The Secret to a Stronger Prayer Life

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According to sociological studies, what do Americans do on a daily basis more often than go to work?

Pray.[i]

Prayer is not only something that happens often in our lives; it’s also something that increases significantly as we grow older. It’s not just that older people pray more than younger people, although that is true; it’s that the same people pray more as they age. Compared to when they were polled in their twenties, roughly a third more Baby Boomers as well as a third more Gen Xers now report praying daily.[ii] So whether you are young and pray daily or are aging and discerning that you are more drawn to prayer as you get older, you are not alone.

One day Jesus was praying. When he finished, one of his followers said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). It’s interesting that he did not say, “You don’t need to be taught to pray. You just pray. Just talk to God. You can’t get it wrong. Anyway, all prayers are the same. All prayers are acceptable.”

Instead, Jesus effectively said, “Okay, I’ll teach you about prayer.” And he had some very specific things to say about prayer. He taught us how to pray and told a story that we need to understand to know the secret of a better prayer life.

A Prayer with No I’s, Me’s, or My’s”

Jesus said [to his followers], “This is how you should pray:

Father, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. Give us each day the food we need, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. And don’t let us yield to temptation. Luke 11:2-4 (NLT)

If you have heard this prayer before, you might be thinking, Wait a minute, Jesus. You didn’t say it right. You have the “Father” in there but forgot the “who is in heaven.” You got the “may your Kingdom come soon,” but forgot “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus, you misquoted your own prayer! That is weird, isn’t it?

Luke is recounting Jesus’ prayer here on a different occasion from the more commonly known version that was recorded by Matthew. Jesus is doing what many teachers of that day did: giving the shorthand version of the prayer he had already taught his followers before he gets to the story he wants to tell them to change their perspective and practice of prayer.

It is interesting to observe that you can pray the entire prayer without saying I, me, or my. The American culture elevates the individual above all else, yet when teaching us to pray, Jesus taught a communal prayer, with plural pronouns that begin with “our Father and his Kingdom,” not “me and my Kingdom.”

It is not that our needs don’t get addressed. Our needs are included throughout the prayer: our need for daily bread, our need to forgive and be forgiven, and our need to not yield to temptation. They are all named but in the context of coming to God as our providing Father.

Growing up, I had a great dad. Not perfect, but great in my eyes. He was present and caring and provided for us through his hard work, he loved to laugh, and he told me every day that he loved me, was proud of me, and believed in me. I hope that was your experience with your dad too. However, maybe you had a different experience. Maybe your dad was begrudging, unwelcoming, absent, or even worse. Jesus knew that we would need help understanding the heart of our heavenly Father, which is why he goes on in his teaching on prayer to tell us a story. It starts out as a story about a neighbor but ends up being a story about our heavenly Father.

How Does God Experience Our Prayers?

Teaching them more about prayer, he used this story: “Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him, ‘A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.’ And suppose he calls out from his bedroom, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.’ But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence.

And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Luke 11:5-10 (NLT)

Everyone listening would have been familiar with this situation. Hospitality in Jesus’ day was a much higher value than for us in our culture. When traveling, there were no places to stop for food or rest—no Chick-fil-A, no Best Western. Giving and receiving hospitality was essential for survival. Due to the heat of the day in Jesus’ part of the world, the accepted practice was to start your traveling in the evening, often arriving at your destination late into the night.

In the story, the guest arrives when the daily bread has all been eaten. The host is not adequately prepared to feed him, so the host goes to a neighbor. He asks for three loaves of bread—a modest request. He is trusting in the generosity of his neighbor, and to be asked was an honor. Nowadays, when our neighbors’ houses are all battened down for the night, we assume the kids are asleep and we do not dare wake them.

This is the point Jesus wants to make: “Can you even imagine that happening?” Everyone said, “No way! Unthinkable! Impossible!” For many modern readers, we might think this is acceptable. However, to all of Jesus’ first listeners, each excuse was ludicrous. We can slip into seeing ancient people as inherently inferior compared to today, but such reflexive thinking has rightly been called “chronological snobbery.”[iii] It’s worth considering what we have lost in our connection with our neighbor by outsourcing hospitality to an industry rather than it being a cultural norm.

But Jesus effectively says, “Pretend with me for a while that it happened. What would you do next? You would stay at the door and keep knocking every five minutes so the guy cannot go to sleep. He will eventually say to his wife, ‘Is he still at the door?’ At last he will respond. Friendship will not move him, but your persistent disturbance will.”

This is where many of us can get the wrong idea. We may think, Oh, okay. I get it. God is like the cranky neighbor. But if you keep banging on the door, you might bother him enough that he will give you what you want so you will leave him alone. That’s what the pagans believed about prayer. The Greek and Roman gods were indifferent toward people. So the cultural belief was that in order to get something from them, you would have to wear them down by disturbing them to the point where they give up out of annoyance.

That is exactly not what Jesus is saying by this story.

What God Is Not Like

The neighbor is not the mirror image of God; in fact, God is the opposite of the neighbor. This is a story of contrast, not likeness. If you think this is a story of likeness, then you will completely misunderstand the heart of prayer and the heart of God that Jesus came down to earth to reveal to us. You’ll think that Jesus is saying that even if your neighbor is grouchy and set against you, you can wear him down by disturbing him so you can get what you need and then go away.

We know that this cannot be what Jesus means for us to take from this story. We know this because elsewhere when he teaches on the topic of prayer, he explicitly says,

When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! (Matthew 6:7-8, NLT).

What Jesus is communicating is that if this is true with an unimaginable neighbor, how much more should you confidently ask and pursue our Father, who never sleeps, is eager to give, is never distant, and is closer than your next breath. This parable is classified as a “how much more” parable, which ancient rabbis often used. Those parables were always ones of contrast. The uncaring neighbor is bothered by the disturbance; because of God’s great care for us, God is not bothered and doesn’t consider our requests a disturbance.

If we took everything we are grateful for and every problem we are worried about to God first, it would do wonders in terms of our connection to him throughout our day. There was an English revivalist with a great last name: Smith Wigglesworth. Here’s what he said: “I don’t ever pray any longer than twenty minutes. . . . But I never go more than twenty minutes without praying.”[iv] If we think of God as the cranky neighbor, we will be hesitant to go to him in prayer. But if we see that Jesus is telling a story of contrast, not likeness, then our lives will become infused with prayer. Getting the point of this parable right is the secret to a better prayer life.


You’ve been reading with Tom Hughes from Down to Earth: How Jesus’ Stories Can Change Your Everyday Life. Read a free excerpt from the beginning of the book here. Or get started on the YouVersion reading plan in English or Spanish.

[i] “Frequency of Prayer,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/frequency-of-prayer/. Daily prayer is self-reported by 55 percent of Americans; 47 percent of Americans have full-time employment: The Automatic Earth, “Only 47 Percent of Working Age Americans Have Full Time Jobs,” Business Insider, January 24, 2011, http://www.businessinsider.com/real-employment-rate-47-percent-2011-1.

[ii] “Passion for Daily Prayer Grows with Age,” Preaching Today, http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2010/may/3051010.html.

[iii] Owen Barfield, “Chronological Snobbery,” Owen Barfield, http://www.owenbarfield.org/chronological-snobbery/.

[iv] Smith Wigglesworth, quoted in Colin Dye, “Smith Wigglesworth on Prayer,” Colin Dye (blog), March 4, 2013, http://www.colindye.com/2013/03/04/smith-wigglesworth-on-prayer/.

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