The simplest definition of importunity is persistent and urgent asking. Importune prayer then is persistent and urgent; it is prayer that pleads with God and asks Him repeatedly for the things we need.
This kind of praying may seem selfish and perhaps childish, but it really isn’t because it is prayer in the will of God and is usually for others instead of self. In fact, the source of this kind of prayer is right from the heart of God. It is how the Holy Spirit pleads and prays for us (Rom. 8:26). It is how God persistently and urgently seeks us out, speaks to us, and constantly seeks to help us and love us (Jer. 31:3, Jn. 6:44). Thus, when I pray with importunity, I pray for myself and for others the same way and with the same heart as the Holy Spirit does. I follow after His prayers. I pray after His desire and heart. True importune prayer then is prayer that is drawn by God and that follows after God. It is prayer that is aroused and energized by the Holy Spirit and that moves our soul toward God and presses our desires upon Him repeatedly with urgency and perseverance, but also with patience and waiting until our prayers are heard and answered.
That in a nutshell is the definition and source of importunity in prayer. Now we will broaden that definition as we look at how it is described and demonstrated in scripture.
The Parable of the Importunate Friend (Luke 11:5-10)
And He said to them, “Which of you shall have a friend, and go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; 6 for a friend of mine has come to me on his journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within and say, ‘Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give to you’? 8 I say to you, though he will not rise and give to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs.
9 “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”
I picked this parable first because I believe it best describes what importunity is. There are at least four different facets of importunity in this parable. Let’s take a look at them.
1. Importunity is an appeal to the friendship of God for our friends. As we see in this story, a man goes to his friend at midnight to ask for bread for another friend in need. Here God represents the friend that the man goes to for bread. Therefore, when we go to prayer on behalf of a friend, we must always appeal to God as a friend.
And we go to Him and have hope in our importune prayers not only because we believe He is our friend but also because we are confident that He is a friend of our friend—the one we care about and are asking Him to help. He in fact is a better and more faithful friend to the needy then we are. As Andrew Murray has said, “When we go to God as a friend of the poor and the perishing, we can count on His friendliness.” This knowledge of the friendship of God is the hope and endurance of our importunity. It is what keeps us asking.
2. Importune prayer goes beyond friendship. We can certainly place our hope in God as a friend; we can rely on Him to answer our prayers because He is our friend and because we have befriended the poor. But importune prayer doesn’t have its primary basis on friendship. Its real basis comes from the urgency of the need and the persistence of our asking on behalf of that need. Hence, in the story the friend did not get up and give to the man on the basis of his friendship but because of his persistence based on his great need. Therefore, I believe that the teaching here is that we ought not to place our hope in answers to prayers solely on the basis that God is our friend, but rather on the basis of our importunity.
3. Importune prayer keeps asking with a shameless boldness. In the parable, the man went to his friend at midnight and kept asking him for bread until, finely, he got up and gave him as much as he needed. I think we can see clearly here that when the man came asking for bread he didn’t come with any reluctance, that is, with any guilt, embarrassment, or unworthiness because of the lateness of the night. No, he didn’t think of himself at all. He thought only of his poor friend in need of food. So he came boldly, without shame, expecting food from a good friend. This I believe is the heart of importunity—to have no regard for ourselves, but to be so caught up with the needs of another that we think only of that need and how our friend God can fill it.
4. Importune prayer keeps increasing in intensity. Immediately after Jesus told the parable He explained the meaning of persistence in prayer—to keep asking, seeking, and knocking (vv. 9 and 10). Hence, He explained that this was how the man asked for bread, with this kind of intense persistence. Therefore this is what true importunity is: to first ask; then with more persistence, to seek; then with even more persistence and intensity, to knock. Asking is where prayer begins. Seeking intensifies our prayer and keeps it going. Knocking keeps it going even stronger until we receive what we ask for.