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The power of persistent prayer

2020 has been a year like no other in living memory.

It started as 1973, with the impeachment proceedings. Then it became 1918 with the coronavirus pandemic. It added 2008 (and maybe 1929) with the recession. Then it added 1968 with racial issues. None of the last three will end any time soon, and we can add the election this fall.

Psychologists distinguish between acute stress, something we experience in the face of immediate but short-term challenges, and chronic stress, which is ongoing and debilitating. Of the two, chronic stress can especially lead to depression and other physical and psychological challenges.

If you’re like me, the chronic nature of our challenges is becoming discouraging and worse. Your congregation probably feels the same way.

In this context, I wanted to share a reminder that has been encouraging me in recent days, one drawn from what is perhaps Jesus’ most misunderstood parable.

A rude neighbor

You know his story in Luke 11 about the persistent neighbor who knocks at a friend’s door at midnight to ask for bread he can serve a guest. The man’s reluctance is understandable: Common homes in Jesus’ day were one room, with one window and a door. The first two-thirds of the room was a dirt floor where the animals slept for the night. The back one-third was a raised wooden platform with a charcoal stove around which the entire family slept. For this man to get up at midnight he must awaken his family and then his animals just to get to the door.

In Jesus’ story, the neighbor gets up despite all this—the rudeness, the inconvenience, the breach of social custom—because of the man’s “impudence.” The Greek word means “shameless refusal to quit.” He simply will not go away until the man gives him what he wants. And so he does.

So Jesus concludes: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (v. 9). The Greek could be translated literally, “ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, knock and keep on knocking.” Practice persistence with God.

A loving father

Now, what does Jesus’ parable mean for us? First, let’s dismiss what it doesn’t mean.

Jesus is not teaching that we can wear God out if we ask for something enough. That God is the man inside the house asleep, but if we come and bang on his door loud enough and long enough, he will give us what we want. Even if he doesn’t want to, if we keep asking, eventually we’ll receive what we want.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard that very theology preached: if you have enough faith, God will give you whatever you ask for. Whether you want to be healed, or be wealthy, or anything at all, just ask in enough faith and it’s yours.

That is absolutely not the point here. Jesus is using a very common rabbinic teaching technique known in the Hebrew as the qal wahomer. Literally, “from the light to the heavy.” Applied here, the point is this: if a neighbor at midnight would give you what you ask if you ask him, how much more will God answer our requests when we bring them to him.

They must be in his will, for his purposes and glory. This is no guarantee that enough faith will ever obligate God. It is a promise that if this man would hear his neighbor, how much more does God wish to do the same.

Why persistent prayer is so powerful

How does Jesus’ story relate to our need for persistent prayer in these challenging days?

Let’s admit that persistence in prayer is difficult for our fallen culture. Many in our secularized society are convinced that the spiritual is superstitious fiction. To them, praying to God is like praying to Zeus. If it makes you feel better, go ahead. But don’t persist in your prayers as though they make any real difference.

Our materialistic culture is also convinced that the material is what matters. Seeing is believing. You cannot see beyond the immediate, so why would you persist in doing something that doesn’t bring immediate results? If God doesn’t answer your prayer now, why keep praying it?

In the face of such skepticism, why do what Jesus taught us to do? Because persistent prayer positions us to experience God’s best.

Praying to God does not inform him of our need or change his character. Rather, it positions us to receive what his grace intends to give.

Persistent prayer does something else as well: it keeps us connected to God so his Spirit can mold us into the image of Christ. When we pray, the Holy Spirit is able to work in our lives in ways he cannot otherwise. The more we pray, continuing to trust our problems and needs to the Lord, the more he makes us the people he intends us to be and empowers us for the challenges we face.

An invitation from God

Jesus’ story invites us to define our greatest challenge as a pastor in these days. Name it before your Father. Continue to pray about it, knowing that persistent prayer connects you with his power and wisdom. Know that as you knock, the door will be opened, by the grace of God.

I walk in our Dallas neighborhood early each morning. This week, I came across a yard sign that impressed me greatly. It proclaimed: “Hope is alive. Jesus is alive!” The first is true because the second is true.

There is hope for our past because Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8) and then rose from our grave. There is hope for our present because the living Christ is praying for us right now (Romans 8:34). There is hope for our future because Jesus will come for us one day and is building our home in paradise right now (John 14:1–3).

Hope is alive because Jesus is alive. Why do you need to practice persistent prayer to him today?

It is always too soon to give up on God.