Jim had prayed and asked God for a particular request almost every day for ten years. He rarely varied from the way he worked his prayer. He prayed using the same words with the same intensity day after day, month after month. I spent time with him every couple of weeks in a prayer group, and I noticed the repetition of this particular prayer request. Why was he repeating the same prayer over and over?
I finally asked him why he did this. By way of answer he threw a bible verse at me: “Luke 11:8. Look it up. I’m being persistent.”
Here is that verse in the New American Standard Bible:
“8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.”
So I looked it up. And I read more and more about it. Because I teach on prayer regularly, I sought to understand that verse, and the entire parable that precedes it. What I found years ago changed the way I pray. It also helped me to see the key reason we are to pray. Up until that point in my life, I had externalized it, made it into a thing instead of what it is: A relationship.
First, let’s look at the entire parable and see the key point. (For the sake of understanding, let’s say something about parables. The stories direct the hearer to a key truth. The details of the story are only relevant as they direct the focus to the main point. People make errors in interpreting parables by trying to make every detail have significance). So let’s observe the parable in another translation than the one mentioned above.
5 Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; 6 for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
9 “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.
Key points are often discerned by looking for key words. These can often be the word repeated most often. This is the case in this parable. The word “friend” repeats over and over. This tells us that though parable is teaching a truth about prayer, it is also about friendship. The details of the story will draw together the connection.
It is important to read this story with the mindset of those who originally heard Jesus tell the story. They lived in a dangerous part of the world. One did not travel at night because it was too unpredictable. Thieves, wild animals, crumbling and decaying roads all made a nighttime journey a bad idea. So when Jesus begins his parable with the description of a man taking a journey in the middle of the night, everyone’s ears perked up. For anyone to travel at night, the need must have been urgent and immediate. A few sentences into the story we also learn that the man needs some food and is going to keep traveling. This underscores the urgency of his need.
Additionally, no one disturbs a friend in the middle of the night unless there are no other choices. The original hearers could tell this man was desperate. The only person you can impose upon at that time of night is a close friend. Only a close friend will overlook all the inconveniences and understand the need.
This parable is about friendship and prayer. We must tie those concepts together to understand the conclusion.
The story takes an interesting twist at this point. The guy on the nighttime crisis journey picks a friend who is all out of bread. So that man, not wanting to abandon his friend in need, thinks to himself “Who can I call on to help us out?” The answer is obvious: A friend. Confident he can approach his friend even at night, he knocks on his door and asks him for bread.
Remember, it is still the middle of the night.
The answer from inside is not surprising. This is a different situation altogether. The one knocking on this door is not a man journeying on a desperate race against time. This is the guy down the street. And in homes of that time, people slept everywhere in the house. Getting up and answering the door, getting out the bread and all that entails would wake all the children up. It is no surprise that he turns down his neighbor’s bread request at first.
But the man persists. He explains to his neighbor-friend why he needs the bread at that hour. Any Jewish person of that era would hear the urgency as Jesus tells the story. So, because his friend asks with so much urgency, the man gets up and gives his neighbor bread.
Now, this is where Jesus draws a conclusion that many people misinterpret. He tells his hearers that the key here is the persistence of the friend to keep asking that turns the tide. So bible teachers will see this and say “This is the key to prayer. Keep asking and don’t stop. Keep storming the gates of heaven until God answers. This is what Jesus wants us to do.”
But think how this paints God. God seems reluctant to help us. Until we bug God enough with our prayers, God is unwilling to do what we ask. Only when the volume of our annoyance reaches to the right amount will God answer us. The key, according to this teaching, is to be persistent.
The New American Standard uses the word “persistence” in verse 8. The NIV translates that word “shameless audacity.” The Greek word is Anaideian. It literally means to be “without shame.” Shamelessness is often equated with “boldness” and “audacity”. Usually, when all emotional hindrances are removed, boldness and persistence rise up. But that can be deceiving in this instance.
First, we don’t see this man coming back hour after hour to ask his neighbor for bread. He presses the issue, yes, but he keeps pushing because they are friends and he wants his friend to see why this is a special situation. We would all do the same. Second, though the verse tells us he gets up not primarily out of friendship, it does note that friendship is part of this equation. A friend in need, who can express that need to his friend, will get bread. That is what Jesus’ hearers took away from this.
Friendship is the key to this parable. At every stop along the way, this is an enterprise that only takes place because of existing friendships. There are no strangers or casual acquaintances involved. Now, the climax of this teaching comes in Jesus’ immediate application of the truth.
He tells them, “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.”
In the original Greek text, the verbs, “ask”, “seek” and “knock” are all formed in the Present Imperative tense of the verb. In lay terms, this means this is a continual command. It would mean “keep on asking, seeking and knocking.” This is not a one-time event.
What distinguishes our friends from our casual acquaintances? Many elements go into friendship, but two are consistent. First, friends spend time together. And second, friends communicate at a deeper level with each other than with acquainatnces. If you do not have these two things, you can’t call it a close friendship.
Prayer is all about friendship with God. God designed prayer to be a two-way conversation with God. Many times prayers are not answered because, as James says “we want to use the answer to prayer for selfish reasons.” If we treat prayer as a conversation with our friend Jesus, then if our motives are wrong, he will correct us. Then, when we pray a corrected, edited prayer, God is much more willing and able to answer it.
For years, my mother suffered from a damaged heart that had through Rheumatic Heart disease. She ended up having four open-heart surgeries. Each time she went under the knife I plead with God to keep her safe. Each time, my friend Jesus gave me assurance that he was going to rescue her. Twice, her heart gave out as they began the surgery and both times the doctors brought her back from death. God does answer those prayers.
One afternoon, my mother’s husband called and told us Mom went in to the hospital with pneumonia. But he assured me that it was not that serious and she should leave the hospital soon. I went and talked to God about how to pray for her. I didn’t get what I expected from that conversation. God showed me that He wasn’t going to save her this time. As I fought the tears, I asked God what I should pray. He showed me to pray for my own heart, for her husband, for my brother and sister. I spent an hour praying for all these people. I had just finished praying when the phone call came. My step-dad told me that Mom had passed peacefully, though unexpectedly, into the presence of God.
I had shameless audacity every time I prayed for Mom. And many times, God answered by healing her. The last time, He answered by changing how I prayed. This is how our friendship with God works when it comes to prayer. The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 reminds us that he begged God three times to remove his “thorn in the flesh”. Finally, after the third time, God told him not to ask any more. And then God added, “my grace is sufficient for you.” In other words, Paul, you can ask me to help you live successfully with this thorn in your flesh, but I’m not taking this one away.”
Are you a friend of Jesus? If you are, can you see prayer as a conversation and not a platform by which you get all your whims realized?