August 2, 2013, 6:49 PM
THE POWER OF ASKING
July 28, 2013
After hearing Abraham argue with God in the passage from Genesis, I have to wonder what would have happened if Abraham had continued to advocate for Sodom and Gomorrah. God had promised to punish the cities for the sin of inhospitableness. What would have happened if Abraham had asked if God would spare the cities if there were five righteous people—or even one? Abraham stopped persisting in his argument for mercy.
Jesus encourages us to persist, to ask for what we need. That is a skill that doesn’t come easily to us. It’s often difficult for us to identify what, exactly, we need. Does this sound familiar?
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”
“I want to do something fun.”
“How about a movie?”
“Nah, I’m not in the mood for a movie.”
Maybe you’re better at this than Steve and I are. We know several couples that have described the same dynamic. If it’s hard to say, or even know, what we want, it is almost impossible to communicate it. When we come to real needs, the difficulty only increases. Telling someone else what we need makes us feel terribly vulnerable. If we cannot communicate our needs clearly, getting those needs met becomes not only unpredictable, but a source of tension. We think other people should be able to read our minds and see what we need, even if we’re not sure ourselves.
Now try Jesus’ parable on for size. A friend arrives unexpectedly late at night and you have no food. So you go to another friend’s house and knock on his door at midnight. Already we’re in unfamiliar territory. How many of you would knock at a friend’s darkened home at midnight? I wouldn’t. And if that friend told me that he was already in bed and asked me to go away, I would, absolutely embarrassed. In Jesus’ culture, the person who should have been embarrassed is the sleeping friend. Hospitality required that he meet the need of a traveler. These are friends we’re talking about! Jesus says that if the one friend keeps asking, the other will eventually be worn down, not be friendship, but by persistence.
Jesus tells this parable in response to the disciple’s request that he teach them how to pray. We should always be careful reading God into Jesus’ parables as the person who has power, or in this case, extra bread that could be shared. It would be a mistake to read into this a grumpy image of God who turns the lights out and goes to bed. That is human behavior. This is a lesson about how to ask each other for what we need or for what someone else needs. It is about how we treat one another. Notice that the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples has as much to do with human behavior as it does with asking for care and mercy from God.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Asking for God’s kingdom to come commits one to living one’s life fully with God as the authority. Jesus calls for debt forgiveness as part of kingdom living—we ask God to forgive our sins because we have released people’s debts. Is the sin for which we are asking forgiveness holding the debts of others? We’re talking money here—not missteps or errors in judgment.
By way of contrast, Jesus promises his disciples that if they ask God for the kingdom, God will answer. God will give us what we need. But it’s also something that we need to work on. God is pleased to give us the Holy Spirit when we ask for it. I think Jesus is teaching us how to pray towards the kingdom of God instead of towards the kingdom of us. Often our prayers are more honey-do lists than seeking to know God and reveal ourselves to God (and to ourselves). I am in awe of a woman who sits quietly with the gospel reading for the coming Sunday every day starting with the Monday before. She reads it slowly and asks God questions. She listens for a new awareness. She turns the story upside down and inside out. “What if this person represents God? What if this person does not represent God?” She is quiet with the gospel for a minimum of 20 minutes each day. She sees things that others do not take the time to see. She orders her life in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. She would tell you that she was a Martha, until she learned to become a Mary. This way of asking, seeking, and knocking has changed her life. It has heightened her discernment in her extraordinarily generous work with people on the margins and her prayer life has infused her work with astonishing grace.
Jesus tells us that there is power in asking for what we need from one another, and there is power in asking God for what we need spiritually. Let me tell you a true story about seeking God’s direction. I was on the education committee of a church many years ago. Someone had given the church a gift of $4,000 with no stipulation as to how it should be used. That money practically burned a hole in the church’s pocket. We could think of all kinds of things that we needed. The choir had been asking for new robes for what seemed like forever. The organ needed to be repaired. The education committee dreamed of hiring a youth director. There were a number of other seemingly urgent needs.
The chair of our administrative board called a board meeting in order to decide how to use the $4,000. We each came armed with our best arguments. But instead, the chair asked us to pray about how God would have us use the money. He opened our prayer time and then gave us time for our own silent prayers. I told God, on behalf of the education committee, how important it was for us to have a youth director. I listed our reasons and then waited for the prayer to end, and I waited, and waited, and waited. I peeked to make sure everyone else was still praying. Then I waited in silence for 5 . . . 10 . . . 15 . . . 20 minutes! At the end of 20 minutes, the chair said, “I believe we are ready. What have you heard God say?” The first person to answer was the choir director who said, with some surprise, “I think we need a youth director.” Next the chair of the worship committee stated, “I came to tell you that the organ has to be repaired, but I really think we’re supposed to hire a youth director, too.” One by one, each person said they believed we were supposed to hire a youth director. I can’t tell you how that change came about for each person, since that was my original request. But I can tell you that we were hushed before the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us into a single decision with no discussion. It still gives me goose bumps when I tell the story. I believe that God will answer our prayers in ways we never could expect when we pray on behalf of God’s kingdom.
We must be able to identify what we need and then ask boldly. It’s okay to be persistent when we are seeking the kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus directs us to do just that. It is in the asking, seeking, and knocking persistently that we are formed as disciples.