I tell you, even though he won’t give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will give it to him.
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This passage has a special resonance for me now that I have a three-and-a-half-year-old who’s a master at the dark arts of negotiation and stalling.
I actually wonder if she’s been reading this passage. “They might not give it to you because they’re your parents, but at least because of your persistence they will give it to you!” This does work sometimes. Some of the things I’ve been asked for in the last several days include: permission to eat a strawberry before washing it. Permission to eat the dessert watermelon before having at least two bites of squash. A real jump rope. Seven different toys from a small toy store in Guerneville. Not to have to take a bath. I’ll let you guess which ones I gave in on.
It’s hard when your kid asks for something and you’re not sure whether to say yes or not. I think every parent likes to make their child happy. Certainly if Abby asked for an egg we would never give her a scorpion. But of course she often asks for things that wouldn’t be good for her; or wouldn’t be good for her right then. Even though she asks with an admirable boldness, there are things we have to say no to that she simply isn’t able to understand.
Scripture tells us that God is in many ways like a parent. The metaphor of God as Father reigned unquestioned for centuries, and in the past few decades it’s come in for some well-merited criticism. Today, more than in many past eras, we’re aware of how our cultures and even our languages tend to privilege male over female. We’re aware that not everyone has a father, and that for those who do, not everyone has a positive experience of their fathers. Fatherhood for some can mean absence, or tyranny, or abuse. We’re aware of the shortcomings of that metaphor, and of the fact that God is also in many ways a Mother, and a Friend, and many other things. As we move toward a healthier understanding of gender and power, we may be able to get back to having “Father” as one very important member of our repertoire of titles for God; a title used by Jesus himself, and not the only title, but a central one.
And if God is like a Father, and for that matter a Mother or any kind of Parent, then presumably there are things we may ask for that God can delight in giving us, right then and there, as I might delight in handing Abby a strawberry (hopefully washed). And then there may be other things we may ask for that aren’t good for us; or wouldn’t be good for us right now. And like a small child, we may be completely unable with our human capacities to comprehend why on earth something we long for so ardently and pray for so fervently might not be good for us, and why God says no.
Jesus teaches his disciples to pray with confidence to a parent who loves them. And he teaches them to pray with boldness and persistence. And yet in this passage he doesn’t actually say we will be given whatever we want. Jesus says “If you 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”—not “give whatever they ask for,” but “give the Holy Spirit.” (In the version of this passage that appears in the Gospel of Matthew, it says he will “give good things” to those who ask him … again, not just anything, but good things.)
There may be times in our lives when we pray and don’t get what we want, yet what we do get is what we most need.
Now I want to be careful here. Because as soon as we acknowledge that sometimes God doesn’t give us what we want because it isn’t good for us, we run into the danger of a kind of simplistic theology that says “Everything happens for a reason.” Many of us when facing some kind of suffering or loss have experienced the pain that can come when a well-intentioned friend says something like, “Well, God must want it this way” or “God never gives you more than you can handle,” as if God is the source of the evil things that happen. Those who are going through a life-threatening illness, or a loved one’s betrayal, or the death of a child, or the horrors of war know that some things are just bad. Not gifts in disguise, not clouds with a silver lining. There is tragedy in this world. Christian faith knows that. We don’t proclaim that evil is an illusion or that everything is a beautiful balance of good and evil. We proclaim that evil exists, and that God is in the process of defeating it. That defeat happened once and for all in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And yet the victory isn’t complete yet, and we still live in a world where we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Last Wednesday morning I was at Anam Cara, our weekly contemplative prayer group. We chanted Psalm 15, which describes a righteous person, and ends, “Whoever does these things shall never be overthrown.” In our discussion afterwards we reflected on what that really means. Lots of righteous people suffer unjustly. We talked about how the psalm might be a kind of wish: “Oh, that those who do these things would never be overthrown!” Or might be taken more in the light of eternity: in God’s ultimate justice and mercy, the righteous may indeed face tragedy but will not be overthrown in the end.
We don’t know why some of our prayers seem to be answered and others not. What we can know is that our prayers are heard by a God who is pure, fierce love. And beyond that, a God who took on the human condition as one of us. A God, the Son of God, who taught his followers to pray boldly for their needs: “Give us our daily bread, forgive us our sins, do not bring us to the time of trial.” Jesus himself prayed to be spared his own trial. And that prayer was heard, although not answered in the way the Son of God himself hoped for in that moment. Jesus went to the cross. The righteous man was overthrown. Until, on the third day, he wasn’t.
May God grant us the gift of boldness and persistence in prayer. And may we know that whatever our prayer is, it is always heard by one who loves us more than we love ourselves, more than we could ever know.