Did Jesus send a mixed message about repetition in his teaching about prayer?

This question was asked in a comment on my post, “Do our prayers really get through to God?”

Q.  I appreciate this post and I had a bit of a follow up question. Over the years I’ve struggled with what I see as a mixed message in the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” But in the Parable of the Friend at Midnight and in similar parables, Jesus seems to be saying that we should essentially pester God and repeatedly bug Him until we get what we are after. He also gives us the “Lord’s Prayer,” which seems quite fixed in its order and style. How do you understand this apparently mixed message? Do you think that a lot of the prayers we commonly hear in church are made up of the “empty phrases” Jesus warns against? Phrases like “be with us,” “protect us,” “watch over us,” “bless us,” “forgive us,” etc. Often unthoughtful catch phrases . . .

Actually, I think Jesus is talking about different things in these two teachings.

When he warns in the Sermon on the Mount against “heaping up empty phrases,” he’s specifically saying that we shouldn’t expect God to hear us and grant our requests based on how many words we’ve said—that is, how much time and energy we’ve put into saying long and repetitive prayers.  This is really a form of “works,” of trying to earn something from God by our own efforts.  Jesus directs us instead towards grace:  “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  What we receive from God in prayer is an expression of His love and goodness towards us, not our efforts.

On the other hand, in parables like the one about the Friend at Midnight, the Persistent Widow, etc. Jesus is saying that once we have become convinced that something will advance God’s purposes in our lives and in the world, we should pray for it with a persistent, relentless faith.  We shouldn’t pray one or two half-hearted prayers along the lines of “Well, if you think you might want to do this, and you could maybe get around to it, we’d appreciate it.”

Rather, the kind of persistent prayer Jesus describes in these parables is what the author of Hebrews calls “boldly approaching the throne of grace.”  But note that in this case as well the answer to prayer comes as a result of God’s grace, not our efforts.  Hebrews makes clear that it rests on Jesus’ own high priestly intercession for us.  And it begins with a revelation to us of God’s purposes in the world; we then join in those purposes through our prayers, with the faith God gives us to pray them and believe for their answers.  (I suggest in my study guide to John, for example, that Jesus turns the water to wine at the wedding in Cana because “Mary’s persistent faith and implicit trust show him that God is powerfully at work at this very moment.”)

As for the Lord’s Prayer, I think it’s important to recognize that this was Jesus’ response to his disciples request, “Lord, teach us to pray,” after they had seen him at prayer.  When we see it as a teaching, we realize that the Lord’s Prayer is designed to show us what the themes and priorities of our own prayers should be:  for the advancement of God’s kingdom first, and then for our own needs in the context of our participation in that kingdom, as well as for forgiveness and deliverance from temptation.

The Lord’s Prayer is, therefore, a model prayer that we are meant to imitate but not necessarily to repeat verbatim over and over again (as by trying to do “penance” by saying “ten ‘Hail Marys’ and ten ‘Our Fathers’”).  However, I think the Lord’s Prayer can nevertheless be used very effectively in liturgical settings.

For example, when I was a pastor we realized that even in our small church we had speakers of a dozen or more languages—African, Asian, European, etc.  So one week, at the time when we usually shared the concerns of the congregation and prayed for them together, we instead had people take turns simply saying the Lord’s Prayer in their own native languages.  This was a powerful and beautiful experience that people talked about long afterwards.

Another time we were visiting one of the great British cathedrals, York Minster.  At noon a voice came quietly over the public address system reminding us that this was not just a historic building, it was a house of worship, and that it had been that since the early 600s.  And so we were all invited to join in a brief moment of worship by saying the Lord’s Prayer together, once again in our native languages.  This, too, was a powerful experience that illustrated the unity of God’s people through space and time by means of shared liturgical material.

Finally, as for the “empty phrases” that can creep into our prayers (“bless them, Lord”—how, exactly?), I think you’re right, we need to take an extra moment to think about what we really mean to say, rather than fall back on platitudes.  This is one more good warning to take to heart from Jesus’ multifaceted—but not mixed, I would say—teaching on prayer.

John Everett Millais, “The Parable of the Unjust Judge” (= the Parable of the Persistent Widow)

If God says no, can we appeal?

Why did God tell Balaam he could go with Balak’s men but then get mad at him for going? Was Balaam not supposed to ask a second time after God said no the first time, and God said “fine, go!” but really didn’t want him to?

The story of Balaam in the book of Numbers raises many perplexing questions, and you’ve highlighted one of the main ones.  God seems to say no to Balaam at first.  But he asks again, and God says yes.  But then God opposes him.  So can we really appeal a decision from God or not?

Balaam is one of those enigmatic figures in the Old Testament who’s outside the nation of Israel but who seems nevertheless to have a relationship with the true God.

Balak, king of Moab, feels threatened by the Israelites.  He knows that Balaam is a diviner and so, in league with the Midianites, he sends messengers to bring him from Mesopotamia to curse the nation of Israel.

Balaam waits on God for guidance overnight and God tells him, “Do not go with them.  You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.”  So Balaam refuses to go.

Undaunted, Balak sends a more impressive delegation and now, instead of offering the standard fee for divination, he promises, “I will reward you handsomely.”  Still, there’s no reason why Balaam should even consider this offer.  God has already told him the people of Israel are blessed and not to be cursed.  But Balaam once again goes before God for guidance.

So why does God tell him this second time that he can go?  The reasons seem not to have to do with Balaam, but with Balak.  God says, “Since these men have come to summon you” (that is, the large delegation of Balak’s high officials), “go with them, but do only what I tell you.”  My suspicion is that God is seeing an opportunity to declare his purposes and his glory before a large audience, the leaders and people of two nations, Moab and Midian.  God is prepared to work through Balaam to do that.

I believe that God sovereignly accomplishes his purposes through the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents.  (This is how I relate divine sovereignty to human moral responsibility.)  I think that despite Balaam’s bad motives for wanting to go—he was clearly after the reward and renown—God felt he could work through him in the situation.

But the next day, as Balaam is on his way, God angrily opposes him, in the person of the “angel of the LORD.”  Now the reasons don’t have to do with Balak, but with Balaam.  God explains (translating literally), “I have come out as an adversary because the way plunges [into destruction] before me.”  In other words, I can see that your way is leading right into destruction, and so I’ve come to stop you, even if I have to kill you to do it.”

Rembrandt’s rendition of the scene in which Balaam’s donkey lies down to avoid the angel of the LORD’s drawn sword

Balaam is so chastened by this that he offers to return home, forsaking the hoped-for reward.  In view of this, God allows him to continue instead, but after a repeated warning:  “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.”  Hopefully the experience of seeing the angel of the LORD blocking the road with his sword drawn will stay with Balaam and keep him from doing anything foolish.

At first it seems to.  Balak gives Balaam three chances to curse Israel, but he blesses them three times instead.  Balak then refuses to pay Balaam, who delivers four oracles of judgment against Moab and other enemies of Israel.  God’s mission accomplished, right?

Unfortunately not.  In the very next scene, women from Moab and Midian seduce the Israelite men into worshipping idols, and in a divine judgment for this, thousands and thousands of Israelites are killed in a plague.  It’s as devastating as any defeat they might have suffered in battle against these enemies.  And who thought of this strategy?  Balaam.

We learn shortly afterwards in the book of Numbers that the Moabites and Midianites “followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD . . . so that a plague struck the LORD’s people.”  The book of Jude, still using Balaam as a negative object lesson many centuries later, notes what his motive was:  “for profit.”

But the Israelites fought back against the Midianites, and when they defeated them, “they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.”  He hadn’t gone back to Mesopotamia.  He was still living with Balak and his allies, enjoying (briefly) the reward he’d received for finding a way to help them oppose Israel, even though God had told him only to bless Israel.

God saw accurately that Balaam’s way was plunging into destruction and tried to warn him.  But God didn’t take away Balaam’s freedom to choose.  And since Balaam was an available agent, God worked through his choices to ensure that his purposes were publicly proclaimed.  Balaam could have and should have taken warning from his near-death experience at the hands of the angel of the LORD.  But in the end, his greed overcame him, he opposed God’s purposes, and he was destroyed.

All of this leads me to conclude that while it might be possible to appeal when God says no, it’s a risky proposition, and not a very good idea.

Do our prayers really get through to God?

Q. I don’t know if I’ve really ever gotten through to God in prayer.  Some great things have happened to me over the years and I’ve said, “Thank you, God” for them.  I’ve looked up at the stars and said, “Wow, that’s awesome, God!”  But I’ve also been through some really tough things, and I’ve prayed about them, too, but I’m not sure what happened. 

I knew I should never ask for anything selfish, like riches.  I just prayed for God’s will to be evident, or for a really sick friend to be healed, or for some victims of a horrible accident, or financial problems to be straightened out.  I’ve tried the “If it’s your will, Lord” prayers.  Some worked out, some didn’t. 

I’ve read many verses about prayer.  One says to ask believing that it has already been done for you. Another says, “Ask, seek, knock.” There’s that parable Jesus told about the widow getting her wish because she wears the unjust judge out with her asking. 

I’ve heard a lot of answers to this problem:
“Just trust God and He will reveal Himself.”
“We can never know the Mind of God.”
“He knows the best thing for us, even if we can’t see it now.”
“God wants us to speak with Him as a young child, so keep praying.”
“Jesus showed us how to pray, so follow His example.”
“Many people prayed for things and it came about, so don’t give up.”
I need some assurance at this point.

Thank you for this honest and heartfelt question, which I’m sure many, many other readers of this blog will feel as well.  Prayer is central to the relationship we’re meant to have with God, but it’s also complex and mysterious, and I don’t pretend to be able to explain everything about it. But I can share with you some of the things I think I’ve discovered from the prayers in the Scriptures.

I think your question itself illustrates one essential point:  prayer is not meant to be primarily a way of asking for things; rather, it’s a way of living in relationship with God. And you’re already living in relationship with God through prayer. You describe how you use it to express your thanks for his blessings and your praise for his wonders. In other words, sometimes there’s not an expectation that a prayer will be “answered” with a particular result. It’s just a way for us to express ourselves to God. I’m certain that in those prayers, you got through.

The Bible is full of prayers of praise and thanksgiving. In fact, biblical prayers typically contain a much higher percentage of praise and thanksgiving than ours often do. So one important thing we can learn about prayer from the Bible is to use it regularly to express our gratitude and wonder to God.

Another important purpose we discover in the Scriptures is this: talking to God in prayer enables us to move from a place where we are questioning God’s power and goodness to a place where we have a confident trust in God, even in troubling circumstances. The most common kind of psalm by far is the “psalm of supplication,” whose essential purpose is to enable the writer to make this move. (This is discussed at length in the Psalms study guide, in sessions 2 and 7-11.) In these biblical psalms of supplication we see people make it to all stages along the way from questioning to trust. It’s a powerful and helpful model for us.

So in this case the expected result is not so much in the world around us, but inside us. It sounds to me that prayer also “worked” for you when you were able to trust God with the really tough things that were happening to you.

But I recognize that your ultimate question is about those times when we are hoping for and expecting a result in the world around us: for someone to be healed physically, or for a material need to be met, or for a relationship to mended–things like that. We would know that we’d “gotten through” if we got the result we were praying for. And what I see in the Bible is that prayer is also meant to be a means by which God can use us as his agents to bring about results like these. In other words, God wants to work through our prayers to achieve his purposes.

We often see this happen in the Bible. For example, the early church in Acts was “earnestly praying to God” for Peter’s release from prison, and he was miraculously set free. We also see it in Nehemiah’s prayer for favor with his king, who let him go to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. We see it in Daniel’s prayer for the return of the exiles, and in many other places.

However, we also have to acknowledge that in the Bible we see some petitions and intercessions (that is, prayers for oneself and for others) fail to achieve the desired result. Just before the apostle Peter was miraculously released from Herod’s prison, the apostle James was put to death by Herod. But I’m sure the early church was praying for the safety and deliverance of both men.

The clearest example for me is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He made a specific request: “May this cup be taken from me” (in other words, keep me from being executed). But he was crucified anyway. If even Jesus didn’t get what he asked for, how can any of us be sure that our prayers ever get through?

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Church of St. Esteban,Salamanca

But I think Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane actually illustrates one more important thing about prayer. When God wants to work through our prayers, he calls us into an interactive process of speaking and listening.  This process may last for days or even weeks, rather than take place in one concentrated night as in Gethsemane. (I think that’s what Jesus wanted to show us through the parable of the widow and the judge.) Over the course of this process, we come to discern the will of God more and more clearly, so that we can pray with more and more confidence for it. The ultimate goal is for us to receive bold faith from a clear assurance of God’s will, and to see the prayer that’s prayed in that faith answered. I think Jesus’ teachings about “ask, seek, knock” and “believing that we have already received” apply to these cases specifically.

But the description of this process suggests that we begin in a place where we don’t have a clear assurance of God’s will.  That’s where the “if it’s your will, Lord” comes in. We begin by saying what we think God might want for us, but with the expectation that we will hear from God in response (if not in an audible voice, then at least in a change of heart, a new perspective, or something like that). In light of that response, we adapt our prayers, and the process of speaking and listening continues until we reach either a place where we are completely surrendered to God’s will, whatever that might be, or a place where we have a confident assurance of God’s will and a bold faith that our prayers will be instrumental in its realization.

It’s eye-opening and encouraging for me to think that, on this model, Jesus in Gethsemane actually began in a place where he wasn’t certain that it was God’s will for him to receive what he was asking for–an escape from the cross–and that he reached a place not where he knew his petition would be granted, but where he was yielded to God’s will, even if it wasn’t what he was asking for.  I’d say he definitely “got through” on that occasion, and perhaps, looking back on your experiences, you’ll recognize some where you “got through” in the same way. But I hope you’ll also recognize some experiences where your initial impulse to pray for something turned out to be what God wanted, and that he used your prayers over time to bring about his purposes.