How do we pray? We perhaps give a lot of thought to the content of our prayers, but much less to the manner of our prayers. ‘What do we pray for?’ is usually more important than ‘How do we pray?’
We know that there are conditions for our prayers to be answered, such as faith, being according to God’s will, and coming from a pure heart. These are very important, but there other considerations. How persistent are we in our prayers? How earnest? How determined are we to get an answer?
Persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8)
A good starting point for addressing this is the parable of the persistent widow. The woman comes to a judge asking for justice. He is neither godly nor compassionate and refuses to heed her request. However, she won’t give up and keeps pestering him.
Eventually, through his desire to be rid of her, he gives her what she wants. The point of the parable is that, if an ungodly, uncaring judge gives in to the widow’s plea, how much more will a loving heavenly Father give us what we ask for, if we are persistent.
In other words, we need to keep bothering God. Not to give up when our prayers are not immediately answered but to keep on praying — ‘day and night’ (v.7). A similar thought is found in Isaiah 62:6-7. We are to give ourselves no rest and to give God no rest until he answers our prayers.
We are prone to give up so easily when we don’t see answers from God. We may pray with some earnestness at first, but in time our zeal wanes and we either quit praying about a specific matter or our prayers become casual and routine.
It may be helpful then to consider some prayers in the Bible.
Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28)
This woman was desperate to see her daughter delivered from demon possession. Despite the displeasure of the disciples and Jesus’ seeming disinterest, she persists in her plea.
It almost seems that the Lord insults her, implying that she is a dog, but she doesn’t give up. We must conclude that Jesus treated her as he did to draw out and test her faith. In the end her faith and persistence were rewarded.
Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52)
This blind man hears that Jesus is passing by. He has no doubt that the Lord can heal him and he cries out for help. The crowd tries to silence him, as he is disturbing the peace, but he shouts all the more and eventually receives the answer to his request.
Both Bartimaeus and the Canaanite woman would not give up. In the face of adversity, and even with opposition from others, they never deviated from their goal — to touch Jesus’ heart and get healing.
What a wonderful lesson for us! The Lord is not reluctant to hear us, even though it may at times seem like it. We must persevere and not give up.
Moses (Exodus 32:9-14)
While Moses is on the mountain receiving further laws from God, the Israelites press Aaron to make gods for them and they produce the golden calf.
Because of their sin so soon after witnessing the power of God at Sinai, the Lord threatens to destroy the Israelites and build a new nation through Moses. Moses intercedes for his people.
He not only persists in his prayer, but argues with the Lord. He pleads the promises of God and the Lord’s honour. What would the Egyptians say if the Lord failed to bring them into the promised land?
Abraham (Genesis 18:20-33)
Here Abraham is also arguing with God. Indeed, it is almost as though he was bartering! The Lord had indicated that he was going to destroy the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham pleads the case of those who might be righteous people. He starts with 50, and keeps reducing the number, until the Lord says he will spare Sodom if only 10 are found there. What boldness in prayer! It seemed almost insolent, yet the Lord responded to Abraham.
The idea of arguing with God also appears in Job (23:1-4). He longs for the opportunity to present his case before the Lord and says he will ‘fill his mouth with arguments’. Surely we must conclude that God wants his children to show that kind of boldness and persistence in prayer.
How do we measure up? Of course, we must make sure we have a good basis for our arguments. When we look at the prayers we have referred to, we see that the arguments must be based on God’s promises and character.
Moses pleaded the promises made to the patriarchs. Abraham pleaded the justice of God. The Canaanite woman probably wouldn’t be aware of divine promises, but she obviously knew of Jesus’ power and compassion, and was also ready to acknowledge that she was a Gentile dog, unworthy of the Lord’s kindness. Bartimaeus certainly had no doubt as to Jesus’ power and willingness to heal.
These prayers are not just recorded for our information. Surely they are in Scripture to teach us how to pray. We need to pray with urgency and persistence. We ought to give God no rest. We should pester him with our prayers.
We must not conclude from all this that God always answers bold, persistent prayers as we desire. Sometimes the answer is ‘not yet’ or simply ‘no’.
There are times when we cannot be sure of God’s will in a situation. That is particularly true when we pray for healing or conversions. However, that should not stop us praying urgently.
God is our heavenly Father. Even earthly fathers do not always grant the requests of their children for various reasons, yet nevertheless they always listen to their requests, even though they may have to explain why they cannot or will not give them what they ask for.
Failure to receive a positive answer from God is never a reason to stop praying, unless we are brought to see that our requests are wrong or selfish. David often cried out: ‘How long, O Lord?’ (e.g. Psalm 6:3), but he didn’t stop praying.
A couple of other references in the New Testament also refer to intensity in prayer. Paul asks the Christians at Rome to join him in his struggle in prayer (Romans 15:30). Literally, he is asking them to ‘agonise’ with him in prayer. This conveys the idea of intense striving.
In Colossians 4:12, Paul speaks of Epaphras as always wrestling in prayer for the Colossians. Again the word is literally ‘agonising’ in prayer. Usually prayer is a very sedate activity for us, but evidently not for those occasions we have just referred to.
Jesus, during his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44). How many of us even sweat while we pray, let alone sweat blood?
David Brainerd, the missionary to North American Indians, was a man who often prayed so intensely that he was soaked with sweat, even outside in the winter. May God teach us to pray — with fervour, intensity and persistence!