Persistence in Prayer
What stops you from praying? I’m, of course, writing to those who profess to believe in the value of prayer, many of whom are vigilant in offering regular prayers for themselves their families and the church. But few of us pray as much as we ought, so the question still needs to be asked: What stops you from praying?
Speaking on a practical level, is it the late-night TV show that leaves you too drowsy to pray before drifting off to sleep? Of course, that makes for a hectic morning after as you rush to put yourself together before slamming down a cup of coffee and rushing out the door to work or school with little time for meditation or prayer. During the commute there might be some time for spiritual reflection due to the timely reminder of a Christian radio program, or there might be a mind already occupied with organizing itself for the first meeting of the day (or the last one yesterday!).
Instead of addressing the practical steps the disciples could take to rearrange their schedules to allow a better night’s rest and more effective use of morning quiet time, the Lord Jesus addressed a more critical issue related to prayer. Like all good biblical counsellors, he sought to pinpoint the heart of the issue that drove the practical choices. The parable of the persistent widow asks a critical question of all of us: Do we really believe that God is good and that Jesus is coming back? On the surface it might seem unrelated but, as we have learned, you act on what you believe.
Is it possible that we don’t pray more because we don’t actually believe it helps? Maybe you have stopped praying because of a long period of unanswered prayer that has discouraged you from continuing to ask. Maybe it’s that you’ve gotten the exact opposite answer than you hoped for. You’ve asked the Lord to take away some specific temptation to sin but that inclination doesn’t go away. You’ve asked the Lord to change a person’s heart but they continue to reject the truth.
Jesus explains at the outset that what he is about to tell his disciples is intended to convince them to continue praying, to always pray, and never to throw in the towel. He uses the story of a self-serving judge and a weary old widow to open our eyes to our own need and his willingness to meet it if we will pray.
The Parable of the Persistent Widow
Luke 18:1-8 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? zWill he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Consider the characters of this story. What kinds of disadvantages does a widow have in society? In the ancient world, she may not have had the physical ability to work and there was certainly no Social Security or Medicare program to prop her up. Beyond that, and this still holds true today, the rapid pace of an ever changing society makes it hard to keep up with “the system.” Have you ever tried to call a government office and been so lost in a maze of telephone menu’s that you gave up? Wouldn’t it have been far simpler if you could just have spoken to a real human being? Now magnify that frustration by one hundred and you probably understand what it’s like for a seventy-nine-year-old widow to figure out the internet-based prescription program she’s been dropped into!
The other character in the story is supposed to be her champion, but clearly isn’t. He’s a judge. He should be concerned with matters of justice, morality, and protecting the innocent. This judge, however, neither fears God nor cares about people. Makes you wonder what the basis for his judgments was? I suppose the only thing left is whatever is good for him and him alone! Anyone coming to this guy has a real problem! We should already be thinking to ourselves “That’s not what God is like….” If so, you’re on the right track.
God is governed by justice
He is the Rock, his work is perfect:
For all his ways are judgment:
A God of truth and without iniquity,
Just and right is he
God is governed by love
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Filling out this story, let’s take a look at the circumstances. Beyond the natural disadvantages of a widow in society, this one has an adversary. We don’t know exactly what the dispute is, but the word “adversary” seems to portray her as being in the right and the other person in the wrong. Did you know that this is the same word used to describe your own adversary, the Devil, who seeks your spiritual and physical destruction (1 Peter 5:8)? Do you ever feel attacked by him, oppressed by the world, or even overwhelmed by your own flesh and feel powerless to do anything about it? Do what this impoverished woman did when she had nowhere else to turn: go to the only One who can grant you the grace you need! Isn’t that what Jesus said the story was all about? That we ought to pray?
We don’t know the nature of the dispute. Maybe it related to her deceased husband’s property, or to a perceived debt. Perhaps some scammer was looking to take advantage. Either way, the response of the judge is downright deplorable! He ignored her as long as possible and only responded when he became so annoyed with her persistence that he was compelled to act FOR HIS OWN SELF-INTEREST!
This is where we have to begin to interpret and determine what God is saying to us….
Is he saying:
“Be like the persistent widow, if you annoy God enough, he will eventually give in and give you what you are asking for?”
Ok, so none of us would actually say that, but we might think
“God wants to see how sincere I am so he will wait and see how long I ask”
“If I don’t ask for something repeatedly until it’s answered, then I’ve not been faithful enough to deserve an answer.”
We ought to be convinced that God won’t respond like the judge in this story for two reasons. First, because his character is entirely different! Second, because we have a better relationship with him. Look at verse 7.
7-8 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.
Those are some incredibly wonderful words… if they’re true! Of course they are, but If you had any doubt or suspicion I would guess it is because of that one very last word: “speedily.” Does God promise to always answer our prayers quickly? He certainly seems to be indicating as much through this contrast with the unjust judge. That creates a tension unless we realize that what we call “quick” and what God means by “speedily” may not be the same thing. That’s where the context of the passage becomes so helpful. Back up and take some time to read Luke 17:20-18:7. Really. Go ahead. I’ll wait. 😊
Do you see how the passage on prayer is connected to the discussion of Christ’s kingdom? The disciples are anxious to know more about Jesus’s earthly reign that will transform the earth and his response is basically “don’t worry, you aren’t going to miss it! But while you wait, keep praying. Don’t give up hope. No matter how long it takes for me to come back, believe that I’ll keep my promise to you and show your faith by praying.” And didn’t this same Jesus say to John “Behold I come quickly”? (Revelation 22:7) Perhaps our perception of time is what needs to change.
In summary, God does not view his children as bothersome old nags. If you have burdens and concerns, if you cry out day and night for justice, if you truly believe that his appearance is the answer to all of our problems, then keep praying and know that, at just the right time, your prayers will be answered.