Children can be really good at getting their way. Their tactic is through sheer persistence. If they beg and beg enough, they reason, eventually they will wear their parents down and get them to give in. Which one of us did not do this as a child? Of course, if the parent is wise and strong, they will ignore the relentless begging; eventually it will stop. I remember once seeing a child having a full-blown temper tantrum; she had flung herself onto the ground and was laying there sobbing; meanwhile her parents were sitting at the table, calmly talking and eating, not paying any attention. It didn’t look her tactics were working on them.
As usual, there is a link between our first reading and our Gospel reading today. And that link is found in the word: perseverance. That’s what both readings have in common and is the common message for us as well. In our first reading from Genesis, Abraham is pleading with the Lord to not bring destruction down upon the towns Sodom and Gomorrah, which have turned away from the Lord and are known for their wickedness. The reading is pretty repetitive, as Abraham continues to beg with the Lord to spare the town. He begins by asking the Lord to spare the town if there are to be found there fifty righteous people. Why destroy the innocent with the guilty, he reasons. And then he continues by reducing the amount a little each time: would you spare them if there are forty? Thirty? Twenty? And finally ten. If you started to get perhaps a little weary listening to this reading, perhaps you’re feeling a little of the weariness you feel when your children beg for something over and over again. But God does not grow weary. In fact, each time he relents, and agrees to spare the town. There are at least a couple things that we can learn here. One is God’s mercy: he continues to relent, agreeing to spare the towns completely, even if fewer and fewer righteous people can be found there. And the other is the value and the importance, the religious necessity if you will, of persevering in prayer.
(Of course, we later learn that not even one righteous person is to be found in Sodom and Gomorrah, and the two towns are destroyed.)
And then in our Gospel reading from Luke, we hear Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus’ disciples have asked him to teach them how to pray, and so we hear a shorter version of the Our Father than we have in the Gospel of Matthew. But then Jesus goes on to tell them a parable about a man who goes to his neighbor’s house at midnight to ask him for some bread. At first the man refuses. We can hear the reluctance and perhaps even the annoyance in his voice when he says that he and his children have already gone to bed. But, Jesus says, eventually the man is going to give in and give the man what he’s asking for, if not out of kindness and generosity, then out of the more selfish desire to be left alone so he can go back to sleep.
Persevere, Jesus is telling us. God is not like us; he doesn’t respond to prayers because he gets tired of our constant begging and wants to be left alone. Rather he responds to us because he loves us. He desires to give us what we truly need, not necessarily what we want, what is truly for our good. And God knows better than we what is truly for our good. Sometimes what we ask for is a stone, and God knows it, and wants to give us a fish instead. We might want the cotton candy of this world, something that might taste good in the moment (actually that might be a bad example since I think cotton candy is pretty disgusting) but has zero nutritional value and is even bad for us. God instead wants to give us a rich, nutritious banquet of fresh, healthy, filling food.
Why doesn’t God answer our prayers right away though? Why does it sometimes seem as though God isn’t there, or that he isn’t paying attention to us, or that He isn’t listening? There are no easy, completely satisfying answers to these questions. There are times in life or in the history of the world when it does indeed seem as though God is absent, when there is so much seemingly meaningless suffering. Jesus reminds us in our Gospel though that God does hear us and that He will respond to us and will provide for us. And when we don’t see any visible response to our prayer, we have to keep going, we have to persevere. Perseverance in prayer does not change God. Like I said, it’s not that eventually we are able to wear God down with our constant requests. Our prayer does not change God in any way. He does not need our prayer. To suggest otherwise is to say that God is somehow incomplete, that He needs us. God does not need us nor does he need our prayers. Nor are we pagans who believe that if we do this or that thing or say this or that prayer that we can somehow influence God to act in a certain way.
No, God does not need our prayers. And yet He desires them. He doesn’t need our love, and yet He desires it. He freely chooses to love us and does not need anything in return. But because He is love itself, He desires that we love Him in return. Not for His sake, but rather for ours, because He knows that that is what is best for us. Giving God our praise and our worship, and persevering in our prayer, does not change God in any way or give Him something he is lacking; rather, it changes us. Perseverance in prayer is for our own good – when we persevere in prayer, we grow spiritually. We grow in faith and in hope. Even though we don’t see immediate or visible results, if we hold on to the belief that God is still there and that he hasn’t abandoned us, our faith and our hope will increase. We hold on to the belief that God still hears us, and that He will answer us in some way. Not in our way perhaps, but in his way. Not according to our schedule, but in his own time.
Like those parents who were ignoring their daughter while she threw a tantrum on the ground, sometimes God doesn’t respond right away and in the way we want. I don’t know what the girl had asked for, but perhaps her parents knew that what she wanted wasn’t good for her. And so by not giving in to her request, they were actually doing something good for her. To her it was clearly very frustrating, but perhaps not getting it was what was best for her. And also, we all know what happens to children when they always get what they want, whenever they want it. First, they become spoiled children, and then they grow up into difficult people who expect everyone to give them whatever they want, whenever they want it. This doesn’t make a person better or even happier. So by not giving their daughter what she wanted in the moment, perhaps they were also trying to teach her patience. And patience is a good quality for everyone to have. So to the girl, this was material for a tantrum, but perhaps in the long run it was for her own good.
It is the same with perseverance in prayer. If we got everything we wanted, when we wanted it, we would not develop any character but would instead become overly sensitive, demanding people. And in hindsight, we can often see how something we might have wanted in the past would not have been good for us in the long run. And if God always immediately responded to our prayer, our faith and our hope in Him would never grow.
Finally, what God really desires to give us is the gift of his Holy Spirit, the gift of his Love. This is the greatest gift. Nothing else compares to it. If we ask for the gift of his Spirit, God will give it. If we desire holiness and sanctity, God will give them. This is the promise Jesus gives us when he says, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.” Let us persevere in asking the Lord in prayer, and seeking Him, and in knocking on the door of his heart.