In one of his parables, Jesus compares prayer to someone who asks a neighbor to loan him three loaves of bread when an unexpected visitor shows up at midnight (Luke 11:5–8). In the scenario that Jesus describes, the neighbor is unwilling at first. “Don’t bother me,” the neighbor says. “The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” What is Jesus’s counsel in such a situation? Keep asking. Be shameless in your persistence: “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need” (Luke 11:8).
Jesus made the same point in another parable “to show [his disciples] that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). This story concerned a widow who kept going to a judge with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary” (Luke 18:3). Because the judge “neither feared God nor cared what people thought,” the woman came to him repeatedly without getting the answer she desired. The power dynamics described in this witty story aptly describe how we often feel when it comes to prayer: helpless, powerless, and frequently ignored.
Prayer is an act of communion with God. But for most of us, it’s also about getting something from God. Most prayers include an “ask” of some kind. We aren’t praying just to hear ourselves talk. Jesus’s primary point, of course, is that God is not like the neighbor or the judge. But it is an important starting point to acknowledge that we often feel that he is. We do not struggle with prayer because it is hard. Our problem is that we are not sure it is worthwhile. We suspect that God is not interested in our case or fear that he will not decide matters in our favor. Delay and denial are the major reasons for this uncertainty. We pray, but the answer does not seem to come. Or we pray, and the response we receive is not the one we had wanted.
Why does God often seem so slow when Scripture assures us that he is not slow? One reason is that our relationship to time is very different from God’s. In 2 Peter 3:8, we are told to remember that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” What seems to us like a delay is not a delay to God. God’s plans unfold according to his schedule. The fact that time does not limit God does not mean that he has no sense of timing.
Jesus began his public ministry with the words, “The time has come” (Mark 1:15). Romans 5:6 tells us that Christ died for sinners “at just the right time.” We are frustrated with the timing of God’s answers to our prayers because we forget that we are also part of a larger drama that is unfolding. As far as our daily experience is concerned, we continue to live on a timeline that unfolds as past, present, and future. We are subject to the limitations of the temporal realm in this present life. Yet, we are also living in the reality of Christ’s finished work. Our lives have been folded into Christ and his kingdom. As a result, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
One implication of this is that our prayers’ answers are accomplished facts even before they have been granted. Another is that we can be certain that whatever form God’s answer may take, it will reflect his loving purpose for our lives. This heavenly perspective casts Jesus’s promise in Matthew 18:19 in a new light: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” Although the context of Jesus’s promise in this particular verse is narrow—it primarily has to do with the exercise of church discipline—it parallels Jesus’ statements in Matthew 21:22, Mark 11:24 and John 14:13–14.
What Jesus describes in these passages is not a positive attitude but a sphere of authority. Those who ask in faith can be certain of an answer because they operate out of the heavenly realm where God’s will is always done (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2; see also Matthew 26:42). The trouble with the view that sees Jesus’ promises as a blank check which guarantees that we can get whatever we want from God is that it shifts the focus of prayer away from the Heavenly Father so that our only concern is the particular request we happen to be making. This approach to prayer reduces God to little more than a delivery system for the thing we hope to obtain. He might as well be a vending machine. Second, such an approach confuses an affirmative with an answer. It fails to allow for the possibility that God could also answer our prayer by denying our request. While a “no” is probably not the answer we want, it is still an answer.
The Bible offers many examples of notable saints whose prayers were refused by God. Moses pleaded with God to allow him to enter the land of promise (Deuteronomy 3:23–27). David asked God to heal his first son by Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:16–20). Paul repeatedly prayed for God to remove the “thorn in my flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9). Most notably, Jesus prayed to be spared the suffering of the cross in language that suggests he was fully aware that such a thing was not possible.
Likewise, there are many in Scripture who waited many years, some for their entire lives, without seeing God grant their desires. Of them, the author of Hebrews writes, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39–40). Although he is not speaking explicitly of prayer, the principle is just as true. The fact that God does not grant our request as soon as we would like may not mean that he will not give it to us at all. His refusal to grant a request altogether isn’t always a sign that God is displeased with us. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we lack the faith to receive it. Sometimes God’s decision not to grant our request has nothing to do with us at all, at least as far as cause and effect are concerned.
Is there ever a time when we don’t get what we ask because it is our own fault? The answer is yes. James 4:2–3 explains, “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Prayer is not magic. It does not work like an incantation. We do not get what we want in prayer simply because we voice our desire aloud to God.
There is a kind of assurance in what James says here. It means that we cannot manipulate God by our prayers. We never have to worry that God will give us something that we should not have. At the same time, the scenario that James describes should sober us because it shows how evil motives can subvert a spiritual activity like prayer. The specific motives mentioned by James are greed and envy. But other motives can insert themselves into our praying. For example, Jesus warns of the danger of praying “to be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5). Some prayers are not prayers at all. They are theater. The prayers Jesus condemns in this verse were public displays of piety intended to elicit praise from others. He warns that such prayers go unanswered: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”
The first principle in prayer is simply to ask. Tell God what you want, as simply as you can (James 5:13-16). Getting something from God is not the only thing. But it is the first thing. Need and desire provide the initial impetus for us to pray. There is no reason to be ashamed of this.
The second principle in prayer is to pray honestly. One of the greatest temptations in prayer is to tell God what we think he wants to hear instead of what is really on our heart. There is no point in putting on airs. He already knows what we think.
The third principle of prayer is to persist. This advice comes directly from Jesus. Pray and do not give up. We persist in prayer, not because we think it will put pressure on God to grant our request but as an expression of faith. We continue because we believe that God’s interest in us and in our needs is persistent. Persistence is evidence of our dependency, not a sign of our doubt.
God is not like the reluctant neighbor or the unjust judge in Jesus’s parables. It is God’s nature to give “good gifts” to his children. God hears us whenever we cry out to him. When God hears, his response is immediate. Although he may not always grant us the particular object of our desire or grant the answer according to our preferred timetable, we can be sure that he will always act in our interest.