(A) Introduction. Read: Luke11v5to13

This passage poses many awkward questions. It is so definite, so positive and so encouraging. What a ring verse 13 has: "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (In Mt7v11 it is good gifts rather than the Holy Spirit.) Yet for all the assurance of Jesus' words there remain lots of things which we, if only we possessed God's power, would gladly give our children.

Philip Yancey, in his book on, 'Prayer,' mentions George Orwell who as a boy at boarding school regularly wet his bed. Every time this happened George was caned. There is no doubt that George prayed with all his heart for the bed-wetting to stop. His prayer was unanswered and the caning went on. George Orwell lost faith in God and never recovered it. In the light of Jesus words it is hard to understand why God did not grant poor George's desperate request.

I heard in a TV program recently of a 19th century parson who buried five daughters in the space of a few weeks. All of them died of scarlet fever. One can imagine how he prayed first for one daughter and then another - all to no avail.

The story Jesus told about the man who asked his friend for bread at midnight may help us to understand why God answers some prayers and not others. I might as well say here and now that I do not consider, 'No,' is an answer to prayer. God never provides an explanation for not granting a request!

(B) Requests a friend would not grant.

The friend might well refuse requests that were:

(1) Impractical.

The friend would not help his neighbour if he had no bread, or if he was awaiting the late arrival of a visitor, or if he had no work next day and the three loaves in the house were all he had to feed his children.

There are many things we ask for that God cannot give us because to do so would have bad consequences. For instance:

    (a) Many prayers for healing are requests for God to do miracles. If God did innumerable miracles in response to our prayers the nature of the universe would change. It would no longer operate on the principle of cause and effect. The periodic suspension of natural laws would make the universe very unpredictable. Also, if millions of Christians are healed supernaturally Christianity would become a very popular Faith for the wrong reasons.

    It seems strange that many Christians are so confident of God's supernatural intervention when it must be in God's will and purpose for sickness and suffering to exist in a fallen world. We all have to die - it is not something that can be postponed indefinitely.

    (b) If God acts to retrieve the situation every time someone is very wicked then men would no longer be free. If we are truly free then we must be free to do bad things as well as good. This inevitably results in terrible suffering that God cannot easily remedy without greatly restricting our freedom. It is God's willingness to let bad men be bad that explains why it took a World War to put a stop to the Nazi atrocities.

    It is hard to understand to what extent God protects his own when you read about the agony suffered by martyrs. Roderick Graham, in his biography of John Knox, describes the martyrdom of the Scot Patrick Hamilton in 1527. He was tied to a stake amidst coal and timber. The gunpowder charge that was supposed to light the fire failed to do so but scorched Hamilton's left hand and the side of his face. When the fire was eventually lit it burned slowly 'and therefore was his torment the more'. Showers of rain and a strong north wind combined from time to time to put the fire out. It took six hours for Patrick Hamilton to burn to death. It is easy to blame God for the prolonged agony of one of his saints - but he wasn't the one responsible for bungling the execution.

    (c) God is unlikely to grant requests that would adversely affect someone else. I used to pray for fine weather whenever I organised a Geography fieldtrip. I was never confident that God would answer my request because I was aware that there were, perhaps, gardeners and farmers praying for rain! How can God grant my request for success at a job interview if there is someone present who needs it more?

    Philip Yancey has an interesting section in his book on prayer about wartime intercession. In war there are two sides. How can we be sure that God is on our side? In the American Civil War both Northern and Southern clergy claimed God was on their side. Abraham Lincoln gently cautioned them to inquire instead whether they were on God's side.

(2) Frivolous

If the man in Jesus' story had knocked on his friend's door and made a frivolous request - for a comb, hair oil, his sabbath sandals or his wife! - the friend might well get up, but only to punch his neighbour on the nose for being silly.

Some prayers are just plain ridiculous. You sometimes see fanatical football supporters, eyes closed and hands together, praying for their team to win. God is not going to give an athlete victory in the Olympic games anymore than he is going to ensure I get a big score at cricket. God is not prepared to make me more attractive to women, turn me into a famous preacher or ensure a rich widow leaves me all her money.

People made frivolous requests of Jesus in his lifetime and he steadfastly refused to grant them. He gave short shrift to the mother of James and John when she demanded high status positions for her boys in Christ's kingdom. When someone in the crowd said to Jesus: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" Lk12v13and14. Jesus is not the heavenly magistrate or trouble shooter.

(3) Unreasonable.

If the man in the parable had asked his friend for bread at 4pm he might well have been refused. There was still time to buy bread or bake bread in late afternoon.

We shouldn't expect God to do for us what we can do for ourselves. I can remember many years ago giving a list of items to our school bursar and asking him to cost them. He said, "There is a catalogue of school supplies in the staff room." It was something I could do myself! I was, perhaps, getting a taste of my own medicine. There were many occasions during my career when pupils expected me to do their work for them. A teacher does his students no favours by spoon-feeding them. During my time as a schoolboy the fierce history teacher, Dr Wood - otherwise known as Splinter - a nickname that suited him - used to give us an essay title and leave us to write it. We were given no help or guidance about where to gather information. I learned an awful lot struggling alone with those history essays.

So we should not ask God to do for us what we can do, at least in part, for ourselves.

(4) Harmful.

There are some things the man's friend would not have given him. It is best not to give an axe to someone in a rage, a rope to anyone suffering depression or a flagon of wine to a recovering alcoholic. God is not going to give scorpions or snakes to his children - even if they ask for them!

God does not grant requests that would prove harmful to us. In the days that I took old Jack Finch to church he would occasionally work himself into a fury about the state of the world. He would say, "I wish God would put me in charge - just for a day - I would show them!" It is as well for Jack - and the rest of us - that his wish was never granted.

As my father's illness, Parkinson's disease, progressed, I used to pray, "Please God let my father die before my mother - and, if not, help me to look after him." It is a good thing that God did not answer the first part of that petition. It became clear that my mother would have found it impossible to cope with the later stages of my father's illness. She would have expected me to put my father into care. This would have been extremely difficult for me to do. It would have broken my heart. In the event my mother died first and God helped me to look after my father.

Even Jesus prayed a hybrid prayer like mine: "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." Lk22v42. If God had spared his son the shocking events that led to his death Jesus' glory would have been diminished and the human race left without hope.

(C) The requests God does answer.

It is interesting that Jesus implies that the very best gift the Father can bestow upon a believer is the Holy Spirit. Some pray for the Holy Spirit selfishly. They want the experience of being filled with the Spirit for its own sake - for Pentecostal exuberance, assurance, peace and confidence. I knew in my youth three elderly men who prayed without ceasing for the Baptism of the Spirit. It was a recurring disappointment that God never answered their prayer.

I believe the Holy Spirit is supremely a helper. We can ask for his help with confidence:

(1) In an emergency.

The man woke up his friend at midnight and disturbed the entire household because a traveller had arrived unexpectedly and he had nothing to give him. It was an unforeseen emergency.

In a crisis what we need above all else is a cool head and the ability to think rationally. I am sure the Holy Spirit helped to keep Paul calm in the great storm described in Acts27. With everyone close to despair Paul urged all those on board to take some food. He said grace and began to eat. We read: They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Acts27v36. (See Exposition on Acts27.)

Many years ago now I was on holiday with a couple of friends in the Austrian Alps. My friends wanted to join up with a party of Christian young people on holiday in the area. I decided to go walking in the mountains by myself. No-one could have been more poorly equipped. I had no experience of walking in an Alpine area. It was a beautiful day and I set off with no waterproofs, nothing to drink and only a bag of apricots to eat. It wasn't long before I was lost and confused. I thought I was higher than I was! I kept setting off on trails that followed the contour all of which eventually plunged downwards. I got so hot, flustered and tired that when I came to a precipitous drop into the valley I nearly threw myself off. Eventually I prayed and the Holy Spirit calmed me down and helped me to think clearly. I realised that I had to climb a lot higher. I did and eventually found the track I needed. But it was a close run thing. I only found the hotel where the holiday party was staying well after dark. It was a wonder I found it at all! I was totally exhausted. They gave me a mug of cocoa - that was all! But I actually felt a surge of energy as I drank it. Within a few minutes of my arrival the heavens opened and it poured with rain all night. The Spirit saved me from disaster that day!

(2) When we cannot help ourselves.

The man in the parable banged on his friend's door because he couldn't help himself. He had no bread and all the bakers were closed.

There are times we come to the end of our resources and cannot cope. I can remember teaching a boy called Paul with no success. He used to flop over his desk like a jellyfish out of water. In the end I said to my headmaster, "I've tried everything with Paul - but I cannot get him to work. He has totally defeated me." I think Mr Crawshaw must have been surprised to hear one of his more macho teachers speak with such despair because from then on a teaching assistant sat by Paul in Geography lessons. From the day I admitted defeat the situation improved.

Moses often pleaded with God when he came to the end of his resources. At Rephidum in the Desert of Sin there was no water for the Israelites to drink. Their reaction was predictable! They grumbled against Moses. Then Moses cried out to the LORD, "What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me." Ex17v4. God gave instructions to Moses to strike the great rock of Horeb with his staff and water came out of it for the people.

One evening when it was time to put my father to bed he sat on the foot of the stairs and refused to budge. I was tired and stressed and so in the end I picked my father up and carried him upstairs. Unfortunately he resisted and grabbed hold of a banister support. I kept going! This resulted in a nasty gash to one of his fingers. A few days later I noticed that the finger had gone white. I was very distressed. I didn't want my father to lose a finger on top of everything else. I needed to get my father to the A&E department of the local hospital. However, he was so demented I didn't think I would be able to manage it. I was at the end of my resources. As I prayed to God about the situation a great calm came over my father. I was able to get him into my car, into a wheelchair and into A&E. Miraculously there was virtually no-one else there. A very kind doctor reassured me that the wound would heal. My father's strange calm lasted all the way home and until I put him to bed. God knew I couldn't take much more and came to my aid.

(3) To do the right thing.

This requires both wisdom and resolution. We are encouraged to ask for wisdom in James1v5: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.

I think it beyond doubt that we will receive help to do the right thing. The supreme example is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying about the shame of his rejection and crucifixion. Luke records: An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. Lk22v43. Despite praying with such anguish that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground Jesus resolve was strengthened to the extent that he went to Calvary and made the sacrifice to save us from our sin.

There are many instances in the Old Testament of individuals praying for wisdom and resolution to do the right. When Nehemiah learned about the sad state of the wall of Jerusalem he prayed for help to do something about it. He intended approaching Artaxerxes the king and prayed: "Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man." Nh1v11. Esther fasted and surely prayed for 3 days before going to King Xerxes to plead for her people - with such singular wisdom and ultimate success.

I have been given help to conduct difficult church meetings wisely, to negotiate tricky situations at school and to make the right personal decisions through prayer and the Spirit's support.

(4) For grace to make the best of things that cannot be altered.

The great apostle Paul was given grace to cope with innumerable hardships from his thorn in the flesh to imprisonment with Silas at Philippi. His eloquent passage in 2Cor6v3to13 shows grace triumphing over adversity: Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: ..... through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

George Chen was a Chinese evangelist in the tradition of Paul. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for preaching the gospel. His guards put him to work in the prison cesspool. He had to turn the human waste with a shovel to make compost. George Chen said: "They thought I'd be miserable, but actually I was happy. It smelled so bad that no one could come near me, so I could pray and sing all day."

I have witnessed Christians receive grace through prayer. Grace to accept the death of a six-year-old son; grace to cope with debilitating and painful illness; grace to overcome setbacks in Christian service; grace to bear with a chronically depressed husband. Mr Len Vincent, a member of our church, suffered with depression for years. One of my abiding memories is the sight of Len walking up the lane away from our little chapel arm in arm with his longsuffering wife.

We need to pray much as Joseph and Daniel must have prayed. Both suffered serious setbacks in their lives. Joseph was sold into slavery, thrown into prison through no fault of his own and languished there forgotten until sent for to interpret Pharaoh's dream. Yet, in everything the Lord was with Joseph.

(5) To serve Jesus well in whatever capacity we can.

Whatever we do for Jesus - preach, teach, play a musical instrument, arrange the flowers, entertain, clean, book the speakers, keep the accounts, cut the graveyard grass, visit or take the elderly to wherever they need to go - we will do the task better for prayer - our own prayers and the prayers of others.

(D) Advice on how to pray.

(1) The example of the man in Jesus' story.

The man made his request:

    (a) With confidence. He didn't think twice about it. He knew where to go for help and went there.

    (b) Boldly. The man's boldness was one of the reasons his friend got up. He hammered loudly on the door such as to wake everyone up!

    (c) With persistence. He wasn't put off by his friend's complaint: "Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed." v7.

The man proceeded as he did because:

    (a) He was approaching a friend. He wouldn't have dared knock on the door of an enemy. The man would only have tapped timidly on a stranger's door. Once when my battery failed I found myself knocking tentatively on the doors of strangers to ask help. No, the man came to his friend's door and that gave him licence to hammer on it.

    (b) He knew his friend had the resources to meet his need. His friend's wife had got carried away and baked more rolls than her family could eat.

    (c) He came in a good cause. He felt justified in disturbing his neighbour. A traveller had arrived - weary and faint with hunger. I know from my experience in the Austrian Alps what this is like. The exhausted visitor needed sustenance. The man was honour bound to be hospitable and provide something to eat.

(2) Our prayers to God.

Our prayers should be confident, bold and persistent because:

    (a) We are coming to a loving, heavenly Father who is better than any friend.

    (b) Our Father has the resources to meet all our needs. In the words of Paul: And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. Phil4v19. See also: Mt6v25to34.

    (c) It would be a terrible thing for God's reputation if his door remained shut in the face of our need. How can God remain inactive when one of his children cries out for help.

    (d) Persistence is a measure of how much we want something. God may not immediately give us what we need to test our faith. Faith is more important than bread. If the reluctant and imperfect friend responded to persistent knocking then, in the words of Jesus, "How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him."