Many times a day, I pray for others. It’s part of my job. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all of what I do—but I certainly do it often. And yet, I must confess, I have often struggled to know how to pray for myself.
Patients often confess this same sentiment to me, probably not understanding how much I might relate to it. I, in turn, pray for them, usually by calling back all the concerns they’ve named to me in our preceding conversation.
A dear friend of mine described prayer to me recently as an ongoing conversation between us and God. Yet if this is the case, it is certainly not a conversation between equals. It is rather a conversation between one with utter need and dependence, and the Other on whom they depend. It’s such a baffling dynamic that, at some point, most people have trouble entering the conversation at all.
In the Gospel of Luke, the disciples ask Jesus, “teach us to pray.”
His response is something we know well.
“When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”
But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to tell a parable. Suppose you are hosting a guest, he says, who needs food. You’re unprepared, and you have none. So, you go to the house of a friend in the middle of the night asking for three loaves of bread. The friend is already tucked away in bed. “Go away,” he says at first, “don’t bother me.” But if you keep knocking, because of your persistence he will eventually get out of bed and give you what you need.
And this is what prayer is like.
I can think of plenty of stories that begin in the (dark and stormy) night, with a knock on the door. Whoever is doing the knocking, they are usually bringing either harm or (mis)adventure. But in this parable, we don’t have thieves or imposters—just a desperate man in his hour of need who has no other choice but to bang on his friend’s door, pleading for help. And Jesus says that the host does not simply give in because of his hospitality. Finally, exhausted, he gets out of bed and gives his friend bread because of the friend’s “persistence.” Or literally, his “shamelessness.”
It’s a parable whose hero’s only feature is that he is a person in utter need. He is desperate.
There have been periods in my life when I prayed so little that, when I did pray, I felt like a stranger knocking at the front door of a former friend. I uttered these prayers in the darkness of confusion and depression.
I doubt that any one of my patients would ever imagine me this way. And yet, there I was.
Rediscovering this parable from Luke 11 has allowed me to see these prayers as some of the truest I’ve ever said. To approach the divine door with nothing but our need, we’re like this poor unprepared host in the parable. To find yourself in a state of need is perhaps the first prerequisite for prayer.
When we pray, we practice becoming like children—receiving gifts, naming our desires, crying out to our mother. We admit that we are totally dependent on God, needing to learn how to receive before we can ever give anything of real value. We also admit to the grief that we are not all that strong, and we cannot always protect what we love. So we rely on God to do so.
I pray quite a bit these days, and have a much easier time with it. But I am only able to pray with desperate patients because, at other times and in other ways, I have been desperate too.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. After five years on the East Coast, he now lives in Grand Rapids, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.