Persistence in Prayer

Matthew 7:7-11 / Luke 11:5-13

What do you know about knee pads? Have you purchased or used any before? If you’re like some people in our church, you’ve been on your knees quite a bit due to construction work or laying hardwood flooring.

According to Bob Vila, of the “This Old House” television show, the best overall knee pads in 2023 are the Sellstrom Hybrid Ultra Flex III KneePro knee pads. But he also claims that that the best knee pads for hardwood flooring, specifically, are the Rexbeti Construction Gel Knee Pads.

BobVila.com claims “these … knee pads are an ergonomic blend of function and support for even the most laborious flooring and other projects that require long hours of kneeling.” They feature double-thick gel, high-density foam cushioning, and a nonslip design. And a PVC exterior shell provides traction on slick surfaces and protects you and your clothing from stray screws and glass.

Supposedly, these pads also protect the floor from marks and scratches. What’s more, reinforced stitching extends the life of the pads, and the pads come with a total of four 7-inch extension straps which adjust comfortably to fit knees of all sizes. One potential downside, though, is that they can roll to the side during use. For only $28, you can purchase a pair of these knee pads at Amazon today.

David Jeremiah tells this story. “On February 26, 1829, a Jewish boy named Loeb Strauss was born in a cottage in the Bavarian village of Buttenheim. As a young man, Loeb changed his name to Levi and wound up in California, where he opened a textile company. One day, a gold miner walked into Levi’s shop. “Look at these,” said the miner, pointing to his pants. “I bought them six months ago, and now they are full of holes!” When Levi asked why, the miner explained, “We work on our knees most of the time.”

“What you need is some really strong material,” replied Levi. A tailor was called—and the rest is history. Soon miners across the West were wearing Levi Strauss’s jeans.

So, let me ask you a question. How are your knees today? Do you need more durable pants? Do you need any knee pads?

The reason I ask is not because I am preparing to talk about mining or construction work, but because I am about to talk about prayer. That’s why I’m asking about the condition of your knees. Do you spend frequent, often, and serious time in prayer? Do you pray – as Christ teaches – persistently? Does your prayer life resemble the serious, ongoing effort of a miner or hardwood floor layer? Or does your prayer life resemble something far less serious and far more casual?

With these questions in mind, let’s take a look as some more of what Christ teaches us, from his public teaching ministry, about prayer.

What? Christ teaches us to pray.

First, we see that here Christ teaches us to pray. Before he does so, though, he had already taught about prayer through what we call the “Model Prayer.” When he taught the Model Prayer, he prefaced what he would say with “when you pray,” assuming that his followers were already in the habit of praying. Now here, he moves from assuming that we pray to encouraging us to pray.

Last Sunday, we considered what Christ taught us through the Model Prayer. We learned that the Model Prayer shows us the kind of things that God desires for us to talk about with him. We also reminded ourselves that this is what prayer is – talking deliberately to God. So, the Model Prayer teaches us what sort of themes, topics, and priorities God desires for us to speak with him about through prayer.

Now, both Matthew and Luke record Christ’s teaching on the Model Prayer. They also include additional teaching by Christ on prayer, virtually the same additional teaching. In Matthew, we find this additional teaching later on in the Sermon on the Mount, not long after the Model Prayer. In Luke, we find this additional teaching immediately following the Model Prayer. This close proximity in both cases indicates that we should connect these teachings together in our minds.

In the Model Prayer, we find specific guidance on what to talk about when we pray. Now afterwards, Christ urges us to pray this way. He says, “Ask,” which means not merely to make a passing, impassionate request but to ask with a strong desire and interest in what you are asking. He uses this word numerous times in this segment of his teaching.

From this, we see that God desires us to pray heartfelt prayers that reflect the priorities and values presented in the Model Prayer, but even more, to pray for these things in a deeply held, heartfelt way. So, most importantly, this additional teaching tells us not what to pray but how to pray.

How? He teaches us to pray persistently.

This matter of persistence seems to be the emphasis and focus of Christ’s teaching here. By “persistence,” I refer to doing something – anything – in a continuing, ongoing way, no matter how difficult the attending circumstances may be or how long you must continue to pray without experiencing the results that you desire or envision.

Ironically, Christ’s emphasis on persistence here seems to contradict his previous warning against praying with “vain repetitions” (Matt 6:6). After all, doesn’t persistence require repetition? The contradiction disappears when we know that Christ only prohibits us from repeating empty, meaningless prayers or from repeating anything in prayer mindlessly. But if our prayers reflect the concerns contained in the Model Prayer and if our hearts and minds are engaged wholeheartedly in praying for those concerns, then Christ not only permits us to repeat such prayers but urges us to do so. Repeating such things from our heart is not vain repetition but the godly persistent prayer that God desires to hear.

Christ emphasizes the need for persistent prayer in multiple ways. First, he chose a sequence of three words, ask, seek, and knock (Matt 7:7-8). As D.A. Carson points out: “Jesus’ disciples will pray (‘ask’) with earnest sincerity (‘seek’) and active, diligent pursuit of God’s way (‘knock’).” These words describe the opposite of casual, impassionate, mindless, random, spontaneous prayer. They describe instead a heartfelt, serious pursuit of your requests through prayer, a pursuit which should deepen and intensify over time.

We see this emphasis not only in the meaning of the words Christ uses but also in the forms he chose for these words. A literal, wooden translation of these words could be “keep on asking,” “keep on seeking,” and “keep on knocking.” The idea being one of continual, habitual action rather than an occasional or one-time action.

Beyond the meaning of these words and the form that Christ chose for them, we see that Christ drew special attention to his emphasis on persistence in prayer by providing an interesting illustration (Luke 11:5-7). This illustration involved two primary characters:

  • One was a man whose close friend or relative appeared at his house unannounced needing food and lodging. But here’s the twist – this happened at midnight.
  • The other was a friend of this man who lived nearby, who was sleeping in the same room as his family (a customary practice in that day).

As Christ explained, the man with the unexpected guest went to the home of the man who was sleeping and knocked repeatedly on his door, asking for three loaves of bread to feed his unexpected guest. Craig Keener explains:

Hospitality was a crucial obligation; the host must feed the traveler who has graced his or her home by coming to spend the night. Although many homes would have used up their day’s bread by nightfall, in a small village people would know who still had bread left over. In modern villages of that region, bread might last for several days, but one must serve a guest a fresh, unbroken loaf as an act of hospitality.

As Christ framed the story, the sleeping neighbor initially refused to help his friend because he had locked up the door for the night. Can you empathize with him? In those days, to open the door would require unbolting a heavy bar laid through a series of rings attached to the door. Doing so would (a) require some effort and (b) risk waking the rest of the family, esp. the children.

After describing this scenario, Christ pointed out that though the sleeping neighbor initially refused do anything – despite the fact that it was his friend making the request – he eventually changed his mind “because of his persistence.” The word translated persistence can also be translated as “shamelessness.”

This word highlights the persistent, repeated appeals and knocking on the door of the neighbor in need – which probably would have woken up the children anyway.

It also highlights the importance of honor and reputation. If the sleeping man had refused to help his neighbor in need, the entire neighborhood would know about his refusal the next day due to the noise and publicity which had occurred that night due to his neighbor’s incessant knocking. This publicity would place the honor and reputation not only of the neighbor at risk, but also of the man who was sleeping. Word would spread that these men were inhospitable, which would be humiliating and shameful in that culture.

What is the intended lesson or moral of this lesson? Trent Butler explains, Christ was saying that “if a human fearing shame will open the door, certainly the loving Father you pray to will open the door and provide what you need.”

We know of course that God is not a reluctant, sleeping neighbor. As Christ already said, God the “Father knows the things you have need of before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). So, if you are praying as the Model Prayer teaches you to pray, rest assured that God desires and intends to answer your requests. You don’t need to coerce or persuade him. What you must do, though, is keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking in prayer.

The priorities, requests, and values presented for us in the Model Prayer must be prayed about frequently and seriously, not flippantly, mindlessly, or only on rare occasions. God desires for us to have frequent conversations with him about these things, not rare conversations. He wants us to talk about these things a lot.

Why? Because God values intentionality over time.

Why must we pray repeatedly for the things that we already know God desires and intends to do? Though the following are not correct answers to this question, do any of these factors motivate or underly your prayers to God?

  • To change God’s mind.
  • To coerce or persuade God to do things.
  • To get God’s attention.
  • To impress God or earn his favor.
  • To inform God of something he doesn’t know.
  • To remind God of something he’s forgotten.

We must pray persistently for the things God desires because in addition to the things he desires to do through prayer, he also desires something else. He desires us to strongly desire the same things, a desire which may only be demonstrated through persistent prayer. Before he does what he desires to do, he first desires serious and sincere alignment and commitment of our hearts to desire what he desires and to want what he wants. He wants you to be as intentional, focused, passionate, and sincere about what he desires as he is. And mindless, occasional, one-time prayers neither reflect nor form that kind of desire in our hearts, but persistent prayer does.

If we are going to want what God wants, seek what God seeks, and desire what God desires as strongly and intently as he does, we must first ask, seek, and knock for those things repeatedly. Only then will our hearts’ desires be molded, shaped, and transformed to be in harmony with the desires of our heavenly Father’s heart. So then, persistence in prayer has much less (if anything at all) to do with changing God’s heart or mind or persuading God towards one course of action or another. It has much more (if perhaps everything) to do with changing your heart and mind or persuading you to internalize, to deeply desire, and to seek intently those very things that God himself desires to do.

About what? We should pursue divine grace and priorities in our prayers.

So, about what must we pray so persistently? I alluded to this at the beginning of this message. But first, let me note that this is a very important question. If we answer this question wrongly, then we can become confused or reach the mistaken conclusion that in prayer, this teaching gives us a blank check, an open-ended promise, a “choose your own adventure” way to pray. We can then, in theory, ask God for anything we want and know that if we pray for that thing persistently or long enough, we will eventually get what we are asking for.

But this is not a promise conditioned or contingent upon our perseverance only. It is also contingent upon whether or not we are praying about the right sort of things. If context means anything, we must pray and pray persistently for those things which Christ clearly explains and teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. D.A. Carson explains:

the Sermon on the Mount lays down the righteousness, sincerity, humility, purity, and love expected of Jesus’ followers; and now it assures them such gifts are theirs if sought through prayer.

Allow me to expand upon what he is saying here. We are to pray for the following:

  • For the grace to be the sort of “blessed” and “happy” person the Beatitudes describe.
  • For the courage to be the salt and light this world needs us to be.
  • For the purity, strength, and wisdom necessary to rise above legalism to fulfill the heart of God’s law.
  • For the discernment needed to pray as God the Father desires us to pray.
  • For the humility necessary to forgive as God forgives.
  • For the dedication required to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and to not worry about ordinary matters of daily life.
  • For the honesty and self-awareness needed to identify personal blind spots, receive correction from others, and not judge other people unjustly.
  • For grace to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In summary, as Christ taught us in the Model Prayer, we are to pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:9-10). We are to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33). We are to ask, seek, and knock for what we need so that we can be to our neighbors – no matter how inconvenient they may be to us – what God the Father desires for us to be and to do what God desires for us to do.

Yet how frequently and to what degree do our regular prayers feature requests about the sort of things spoken of in the Sermon on the Mount and featured in the Model Prayer? How much effort and thought do we put into evaluating whether and in what way our requests reflect or are motivated by the priorities and values of the Sermon on the Mount and the Model Prayer.

The apostle James speaks to this spiritual challenge when he wrote this in his letter to the early church:

You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures (Jam 4:3)

So many of our prayers are too easily, mindlessly, and naturally rooted in a desire to advance our own self, indulge our own self, and justify our own self one way or another. Even the best of our prayers, those which seem biblical and sound in content, even those which we pray about most passionately and persistently, are not rooted in a desire to advance God’s kingdom and reputation, to bring him glory and honor, to bless others around us, and to seek the best for God and others.

To what end? We will receive all the good things we need to do God’s will.

What happens when we pray this way – when we pray persistently from our hearts for those things which God desires to talk about and do? To answer this question, Jesus provided another interesting illustration, also about an earthly father.

In this story, Christ depicts a human father who’s son asks him for bread, for fish, or for an egg. Notice that each of these three requests are for reasonable food and nourishment. And in such cases, Christ points out that earthly fathers – even though they themselves are sinful and not entirely reliable in their hearts – will still naturally and normally give their son what he asks for in such cases. What father would give his child a useless stone instead of bread, a venomous snake instead of fish, or a poisonous scorpion instead of an egg? The answer is none.

Well, since God is not “evil,” as earthly fathers are, we can certainly expect him to be even more reliable and trustworthy when we speak to him in prayer. You may feel like he is not answering your prayers, but perhaps that is because you are asking for stones, snakes, and scorpions, which God refuses to give. Or, perhaps you are not familiar with the sort of things that you truly need and God desires to give and do.

But as Christ points out, God “knows how to give good gifts” better than anyone else. Matthew says that God gives “good things” to those who ask him persistently. Luke is more specific and says that God gives “the Holy Spirit” to those who ask him persistently. As D.A. Carson points out:

The parallel passage in Luke uses synecdoche to replace “good gifts” with “the Holy Spirit” (Luke 11:13) – the preeminent example of a good and perfect gift coming down from above.

Synecdoche is a word used to describe when an author or teacher uses one thing to represent many other things. We call this “a part for the whole.” Examples include sayings like such as these:

  • Mouths to feed – feeding a group of people
  • The White House – the executive branch of the U.S. government
  • Boots on the ground – an army of soldiers
  • Paper or plastic – shopping bags
  • Eating the whole box – whatever was in the box (cereal, etc.)
  • Blackbeard – a famous pirate

So, Christ is not limiting God’s response to our prayers to only providing the Holy Spirit, but he is putting forward the Holy Spirit as the epitome or top example of the kind of things he delights and desires to give us.

What does Christ mean here by “the Holy Spirit”? As we should know, everyone who believes on Jesus Christ alone as God and Savior receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. As 1 Cor 6:19 says:

Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God?

This gift is the permanent indwelling, presence, and residence of the Holy Spirit within a person which is complete, personal, and permanent. So, if believers already have the Holy Spirit residing within them, then what does it mean to ask for the Holy Spirit and for God to give us the Holy Spirit?

There are grammatical reasons pertaining to the Greek language in which these words were written that emphasize not giving us the Holy Spirit himself as a person, something which has already happened, but giving us the ability, comfort, enabling, strength, and wisdom which the Holy Spirit supplies.

So, Christ is speaking here of seeking God for access to and the experience of appropriating all that the Holy Spirit of God who is within in us makes possible. And what does he make possible? He makes possible all that we need to live the Christian life fruitfully, joyfully, confidently, and well. When is the last time you asked God for the help of the Holy Spirit to be what you should be and do what you should do, to be the sort of follower of Christ that the
Sermon on the Mount describes?

Perhaps you recall a sermon that Mike Redick preached to us more than a year ago, when he encouraged us to pray frequent, simple, but serious prayers of reliance to God in moments of need.

  • In moments of temptation, “Your holiness Lord.”
  • In moments of weakness, “Your strength Lord.”
  • In moments of loneliness, “Your presence Lord.”
  • In moments of sorrow or sadness, “Your joy Lord.”
  • In moments of anxiety, “Your peace Lord.”
  • In moments of selfishness, “Your humility Lord.”
  • In moments of frustration, “Your love Lord.”
  • In moments of impatience, “Your longsuffering and patience Lord.”
  • In moments of confusion, “Your wisdom Lord.”
  • Etc.

When Christ says that the Father loves to give us “good things” such as “the Holy Spirit,” he is telling us that we should learn first to ask for such good things, those very things which the Holy Spirit provides, which Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” – “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

Just as we need food for physical nourishment, so we need the Spirit of God to enable us for spiritual nourishment. We need the help, strength, and wisdom of God himself to be the sort of people Christ has called us to be as his children and to fulfill our God-given mission of helping others take their next steps in following Christ.

So, in conclusion, let me encourage you on the basis of Christ’s teaching here on prayer to talk deliberately to God and to do so persistently. Talk about the sort of things described in the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. That’s what he dearly wants to hear you say, and he wants to hear you pray this way frequently and seriously because he wants to know and see that you care just as deeply about those things as he does, more than anything else.

And when you pray for these things this way, you can know that he will give you them. He will certainly and definitely give you all that you need to be the Christian he has called you to be and to do what he has called you to do, so that his name and reputation will be made known and his kingdom will grow in the hearts of people around you.

Remember those knee pads I mentioned at the start of this message? Well, those knee pads remind me of someone in the Bible named James. James was the stepbrother of Christ, son of Joseph and Mary, who believed on Christ by faith after the resurrection. We know, of course, that James wrote what may have been the first and earliest letter of the NT, the book called ‘James.’ He also seems to have served as the lead pastor among other pastors for the church in Jerusalem.

But the 4th-century church historian, named Eusebius, recorded a story about James in his works called “Ecclesiastical History.” Here is a translation of his Greek writings:
The manner of James’ death [was] that he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and was beaten to death with a club. But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows:

‘James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior to the present day…He was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.’”

Because of this reputation of being a man, a pastor who prayed for God’s mercy on the people of his church so constantly, he has received the nickname by historians of “Old Camel Knees.” This reputation resembles those praying mothers and grandmothers, too, who history tells on occasion have worn grooves into their hardwood floors due to much kneeling in prayer for their family, church, and community.

Could it be that so much of our problems today as a nation, as a church, as families, and as individuals are due not to a more challenging world than time past, but to a famine of both (a) persistent prayer and (b) prayer for those things which matter most, those things which only the Spirit of God can supply? Could it be that we are chasing after and therefore relying upon so many other things rather than on the Spirit of God in prayer?

May we return to more frequent and serious speaking to God about those things which matter most to him, those things which pertain to his name, his kingdom, the relationships between his people, and the people who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. May we be people of persistent prayer for these kind of things. And if necessary, perhaps you should by some good knee pads.

Life Group Discussion Questions:
  • We see in Luke's Gospel that he placed this teaching on prayer just after Christ’s teaching on the Model Prayer. What does this text (Luke 11:5-13) add to the teaching on prayer in the Model Prayer?
  • What does “asking on your knees” demonstrate? What does persistence in doing something demonstrate?
  • "Persistence” in the New Testament is related to "shamelessness.” In other words, persistent askers are disregarding the shame of asking persistently. Why might a person feel shame in persistently asking?
  • Why should believers feel no shame in asking persistently? (Hint: "believers” could be replaced with "the children of God.")
  • Since we are to “pray until we care,” how do our requests and our persistence in them change us?
  • How are we helped to see the importance of what we pray by the reality that our prayers change us?
  • What are some ways that we can develop a tendency to pray about the things that matter most to God, like our Christlikeness and his kingdom?
  • What is the ultimate end of of praying this way? What is the logical (step-by-step) process through which this end is achieved?
  • What are some subtle or deceptive ways in which we might believe that God is not a good Father?
  • How can we rationalize belief that God is a good Father who always gives good gifts and never bad ones, when sometimes he allows his children to suffer through difficult things?
  • What are some examples of things we should pray for? What are the good things that we need to be able to do, to which he has called us?


2 Comments


Jay - February 6th, 2024 at 12:28pm

Lesson for me from this message: persistent prayer and prayer for those things which matter most, those things which only the Spirit of God can supply.

Thomas Overmiller - February 13th, 2024 at 9:35am

That's right on point, Jay. May God enable you to pray that way increasingly.

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