Read Luke 11:1-13

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. (Luke 11:9)

When I was growing up, sitting in a long, boring church service, counting bricks, counting tiles, studying how the beams support the roof, I looked forward to the congregational prayer. It was a time when I could legitimately close my eyes for a few minutes (hopefully without head nodding, of course). I didn’t often connect much with the prayers themselves—they seemed at times to use flowery language addressed more to the congregation than to God, at other times to be a list of things we would like to get from God.

Later, when I had to pray out loud in front of groups myself, I disliked it even more. Now I had to say things in a way that would please the audience—and God, I suppose—and to ask for a shopping list of needs and desires. Dinnertime prayers were a prime example of uncomfortableness. Do I repeat the same rote phrases? Do I try to think of something new that sounds good and is well expressed? (What does it mean to “bless the food unto our bodies” anyway?) Eventually I avoided public prayer when possible, and if not possible I could only pray brief, pointed prayers, saying the minimum necessary, not multiplying words.

What was going on here anyway? Were we, like whiny children, trying to cajole God into giving us things we wanted but that he didn’t really want us to have because they weren’t best for us? And didn’t God already know what we need better than we did? Wouldn’t he give us what was best for us anyway, whether or not it was what we had asked for?

This line of thinking came to a head in thinking about praying for healing—which seemed to be a main topic in congregational prayers, a list of the sick and a request for healing. Requesting healing for others was one thing, but what about me? If I was sick, should I pray for my own healing? Didn’t God know what I needed, and wouldn’t he do what was best for me anyway? Shouldn’t I just leave it in His hands and not pray for anything?

Then Jesus comes along and says “ask, and it will be given you.” Jesus teaches praying with persistence, vehemence, almost a spirit of demanding things from God and not relenting until he yields. But how can I demand when I don’t know what I should pray for? Or when I want something but I’m not sure whether I should ask for it?

Then there were the occasions when the Spirit seemed to show me what I should pray for. Specific people who came to mind as needing something in particular. Then it was possible to pray with my whole heart, with a flood of tears, to demand, to cajole. It was liberating. It broke down the adversarial nature prayer sometimes seemed to have and brought a spirit of joining together in desire. Then it was possible to know that my prayers would be answered.

Prayer can be like a battle of wills. We bring our desires to God. We argue and plead. He may show us that what we are requesting is not be best, or he may help us to better formulate a request, or he may simply relent and give us what we ask for to make our joy complete, even if it is not best. But when we pray for what we know God also wants, we can pray with whole-hearted desire, without hesitation or moderation or negotiation, with demand and confidence.

God is the great giver of gifts, the generous spirit, the one who gives every good gift that we are capable of receiving. When we ask for bread, he will not instead give a snake, though he may instead give cake. He prefers to give the greater gifts, and the gift he most wants to give is himself—the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is therefore a gift you can pray for with great desire, with vehemence, with persistence, with demand, with confidence. That desire is itself the touch of the Holy Spirit.

Categories: Meditation

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin College and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.