Knocking at the Door

“CHRISTIANA began to knock . . . she knocked and knocked again. But instead of any that answered, they all thought that they heard as if a dog came barking upon them. A dog, and a great one too; and this made the women and children afraid. Nor durst they for awhile to knock any more, for fear the mastiff should fly upon them. . . . . Knock they durst not, for fear of the dog; go back they durst not, for fear that the keeper of that gate should espy them as they so went, and should be offended with them. At last they thought of knocking again, and knocked more vehemently than they did at the first. Then said the keeper of the gate, “Who is there? —John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part II

Even by the standards of 1678, the first volume of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is hostile to women. When the hero, Christian, discovers that he is among the elect, he turns his back on his wife and sets out to find salvation on his own. Though The Pilgrim’s Progress went on to become the bestselling book of the century (and of the next two centuries after that), readers expressed great dismay over the fate of Christian’s wife.

But Bunyan changed his mind. Six years later, he wrote a sequel, Pilgrim’s Progress Part II, chronicling the salvation journey of Christian’s wife, Christiana. Unlike Christian, who experiences an irresistible call to grace, Christiana sets out with her children to find salvation without an invitation. When she comes to the gate that begins the journey, she is denied entrance. So she knocks. When nobody answers, she knocks again. And she keeps knocking harder and harder until she is finally admitted. In the terms of Bunyan’s theology, she wills her own election because she refuses to take no for an answer.

The scriptures are full of people knocking on God’s door until they are answered: Jacob wrestles with the angel (Genesis 32: 23-32), Zipporah talks God out of killing Moses (Exodus 4:18-31), Enos prays until God blesses his people (Enos 1). And Job basically badgers God for 50 pages until He shows up in a whirlwind and kind of explains why people have to suffer. In today’s reading, Jesus makes this point directly as he teaches his disciples how to pray:

And he said to them, “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. (Luke 11:5-8, NRSV)

From this launching pad, Jesus gives the more famous line, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Luke 11: 9). The context of this line makes it very clear that, sometimes, it takes a lot of knocking.

The most remarkable thing about this whole passage is the way that it frames God’s motivations. To the extent that God is represented in the allegory by the sleeping friend—and this does initially seem to be the equation that the text creates—Jesus is saying that God responds to persistent asking more than he does to the merit of a request.

Even more surprisingly, the parable suggests that God is more likely to grant a request out of annoyance than out of affection or love. God, it seems, responds to annoying kids the same way that most parents do—by giving in so He can go back to sleep.

With good reason, I think, most people are hesitant to ascribe these all-too-human motives to God. We all know about squeaky wheels getting the grease, of course. It is something close to a universal principle of human behavior. And it is an absolutely reliable principle of organizational behavior too. Organizations want to be stable, and loud petitioners disrupt that stability. In all organizations that involve human beings, squeaky wheels do, in fact, walk away with the lion’s share of the grease. But we live in hope that God operates on different principles than the DMV—that, while the squeaky wheel might get the grease, it does not, in the end, get the grace.

But what if Jesus is not talking about God here, but about the human institutions that represent God to various groups of people? This would still be consistent with the parable since most people experience God in some kind of human community: churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and the like. These things are not God, of course, and they differ wildly in their composition, formal regulations, and authority structures.

But they are all human institutions that operate on human principles while trying their best to structure people’s relationships with the divine. When they get things wrong—and all human institutions get things wrong from time to time—their mistakes profoundly affect people’s relationships with God.

And only one kind of mistake is at issue in this particular parable—the mistake of excluding someone from our community who wants to be a part of it. One of the organizing principles of the New Testament is the continual expansion of the Church. Whenever the disciples find some group of people that they want to exclude—prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, lepers, Roman centurions, and even uncircumcised gentiles—they find Jesus gently (and sometimes not so gently) pushing them past their comfort zone to create a more inclusive community.

Some people, of course, conclude that they want nothing to do with a religious community that seems to want nothing to do with them. Some people, however, persist in knocking at the door. Sometimes this is a gentle, pleasant rapping during normal business hours, which most organizations handle very well. But more often, it is a loud, boisterous pounding in the middle of the night, and it is accompanied by insults and demands and words that we don’t want the children to hear.

We like to cite loud knocking as evidence that the knockers hate us and don’t belong in our homes. Only the wisest can recognize that the insults come from pain rather than hatred and that the very act of knocking indicates a profound desire to be included in the community.

When a religious community claims to have unique access to divine truth, it sets itself up as a gatekeeper to the Kingdom of God. When such an organization locks the door—when it limits access to the community for any reason and claims to do so in the name of God—it must expect loud and constant knocking at the gates it has created. It cannot then say, “don’t ask us to change; we represent the Lord.” This is precisely why people are knocking in the first place.

When an institution claims to be God’s representative on earth, it should expect to be wrestled with, negotiated with, petitioned, called out, and badgered by the people outside the gate. It’s what Jesus taught us all to do.


  1. Yes! Including that there is a disparity between the motives of the people knocking and how the institution views the knocking. We might struggle with that gulf forever.

  2. This reminds me of the parable of the unjust judge where God is compared to an unjust judge. It constantly rubs me the wrong way because it’s kind of core to our theology that God is a perfectly just judge. Yet, apparently we are supposed to be petitioning the judge or knocking at the door.

  3. Raymond Winn says:

    This article fits neatly into the lede of Jana’s article in today’s SL Tribune: “Fifty years ago this spring, Lester Bush published a groundbreaking article in “Dialogue” that carefully reviewed how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first came to ban Black people from holding the priesthood and entering the temple. In short, he found no evidence the policy was instituted by founding prophet Joseph Smith.
    “The 1973 article was influential for a generation of Latter-day Saints who believed the policy was unjust. It also shifted the thinking of Spencer W. Kimball, the prophet who would reverse it five years later. “

  4. Thank you, Michael, for the beauty and power of your sentiments. I have learned so much from this series of posts on the New Testament. It has helped me to read the NT with fresh eyes and new perspectives.

  5. Kristine says:

    I like this, Michael, but I’m not sure I buy it. The human organization is always going to be a poor imitation of God, and I think there are plenty of reasons why a person might need to importune God for a long time or even wrestle God that don’t require God to be capricious or inattentive. It often takes human beings a long time to know what they really want or how to articulate their true grievance. Which is just to say I’m not necessarily willing to follow you on “But what if Jesus is not talking about God here, but about the human institutions that represent God to various groups of people?”

    Yours is a possible reading, and no one could articulate it better than you do, but I’m not convinced it’s the most compelling possibility.

  6. Kristine–

    There is no doubt that the reading I am proposing is problematic in a lot of ways, some of which you articulate. It is a non-standard reading of the text, and, as such, is almost certainly wrong on many points, But there are still some reasons that I favor it over more traditional readings as both an interpretation of this particular text and of the context in which it occurs.

    The biggest of these reasons is that the metaphor works much better when talking about the limited human representatives of God than about actual God. I agree that there are many reasons that someone might need to petition God for a long time that don’t require God to be capricious or inattentive. But the capriciousness of the interlocutor is given in the text as a starting point for interpretation. Jesus goes out of his way to give a motivation for the actions of the person behind the door:

    “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.”

    In the parable, the homeowner gives the petitioner the thing that he needs, not out of affection, but out of annoyance. I can’t see any reasonable way to apply this motivation to God. It is just too inconsistent with almost everything else that the New Testament says about God.

    It is a perfectly logical way to talk about those who represent God, though. And the text assumes that those people really do represent God, and that they can legitimately entertain positions on God’s behalf. But they are human, and it makes sense to attribute human motivations to them. This is consistent with how the New Testament represents the dominant religion of the community. It is a true authority, but it has been so influenced by corruptible human motivations that it no longer serves the people it is supposed to be serving.

    The second reason I don’t feel comfortable with the more traditional reading is that, in my experience, most people’s lived experience with God always occurs through human mediators. And this is true of religious people in a post-Enlightenment, highly individualistic society with a strong Protestant tradition of theoretically unmediated communication with the divine. And most people still frame their relationship with God through and with communities and institutions.

    I am not convinced that the original audience of Jesus’s words in this passage would have any idea how to petition God directly for something without going through a human religious apparatus–the temple, sacrifices, the Law of Moses, the Torah. Those human-constructed channels were then, and in most cases are now, the avenues through which most people’s religious experiences occur. I get that, theoretically, we are supposed to deal directly with God. But that just doesn’t match my own experience with religion, and I don’t think that I am alone here. If somebebody honestly believes that a Church represents God, then petitioning the Church is the same (to them) as petitioning God, and would presumably be covered by the terms of this parable.

    In an organization like the LDS Church, the Church itself sees no difference between petitioning the Church and petitioning God. To use the most current example, if I have a firm belief in the church and wants to be accepted as part of the community, but I am also [fill in the blank with any category of human being whose participation in the church is limited or even completely forbidden], then petitioning the church to change is the only possible way that I can “knock on the door.” As human as the institution is, it mediates between God and my spiritual needs as I perceive them to be. To be included as part of the community whose divine claims I accept, then, I have to petition that community to let me in. And if that religious community really does represent God, then they have to be willing to listen to my petitions.

  7. Michael, but the parables telling of a God slow to answer is exactly my experience of God. No, I don’t see myself as going to God through community or institution in any way because I learned as a child not to trust. I never trusted people and church is people. god for me has always been outside of church, ceremony, institution. He is more nature than he is church. He/She is found in the ocean, the mountains, rivers and trees. Not buildings, temples, or any group of people. So, when I have begged and Begged God, and been ignored, until I finally get angry and yell at God, and then He answers. So, yeah my experience of God matches the parable, and is a very different sounding experience of God than you are describing.

  8. Michael, there is no category of human being whose church participation is completely forbidden.

  9. Jesus absolutely has salvation in mind for the types of people who refuse or feel unable to repent of the type of behavior they identify themselves with that you speak of. They will inherit a kingdom of glory through his grace.

    Exaltation seems less likely without turning away or at least desiring and trying to turn away from those behavioral based identifications.

    The progressive lobby of the church would do more well to opportune God for an answer about how those who seem headed for one of the lower two kingdoms should be received into the church. It’s clear Jesus would welcome them all the same.

    So what is a church to do that preaches exaltation and joint heirship with God to do with a person who intentionally embraces something less than God’s standard but is fit for a kingdom of glory nevertheless?

    I hope you can see I’m being stark in my wording to emphasize the dichotomy here. The church preaches certain kingdoms are of God, and good, and many will go. Do we involve those inheritors in our work or just ignore their reality?

    Difficult questions when the rubber hits the road.

    From a faithful , typical church perspective. What are we to do?

  10. Kristine says:

    Thanks for the elaboration, Michael. I will be thinking about this for a while!

  11. In my experience with Sunday School classes, discomfort with the apparent capriciousness of God is frequently reconciled by arguing that what’s really going on is that God is always ready but we have to change our hearts or minds or actions to be ready ourselves. In other words, repeated knocking is not about waking a sleepy God but about us getting it right. Like there’s a magic sequence of raps that finally works.

    That sort of interpretation supports the church saying only the right people with the right words get in. Of course I find that very troubling.

    By contrast, it is a common experience (at least so it is reported to me) that when people seek out God without an intermediary and without preconceived notions, remarkable life changing encounters happen. As though God was there all along just waiting for us to pay attention.

    The contrast between the arguing that only the magic rap works, and an ever present overflowing god-experience when sought, makes me appreciate Michael’s shift from God’s door to the institution’s door.

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