Topical Scripture: Luke 18:1-8
When I yawn, you want to yawn, don’t you? No one knows why. Scientists aren’t even sure why we yawn. We live in a confusing world, or at least I do. I don’t know why we drive on parkways and park on driveways, or call it “rush hour” when no one moves, or sterilize the needle for lethal injections.
This week’s news has me even more confused. The Chinese women’s gymnastics team apparently uses several athletes who are nowhere near the required 16 years of age, but Olympics leaders won’t intervene for risk of offending China. Russia signs a cease-fire with Georgia then continues its aggression. Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, but Hillary Clinton will still be nominated. And the first presidential debate of 2008 is hosted by a Baptist pastor in his church, just last night. Who would have imagined it four years ago?
There’s much about the world I don’t understand, and even more about its Creator. I’ve been doing formal theology for 32 years, but I’m still not sure how to understand the Trinity, or explain the Incarnation, or resolve God’s providence and our freedom. And I’ve long wondered why we pray to an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God.
If he’s omniscient, presumably he knows what I’m going to ask before I ask it. In fact, Jesus told us that God knows what we need before we pray (Matthew 6:8).
If he’s all-loving, he would want to do the right thing without being asked. Surely my prayer doesn’t talk God into doing the right thing, as though he wouldn’t have unless I convinced him. I might need convincing to skip dessert or join the PTA, but presumably God doesn’t need persuading to do whatever is best.
If he’s all-powerful, he can do the right thing without my request or permission. Why pray, then?
And why pray when he hasn’t answered your prayer the way you wanted him to? What are you still waiting on God to do? What problem are you waiting for him to help you solve? What relationship still needs to be reconciled? What circumstances need to be changed? What illness needs to be healed? What job needs to be given? What bills need to be paid? Why pray to a God whose answers you’re still waiting to see?
Let’s walk through Jesus’ parable, then see why it answers our hardest questions about prayer today.
Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem, most likely in the spring of AD 29. Along the way, Luke says that he “told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (v. 1). The Jews typically prayed three times a day—Jesus wants us to pray “always,” and never “give up.” That’s why the New Testament tells us to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Even when God doesn’t seem to answer. Especially when God doesn’t seem to answer.
To make his point, Jesus told our parable. It involves two main characters. First, “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men” (v. 2). This was a Gentile, not an Israeli; Jewish judges always worked in threes, not alone. This was a paid magistrate appointed by Herod or the Romans. He “neither feared God” as the Jews did, “nor cared about men” as Gentile judges were expected to do. These judges were notoriously corrupt, so that bribery was the only way to get them to act on a complaint or a problem. The person with the most money usually won.
Now Jesus introduces the other character: “And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary'” (v. 3).
Women typically married when they were 14 or 15, usually to men who were in their 30s. Men didn’t live many years after that, leaving their wives as widows for years to come. When her husband died, his property was inherited by his children or brothers, leaving his widow with nothing. As a result, the Bible continually commands God’s people to “look after widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Exodus 22:22 is clear: “Do not take advantage of a widow.”
But someone has. A family member has taken the estate and left the widow with no provision. Or someone in the community has stolen her property, or refused to pay her for services provided, or harmed her in some other way.
Their religious leaders discouraged the Jews from going to Gentile magistrates, preferring to settle matters with the elders and within their religious community. People usually went to them when they wanted the judge to do something the Israeli judges would not. Given the biblical injunction to support widows, it is likely that whatever wrong was done to this woman was permitted by a Gentile judge. The fact that this woman went to such a Gentile judge probably indicates that her adversary had done the same earlier, and that he had rendered the very verdict she is now asking him to reverse.
She “kept coming to him”—the Greek indicates continued, repetitive action. She has no money with which to bribe the judge, as she cannot even afford a lawyer to make her case. Her adversary has already secured the judge’s favor through bribes, political power, or social status. Persistence was her only weapon (Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible Commentary 1179).
Not surprisingly, “For some time he refused” (v. 4a). He wouldn’t listen to the woman’s pleas, or even admit her into the court. But then, “finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!'” (vs. 4b-5).
“Wear me out” translates a Greek idiom which literally means, “give me a black eye” and symbolizes personal shame, disgrace, or loss of face. The judge is not worried about physical assault, but he is concerned about his status and reputation.
The woman’s continued complaints will eventually engender the sympathy of the judge’s public. He will “give her a black eye.” There is no end in sight, so he gives her justice.
Here’s the point: “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?” (v. 7). Here’s Jesus’ answer: “I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly” (v. 8a). Jesus doesn’t mean that God will always answer our prayer “quickly,” but that when he does, he acts swiftly. In the meanwhile, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (v. 8a). Will he find people who are waiting on God in faith?
Trust God to do whatever is best
Jesus’ parable is a powerful example of a very common rabbinic teaching technique called the qoi whomer, literally “from the lesser to the greater.” If an unjust judge would hear a widow’s persistent pleas, how much more will God hear ours? In both cases, persistence is required. Remember the point of the parable: Jesus “told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (v. 1). But with God, persistence is needed for another reason—not to wear God down, but to receive whatever he intends to give.
Why pray persistently to an all-knowing God?
Not to inform him of your need, but to receive his answer. God gave you freedom of mind and will so you could choose to worship him. He has chosen to limit himself at the point of this freedom. As a result, he will not act in your life without your permission.
As Jesus said, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). By contrast, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). Praying persistently positions you to receive all that God intends to give.
Why pray persistently when God hasn’t yet answered your prayer? Because prayer changes circumstances, in ways you cannot see. He might right now be working to answer your prayer, but you cannot yet see that work. You’re needing a new job, and have prayed for one. Today God is engineering circumstances in such a way that a person is being promoted to the home office of her corporation. Then someone in her office will be moved into her position. Then that person’s job will be yours. It is going to take another two months for that process to become obvious to you, though God is working on the issue right now. You just don’t know it.
Why pray persistently when God hasn’t answered your prayer? Because prayer changes you. In prayer, the Holy Spirit is able to touch, shape, and mold you. In prayer, God works on you. Oswald Chambers, the great spiritual genius, said that “prayer is the way the life of God is nourished. We look upon prayer as a means of getting things for ourselves; the Bible’s idea of prayer is that we may get to know God himself.”
So pray persistently. Don’t give up on God.
Blaise Pascal believed that “all the troubles of life come upon us because we refuse to sit quietly for a while each day in our rooms.”
Gordon MacDonald adds: “I have begun to see that worship and intercession are far more the business of aligning myself with God’s purposes than asking him to align with mine.”
God is working in ways you cannot see or measure. George Mueller, the great minister and man of faith, prayed patiently for five personal friends who did not know the Lord. After five years, one came to Christ. In ten more years, two more were saved. After 25 years, the fourth friend came to Christ. He kept praying for the last friend for 52 years, then died. The fifth friend came to know Jesus a few months afterward. Keep praying.
When we pray persistently, God gives us whatever we ask or whatever is best.
There will be times when we don’t understand how that can be true, times when God’s delays are discouraging and debilitating to our faith and souls. There are times when the divine “no” seems harsh, times when the divine “wait” is intolerable. But our God is holy and perfect. He never makes a mistake. He always does what is best. One day we will see him face to face, and know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
In the meanwhile, persistent prayer is the way God molds and shapes our lives and eternal souls. Prayer is not so much about getting answers as it is about knowing God. It is about walking with our Father, communing in his Spirit, knowing him. Janet gave me a quote this week which says it well: “It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”
Where are you waiting on God? Keep waiting and keep praying. God is moving in your life and in your circumstances to do whatever is best. He is molding you and molding your world. And one day you will understand why you had to wait, and how his ways were best.
Perhaps this man’s experience will help. An anonymous Confederate soldier wrote,
“I asked God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn to serve. I asked for health, that I might do great things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for wealth, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might earn the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
“I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for, but all I hoped for. Despite myself, my prayers were answered. And I am, among all men, most richly blessed.”
So can we. This is the promise of God.