Jesus said, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
This doesn’t seem a very heart-warming image of prayer. But when we look closely we see that Jesus is not comparing God to the reluctant neighbour; in fact he is contrasting them. The positive point of the parable is that we should pray boldly. We don't have to hang our head piously to one side and place our hand on our heart and mimic feelings that we don't have. We just have to be truthful and persistent. Just as we have to clean our windows now and then, we have to clear away the accumulations of humbug from our prayer-life.
But what if our prayer is not answered? Our prayer is always answered, but not necessarily in the way we want or expect. Cyril of Alexandria (375 - 444): “Sometimes we pray without discernment or any careful examination of what is truly to our advantage. If God were to grant what we asked, we do not know if it would prove to be a blessing or an injury. By a thoughtless impulse of our fancy, we fall into desires full of ruin that thrust the soul into the snare of death and the meshes of hell. When we ask of God anything of this kind, we will certainly not receive it.”
In retrospect we can often see the wisdom in this. But sometimes we cannot see it. If we have prayed as never before for the recovery of a sick relative or friend, and the person dies, the question arises again, more intensely and personally than before, “Does God answer my prayer?” All we can do then is cling to the assurance of faith. God's providence for us takes us far beyond our own terms. God takes us beyond life and death. People speak of “finding comfort in God's will.” This does not mean ‘comfort’ in the ordinary sense of ease and good feeling. It means comfort in the original sense of the word: strength (the word comes from the Latin ‘fortis’: strong). God answers our prayer by giving us a kind of strength we never knew we had – or rather, a kind of strength we did not have till the moment we needed it.
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