PassageIn this passage, Jesus is praying, and when he’s done the disciples ask him to teach them to pray. Apparently John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray, and Jesus’ disciples seem to think this is a pretty good idea. (It’s hard to disagree.) So Jesus does, with one of the most well-known passages in the Bible:
And he said to them, “When you pray, say:This may not be the exact version some people are familiar with—especially those who’ve been forced to recite it by rote—but it will at least be familiar to most North Americans, and probably many others around the world as well.
“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 who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
(verses 2–4 (ESV))
Jesus then presents the disciples with a hypothetical: imagine a friend of yours has arrived, it’s midnight, and you have no food to put before your guest. So you get up and go to another friend’s house, and ask him to lend you some bread. Would that friend turn you down, and refuse to give you the bread? Even if he were to turn you down, Jesus posits, and not give you the bread out of friendship, he would probably still do it because of your “impudence” or “persistence” (verse 8 (ESV)). Jesus then tells the disciples, bringing it back to God and prayer, to ask, knowing that it will be given to them; seek, knowing that they will find; knock, knowing that the door will be opened.
He then takes it a step further: If a son were to ask his father for a fish, what father would give him a serpent instead? If a son were to ask his father for an egg, what father would give him a scorpion instead? Therefore, if we, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?
ThoughtsThe first thing to say is that I don’t interpret this as something Jesus was instructing us to recite, like a poem. (Even though he says, in verse 2, “When you pray, say…”) I think this is more intended to be a model, for how to structure our prayers—or, even more loosely, a series of things that it’s good to pray for, without trying to enforce the structure of how we pray to God. I’ve heard numerous people who’ve promoted this as a structure that we should always use in our prayers:
- Glorify God
- Acknowledge His rule over this world (while yearning for the day when it will be unencumbered by creation’s fallenness)
- Ask for our basic needs to be met
- As for forgiveness for our sins
- Turn this around as a reminder to ourselves to forgive those in our lives who need forgiving (per His example with us and our sins)
- Ask Him to keep us from being tempted to sin (an acknowledgement that we can and will be tempted—we’re still sinful—and it would be best if we just avoided those temptations in the first place instead of hoping we can resist them)
That being said, one thing Christians probably should do, from time to time, is examine their prayer lives against these points, and see if there is anything missing.
- Do you find yourself constantly praying for your “daily bread,” without ever giving Glory to God? It might be a sign that you need to remind yourself about how magnificent, how awesome, how Holy our God is.
- Do you find yourself only praising His name, and never asking for your material needs? You might be falling into a form of gnosticism, in danger of valuing the spiritual realm so much that you ignore the world in which we live.
- Do you remember to ask Him to keep you from being tempted? Don’t ever fall into the false teaching that “the Lord helps those who help themselves,” because that isn’t taught in the Bible—quite the opposite, in fact. God wants us to be dependent on Him. Don’t feel that it’s your job to resist temptation; rely on Him, rely on the Holy Spirit, because that’s what He wants you to do.
After this, Jesus tells a parable in which he illustrates why we should be persistent in making our requests to God, and then sets the parable aside and comes right out explicitly telling us the same thing: be persistent. God is a good God, and wants to give His children good things—all we have to do is ask. There is a danger in this passage, however, because many people have misinterpreted it. Let’s look again at verses 5–12 (ESV):
And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”This passage seems to say—and I’ve heard it interpreted in this way—that you can ask God for whatever you want, and as long as you’re persistent, and just keep asking Him, He’ll eventually relent and give it to you. “God, I really want to marry that girl—please let me marry her! God, it’s been a couple of months and we’re not dating yet, but please let me marry that girl! God, it’s been a couple of years, and that girl just got married to someone else, but please let me marry her! And why is it taking You so long to answer?!?” But that is not what is being taught in this passage, and Jesus is not saying “pray for whatever you want, and God will give it to you, as long as you’re persistent.” That is made evident when we look at the final verse in this passage:
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (verse 13 (ESV), emphasis added)When Jesus is telling us to ask the Father for something persistently, what are we asking for? The Holy Spirit. And that is a prayer that God will answer—guaranteed. It’s not wrong, by any means, to ask for other things—Jesus did tell us earlier to pray for our daily bread, after all, so we need things in addition to the Holy Spirit—but some of those prayers might go unanswered. If someone is praying that he wants to marry a particular girl, God’s answer might be that He has chosen a different man for that girl to marry—He might even have chosen that she’s not going to get married at all—this passage isn’t teaching that the man can have whatever he wants, as long as he’s persistent. Sometimes God’s answers to our prayers will be no; His answer to our prayers for the Holy Spirit, however, will always be yes.
A final point on the word “impudence” in verse 8, which I’m stealing directly from the ESV Study Bible notes: Apparently this is the only place in the New Testament where this Greek word is found. The English Standard Version (ESV) translators chose to translate this Greek word into the English word “impudence,” because that’s how it’s typically used in Greek contexts: the word implies a lack of sensitivity to what is “proper,” as well as a lack of “respect” or “modesty.” So the picture is one in which you are going to your friend’s house at midnight, even though it’s not “proper” for you to do so, and getting your bread which you would not have gotten otherwise. That is, if you had followed what was “proper,” you would never have gone to your friend’s house at midnight, and he never would have given you the bread. This would probably be directly relatable to Jesus’ initial Jewish audience, for whom there was a “proper” time and place to worship God—handed down by God Himself, I might add!—and the idea of simply going up to Him and asking Him for something would have seemed odd, if not downright blasphemous. But if we don’t approach Him and ask for the Holy Spirit, we won’t otherwise receive the Holy Spirit. This is a point that modern-day Christians have somewhat forgotten: The very nature of religion, the very nature of how we worship and follow God, has changed because of Jesus’ actions on the cross; everything that came before—all of the rules and regulations and observances of the Old Testament—were pointers to what Jesus was going to do on the cross. But to Jesus’ initial audience, this was a fundamental change to everything they knew about worshiping God. This is why the New Testament talks about us approaching God “boldly,” because the idea of standing in His presence and asking Him anything would have been totally foreign to the folks who were around in Jesus’ time.
In the footnote for verse 8, we are told that “impudence” could also be translated as “persistence,” and other translations have chosen to use that word. Based on the context, it also seems to fit—Jesus specifically talks about persistently asking God for the Holy Spirit—but I think there’s a nuance that is lost when we use “persistence” instead of “impudence.” The footnote in the ESV Study Bible sums it up thusly:
Both ideas—a kind of shameless persistence—are possibly intended by this unusual term.