One time during my sixteen-year tenure as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, a person came to talk to me about prayer. She was deeply concerned because she had heard a TV preacher say that you should never ask God for something more than once. To pray for something even twice, he said, was proof of a lack of faith and meant that God wouldn’t respond positively to the request. “When I ask God for something and he doesn’t answer right away, I want to ask him again. Is this okay? Or is this wrong?”
My response was to point to Jesus’ teaching on prayer, such as is found in Luke 11:5-10. There, Jesus uses a story to encourage us to pray and keep on praying. In his parable, he asks you to suppose that a friend visited you late at light. Since you had nothing to eat, you went to the house of another friend and asked for food. This friend at first did not want to be bothered. But, Jesus says, if you keep on knocking, eventually you’ll get the food you need, thanks to your “shameless persistence.” Jesus is not saying God is like the selfish friend who won’t get out of bed. Rather, he’s pointing out that even someone who is reticent to respond will eventually give in if you are persistent.
The next verse provides a prosaic punch line for the parable: “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (11:9). If, like me, you learned this verse in a more succinct form—Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find, etc—you may be wondering about the New Living Translation of the verbs: “Keep on asking...Keep on seeking...Keep on knocking.” Is this an accurate translation of the original Greek of Luke 11:9?
In fact, it is. Greek verbs have different imperative forms. The present imperative form, used in Luke 11:9, was used for repetitive or continual action. So, in fact, “Keep on asking...Keep on seeking...Keep on knocking” renders the Greek more precisely than the simpler “Ask...Seek...Knock.” Following the story of the shamelessly persistent friend, Jesus makes the application to our prayers crystal clear.
My answer to the woman who wondered if it was okay to pray more than once was to offer Jesus’ answer. Yes, indeed, it is okay. In fact, it’s not only acceptable, but it is exactly what Jesus commends. There are times when God will answer our prayers immediately. But there are many other times when we will need to ask and seek and knock, and then ask and seek and knock, and then ask and seek and knock....We may not be able to fully fathom the theological reasons for this, but Jesus couldn’t be clearer about the need for persistence, yes, even shameless persistence in prayer.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Do you ever worry that you are praying about something too much? If so, why? If not, why not? Why do you think God might want us to pray for something repeatedly?
PRAYER: Dear God, help me to be persistent in prayer. You know how my heart can become discouraged when you don’t answer. I can begin to think that there’s no point in being persistent, even shamelessly persistent, with the Father. Yet, I want to follow your word faithfully. So please, Lord, give me strength, patience, and endurance in my prayers.
All praise be to you, Holy God, because you hear my prayers, even the ones I utter again and again. Amen.