The Absurdity of Prayer
Many of us struggle with the idea of prayer. We wonder does God really hear us? We wrestle with the thought of “who are we to ask the Almighty God for something?” Many would prefer to not pray out loud, perhaps fearing saying the wrong thing, or asking for the wrong thing, or fearing the possibility of being judged by others if what they ask for doesn’t appear to come about. Perhaps we’ve all experienced a bit of hurt when it doesn’t seem like our prayers were answered. Maybe we pray less often now, because of our negative past prayer experiences. If you’re like me, you’ve probably questioned the idea of prayer in ways similar to these I have mentioned. Fortunately for us, Jesus understands that we have questions, fears, doubts, and hesitations concerning prayer. I believe that through today’s passage of scripture He wants to address many of our concerns and issues with prayer.
If you look at Luke Chapter 11, you’ll see that a disciple of Jesus asked Him to teach them how to pray. And Jesus then gave them a basic example- the “Lord’s prayer.” If you take a quick glance at the prayer, you might notice the first sentence in verse 2, first off teaches us to approach God as our Father, and then to give respect, reverence, honor, praise to who He is. The word “hallowed” means greatly revered, honored, and holy. Then there’s a request for His reality (His Kingdom) to come into our reality. In saying “Your kingdom come,” there’s a humility in asking first and foremost for His will and desires to take place.
Now that the focus has been established on who He is, and placing His desires first, Jesus then says to state your dependency on Him and ask Him for His provision for the day. This verse 3 is the verse we looked at last week. If you missed our study, I highly encourage you to get online and listen to that message as it was the part 2 of “How to Recover from Busy, Busy, Busy.” Then in verse 4, we are to ask God for forgiveness, and simultaneously make sure we have been- and are currently- granting the same type of forgiveness to others that we are requesting of God for ourselves. And then there’s a plea for mercy, asking for His leadership in helping to prevent us from being in scenarios of temptation.
These appear to be the core elements of Jesus’ example prayer. Now obviously each element could be further expounded upon. In this instance, in the verses that follow, Jesus expounds further on the element of God’s position and character as our Father (the very first word of His prayer). And in His teaching, focusing on that primary word “Father”- I believe He answers some of the more primary and fundamental questions that mankind has wrestled with over time, concerning prayer in general. Let’s look at the passage together, Luke 11:5-8.
OK, so here Jesus presents an illustration- a story from real life- in order to convey to us spiritual truth about prayer. Let’s walk back through this passage, looking at some of the elements contained in this illustration that will serve as keys to unlock the truth Jesus is presenting. (Luke 11:5-6)
Maybe it would have been common for a traveling guest to perhaps arrive really late, being that walking was the most common form of transportation, and distances from one place to another were long. Some of the wealthier traveled by chariot, horse, mule, or donkey, but even still, depending on where they were coming from, maybe it was often easier to push on through and arrive late, rather than attempt to find a rest stop, village, or hotel along the way. Maybe some middle easterners perhaps braved the night bandits and preferred to travel at night to avoid the scorching sun during the day. In this scenario the host was maybe surprised by his guest- perhaps he had received word that his guest was planning to visit sometime during the winter or summer months, but again this was before the world of emails, texts, and phone calls, and with that being the case, a visitor might just show up and there wouldn’t be prior notice as to the exact arrival day. So maybe the host wasn’t expecting the guest, and thus wasn’t prepared with extra food.
There weren’t refrigerators or freezers to keep and preserve food, so many families might not have extra food at the end of the day. And if there were any leftovers, they might be used to feed the animals. I guess this host didn’t really want to start baking bread at midnight, that process could take some time, and the markets would have been closed, but yet the weary traveling guest had, we assume, missed dinner while traveling and would have a difficult time going to sleep without some food in his belly. Perhaps the host had a hunch that maybe his neighbor had some left-over bread, and not wanting to experience the shame of being an inhospitable host, he boldly asks his neighbor for a favor at the most inappropriate time.
Now with all these “maybes” and presumptions, I have attempted to paint the picture that this could have been an understandable real-life scenario. But actually, as I was studying this, the more I thought about it, the more I started to wonder if Jesus was rather painting a picture of complete absurdity. I mean, really, who’s going to go knock on their neighbor’s door at midnight to ask for 3 loaves of bread? Has a neighbor ever knocked on your door and woken you up in the middle of the night? If they have, it was probably a really serious situation, right? A medical emergency, or a dangerous threat- but can you imagine being woken up to your neighbor audaciously just asking to borrow some snacks?
Not only was it absurd timing for such a request, but the request itself was perhaps absurd- who would ask their neighbor for 3 loaves of bread in the middle of the night, when probably a slice or 2 would have been sufficient in order to hold the guest over until morning? Was this guest the “Bread Monster,” cousin to Cookie Monster? Who eats 3 loaves of bread at midnight? Talk about carb overload. And really, the host didn’t have some sort of snack tucked away somewhere in his kitchen- nothing at all? And the traveling guest didn’t bring food with him on his trip, and didn’t stop somewhere on the way and is now starving to death at midnight when he reached his destination? In this culture, often a guest would even bring some sort of food item as a gift to give his host upon arrival. I really think at this point in the story, the listeners are thinking- this sounds ridiculous- who would ask this of their neighbor at midnight?
I think this perspective is confirmed by the neighbor’s response in verse 7… The neighbor doesn’t respond, “Oh, yes- I understand, this kind of thing happens all the time in our culture, let me get some bread for you.” No- He says something like- “Are you crazy? It’s midnight, we’re sleeping, leave us alone! Do you realize how difficult the process is of getting the children in bed and asleep? Do you know how many times I had to get up and tell them to stop talking, to turn the light off, to stop reading in the dark, and get them a sip of water? I’m not starting that process again! The door is locked, I love you neighbor, but I’m not getting up, especially for an absurd request of 3 loaves of bread for your one guest.”
The timing is absurd. The request is absurd. The neighbor sees the absurdity and dismisses immediately the request, but because the asking host remains persistent, the neighbor realizes just how important this request is to him. He realizes that the host doesn’t see the absurdity, but that he’s serious, and for whatever reason, he really feels inside that he needs 3 loaves of bread right now that instant. Isn’t that like us? Isn’t that a pretty good illustration of how our prayers must sometimes sound to an Almighty God? We often get messed up on the timing of when we think God should respond to our requests, and perhaps we often, instead of working with what God has already given us (perhaps the 2 slices of bread in the pantry), instead we’re asking God for 3 more loaves. So, after painting this picture, what does Jesus say we should therefore do? Verse 9 brings the message home and serves as the punch line to this story, what does it say? “So I say to you, don’t ask God for much because your prayers will sound absurd to Him.” Is that what it says? What does it say- “Don’t seek, you have no idea the trouble God has to go through to answer your request?” What is it? “Don’t knock because you’ll bother God while He’s trying to sleep?” No! Verse 9-10.
Jesus says to do the very opposite of what his story would seem to imply that one should do. I can imagine some of the disciples scratching their heads- “what is He saying?” The moral of the story seems to be that our requests are always insignificant and absurd to an Almighty God. And perhaps that only by persistent bothering can our requests be begrudgingly answered by Him. Maybe someone listening right now feels that way. I’m sure it has been proclaimed over and over that persistency is the main take away here, as if God waits until we have asked a certain number of times before, He says, “Ok, I give up- you win. I’ll answer your little prayer.” I don’t think the main take away is persistency, not persistency as in repetitively reciting prayers over and over thinking that through repetition they will be answered. I don’t think that’s the main element in this illustration. The main element that this whole illustration hinges on is the matter of timing.
I made a case that the request itself was absurd- 3 loaves of bread- but really the request for 3 loaves wouldn’t have been so absurd, if the timing had been different. This illustration is all about the timing. The same exact scenario would have played out completely different, had the host asked for 3 loaves of bread at 11 am in the morning. The neighbor would have very quickly responded and said, “That’s weird, why do you need 3, but yeah sure whatever, come on in- there’s several loaves in the kitchen.” In contrast, the story would still flow in the same manner if at midnight, the host had asked for a more reasonable 1 or 2 slices of bread. The neighbor still would have resisted getting out of bed and waking up the kids over a slice of bread. No, the whole hinge pin of this story is not the persistence- not annoying God until we get what we want- no, it is rather for us to have the proper perspective of God’s timing, and thus remain encouraged in our prayer efforts, even when the answers don’t come.
Jesus gave us this illustration to help us in seasons when it doesn’t appear that our prayers are being answered. He knows that this is going to happen, that it is going to be easy to feel like God isn’t answering in what we consider to be reasonable timing, so he offers the encouragement: keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking! Even absurd prayers- why? Because He is a good Father who wants to give you of His goodness. We are to realize our feeble attempts at prayer might just sound absurd to God in the grand scheme of all that He is orchestrating, but He is asking us to pray anyway! Despite how absurd our prayers might be to an Almighty God, we are to continue on and not be discouraged! Even when we don’t see results, it’s not that we need to ask again and again and again because we need to wear Him down, Jesus said earlier in the sermon on the mount “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So, do not be like them for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (Matt 6:7-8) The persistence isn’t repetition, but it’s that we need to persist in our resolution that God hears us and is working in His own timing. We persist in continuing to pray, even if our prayers might sound absurd to God. We persist in continuing to pray, even when we don’t see the answers come when we expect them. And just to make sure this is the point made through the illustration- just to makes sure we don’t walk away from the illustration thinking that God is weary of our absurdness and we can just wear Him down with more repetition- Jesus then clarifies with a follow up story. (Verses 11-13)
Now a snake is similar in some ways to a fish- a little skinnier, longer and minus the fins. And historians tell us that in Jesus’ day, there existed a white scorpion that had a round elongated body with a tail that folded back over its body, and thus could be likened to an egg. Some of your bibles might add “a stone in place of a loaf of bread,” and there are definitely some stones that would be close in shape and color to a loaf of bread, but obviously there is a big difference between each pair of these similarly shaped objects.
The idea being conveyed, is that God is not going to attempt to trick you with His answers to prayer. Jesus is reassuring us of our Father’s love for us and desire to give us good things, not bad things. And He calls His disciples evil, as in being born in sin, and prone to function with less than perfect motivations and desires. He says if they, being tainted with sin, know how to give good to their children, how much more so does a perfect, righteous Father know how to give good gifts? He’s not going to punish you for your absurd prayer, when you ask for 3 loaves- He’s not going to mock you and give you 3 stones! He loves you!
Now look at verse 13 again, Jesus puts a little twist on what He’s teaching, He says “how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” Wait a sec, what’s the Holy Spirit have to do with anything we have been talking about up until this point? Where did that come from? Here’s what I think is going on. We have a progression here, it starts with the perspective of how we can be absurd in our prayers and time expectations of God answering those prayers, to: ask anyway- don’t be discouraged, to: the reassurance that God doesn’t want to give you things that will hurt you, but rather the good things you asked for, to finally: God loves you so much that He wants to give you a gift that is even better than the gift you are asking for. It’s like you asked for a fish, and not only will He not give you a snake instead, but He will give you something better than a fish. He’ll teach you how to fish! The Holy Spirit, the essence of God Himself is what He wants to give those who pray and ask, and when you have the essence of God Himself- when He dwells in you- you’ll know better what to ask for and when to expect His answers.
What an incredible passage! It’s kind of like prayer boot camp. The military uses boot camp as a time to tear down one’s self esteem and prideful assumptions. It gives a soldier a proper humbling perspective of his tiny role in the grand scheme of a military force. But once a soldier is broken down and realizes his lowly place, he is then poured back into and built back up, trained, encouraged, supported, and fully equipped to boldly do what his commander asks of him.
We need to learn to be comfortable in our humble position as we pray to an Almighty God. I’ve encouraged us to rest in our inadequacy over the past 2 weeks, and this humble prayer perspective fits right in with the concept of our inadequacy. We are but lowly servants approaching an Almighty God. We need to realize the audaciousness of our prayers in comparison to the grand scheme of His great work. We need to realize the hour might be wrong in which we are asking for it. But after we are able to see this perspective, God wants to build us back up and equip us to boldly pray as He is asking us to pray. I dare not put words into God’s mouth, but if I could be so bold as to try to convey Gods heart to us on this matter of prayer- perhaps sometimes God is saying to us something like: “It’s midnight, and if I answer that request right now, it’s going to disturb some of my children. It’s going to wake them up, and mess up where I have them right now. So just persist in that request, hold on- if it’s that serious to you, then it’s that serious to me. Don’t give up or be discouraged- ask, seek, and knock- but wait for my timing and my answer. I’m not going to punish you for asking, seeking, knocking. Even if it’s crazy timing and a crazy request, I’m not going to smite you with a snake, scorpion, or stone. My heart is that I love you so much, even more than any earthly Father. So much so that I want to give you the gift of my own presence, power, and provision- the Holy Spirit. So, don’t worry that I don’t hear you. Don’t turn timid now that you understand your lowly position. Don’t be concerned about praying the wrong thing. Don’t worry about what other people think. Don’t worry when it looks like I don’t answer- don’t be discouraged- continue praying! Please ask. Please seek. Please knock. Trust me! I will give the answer.”