I think I’ve been thinking of prayer incorrectly. I probably could have said that (and indeed have said that) before, but I wonder if I may have a more specific focus now on at least one particular aspect of prayer.
I have been suspicious of intercessory prayer for a long time; not in its potential power, per se, but in its seeming overuse. I often wonder what the point of having the ability to do things is if we are not willing to work toward things we may be praying about for ourselves (oh how very American). I also have had the thought quite often that God will do what he wants whether I ask or not, and what would be the point of asking if that is indeed the case? I also have suspicions of people who say that certain spiritual gifts or perceived “blessings” are an absolute given to believers, making prayers for these things a seeming demand of God that may or may not be accurate depending on where in the Bible these “certainties” are cited. Mix in the numerous sermons warning that we spend too much of our prayer asking God for things like a cosmic Santa Claus, and I’ve found my prayer life to be a consistent struggle (to say the least).
But in reading last night, I wonder if I haven’t changed my understanding, at least to a point. In Luke 11, Jesus immediately follows the presentation of the Lord’s Prayer with a parable. A man goes to his neighbor late at night to ask for food, because he has none to receive a guest. The neighbor, the parable says, is reluctant to get up for fear of waking his children, but gets up not because of his friendship, but because of the boldness of the request. Jesus follows the parable in verses 9-10, “‘So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.’”
Here is where the change occurs for me. The focus is not on the neighbor’s response, but on the boldness of the request. The word used in the passage highlights not only the boldness, but the shamelessness of the man’s actions. This parallels to the requests made of God by a person in prayer. In the past, I have wondered how to interpret this passage, because if the neighbor is meant to represent God, it seems like the person on that side of the equation is shamed into service or action. However, as Darrell Bock notes in his NIV Application Commentary of Luke, “God does not need to be prodded to save his honor. Therefore, the perspective of v. 8 is that of the petitioner, as “his” friend and “his” boldness show. Thus the point is not about God but about the petitioner’s focus on the Lord (311).”
I think 3 things come to mind in response to this. 1) I do think there is an over-emphasis on requests of God when we pray, and we must take that into account when spending any amount of time in prayer. 2) Just because we ask for something does not mean we will get it. 3) I still wonder at making a request of God, and why any approach is necessary, bold or otherwise. However, even as I write that, I am struck by by reflecting on how often my requests have been paired with an inner “who are you to ask…” thought process. In this story, it seems I am empowered, that we all are empowered, to approach God without any of these concerns.
Additionally, I wonder if there isn’t a connection to broader life as a Christian. The call to approach God boldly in prayer reminds me of Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” It seems there is something to be said for how we are called to live, that our lives are meant to be defined with this boldness in the face of any situation. At the very least, I think I move forward now knowing that I can make a request for my needs without a nearly constant feeling of guilt or feelings of uselessness that my requests have seemed to carry in the past.