What is God like?

Luke 11:5-8 CEB

Throughout the gospels, Jesus uses parables to teach people about the Kingdom of God and the character of God. Parables are stories that use common, every day points of reference in order to make spiritual points. As a Youth Pastor, I often teach my students from the parables and one question that I always ask about every parable is, according to this story that Jesus is telling, “What is God like?”

This last week, my students and I studied Luke 11:5-8.

He also said to them, “Imagine that one of you has a friend and you go to that friend in the middle of the night. Imagine saying, ‘Friend, loan me three loaves of bread because a friend of mine on a journey has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ Imagine further that he answers from within the house, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything.’ I assure you, even if he wouldn’t get up and help because of his friendship, he will get up and give his friend whatever he needs because of his friend’s brashness. (CEB)

I will ask you the question that I ask my students: Why did the friend get up and give the man what he needed? The answer is a Greek word, “αναδεια.” (not the answer my students gave!)

The CEB uses “brashness.” The NIV translates it “shameless audacity.” The NRSV uses “persistence.”

Scholars disagree on what Jesus means by the word “αναδεια.” It translates as “shameless, impudent behavior.” And in most contexts this word is used as a very negative thing.

Why does this matter?

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells this parable in the context of teaching his disciples to pray. It comes right after what we know as the “Lord’s Prayer, which is perhaps the most formative teaching on prayer in the New Testament. What is Jesus telling us, his followers, about prayer? Traditional readings have told us that we are to be persistent in prayer and knock continually so that God, “our friend,” will get up and answer us. If Jesus is employing the word “shameless” in a positive connotation, then perhaps the lesson is to “shamelessly” approach God and employ any sort of undignified behavior in our petitions to get what we need. But if we, as Christians praying, are symbolically represented by the friend who is “shamelessly” knocking then are we to assume that God is symbolically represented by the lazy man who initially says no because he doesn’t want to get up? Is God the one in the parable who calls out to the one in need, “Don’t bother me” (Luke 11:7).

If we are to answer the question, “What is God like,” according to this parable, we might conclude that God is apathetic, unaffected and even lazy.

Consider a modern day adaptation of this parable: Imagine it is 2:00AM and you are at your lowest point in life. You are utterly desperate for someone to talk to. You have one friend who you know you can count on any time day or night. So you pick up the phone and dial their number. They pick up the phone and explain to you that they cannot talk because they are already in bed and have been asleep for hours now. So you break down crying, begging them to give you just five minutes of their time. You hear your friend let out a deep sigh, you imagine them rolling their eyes, but finally they say, “Ok, just five minutes because, gosh, you are embarrassing yourself!” If you are like me, I wouldn’t want to talk to them anymore. It’s better to be alone than be an inconvenience.

This matters because we are in desperate times right now. And when we are desperate, there is no question that matters more than, “What is God like?”

To answer the question, “What is God like,” from the parable, I want to make two contextual observations.

  1. Alan F. Johnson points out that this parable begins with a “rhetorical question and can be translated as follows: "Who of you who has a friend will go to him…”(Luke 11:5) this expression is used in the NT to introduce a rhetorical question that expects an indignant negative reply” (https://www.galaxie.com/article/jets22-2-04). To Jesus’ audience, the most obvious answer to his rhetorical question here would have been, “No!” We do not have a friend who would treat us this way, nor can we even imagine it.” In this context, we see that Jesus is showing his audience that this “friend” is the opposite of the God.
  2. I agree with many others (Johnson being one of them) that Jesus is using “αναδεια” in a negative context. This negative connotation of the word suggests that this sort of “shameless, impudent behavior” is not necessary with God. On the contrary, we are never ashamed or “too much” in asking God for what we need, (persistently or otherwise).

Therefore, Jesus is putting this “friend’s” response to the man in need in contrast to the response of God to God’s children in need. Consider the God of Moses who reigned down enough bread for every single person, every single day during the time Israel spent in the desert (Exodus 16). Consider the instructions of Jesus to his followers on how to pray, “give us this day our daily bread…” (Luke 11:3).

The message of the parable is not to be persistent before an apathetic God but to be comforted that we have a God who will never be apathetic towards us. The message of the parable is not to “keep knocking” to get what we need but instead that we have a God who will never withhold what we need. The message of the parable is not that we have a God who says, “go away, don’t bother me,” but instead leaps to respond to us.

“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!” (Luke 11:13).

Let’s return to our modern day adaptation of the parable: Imagine it is 2:00AM and you are at your lowest point in life. You are utterly desperate for someone to talk to. You have one friend who you know you can count on any time day or night. So you pick up the phone and dial their number. They pick up the phone and before you can begin explaining to them about your situation, you hear sheets rustling and keys clanging in the background. Suddenly, you hear a car engine start. You break down crying, as you realize they are headed to your house. You let out a deep sigh of relief as you imagine them rolling into your driveway. And finally they say, “Hold on. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

In these desperate times, let us approach a God who runs to meet us when we call and who promises to give us what we need and more. This is what God is like.