Monday, 24 April 2017

Boldness in prayer

Reading Luke 11:1-11, especially the following verses:

5 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; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers 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.’ 8 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.

9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Luke 11:5-10  NRSV)

One of the problems we face in prayer - meaning here the prayer of request, or petitionary prayer - is that we become so worried about offending God, or asking for a wrong or selfish motive, or a whole number of other 'wrong' meanings and attitudes, that we either become inoffensively vague or stop praying altogether. Yet what we see here in Jesus' teaching in Luke 11 is God giving us permission to let rip in prayer and hammer away at Him with our requests for an answer. We can be - Jesus is saying - as brazen and bold in our praying as we like. This is underlined by the word translated above as "persistence" (verse 8). Here is what the NET Bible notes say about the word:

In verse 8 the term ἀναίδεια (anaideia) is hard to translate. It refers to a combination of ideas, a boldness that persists over time, or "audacity," which comes close. It most likely describes the one making the request, since the unit's teaching is an exhortation about persistence in prayer. Some translate the term "shamelessness" which is the term's normal meaning and apply it to the neighbour as an illustration of God responding for the sake of his honour. But the original question was posed in terms of the first man who makes the request, not of the neighbour, so the teaching underscores the action of the one making the request. 

The basis of our shamelessness arises from our relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. As His children, He tells us that we can come to Him at any time, just as we are, in whatever mood or frame of mind we are in, and 'let Him have it' in prayer. That is the thrust of the teaching here. Confidence in God's love for us, which is boundless. This is also true of Luke 18:1ff and the story of the persistent widow. For years I have understood the parable as being about the need to be persistent in prayer, underscored by verse 1 which tells us that the reason that Jesus told the story to His disciples "to show them that they always pray and not give up". But at the conclusion of the parable Jesus says:
"However when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth." (verse 8). In other words, will their trust in God and their love for God - which led them to be confidently persistent in the first place - still be in evidence (a question that is finding itself very relevant today in Britain).

In only making the parables in Luke 11 and 18 only about persistence, we run the risk of making persistence a method or formula by which we can have a successful outcome to our praying. That is to say that if I just ask God so many times He will reward my persistence, rather than my faith in Him to answer. Can you see the difference? Every time we forget who we are praying to, and what our relationship is with that Person, we turn Christianity into a religion and prayer a religious practice rather than a conversation between Parent and child.

So in our prayers. God does not reward persistence so much as our willingness to take our relationship with Him to the very limits, only to discover that, like His love for us, there are no limits.

So Jesus teaches us to ask and keep on asking (verse 9), don't stop. To seek and keep on seeking and to knock and to keep on knocking (all three verbs are present continuous meaning they are now and ongoing. And we can do that because, as He taught us earlier about prayer, God is our Father.

In fact how much we REALLY believe that He is our Father, is tested by our willingness - or not - to pray and keep on praying. If God is scary, frightening, distant, capricious, unreliable etc then of course our prayers will peter out into nothing because we are afraid of offending Him or going to far, to worse still, overstepping the mark, the boundary of what is allowed or not. If God is anything other than our Father then our prayers will not be bold, and confident - and therefore persistent - but tentative, fearful and unsure. That is not the relationship that the Bible - or God - has in mind for us. See Abraham asking God to save some of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33), or this wonderful passage from the desert fathers which captures this audacious relationship perfectly. It concerns the great Abba Sisoes, who inherited the place where St. Anthony the first hermit had lived:

"Abraham, the disciple of abba Sisoes, was once tempted by a devil. The old man (Sisoes) knew that he had fallen, so he stood up and stretched out his hands towards heaven and said, "God, whether You like it or not, I shall not leave You alone unless you heal him." And he was healed immediately."

Simon Tugwell comments: "If this seems irreverent, it is no more so than our Lord's own parable about the widow and the unjust judge, which he told us to encourage us to persist in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). (See page 16 Did you receive the Spirit?)

So next time you go in prayer to God about something that really troubles you, remember who you are and who He is ("our Father in heaven"), and don't hold back in your praying. Your persistence in prayer will never outlast God's persistence and patience in listening to you. Unlike the friend in bed with his family, or the exacerbated and unjust judge of Luke 18, no request or manner of expression will ever stop God from listening and answering.

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