How to Pray


Luke 11:1-13

In this section of Luke, full of material that we do not find in the other two synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Mark, we find this teaching about prayer that Matthew includes in his body of the Lord’s teaching (Matthew 5,6 and 7) that we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:7-15). There are differences, to be sure. Matthew doesn’t include the parable that Luke adds here in vv. 5-8, and there are some further differences between the material given here in vv. 9-13 and the like material found in Matthew’s version. There are as well slight differences between the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. All of that suggests that the Lord taught on prayer more than once, probably many times, and that there would have been — as we would expect — variations in his approach from time to time. Given that what we call the Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer, a pattern for our prayer, it would be highly unusual if he didn’t commend it to smaller and larger groups of his disciples at different times.

Text Comment

v.1       Our Lord was a man of prayer. On many occasions his disciples observed him at prayer or knew that he was at prayer and probably on a number of occasions they heard him at prayer. No doubt his manner of prayer was different from what they were used to. It was natural that they would ask him about it. How to pray was a typical subject for rabbis and John the Baptist had made a point of teaching his followers how to pray. Prayer is so much the effulgence and expression of faith that to learn how to pray is to learn how to believe.

v.2       Luke has the Lord’s Prayer introduced with “When you pray…” suggesting that these very words would be used. Matthew has the Lord introducing the prayer with the words “Pray like this…” suggesting that what is to follow is a model upon which we may base all our prayers. Christians have used the Lord’s Prayer in both ways: using the express words the Lord has given and applying its principles in their various prayers.

            There has been much debate about the Lord’s use of Abba or “Father” as the address of the prayer. For some time it was thought that this address “Father,” Abba, was revolutionary on the Lord’s part and there had been nothing like that in Jewish praying. But that claim has been disproved. It seems clear that the Jews of the time did address God in prayer with Our Father. Generally, however, it continues to be thought that Abba by itself, with no qualifier, no pronoun just “Father,” is a more intimate address than would have been common in Jewish prayer of that time.

v.3       While the Lord’s Prayer is a model for all our praying, it is worth noting that it is a corporate prayer, a prayer for Christians to pray together. All the pronouns are plural.

v.4       The thought appears to be both a fortiori, that is, since we forgive others, we have every confidence that the far more merciful God will forgive us, and that there can be no hypocrisy in true prayer, as if a heart that will not forgive others can sincerely seek forgiveness for itself.

            In a sermon explaining the Lord’s Prayer to new Christians and combatting the widespread practice in the fifth century of putting off baptism until late in life on the very doubtful theory that sins committed after baptism were much more serious and deadlyyou want to commit very few of those sins and the simple way to do that is to be baptized near the end of your life — Augustine referring to this petition regarding the forgiveness of our sins, put it in this charming way:

“Those ships that sail on after baptism will take on some leakage through human flaws — not necessarily enough to cause a shipwreck but enough to need bailing. Without such bailing the ship will gradually founder and eventually sink. This prayer is our way of bailing. Though all sins are forgiven in the bath of rebirth, we will end up on the shoals if we are not daily scrubbed by this holy prayer…” [Sermon 56.12 cited in Wills, Font of Life, 153]

            “Lead us not into temptation” is perhaps a prayer both that we may be kept from occasions of temptation and that we may not be allowed to fall into the power of sin.

            It is worth pointing out that all these petitions are commonplace in the Jewish prayers of the period and that the entire prayer corresponds closely to the most important formal prayers of Jewish worship, the Eighteen Benedictions and the Qaddish. [Green, 439] Jesus’ model prayer is a prayer which any Jew of the period would have found familiar. The petitions are not original or distinctive. They are commonplace and, of course, are so because they are found throughout the Bible.

            You will notice that the famous conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer is missing, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory Amen.” It is missing in modern translations of Matthew’s version as well. This is because that conclusion is not found in the best and earliest manuscripts of the NT. It was typical to add such a doxology to a prayer at its end and Jesus may well have done so, but if he did neither Matthew nor Luke included it in their version of what he said.

v.5       The “which of you,” a form of words repeated in v. 11, forces all of us to take a personal viewpoint with respect to what follows.

v.8       Recent study of this short parable has transformed the interpretation of it. That study,  informed by intimate knowledge of Middle Eastern customs, has led to the conclusion that the parable depends upon its original hearers answering the rhetorical question, “Which of you would imagine this happening?” with a decided negative. “No! This would not happen.” That is, they wouldn’t be able to comprehend a man refusing a friend, a member of his own village, who came with such a request, even in the middle of the night. The sense of responsibility for a guest and the sense of communal responsibility in Middle Eastern life are legendary. The Lord’s original hearers would have found preposterous the idea that a man would have been turned away with such silly excuses and not given the bread he needed with which to serve his guest. The locked door is no impediment — it can be easily opened — and even if the children wake up, they will fall asleep again soon enough.

            The ordinary interpretation of the parable has been for ages, — I confess I have preached sermons on this text as if this were its meaning — that it teaches us persistence or importunity in prayer. The sleeper’s unwillingness had to be overcome with persistence.  We think of him knocking and knocking and knocking.  In my copy of the Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, the Greek text of the four Gospels in parallel columns, showing the similarities and differences at a glance, this parable is entitled The Importunate Friend at Midnight. It’s all about importunity or persistence. The KJV had instead of “impudence” as in the ESV, “importunity,” that is, persistence, a refusal to take “No” for an answer.  The NIV has “because of his boldness” the man gets up and gives him what he needs. But the ESV is right. The word refers to a negative trait, not a positive one like persistence, and is rightly translated impudence or even shamefulness. Indeed, once you hear this argument and read the parable again you realize there is no sense of persistence or importunity in the parable. If you take that word “importunity” out of the KJV you would never have thought it was about persistence or importunity. The neighbor doesn’t knock, he calls out and the answer is given directly. The point is that the man inside would never answer as this man does and everyone knows it! “If the sleeper refused the request of anything as humble as a loaf of bread the host would continue on his rounds cursing the stinginess of the sleeper, who would not get up even to fulfill this trifling request. The story would be all over the village by morning. The sleeper would be met with cries of ‘shame’ everywhere he went.” [K. Bailey, Poet and Peasant, 132-133] The little detail at the end of v. 8 confirms this understanding of the parable. The sleeper gets up and doesn’t just give him the bread he asked for, but whatever he needed for his guest. The request was not answered begrudgingly, but with good will and generosity.

            So what does “impudence” mean in the parable? It is complicated grammar and a matter of debate, but in general the idea seems to be to underscore the absurdity of the idea that the man’s request would be refused. The term translated “impudence” is the negative form of a word that means “shame” or “what causes shame” and the thought is that it means that the man would certainly get up to help his neighbor so as to avoid shame or dishonor. The point is that if that is true of a neighbor in the middle of the night, how much more it must be true of God that he will be faithful to his promise to answer the requests of his children. [Cf. variously Green, Bock, and Bailey] And that assurance is now made the explicit point of the next section.

v.13     In other words, God is not unwilling to give, nor stingy in giving. He will give the very best things to his children when they ask him for them. And again the point is made by comparison. You fathers wouldn’t refuse your children whom you love, how much more will God not refuse his. Verse 11’s “Who among you” is like v. 5’s “Which of you…” and in both cases the expected answer is that none of us would do that.

Much is assumed here that believers do not require to be mentioned. That there is a God who answers prayer; that prayer is not as easy as it may first seem to be and is an art to be mastered; and that it is for many reasons important for us to pray well. Prayer is the reflex of faith. Those who believe in God pray to him and those who believe most in God pray most to him. So it is natural that a disciple of the Lord should ask him to teach them to pray. Every believer wants to be and knows he or she ought to be more faithful, skillful, and artful at prayer.

No wonder then the vast multitude of sermons that have been preached on this text and, indeed, the whole books of sermons that have been devoted to this text. Alexander Whyte’s great book on prayer is entitled Lord Teach us to Pray, and was formed of only some of the sermons he preached on Luke 11:1, most in 1895 and 1896 but some even years later. A new collection of Augustine’s sermons in sparkling English translation includes a sermon on our text preached in the summer of A.D. 411. Imagine Augustine in his relatively small stone church surveying a congregation perhaps no larger than this one. He begins:

“The holy gospel, which we heard when it was read just now, encourages us to pray. It gives us firm hope that no one who asks, seeks, and knocks leaves the Lord’s presence empty-handed.” [Essential Sermons, 166]

The number of entire books devoted to the Lord’s Prayer is very large. Christians and Christian ministers have had no difficulty understanding the great importance of this paragraph of the Lord’s teaching. We all want to know, we all know we need to know “how” to pray and here is the Lord’s own answer to that important question!

Now, obviously, the Lord gives us here only part of an answer to this question. There are many prayers in the Bible that aren’t like this model prayer, many prayers that are intensely personal and particular. Think of Nehemiah’s arrow prayer that he sent to heaven between the king asking him what was wrong and his reply. Not much time to pray. Or think of the Lord himself and his anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Or think of Paul’s prayers and the prayers he asked his churches to offer for him. “Join me in my struggle by praying to God for me,” he asked the Christians in Rome when making plans to return to Jerusalem, knowing full well the hostility that he might encounter there and did encounter as it happened. In fact, there are other model prayers in the Bible than this one that we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” All the prayers of the Psalter, all 150 of them, are in a way model prayers.

But, all that other instruction notwithstanding, we have here in a short form the Lord’s own answer to the most important question about prayer for a believer: how ought we to pray? He might have gone on for chapters in answer to that question for there are many chapters in the Bible devoted to the subject of prayer. And yet we have instead this short section which was his answer to that question, at least on this occasion. Surely, then, these must be the very most important things to say about how to pray.

They had been observing him pray, as we read in v. 1. Something about the Lord’s way of praying intrigued them. We don’t know for sure if he had been praying alone or if he had been praying with them, perhaps leading them in prayer. Perhaps the former is more likely. We know he often prayed alone. Whether they heard him at prayer or simply saw him at prayer we cannot tell, but something about the way he prayed arrested their attention and made them think that they did not pray as he prayed, that he knew more about prayer than they did, and that their prayer was not the wonderful thing that his prayer always was. It was natural that one of them, whether one of the twelve or some other disciple, man or woman, would ask him to teach them about prayer. Clearly they wanted their prayer to be more like his prayer. And who can read the Gospels and not see in Jesus the life of prayer that any Christian longs to have for himself or herself. We long to have such an intimate relationship with our heavenly Father that prayer for us is just that sort of earnest conversation with him that we can’t get enough of, such as it was for Jesus. So it is natural for us to go to the one who lived such a life of prayer and ask him: Lord teach us to pray.

And the Lord’s answer is typical of the Bible in many ways. He teaches us the form of prayer — the sort of things we ought to pray for — and he teaches us the manner of prayer, with what heart and mind and spirit and strength we ought to pray. This is everywhere the Bible’s approach to everything we do as Christians. We are to do the right things in the right way. We are to follow our instructions to the letter, but we are to do so with a believing, grateful, loving and expectant heart.

In that sermon of Augustine, preached in Hippo in the year 411, he concentrated on the former and exhorted his congregation to pray for the right things: not for money, not for vengeance on an enemy, but for those things that God values most. That is surely a faithful sermon on this text because the Lord explicitly tells us what we ought to pray for and there is nothing in this list of petitions that is selfish or worldly in the wrong sense of the word. Daily bread is not riches, and a righteous life that surmounts temptation is not worldly gain. These are the things we know God has promised to give us because they please him. Obviously any true believer is going to want to pray for those things we have been taught to pray for; he can be sure that God will answer those requests. That is the form of prayer. But in the Bible form is always linked with freedom, by which is meant the very personal, private motive and spirit and heart with which something is done.

The fact that virtually this entire model prayer would have been heard as entirely conventional by the disciples, the sort of prayer they had heard time and time again in synagogue worship, if it indicates anything it shows that the problem the Lord detected in the prayers of the Jewish church in those days was not that they were asking for the wrong things. There was nothing wrong with the content of their prayers, at least a good deal of the content of their prayers. All of that — the address to God, the hallowing of his name, the prayer for the coming of his kingdom, prayer for daily bread and deliverance from temptation — was as it should have been.

The problem was of another kind altogether. They didn’t pray with faith, with penitence, with sincere gratitude to a gracious heavenly father, and in the spirit of genuine submission to him. There is a great warning here in the simple fact that any Jew of Jesus’ time would have immediately have recognized this prayer and consented to it. But God was not answering the Jews’ prayers, rightly ordered as they were, because they were not being prayed in faith and in love. The proof of that was that if they had had real faith in God they would have recognized Jesus for what he was and who he was and gladly welcomed him. The Jewish mentality, as so often the Christian mentality ever since — this isn’t anti-Semitism, this is a realistic assessment of human nature — was to pray as a religious duty, to pray so as to fulfill an obligation, to pray so as to score points with God, though they would never have put it so crudely. Don’t say this wasn’t their problem, as some NT scholarship has attempted to say in recent years. It is precisely the want of faith and love that the Lord Jesus has already exposed in the typical Jewish heart of the period, it is precisely the want of faith and love that has so often been exposed in the typical Christian heart in the ages since, and it is precisely the want of real faith and real love that has far too often been exposed in your heart and mine when we begin to pray.

To any thoughtful and observant Christian it is frankly amazing and humiliating how quickly prayer, how easily our prayer loses the truly personal engagement of the heart — ceases to be that close, intimate, earnest, and loving conversation with God — and becomes instead a matter of duty, habit, or the superficial repetition of familiar words and phrases. In my family the story that is repeated is of a young nephew just three years of age or so who was asked to lead the  prayer at dinner and he began, “Dear heavenly Father for his own glory…” Familiar words, often repeated, but meaningless. Too often our prayers are like that: the aimless repetition of familiar words. The Lord, remember, had to warn his disciples not to think that they would be heard and receive God’s blessing simply because they had spoken many words to God. Many of their contemporaries had just such a view of prayer. Why would he give that warning if that were not a real danger?

Indeed, it is not too much to say that our danger is precisely that of turning biblical prayer into the sort of prayer you find so much of in other religions. In Islam, for example, the five scheduled prayers of the day are offered according to a set routine and are mostly the recital of certain texts from the Quran. These prayers are acts whose value rests entirely in the mere doing of it and they are not understood as being a way of expressing and participating in a personal and family relationship with God. This is a pure reflection of Muslim theology. As one scholar of Islam explains:

“[In Islam] God is declared to be so different from his creatures that it becomes virtually impossible to postulate anything of him; while it also so…emphasizes his self-sufficiency as to deny that he can in any way be affected by the actions or attitudes of his creatures.

[Further,] to the Muslim there is little connection between prayer and ethics: a man who rises from prayer to cheat will be rewarded for the prayer and punished for the cheating, but the one is commonly regarded as having little or no bearing on the other.” [J.N.D. Anderson, The World’s Religions, 79]

But that, alas, has been the prayer in the life of multitudes in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches throughout the ages. Prayer that is performance rather than faith, duty rather than love, habitual and rote rather than the engagement of a loving heart.

Clearly the Lord is at pains here to disabuse us of any notion that such could be faithful prayer that is pleasing to the God who looks upon the heart. No, he has us begin the prayer with “Father,” a very personal and very familial and intimate name for the Almighty. And then he appeals to the very nature of a father who loves his children to assure us that God will hear our prayers with a willing and ready heart. “What father among you, if his son asks him for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?” “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” The Methodists have a saint named Billy Bray, a 19th century evangelist, who was himself converted to Christ from a life of drunkenness and sexual profligacy. He was famous for thinking about and speaking about prayer in just this way. “I must speak to Father about this,” he would say.

I know that there are those who are troubled by this address: “Father.” Their idea of a father has been defiled by the example of their own fathers who were absent or cruel or indifferent or who abused them in some way. How can someone come to a father in prayer who has had such a terrible experience of fatherhood? But I think Dr. Packer is correct when, responding to this concern, he remarks:

“…in the first place, it is just not true to suggest that in the realm of personal relations positive concepts cannot be formed by contrast… Many young people get married with a resolve not to make the mess of marriage that they saw their parents make. Similarly, the thought of our Maker becoming our perfect parent — faithful in love and care, generous and thoughtful, interested in all we do, respecting our individuality, skillful in training us, wise in guidance, always available, helping us to find ourselves in maturity, integrity, and uprightness, — is a thought that can have meaning for everybody, whether we come to it by saying, ‘I had a wonderful father, and I see that God is like that, only more so,’ or by saying, ‘My father disappointed me here, and here, and here, but God, praise His name, will be very different,’ or even by saying, ‘I have never known what it is to have a father on earth, but thank God I now have one in heaven.’ The truth is all of us have a positive ideal of fatherhood…and it can be safely said that the person for whom the thought of God’s perfect fatherhood is meaningless or repellent does not exist.” [Knowing God, 184]

Verses 5-13 are given to assure us of the Father’s love, his faithfulness, and his readiness to hear and answer his children’s prayers. He is less likely to refuse to hear and answer than a middle-eastern villager would be to betray the obligations of hospitality! It will never happen. So come to God with gratitude that he stands ready to hear you — the Almighty, the living God who dwells in unapproachable light, will bend down to listen carefully to your prayers because you are his child and he loves you as his child, and because God would never, could never dishonor himself by failing to keep his promise or by failing to be faithful to his children as their Father.  Pray boldly because boldness is a testimony to your confidence in God. Pray with expectation, expectation being the expression of your faith in God’s goodness, his promise to hear you, and his absolute faithfulness to his own nature. Pray not as the practitioner of a religion; pray as a child to the father he loves and trusts to love him in everything.

Let me finish with an example of such prayer, the prayer the Lord Jesus is recommending to us here. This is from Charles Spurgeon the great 19th century London preacher. Spurgeon, as many people in his day, suffered from gout, an ailment of the joints that can be exquisitely painful and often was in his case. Once in a sermon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1871, he confided to his great congregation how he had, in the midst of one very painful episode, prayed to God for deliverance.

“I have found it a blessed thing, in my own experience, to plead before God that I am his child. When, some months ago, I was racked with pain to an extreme degree, so that I could no longer bear it without crying out, I asked all to go from the room, and leave me alone; and then I had nothing I could say to God but this, ‘Thou art my Father, and I am Thy child; and Thou, as a Father, art tender and full of mercy. I could not bear to see my child suffer as Thou makest me suffer; and if I saw him tormented as I am now, I would do what I could to help him and put my arms under him to sustain him. Wilt Thou hide Thy face from me, my Father? Wilt Thou still lay on me Thy heavy hand, and not give me a smile from Thy countenance?’ I talked to the Lord as Luther would have done, and pleaded his Fatherhood in real earnest.  … If he be a Father, let Him show Himself a Father — so I pleaded; and I ventured to say, when they came back who [were caring] for me, ‘I shall never have such agony again from this moment, for God has heard my prayer.’ I bless God that ease came, and the racking pain never returned. Faith mastered it by laying hold upon God in His own revealed character — that character in which, in our darkest hour, we are best able to appreciate Him. I think this is why that prayer, ‘Our Father which art in heaven,’ is given to us, because when we are lowest, we can still say, ‘Our Father,’ and when it is very dark, and we are very weak, our childlike appeal can go up, ‘Father, help me! Father, rescue me!’”

That account is repeated a number of times in Spurgeon’s writings. The experience of appealing to God as his Father and the answer to prayer he received made a deep impression on him. He often urged others to do as he had done. Is that not the Lord’s point here? [Autobiography, ii, 197]

When you pray — and be sure you pray for the right sort of things, the things you know God will approve — pray as a child speaks to his or her Father, a Father he knows loves him more than life itself; a Father she knows would do anything, absolutely anything — even sending his own son to death for her salvation — if only she might live and be happy forever. Never fall to your knees or bow your head or close your eyes or fold your hands without remembering that it is to your loving Father to whom your prayers ascend. And the more you pray, realizing and remembering that, the more people who observe your life will have cause to say: “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities them that fear him.”