corrie Ten Boon asked the question, “Is prayer your steering wheel, or is it your spare tire?” Do you try out prayer when things go bad, or do you use prayer to guide your life? Robert McFee Brown said that too many of us are like tourists in a strange land when it comes to the life of prayer. We feel uncomfortable, like we are not at home, so we depart quickly. God wants to hear from us persistently because He wants something to happen inside of us. Prayer is not like working a combination lock, not like making a machine dispense what we want. The truth is that the power of prayer is, first, the power to change us.

Persistent prayer serves important functions. First, it teaches us humility. How arrogant we would be if we believed that we could have anything we wanted just by asking God. We would treat God as if He were a bellhop. We would ring Him up, make our request, and expect God to “hop to it” and give us what we want. Our relationship to God has to be the other way around. We are the servants. Jesus tried to teach this concept to his disciples. He said, “I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you abide in me (the life of prayer) and I abide you, you will bear much fruit; but apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Only when we recognize that we can do nothing apart from God are we able to pray with power; otherwise, we would be arrogant. Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” not “I can do all things” (Philippians 4:13). We are weak and helpless. One lesson that prayer teaches us is that we must come to God with an attitude of humility. We must realize that the power and the glory belong to God.

Persistent prayer gives us an opportunity to know God in an intimate way. We sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but He is so much more than that. He is Almighty God. For us to have a close, personal relationship with God requires that we spend time with Him.

Yuroslav Pelican said that he never quite understood why Jesus started the Lord’s Prayer with the word Abba until he was in Cairo, Egypt. He watched as a plane landed and passengers disembarked. An Arab man came down the steps, and his little son started running across the tarmac, calling in the Arabic language, “Abba! Abba! Abba!” When the father bent down and picked up his son, the child started caressing his father’s face and repeating the word Abba, the Aramaic word for Daddy. Abba is a term of intimacy. Jesus began the Lord’s Prayer with Abba, “Our Father.” The relationship we have to God must grow into a close intimacy.

I have been married to Clare for almost forty years. I love her more now than when we got married. I love her more now than I did twenty years ago. Our relationship has grown over the years. You can ask her if we have the perfect marriage, and she will tell you quickly, “No, we don’t. We still have areas that need work in our marriage.” That is true in every relationship. Our relationship to God is no different. We never have a perfect relationship with God. It always needs some maintenance, some work. No matter how long we have known God, no matter how much we love Him, persistent prayer keeps us close in that relationship so that it can continue to grow for years.

Persistent prayer teaches us patience. A close connection exists between humility and patience. Do you remember the last time you went to the hospital, maybe for surgery? Do you remember the gown you wore, the gown that did not cover your entire body? That gown immediately caused you to experience a heavy dose of humility. From that point on, you were called a “patient.” People who go into the hospital have to be patient. In order for God to do the work that He wants to do in our lives, we have to be humble and patient. Persistent prayer requires patience.

Does God answer our prayers? Yes. He always answers our prayers in the same way that you answer the requests of your children. Your child comes to you and asks, “Mama, can I have this?” You grant the request and answer, “Yes, you can have it.” Sometimes God does that. Sometimes your children come to you and ask, “Mama, can I have this?” You answer, “No.” God answers our prayers at times by saying, “No.” You do not want to hear that response. The Apostle Paul prayed that God would heal his “thorn in the flesh.” He believed in the power of prayer and knew that God could have healed him. He had seen evidence that God had healed other people, but God said, “No.”

Why? I can only speculate. Imagine if God had healed Paul. We would not have that great passage of scripture that gives us strength and encouragement. When our prayers are answered no, we tend to think that God did not answer because we did not get what we wanted. Paul makes a comment that sounds like a riddle: “I have learned that when I am weak, then I am strong.” He is saying, “When I reach the end of my own strength, I find the strength I did not know I had it.” It is not his strength; it is the strength of God. God taught him a very important lesson by answering, “No.”

Sometimes when your children ask you for something, you answer, “We will wait and see.” You know that a better time will come later. Now is not the time.

At the end of a revival that I preached in North Carolina, a man shook my hand and said, “I want you to meet my wife. I am in my sixties now, and I have been a Christian for three years. For thirty-nine years, this woman prayed that I would accept Christ.”

Have you ever prayed for someone for thirty-nine years? I am sure you have been praying earnestly for someone for a long time. I, too, am praying about a situation like that every day. I will never give up because the Lord taught us to be persistent. Sometimes, we have to be patient and wait for His timing. I can promise you that His timing is perfect. Sometimes God says, “Try again.” It is like learning to ride a bicycle. You fall off, get up, and try again. You do not quit.

Sometimes, God is waiting until we ask. Have you heard the term provenient grace? Jesus died on the cross for every person. Some have received that grace, but so many others have not received it. Why? They have not asked for it. God is waiting for them to say, “Lord, I am a sinner. I need your grace. Please save me from my sins.” Some have not asked because they have not heard. Our job is to tell them. When they ask, God immediately answers their request.

Do not grow weary in praying. Be persistent in prayer. I can promise you that your relationship with God through Christ Jesus will grow and deepen as you pray.

Have you asked Jesus to save you from your sins? If not, we invite you to do so. Some have other decisions to make. Some of you know that God has led you to Morningside. This is to be your church home. We invite you to respond to these invitations from the Lord as we stand and sing together our hymn of invitation, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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