Prayer’s True Power

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One day, as they witnessed him praying, Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). Jesus responded by giving them Luke’s rendition of the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 2–4). Following his instruction on prayer, he delivered a parable about a friend asking for bread and a son asking for fish. In that parable, he taught a profoundly valuable lesson on prayer, though one that is easily misunderstood.

The parable has two parts. In the first part, Jesus talks of a man who goes to his friend at midnight asking for bread. As you can imagine, midnight is an incredibly inconvenient time of day to be asking for bread, which leads the man to creating all sorts of excuses why he cannot possibly meet the need: He has already locked the house, his children are asleep, etc. He simply cannot get up out of bed to provide for his friend.

For all his excuses, however, the man ultimately relents. “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs” (v. 8). On this basis of that parable, Jesus encourages his hearers to persist in prayer to their Father, before shifting to a second illustration.

In the second part of the parable, Jesus speaks of a father giving to his son exactly what he asks for. A good father will not give to his son that which is detrimental to him but will instead give good gifts to his children. The Christian’s heavenly Father will likewise give the best of gifts—the Holy Spirit—to those who ask.

Both sections of the parable hinge on v. 8. It is, according to the ESV, the “impudence” of the asker provokes the giver to action. Unfortunately, Jesus’ real meaning, I am persuaded, seems to be, as they say, lost in translation. The word translated “impudence” literally means “lack of shame.” The CSB translates the word as “shameless boldness” and the NIV as “shameless audacity.” The ESV has chosen to apply this “shameless boldness” to the asker in a way that suggests that it is the asker’s shameless persistence that wears down the giver. In point of fact, however, Jesus may have meant something very different.

The culture in which Jesus lived, as in many Eastern cultures today, was one of honour and shame. Shame, in such cultures, was far more than personal embarrassment, as honour was far more than a personal sense of pride. In an honour-shame culture, the ideas of rank, status, honour, and esteem are fundamental to one’s worldview. To fail in an expected duty brings shame not only on the individual but on his entire extended family and possibly even village. A person might prefer death over shame, as the Japanese kamikaze pilots did during World War II.

Against this cultural backdrop, the lack of shame referred to in the text might refer to the giver’s lack of shame, rather than the asker’s. In other words, Jesus might be saying that, while the giver would not be moved by his friendship to provide what was requested, he would be moved to do so by his desire to maintain his own honour. In this scheme, it is the giver’s reputation, rather than the asker’s persistence, that moves him to action. Kenneth Bailey states it this way:

The word anaideia can mean “avoidance of shame.” While it did come to have the meaning of “persistence,” the concept of shame was linked with it in the first century. The parable would thus mean that just as the man in bed would respond so as not to incur shame (for having refused the needs of a visitor to his community), so God will always do what is honorable and consistent with his character.

This interpretation helps us to think aright about prayer. Prayer’s true power resides in God’s willingness, in keeping with his character, rather than in our persistence. Far from stifling persistence in prayer, this understanding of his willingness should spur our persistence. Since he always acts consistently with his character, we can be sure that he is moved to answer prayer because he will not do anything that will bring shame to his name. As we pray, therefore, in a way that is consistent with his character, as revealed in Scripture, we can pray with great confidence, knowing that his “avoidance of shame” will move him to answer.