If you want heaven and earth moved, check your basics.
It’s a rite of passage for parents to help their kids with math homework. My daughter brought home her fair share, and it wasn’t long before I discovered my basic math skills were pretty rusty. I found myself sneaking away from her at the kitchen table, back into my study, where I would hop onto the internet and type “how to convert a fraction into a decimal.” I would try to learn it quickly, and then, of course, explain it to her wrong.
She eventually moved on to algebra, and chemistry, but I stayed stuck in fifth grade.
This is analogous to the Christian life, because the single biggest issue among us lies in our not moving on. We want to grow, but without learning certain basics. Prayer is one of those basics. You’ll find among struggling Christians an anemic prayer life that only exists at meal times, bedtimes, and severe crises.
Prayer is even more challenging than Bible study. Prayer disengages from informational pursuits, and takes you to a place where you’re interacting with the person you just learned about.
If you want your relationship with God to flourish, you need to learn the basics of prayer. And if you have already been introduced to these fundamentals, you’ll need to keep applying them to avoid falling into atrophy.
“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to Him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught His disciples” (Lk. 11:1).
The disciples requested a prayer class—a refreshing change, because we often avoid the subject, finding it hard, heavy, and unrewarding. Other than His own example inspiring them, Jesus had not initiated the topic . He had not launched into proofs that prayer is worthwhile, that it can help regulate blood pressure, and “the family that prays together, stays together.” He hadn’t been trying to sell prayer as something good for them. Apparently, they had already come to believe in its intrinsic value.
In fact, every real disciple understands prayer as good, and beneficial, though not easy. They must have sensed the difference between the prayers of the Son, that flashed from earth to heaven, with sanctified, unadorned simplicity, and their own struggling, insipid words, that seemed weighted to the ground. Finally, at a deciding moment, one of them said to Him, “Teach us to pray.” At length, we all come to this point, tired of prayers that fall flat.
2 And he said to them, “When you pray, say: ”
Jesus begins with what to say, because words elude us when addressing God. If you ever want to silence a room full of chatter, just ask if someone would like to lead in prayer. He instructed them to say, therefore, “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread, 4 and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
Notice this is the shorter version of the Lord’s prayer, with the longer one occurring in the Gospel of Matthew. Which then, should we memorize? That question may be a bit misguided, because these words were never meant to remain a perpetual recitation. Whenever you encounter recorded prayers in the Bible past the gospels, you never see this prayer recited verbatim, although you can find strands of its deepest thoughts occurring everywhere. These words were more likely meant to function as a flexible scaffolding for us. We are to grow into it and develop our prayers out of it.
Each phrase taught by the Lord presents itself as a portal, or heading. We find concerns for the glory of God, and His kingdom, our daily needs, and forgiveness of our sins. There is mention of forgiving others who have offended us, and petitions for navigating around temptations. These are major growth areas, and will require thousands of prayers over a lifetime. As our understanding and sentiments mature, so will our words, and expressions.
Until such a time though, Jesus told the neophyte disciples to “say” these words. He put phraseology in their mouths, like a mother bird puts worms in a baby bird’s mouth.
When studying prayer in the gospels, we typically (and rightly) pay attention to the Lord’s prayer, but He follows this lesson with a word about not giving up. Those who enter prayer life are prone to wear out, and become disillusioned, saying things like, “This doesn’t work,” and many similar cynical remarks. Even those of us who have prayed for years find ourselves vulnerable to ill feelings.
In verse 5, Jesus provides an illustration:
5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’?
If this illustration follows the general contour of prayer, then at the end of verse 7, it has begun to feel like God has said “No. Don’t bother me.” It seems that’s the end. But Jesus says it’s not.
8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
Even though the friend wouldn’t get out of bed in the name of friendship, he would do it because the person asking had become a nuisance. Jesus is not trying to say that God is like this reluctant friend, who doesn’t really want to help you. No, He wants to encourage you to continue in your prayer, making room for the possibility of delay. You may have to wait for an answer, even if you use beautiful, anointed, soaring words.
Although other parts of the Bible explain why delay happens, here at this time and in this passage, Jesus does not explain it. Nor would an explanation have been likely to help the disciples at their current level of maturity.
Try explaining to a four-year-old why they have to wait till next week before you’ll take him to the ice cream shop. No matter what explanation you provide for the delay, he probably won’t say, “Okay, that’s reasonable.” As a kid, it drove me crazy when I told my mother I wanted something, and she said in a coy tone, “Well, you know Christmas is coming up.” Especially when she would say this in October. Why would I have to wait? A grownup has all the power and all the money. Therefore, in my young mind, no matter what they would say, the only real reason for delay was meanness.
At some point, you’ll arrive at a similar place of frustration with God. You’ll feel as though, like in Jesus’ illustration, you’re beating on a door with no response, while God slowly swings his feet out of the bed, plods downstairs, and by the time He answers the door, years have gone by. At those times, we’re most conscious of the need to learn how to pray.
“And I tell you, Ask, and it will be given to you” (v. 9a)
Spoken this way, it looks like asking and receiving are instantaneous. True, there are places in the New Testament where people asked of Jesus, and He gave on the spot—the blind man who said he wanted his sight, for instance. And of course, right here in Luke Chapter 11, the disciples asked for a teaching on prayer, which he provided right away. In all of those instances and many others, Jesus answered immediately. I’ll grant that He was physically present. However, I’ve had prayers answered in a week, sometimes in thirty minutes, sometimes in as little as five. Regardless, it all starts with asking. If you don’t ask, you won’t receive.
“Seek, and you will find” (v. 9b)
In saying this, Jesus introduces a more prolonged time frame. Some answers take longer. In the meantime, the prayer itself refuses to go away. It is stuck in your heart, lodged there, and so, as you pray and wait, prayer takes on a seeking, navigational dimension. James and John approached Jesus, wanting to sit on His right and left hand in the kingdom. This was far more complex than asking for sight, or a lesson on prayer. Their wish was ambitious, and in some sense, good, but their understanding was off. They were likely thinking Jesus would go to Jerusalem, drive off the Romans, and then, as king, set up Israel as head of all nations. There was no suffering, or cross in their way of thinking, and certainly no maturity needed.
Jesus told them that positions in the kingdom were up to the Father’s discretion. Then He asked them if they could drink the cup from which He drank. They replied, “We are able” (Mt. 20), without having any idea what they were saying. These boys wanted to be quarterbacks, but they needed to pull off their helmets, take a knee, and learn some things about God, the nature of their request, and themselves.
Their prayer for kingdom glory would certainly be answered, but not before the death and resurrection of Christ. The founding of the church with its myriad lessons, and a rigorous apostolic ministry still lay ahead as intense proving grounds for these good-hearted, but naive young men. James would be the first among the twelve apostles to be martyred. The last surviving one, John, would be banished to a desert island. In the next age, we will no doubt see God’s large response to their prayer, eclipsing their initial, childish understanding.
“Knock, and it will be opened to you” (v. 9c).
Having gone on with the Lord a certain distance, you may have arrived at a place where all that is needed is a knock. Only a thin door stands between you and the answer to your prayer. For years, we prayed for oversea missions. Then, one day, I woke up in a hotel room in east Africa. I had gotten to the very door. I prayed one last prayer for the transmission of the Word, and stepped through it, into a resounding “Yes!” from God.
You’ve probably had this happen to you. You asked, and sought for the spiritual benefit of a friend, and that person finally agreed to read the Bible with you, over coffee. You were in the car, on the way, and all you needed is just one final knock. When you arrived, you found your friend more than receptive to the Word.
Ask, seek, and knock, Jesus said,
10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
But He further strengthened His case for not not giving up, by adding some basic theology.
11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Somehow, though you are radically fallen, and your every thought rotates around your pleasure, and convenience, your kids still get fed, diapers get changed, clothing and shelter are given, and they survive to adulthood. You still manage to give good gifts. God, on the other hand, is better than you, even on your most responsible, affectionate, generous days. He is willing to give up to and including, the greatest gift of all, the Holy Spirit. He gave us His Son, and broke Him on the cross, so the Spirit could flow out of that broken Son to everyone who wants Him, and asks for Him. After such selfless giving, the Father would want to know what it was you said He was “too mean” to give you.
Remember what kind of God it is you’re praying to.
Before my daughter was born (and needed help with homework), I went to college. I had to take some placement exams. The results showed that in high school, I had somehow learned more about bass fishing than math. I placed at the 99 level, which meant remedial skills were needed. It was a slow upward climb through pre-algebra, algebra, trigonometry, and pre-calculus. I completed my math track with flying colors. During the whole time, I was using basic skills at an almost unconscious level, because I was in the math matrix. Then, having finished, I didn’t touch another mathematical concept for some ten years straight.
That’s when my daughter started asking me for homework help. Though I had been a top student, I realized how disuse of my skills had led to the worst kind of atrophy. It is this way for musical instruments, and foreign languages, too.
If you stay in the prayer matrix, you’ll employ all the basics of prayer without even realizing it. It will be normal to utilize the Christ-provided scaffold of words, as well as asking, seeking, knocking, while utilizing good theology.
Take stock of where you are in your prayer experience. Maybe you need to stop wishing and start asking. Or, maybe you’ve entered a seeking phase of prayer. This typically involves long term issues like our children. During this protracted season, you’ll learn a great deal about God. You’ll also learn that you should pray for their second birth before their perfect church attendance, their love for the Word, before their Christian behavior. You might even learn some things about yourself, and how your concern for your child might be attached to your own pride.
And maybe you’re in the final leg of prayer, where you’re right on top of an answer—don’t forget that last knock.