Parables about Prayer
Prayer has often been called the breath of the soul. When God works spiritual life in our hearts, it shows itself by true prayer. For example, Scripture notes that Paul began to pray after Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Prior to this, he undoubtedly said many prayers; after all, most people do at some time or other. However, the Lord noted Paul’s new posture with the words: “Behold he prayeth” (Acts 9:11). True prayer proceeds “from the heart” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 117).
It would be wrong, however, to imagine that prayer is always easy for believers. In fact, the opposite is often the case. Many hindrances must be overcome when going to prayer and persevering in prayer. God’s Word honestly addresses these hindrances. In fact, Christ devoted at least three parables to the subject of prayer, and, interestingly, each of them aims to overcome common hindrances to prayer.
The friend at midnight (Luke 11:5-13)
Christ had just given the Lord’s Prayer to His disciples, who had asked Him:
Lord, teach us to pray.”(Luke 11:1)
Then Christ tells the parable of a man who receives a guest in the middle of the night. Because this guest was unplanned, the man goes to a neighboring friend to ask for some bread. Even though his friend is in bed, the man overcomes all hesitancy to knock on his door and wake him up. The pressing need of the moment, combined with the friendship of a neighbor, cause the man to set usual decorum aside.
It is not difficult to imagine that this friend would come to the door and give his neighbor what he needed. Jesus mentioned two reasons specifically. First of all, the man is his friend; friendship obliges you to help a friend in need. Everyone understands that. In addition, the very fact that you have come knocking at his door at such an odd hour indicates that it is an emergency; any neighbor would give you as much as you need.
Christ is addressing a common hindrance in prayer, namely, the feeling that the Lord is indifferent to us and our prayers. We doubt that the Lord is truly concerned about us. This can be a crippling feeling; despite all the promises in the Bible and all our past answers to prayer, we imagine that God would not be concerned about us. This feeling can overwhelm us to the point that we do not pray, or do not pray in faith.
If you would quite easily disturb your friend in an emergency, and he would help you, is there then not even more reason to go to the Lord, who neither sleeps nor slumbers (Ps. 121:4)? Since He is not weary with our asking, should we then be reluctant to pray? It’s no wonder that the Lord follows this parable with the words:
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.Luke 11:9
Christ clears away the first hindrance
The persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8)
A second hindrance to prayer is the feeling that our prayers have not been answered. It relates to the first hindrance in the sense that we ultimately end up thinking that the Lord is indifferent because He is not answering our prayers. In essence, both hindrances are forms of unbelief. In both cases, the perception that God is not hearing us stifles prayer.
Christ gives the parable about the persistent widow to address this second hindrance. Luke explicitly specifies the purpose of the parable as follows: “that men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (v. 1). The parable tells of a widow who has suffered some injustice or wrongdoing, and her only recourse is a corrupt judge, someone who fears neither God nor man. The widow continues to trouble the judge to the point that he helps her simply so she won’t bother him anymore. The parable concludes:
And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?
The lesson again is clear. Though the widow faced great odds, she received her request. And would the believer, who comes not only to a just Judge (see Gen. 18:25) but a gracious heavenly Father, find persistent prayer to be pointless? The answer is clear – of course not. The Lord stands ready to hear them. It’s true, He can delay for His own wise reasons. Yet isn’t it often our own delays and doubts that keep us from praying? Thus Christ clears away the second hindrance.
The Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-15)
One of the most subtle hindrances to prayer is this sense of self-sufficiency where we think that everything is basically fine and we don’t need earnest prayer. This spirit of self-sufficiency is very different from the previous two hindrances, but it has the same effect: it quenches prayer.
Christ addresses this hindrance in the well-known parable of the Pharisee and publican. Notice how He tells that two men went up to the temple to pray; however, when it comes down to it, the Pharisee only has the form of prayer, and in the end doesn’t actually pray for anything. He simply expresses his own self-sufficiency under the guise of speaking to God.
This portrait of the Pharisee is an indictment to the spirit of self-sufficiency that we all have by nature. It pervades the unconverted person, even if, like the Pharisee in the parable, he is very religious. However, it can also beset true believers. We begin to think that we are basically alright as we are.
Christ addresses this devastating hindrance to prayer by showing the heart of true prayer in the manner and words of the publican. He knows that he is not “alright” and, in his brokenness, he cries out to God for mercy. This simple but heartfelt prayer brings down the sentence of God’s approval upon him, as well as an infinite number of blessings. In fact, this publican lays hold on all the riches of God’s covenant – for that is what mercy is – in a simple and sincere prayer for God and God’s favor.
By this honest portrait of both the Pharisee and the publican, Christ clears away the third hindrance to true prayer.
What simple pictures Christ used: a man in need at midnight, a needy widow on the street, and a needy sinner in the temple! The common thread in each is need. If only we sensed our desperate need more, we would pray more quickly, more persistently, and more humbly. And don’t you think we would receive more readily all that God wishes to give?
What Christ did in these parables – removing hindrances to prayer – He still does from heaven in the lives of His people. Christ sees us beset by hindrances, and He removes them by His Word and Spirit, and sets His people praying for the mercies of which heaven is so full and earth is so needy.
- Hindrances in prayer often relate to a wrong or one-sided view of God. Each parable we looked at helps correct a wrong or one-sided view of God. Discuss how this works in the three parables.
- In Luke 11:9, the word “importunity” literally means “shamelessness.” Can prayers that are bold still be reverent?
- Why does Jesus conclude the parable of the persistent widow with the question: “Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” What does this have to do with prayer (Luke 18:8)?
- Compare and contrast the Pharisee and the publican on the spirit, content, and result of their prayers. Why is the parable so much more powerful with the part about the Pharisee than if it just had the section about the publican?
- What other hindrances to prayer can you think of, and can you think of other parables or passages that address those hindrances?