I know. I don't think bold and prayer life are terms that belong together. But maybe that's a problem.
That's my conclusion after wrestling with part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount recently.
Matthew 7:1-12 isn't the easiest passage to understand. It seems at first like a series of unrelated thoughts with no apparent structure. Jesus bounces from the command not to judge, to the command to be discerning, to a section on prayer, to the Golden Rule.
"Here in 7: 1– 12 one is tempted to think that editorial fatigue and panic have set in for the evangelist," writes Jonathan Pennington. "It may appear that Matthew has before him some real gems of Jesus-tradition sayings left in his memory chest, and here at the end in desperation he throws them together into a final hodgepodge."
As I wrestled with this section, I began to sense a structure, with some help from Pennington and D.A. Carson. Jesus is speaking about his disciples and how they relate to the world. It's easy to go wrong in one of two directions: to be too judgmental, or to be too undiscerning. It takes a lot of wisdom to avoid both of these errors and to be gracious and humble on one hand, and bold and discerning on the other. It takes wisdom to know how to treat others as we'd want to be treated, especially when they don't believe the same things that we do.
How do we do this? Prayer. Jesus doesn't throw a series of unrelated thoughts together in this passage. He coherently describes how we're relate to a hostile world. He not only describes it, but he implies we can't do this on our own. We need God's help.
The Kind of Prayer We Need
If we're to live graciously and yet with discernment, treating others as we'd like to be treated, then we need a certain kind of prayer:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)
The verbs ask, seek, and knock are present imperatives. Keep asking. Keep seeking. Keep knocking. The promise is astounding, and it's repeated twice: those who ask will receive; those who seek will find; those who knock will find it opened. It's as if Jesus knows telling us once won't be enough. We really have a hard time believing this.
Then Jesus reminds us of God's willingness to give his children good gifts. God is more willing to answer than we are to ask.
The kind of prayer Jesus encourages is persistent, insistent, and bold. How do we live wisely in a hostile world? Pray this way. It's essential to our witness and influence.
My Paltry Prayer List
And so I pray. Most mornings I open my prayer list. Sometimes the names I have written on my list seem like lost causes to me. I can't believe that God will work in their lives. I keep praying, but I don't know if you could call my prayers persistent.
And yet God invites me: keep asking, seeking, and knocking. God hears and answers prayer. He loves to give good gifts. If I want to live graciously and wisely in this world, it's my only hope.
Based on Jesus' teaching, I'm beginning to pray bigger prayers. My work as a disciple depend on it. If we're going to have much of an impact on the world around us, it's going to be through prayer.
It's time to upsize our prayer lists.