What's prayer? It's shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who's to say? It's reaching for a hand you cannot touch. The silence is so fathomless that prayers like plummets vanish in the sea. You beg. You whimper. You load God down with empty praise. You tell him sins that he already knows full well. You seek to change his changeless will. Yet Godric prays the way he breathes, for else his heart would wither in his breast. Prayer is the wind that fills his sail. Else waves would dash him on the rocks, or he would drift with witless tides. And sometimes, by God's grace, a prayer is heard.
—Frederick Buechner, Godric
I’m no stranger to pleading prayer. The kind of prayer that fights to be heard over the shouts of fear and uncertainty, suffering and loss, chaos and disrepair. The kind of prayer that repeats itself over and over again—a desperate incantation of pleas and promises meant to provoke God to listen and to act. “Please God, if you’ll only step in, keep this from happening, show me you’re there, and I promise I’ll. . . .”
Perhaps this kind of prayer sounds familiar to you. The anxiety over whether or not God’s ear is turned toward his people during prayer is not just mine. It is a concern that has troubled the hearts of people down the line of history and continues on in our own stories today.
The psalmist asks again and again if God is listening to his prayers. Or does God’s silence really mean he’s forgotten him? “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? Look on me and answer, Lord my God.”
Even our own confessional material begs the question. Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 117 asks, “What is the kind of prayer that pleases God and that he listens to?” We each may come to this question for different reasons, but my hunch is that we all have prayed the anxious pleas of a heart that is uncertain whether it is being heard.
My own anxious prayers began as child. I grew up in a difficult and unpredictable home and I had an understanding of God that offered very little safety. I pictured our Father as some distant and ambivalent force—able to help, but arms crossed, waiting for me to convince him I actually needed what I was asking for. Or worse, waiting for me to convince him that I deserved an answer in the first place.
My view of God was shaped both by the hurts in my life and by a theology that made me responsible for the good things and bad things that occurred, even if these events were beyond my control. This kind of theology acknowledges a person’s hurt from a distance without doing any of the hard work to help heal it. It is a theology that, like Job’s friends, errs on the side of blame over compassion, of judgmental sympathy over engaged empathy. It is this theology that not only shaped me but continues to shape many people whose wounds and grief are often met with platitudes and admonitions: “Keep praying and God will listen,” or “If you had true faith, you would not be in this position.”
If this is what we’re being taught about God and about suffering and our place in the middle of it all, it’s no wonder our prayers are filled with anxious uncertainty.
Praying Is Hard
A good friend once shared with me her reservations about praying. “Praying is hard to do even without the added responsibility of having to stir God into action,” she admitted. “I want to know that God hears me despite how I pray or despite how much I do or don’t deserve an answer. I want to trust God when I pray. I want to know that he cares about what I care about—that he cares about me.”
Isn’t this what we all want to know when we lift our voices to God—when we ask for forgiveness, when we pray for our loved ones’ safety, when we plead for healing, when we cry out to God after reading news reports of children and families dying as they flee war and destruction? Or when we simply ask for our daily bread? We want to know that our prayers will not fall on deaf ears. That in the act of praying we will meet a present God who assures, cares for, and comforts us. That every need we bring before God will be heard, regardless of how we stumble into asking.
The disciples needed that same assurance when they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. They’d all caught glimpses of him praying alone and had undoubtedly been present as he prayed with individuals or in big crowds. And they noticed that Jesus’ prayers got things done—these prayers healed the sick, cast out demons, and changed people’s lives. In the eyes of the disciples, Jesus’ prayers seemed to stir the very heart of God the Father into action.
“Tell us how to pray like that!” the disciples probably really meant to say. “Tell us how to pray so that we’ll be heard!” But Jesus’ response—the parable about the frantic host and his neighbor—wasn’t meant to comfort his disciples by simply teaching them how to pray. Rather, Jesus offered comfort by reminding them Who they were praying to.
In his parable, Jesus paints a less than ideal situation for the host to be in need. It is dark, and everyone is sleeping after their hard day’s work. However, the excitement and shock of a guest’s arrival late at night overcomes the host’s usual sense of good manners, and he asks for what he needs without thinking twice. Blurry-eyed and full of panic, the host realizes he has no bread to offer his guest, and so he stumbles out into the darkness toward his nearest neighbor. Regardless of the time of night, and with only his frantic need for bread pushing him forward, the host attempts to rouse his neighbor with his plea for help.
By beginning his parable with a rhetorical question, Jesus clearly emphasizes that no person would ever deny such a request—despite the time of night or the inconvenience it may cause. The neighbor may not answer his door out of friendship, but he will answer his door in reply to his neighbor’s need, despite how rude or inconsiderate the circumstances may be.
And then Jesus makes the point his disciples have been needing to hear: “If a mere human is willing to meet his friend’s need in the circumstances I have presented, how much more will the Father in heaven hear you and answer you?”
Ask, Seek, Knock
The care the neighbor shows the host in Jesus’ parable is thoughtful, but the love of our Father in heaven is incomparable—it is great, mighty, deep, attentive, present, and faithful. And it is in this love that Jesus speaks to his disciples, as if to say, “Be encouraged, my dear ones. You will be heard, no matter what.” This parable could easily stand outside the context of prayer and still emphasize the unconditional love and mercy of our Father. But Jesus follows his parable up with an invitation to the disciples to pray with confidence, believing in God’s love for his people and his ability to provide what we need the most. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Do not be anxious in prayer, Jesus is telling them, and he is telling us. You do not have to knock incessantly; you are not seeking a treasure that does not exist. You are not facing a locked door at midnight or a God who doesn’t care. Pray because I promise to listen to you. “For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
This is the foundation that the Heidelberg Catechism uses to answer the question that the psalmist and Jesus’ disciples wonder about. The question that marks our own worried asking, our own fearful, insecure attempts to approach and petition God. “What is the kind of prayer that pleases God and that he listens to?”
We look for formulas, for specific ways to pray in order to ensure that God will listen, regardless of what we want or deserve. But the parable, and the catechism, point us beyond the “how” and bring us into the “what” of prayer, knowing that, until we know the nature of the One who hears us, we will carry that anxiety and fear. The catechism speaks to the base truth of who we speak to in prayer. When we pray, it says, “we must rest on this unshakable foundation: even though we do not deserve it, God will surely listen to our prayer because of Christ our Lord. That is what God promised us in his Word” (Q&A 117).
Because of Christ our Lord, God listens to us when we pray. Not because of our own persistent asking or our own deserving, but because of the incarnate love of God, who came in flesh and blood to this earth. What the incarnation reveals to us is God in our own flesh, God coming to us to save us in a way that triumphs over platitudes, admonition, worry, and fear—in Christ, God meets us by becoming one of us. It is the ultimate act of compassionate, engaged empathy.
Christ, the king of glory, is born, dies, and rises again as a human being. He does not blame us for our needs, but rather chooses to experience need for himself. He knows what our pain is, and in his nature as God and man, he comes to us with the most intimate, humbling knowledge of that pain. Our God—who suffered and hurt, who was a refugee fleeing from his own land, who on the cross cried out to the Father in fear that he wasn’t being heard, who redeemed his people, who spoke with the power and the promise of resurrection—because of this God, we know that our own pleading prayers are heard, understood, and held in his good and perfect love.
And no matter how we stumble into asking for our needs, God hears and answers our prayers by inhabiting the very darkness that surrounds us. Whether that means filling the darkness with his light, or simply finding our hand as we crouch in the corner and continue to call out his name, God does hear us.
The door, Jesus says, is open. Ask, knock, trust, and believe. For the Father in heaven hears you. The Spirit of God groans for you. And the Son, with arms wide open, invites your asking.
Questions for Discussion
- 1. The author says that praying is sometimes hard. How have you experienced this in your prayer life?
- 2. The psalmists model prayer that arises from an anxious heart, showing that God’s people have always cried out to him from places of fear and doubt. What are some ways you could “pray the psalms” in your personal prayer life or in corporate worship?
- 3. The author interprets Jesus’ parable as a message of encouragement that God always listens to our prayers, even when they are uttered in desperation. Do you agree? Has this changed the way you think about this parable? Explain.
- 4. What role, if any, does persistence play in our prayers?
- 5. Often when we or our loved ones are going through a difficult time, we enlist the prayers of many people. Do you think it makes a difference how many people are praying for something? How does being part of a praying community lift up those who are going through a hard time?