My three-year-old son has somehow tapped into an innate knack for negotiation. We are driving home from an errand in the evening and from a quiet backseat he suddenly begins informing me of the plan for when we get home. We’re not going to take a nap. We are going to watch a movie with a snack and then put on jammies, he says. And he concludes by actually stating, "That’s my deal.” He can really only count to ten, but if I say two Oreos, he knows he can say four to try to get three.
Maybe the most difficult part—aside from keeping a straight face when discussing terms of treats and length of quiet time—is that I really do want to give him good things. As any parent knows, even more difficult is the distinguishing between want and need, a tension hiding in Jesus' teaching on prayer in the Gospel of Luke. In the end, the door is opened at midnight to provide not whatever the friend wants but “whatever he needs.” Then Jesus goes on to be more direct. Just as a parents give good gifts to their children, "how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” At the end of these teachings on prayer, Jesus reminds us that all our prayers for things, for results, for answers are in some way an invocation of the Holy Spirit, a cry for God to come near. Whatever the specific situation or expression, what we seek is God himself.
This asking, seeking, knocking is almost comically depicted in Abraham’s pleading on behalf of Sodom. Abraham is not persuading God by pestering him. Rather, through persistence in prayer, Abraham is actually discovering the mercy of God. His numbers game is gradually unveiling that God is already ready to relent and welcome repentance. Although you may know the story doesn’t end all that well—God destroys the city but saves Abraham’s nephew Lot—here Abraham hears in the compassion of his own heart an echo of God’s mercy.
This is what we discover as well when our prayers push beyond the myopic bargaining of a toddler to feel and lift the needs and pains of others and of the world. If we only pray for ourselves, we are actually cutting ourselves off from a fuller encounter with God. Praying for the hurting, the oppressed, the lonely, and even the self-destructive draws us more deeply into the mystery of God who himself bears these burdens in Christ. Our prayers join those of Jesus who intercedes on behalf of the world. We persist in prayer not to convince God but to journey more deeply into God’s own heart and action. One church father compared this to being in a boat tethered to land, pulling at the rope. It may appear the shore is moving closer, but really the boat is. The more we earnestly and persistently seek God in prayer for the world, the more our prayer both grows and settle into Jesus’ own simple, trusting words:
Father, hallowed be your name.
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.