ASKING ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH
Jesus said: “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8).
Many have interpreted this to mean that we shouldn’t ask God for anything more than once. That God already knows what we need, so asking over and over again is totally unnecessary.
But this can’t be what Jesus means. Jesus Himself prayed three times in the garden for God to take the cup from Him. Paul tells us that he prayed for God to take away the thorn in his flesh on three occasions. There must be something else going on here.
The New Bible Commentary explains Jesus’ command like this: “Keep on babbling translates a ‘nonsense word’ unknown elsewhere in Greek, suggesting what we mean by ‘gibberish’. The focus is not on ‘repetition’ but on meaninglessness and noise”.
Added to this, Jesus taught “ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). Again, many have assumed that this means that asking once is enough. But this is not what Jesus is saying.
According to Warren Wiersbe, “the tenses of the verbs are important here: ‘Keep on asking … keep on seeking … keep on knocking'”. For this reason, The New Living Translation makes this explicit: “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” (Luke 11:9). So too, the Holman Christian Standard Bible: “Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).
SO WHY ISN’T ONCE ENOUGH?
Why did Elijah have to pray seven times in order for rain to come? Why did Daniel have to pray for twenty-one days before he received an interpretation to the vision? Why did the Canaanite woman have to ask over and over again before Jesus would heal her daughter?
Why do we need to keep on asking?
One possible explanation comes from the Book of Revelation. It describes how God is up in heaven collecting our prayers in some sort of bowls. Once the bowls are full, they will eventually be poured out on to the earth, unleashing God’s power in all its fullness…
“And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people… Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder,rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake” (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-5).
It should be noted that these passages are primarily talking about the end times, and the prayers being collected seem to be in relation to God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. However many would argue that there’s a wider application. The imagery makes it clear that God does not forget our prayers. He remembers them all. They all count. Over time they begin to accumulate until eventually God’s power is released.
Charles Spurgeon explains: “In the eighth chapter of the book of Revelation you will find that the great angel who stood before God with the golden censer in his hand, full of the prayers of the saints, held it up, and the smoke went up to God… he emptied the golden censer out upon the earth, and there were voices and thunders and lightnings and earthquakes… Now, when the censer of God’s church shall have been well filled with prayer, and that prayer shall have been presented to the Lord, he will begin to work, and that censer which has been before God a weapon to prevail with him, shall then become against men a weapon to prevail with them. God will fill it full of coals, and pour it out upon the earth. His divine power shall then be seen… We only have to pray. All things are possible for us. Pray, brethren. You have the key in the door of heaven, keep it there and turn it until the gate shall open. Pray, brethren, for prayer holds the chain which binds the old dragon. Prayer can hold firm and restrain even Satan himself. Pray. God clothes you with omnipotence, if you know how to pray.”
John Piper agrees: “The utterly astonishing thing about this text is that it portrays the prayers of the saints as the instrument God uses to usher in the end of the world with great divine judgments. It pictures the prayers of the saints accumulating on the altar before the throne of God until the appointed time when they are taken up like fire from the altar and thrown upon the earth to bring about the consummation of God’s kingdom… Not one is lost or forgotten. Not one has been ineffectual or pointless. They have all been gathering on the altar before the throne of God… Not one God-exalting prayer has ever been in vain. This is an astonishing tribute to the enormous historical importance of prayer… If you wonder where your prayers go and what God does with them, here is one of the answers. They go onto an altar before his throne. If mere human beings can invent a microchip that holds millions of bytes of communication, it is not difficult to imagine that God has no trouble at all devising a way to preserve on his altar every prayer that has ever been prayed in the name of Jesus… I can’t help but conclude from this that the principle applies to answers to prayer in the shorter run—that is, as we pray for any given thing, our prayers are stored up on the altar of God with the prayers of others for that thing until they reach God’s appointed proportion and then God pours them out in blessing in the best way for all concerned. So that no believing prayer is in vain. Ever”
Dutch Sheets goes so far as to say that our prayers won’t be answered until the bowls are full: “When we come to Him with a need, asking Him to accomplish what He says in His Word. In answer to our requests, He sends His angels to get our bowls of prayer to mix with the fire of the altar. But there isn’t enough in our bowls to meet the need! We might blame God or think it’s not His will or that His Word must not really mean what it says. The reality of it is that sometimes He cannot do what we’ve asked because we have not given Him enough power in our prayer times to get it done. He has poured out all there was to pour and it wasn’t enough… When enough prayer has accumulated to get the job done, He releases power.”
BE WILLING TO DO WHATEVER IT TAKES
According to E. M. Bounds, “our praying needs to be pressed and pursued with an energy that never tires, a persistency which will not be denied, and a courage which never fails”.
This willingness to do whatever it takes to see God at work is seen over and over again in the writings of great Christian leaders…
Charles Spurgeon said: “If you are sure it is a right thing for which you are asking, plead now, plead at noon, plead at night, plead on. With cries and tears spread out your case. Order your arguments. Back up your pleas with reasons. Urge the precious blood of Jesus. Bring out the atoning sacrifice. Point to Calvary. Enlist the Priest who stands at the right hand of God. And resolve in your very soul that if souls not be saved, if your family not be blessed, if your own zeal be not revived, yet you will die with the plea on your lips and with the appealing wish on your spirits.” He went onto say: “Never give up praying, not even though Satan should suggest to you that it is in vain for you to cry unto God.”
On another occasion he said: “If for a while the heavens are as brass and your prayer only echoes in thunder above your head, pray on; if month after month your prayer appears to have miscarried, and no reply has been vouchsafed to you, yet still continue to draw nigh unto the Lord. Do not abandon the mercy-seat for any reason whatever. If it be a good thing that you have been asking for, and you are sure it is according to the divine will, if the vision tarry wait for it, pray, weep, entreat, wrestle, agonise till you get that which you are praying for”.
Martin Luther said: “Lord, I will have my will of thee at this time.” On other occasions he declared: “Our Lord could not help but hear me; I threw a sack down before his door. I rubbed God’s ear with all his promises about hearing prayer…I besought the Almighty with great vigour. I attacked him with his own weapons, quoting from Scripture all the promises that I could remember, that prayers should be granted, and said that he must grant my prayer. If I was henceforth to put faith in his promises.”
Andrew Murray said: “In our intercession, we may find that there is difficulty and delay with the answer. It may be as if God says… ‘I cannot… give thee’. It is not easy, against all appearances, to maintain our confidence that He will hear and to persevere in full assurance that we will have what we ask for. And yet this is what God looks for from us. He so highly prizes our confidence in Him, it is so essentially the highest honour the creature can show the Creator, that He will do anything to train us in the exercise of this trust in Him. Blessed is the man who is not staggered by God’s delay or silence or apparent refusal. Such faith perseveres… and cannot fail to inherit blessing”.
Phillip Yancey said: “I approach God at first in fear and trembling, only to learn that God wants me to stop groveling and start arguing. I dare not meekly accept the state of the world, with all its injustice and unfairness. I must call God to account for God’s own promises”. Yancey goes on to paraphrase Jesus’ Parable of the Friend at Midnight: “Raise your voice…Strive on, like the shameless neighbour in the middle of the night. Keep pounding the door.”
George Mueller said: “It is not enough to begin to pray, nor to pray aright; nor is it enough to continue for a time to pray; but we must pray patiently, believing, continue in prayer until we obtain an answer.” To those who feel like giving up he says: “You and I shall find again and again that the answer is delayed; and the question is, shall we give up praying, or shall we continue? The temptation is to cease praying, as though we had given up hope, and to say, ‘It is useless; we have already prayed so long that it is useless to continue.’ This is just what Satan would have us say; but let us persevere and go on steadily praying, and be assured that God is both able and willing to do it for us; and that it is the very joy and delight of His heart, for Christ’s sake, to give to us all things which are for the glory of His name, and our good and profit. If we do so, He will give us our desire. As assuredly as we are the children of God, if we pray perseveringly, and in faith, the prayer will be answered”.
E. M. Bounds said: “We are ever ready to excuse our lack of earnest and toilsome praying by a fancied and delusive view of submission. We often end praying just when we ought to begin. We quit praying when God waits and is waiting for us to really pray. We are deterred by obstacles from praying, or we succumb to difficulties, and call it submission to God’s will… Spiritual laziness and half-heartedness in prayer is covered under the high and pious name of submission.”
So the key is not to ask once, or ask twice, but to keep asking until we receive, keep seeking until we find and keep knocking until the door is opened.