"For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Written on the heels of the Lord’s Prayer, this famous passage is most commonly used in relationship with our prayer life. Often times, this scripture is translated, if you pray hard enough and long enough, God will answer your prayers. Has anyone ever suggested to you that if you just pray hard enough, God will grant your request?
While I am a big believer in the power of prayer, I am forced to consider the implications of this type of reading when prayers are not granted. What about the couple who prayed for years and years for a baby but never to any avail? Do we just say, “It must not have been God’s will?” or “God must be punishing them for something”?
What about the young mother, devoted to her church and family, who dies after a battle with cancer? Were the prayers of her church family not enough? Was her faith lacking?
For two years, I prayed every night for my father when he battled Major Depression. Every night for those two years I asked God to make him better. And every night I felt as if my prayers fell on deaf ears.
After my dad lost the battle to this terrible illness, I was sure that my prayers did indeed fall on deaf ears. Did I not pray hard enough and long enough? Was I not pious enough in my asking? I know you have a similar story to tell, too.
Episcopal priest and writer, the late Robert Capon comments on this famous passage saying, “Taken literally, as a program for conning God into catering to the needs of our lives, that is pure bunk: too many sincere, persistent prayers have simply gone unfulfilled.”
So if this passage isn’t saying that God will eventually answer our prayers if we are persistent enough in asking, then what is this passage all about?
Scholars will tell you that a better reading of the Greek word for “persistent” in this passage is actually “shameless”—at least in our 21st century context. So if we substitute persistent with shameless we would get, “At least because of the needy man’s shamelessness, the sleeper will get up and give the needy man whatever he seeks.”
And the Greek word for “get up” implies that there some kind of resurrection going on here. So the original readers would have understood that this mini-parable suggests that the answering of prayer has something to do with our shamelessness in asking and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Like the parable suggests, our prayers are not answered because our prayers are reasonable or justified. Our prayers are not answered because we have a really good personal relationship with Jesus. Our prayers are answered solely because ours is a God who is compassionate and chooses not to leave us for dead.
I believe we grow more satisfied to this answer on prayer when we admit just how ignorant and blind we are in our asking, when we admit that God is doing for us far better things than we can ask or imagine, when we can shamelessly admit that the answer to prayer is solely dependent on a God whose property is always to have mercy – and not on our own righteousness or deservedness.
As one preacher said, “If we knew what God knows, we would ask exactly for what he gives.” But the truth is – we don’t know what God knows and we rarely ask for exactly what he gives. And when we admit how limited our understanding of God is, then we can be shameless in asking because in the end all of our requests are absurd as it relates to God’s final plan of glory.
Ultimately, this shameless approach to prayer calls us to be less concerned about telling God what to do and more open to how God is answering all our prayers through what Christ has done, through the One who is risen from the dead, through the One who points to life even from the grave. Or as many have said, the aim of prayer is not about changing God. The aim of prayer is about changing us into a people who trust that God's great mercy is enough.
When prayer is seen in this light, prayer ceases to be a formula that is to be mastered but as a way to enter into an authentic relationship with the One who takes care of our every need – even when we hear “no” or “not yet.” When we stop seeing prayer as a vending machine, we can be at peace with a future that is uncertain because prayer is about growing in relationship with the God who makes certain our future.
Only when we die to the illusion that we are in control, only when we die to our pedantic version of what life should look like, only when we die to our selfish needs can we claim a shamelessness and death that invites us to see that God’s way is the only way to life. And as Christians, we are invited to know that the way of the cross – the way of suffering and death – is none other than the way of life and peace.
On my last night as Chaplain Resident at Baptist Princeton in Birmingham, I was called to the Emergency Department after someone died from a gunshot wound. When I made it down to the ED, the Doctor on-call asked me if I would go with him to the parking lot to notify the family of the death.
I was hesitant. I asked, “Why can’t the family come inside?” You see if you come inside, then you have to go through metal detectors. I remember thinking that it was a terrible idea to go outside. I could get shot by a grieving family member. But the Doctor insisted so we went outside.
About 40 family members gathered outside when the Doctor broke the news. As you might imagine, there were lots of tears and lots of screams. The son of the deceased, who was about my age, couldn’t believe the news and asked to see the body. When the Doctor told the young man that he would have to wait because it was a coroner’s case, the young man went off the hinges.
At this point, I tried to calm the young man down but all I could seem to do was add fuel to the fire. Eventually, the young man said that he was going to go back and get his gun and shoot up the place. This was probably the most terrifying moment of my life.
I tried to reason with him saying, “Now is not the time for guns.” And to that he replied, “What do you know? Don’t tell me what to do. You don’t know what it is like to have a father who was shot.”
I stood there paralyzed and the only thing I could muster were tears. There I was, the Chaplain, the “non-anxious presence”, the one who was supposed to invoke the name of God in this time of chaos, reduced to tears.
At that moment, we both knew what it was like to feel dead inside. There were no words left to say. And the scene became silent. And then someone from the crowd began to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
One by one, we all joined in saying the Lord’s Prayer. Our prayers were answered – not because Jesus magically raised this young man’s father to life, not because the Chaplain-on-call whipped out the magic prayer for the particular occasion, but our prayers were answered because through our shamelessness – through our tears and anger – our fundamental hope in prayer was revealed – God with us.
At the end of the day, prayer is about connecting with the God who promises to be with us even to the end of the ages. Prayer is about finding sanctuary in the God who is with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Prayer is about claiming a faith that believes death is not the end but the gateway to life.
Beloved, be persistent in prayer – not like a three-year-old who doesn’t think her parents heard her the first time – trust me – God heard you the first time. Instead, be persistent to the point where you become shameless in prayer, to the point where you are ready to give your prayer over to the God who lifts the dead to life.
Keep knocking and searching and discover in Christ a life where sin and death are temporary and ultimately things of the past. Keep knocking and searching and discover in God a life where Jesus, the Bread of Life, is most alive in you when you are ready to be shameless in your asking. Amen.