Sunday, June 06, 2021

To Ask or Not to Ask

“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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

“He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”

So then, which is it: are we to ask, or are we not to ask? How does one reconcile the two apparently contradictory ideas in these verses? Is it really possible to pray too much?

Too Much Prayer?

Well, yes, now that I think about it, it certainly is possible to pray too much. We should not pray disobediently, as Balaam did when he told Balak’s servants, “Please stay here tonight, that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.” What more did God need to say to the prophet than the plain statement “You shall not go with them”? Everything in Balaam’s life went steadily downhill from that one “excessive” prayer. But then, every disobedient prayer is a prayer too many.

Furthermore, we should not be praying when we have already made up our minds to have our own way, as the commanders of the remnant of Judah did when they asked Jeremiah to “pray to the Lord your God for us”, then promptly accused him of lying to them when he came back with an answer they didn’t like. All they did was bring further judgment on themselves and the people they led. Every disingenuous prayer is a prayer too many.

But that’s not the sort of prayer in view in either of the passages quoted above, is it? Neither in Matthew nor in Luke is the Lord talking about disobedient or disingenuous prayer. In both cases, the person seeking the blessing of the Lord appears to be doing so sincerely.

Sincerely Overdoing It

Still, there seems to be a suggestion in our first quotation from Matthew 6 that it is possible to pray too much even when you are praying sincerely. This is implicit both in the command “do not heap up empty phrases” and in the reasoning behind it, that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him”. It seems it is possible to sincerely overdo it.

Or is it? Luke makes reference to a parable the Lord told concerning a widow who peppered an unrighteous judge with persistent cries for justice until finally, in frustration, he gave her what she was asking for just to be rid of her. Luke’s conclusion, which we must assume is correct, is that the main message of the parable is that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart”. And James would later write, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Both passages suggest the need to continue in prayer.

How then are we to approach the Lord in prayer? Are we to persist in asking for the same thing over and over, or are we to trust that the Lord has heard us and simply leave it with him? I suspect the context of each of these statements may help us, at least a little.

Matthew 6:7-8

These verses about heaping up “empty phrases” may remind us of the story of the prophets of Baal and Elijah. Talk about a contrast in prayer styles! On the one hand, we have 450 men chanting “O Baal, answer us” repeatedly from morning until after midday while gashing themselves open with swords and lances. There’s your living definition of vain repetitions. In contrast, you have a two sentence prayer from Elijah offered only once, to which God powerfully responds. Baal’s followers multiply words to no effect, while God’s servant relies on his relationship (“let it be known this day ... that I am your servant”). Perhaps it is this sort of prayer the Lord had in mind when he told his disciples, “Your Father knows what you need.” He wasn’t saying not to ask at all, but rather to ask the way a child habituated to the goodness of his father toward him makes his needs known. He may be suggesting we ask as Elijah did.

And this points out another difference between the verses. In Matthew, the Lord is talking about prayer for the things we need personally and moment-by-moment: for our daily bread, for forgiveness of sin, for deliverance from temptation. Such requests need not be made repeatedly because we already have precious promises of God upon which we may rely concerning these matters. A simple appeal to his word should be sufficient for us. “I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.” “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” “With the temptation he will also provide the way of escape.” Bread, forgiveness and deliverance are ours just for the asking whenever we need them, because “If we ask anything according to his will he hears us,” and his will in these matters is already on record. We need not agonize over these things. To multiply words when we already have the Lord’s explicit promise to meet our needs is to express doubt in the very words on which we ought to rely. They were given to us in order that we might have “confidence toward him”.

Now, Elijah was not praying about his personal needs, but he was praying about a matter that was already just as clearly settled in heaven as the fact that a loving God knows what we need before we ask it and provides daily for the earthly requirements of his children. The prophet could pray confidently in his situation because God had already told him precisely what he intended to do: “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.”

Where our own ongoing needs are concerned, whether for food, forgiveness or protection from temptation, the Lord has already done the same for us. We should pray with Elijah’s confidence — and, I dare say, Elijah’s brevity — about such matters.

Luke 18:1-8

In the Lord’s parable, the judge is unrighteous and the widow’s cries shrill and annoying, at least to him. Neither beseecher nor beseechee is a precise parallel to the prayer situation involving a loving heavenly Father and his much-loved children; between God and his elect, who cry to him day and night. But there is another big difference between this and the situation in Matthew, and that is this: the widow’s prayer is not for food, forgiveness or fortitude, but rather for “justice against my adversary”.

Questions of justice cannot always be settled on a day-to-day basis in the same way as personal needs, because they involve a third party. That third party has his or her own complex relationship with the Judge, and there may be sound reasons for the Judge to delay in bringing an “adversary” to account. I may want justice, but the Lord is looking to grant forgiveness and mercy if at all possible. I am looking to see Nineveh judged, while God is looking to bring about its repentance. And bringing about reconciliation, either Godward or manward, is often time-consuming and complicated, both in creating awareness of guilt and the courage to make the effort to straighten out the mess we have made.

The passage of time between crime and punishment is a favorite excuse of sinners. God has not yet brought us to account, they note, then wrongly conclude he never will. “Where is the promise of his coming?” they mockingly inquire. In fact, the Judeans who refused to listen to Jeremiah used this same excuse. “When we made offerings to the queen of heaven,” they claimed, “we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster.” Since justice was not done to him instantly, the criminal assumes justice never will be. But he is terribly wrong about that. The Lord says, “Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.”

Accordingly, those of us who are seeking the Lord’s longer-term goals involving the persuasion, repentance, or final judgment of sinners often finding ourselves having to continue in prayer in a way that those who are merely looking to the Lord for the needs of the day do not. It is not a matter of the Lord “delaying”. Peter points this out:

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

He is not slow. In fact, he is giving justice speedily, just as the Lord Jesus said in Luke. There is no slackness in his effort. God is working away all the time, encouraging the sinner toward repentance while accumulating evidence to stand against him in the final judgment.

But the choice of which it will be belongs to the sinner, hence the apparent delay, and the necessity that those who have the mind of the Lord in these matters continue in prayer, recognizing there is a battle going on, and strengthening the hands of those who wage it. In these matters, the Christian must not lose heart. He must not let attrition break him down.

In Summary

So then, there is no real conflict between these verses. They are speaking about different sorts of prayer concerning different matters. As to the question of our daily requirements, our loving Father knows what we need. “All these things will be added unto you,” we are promised. We need not labor in prayer for that which we have been promised. But as to the more important matters of ultimate justice, salvation and judgment, when we “cry out day and night” in prayer that our God’s name be vindicated and his will be done, we are looking forward in spirit to a time when all adversaries will be forever put down, and when justice will “roll on like many waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing river”.

When the answer to those sorts of prayers appears to be delayed, we need to remember it is the Lord’s patience we are observing.

He is waiting right along with us.

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