This morning we begin a brief series of messages on prayer. Prayer is not only one of the most foundational of faith experiences, but one of the foundational experiences of humanity. I read once that more people pray than believe in God. Isn’t that a fascinating fact? Prayer is so important to the human soul that it doesn’t even recognize the limits of belief.
This series will not answer every question you have about prayer or tell you everything you need or want to know about prayer. We will study passages about prayer and what those passages teach us specifically about prayer. If you would like more information, late in 2015 I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer, which covers a good deal more about prayer. If you would like to read through those messages, you can find them on our church’s web site – www.fccshelbyville.org. Click on the link for the Sermon Archive and you will find a list of topics going down the right side of the page. Near the bottom is the topic of The Lord’s Prayer (be sure and look under the “Ts” for The Lord’s Prayer).
For our Scripture text this morning, we turn to a story from the Gospel of Luke, often referred to as the Parable of the Persistent Widow.
1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.
3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think,
5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.
7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?
8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
There are three specific lessons from this passage that I will mention this morning –
1. Don’t give up. Don’t give up on prayer, don’t give up on hope, and don’t give up on God. Don’t give up.
This morning’s text begins with this note – Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. Why would he tell them such a parable? Why would they need to be encouraged not to lose heart? Not give up on what? Evidently, they had some of the same questions we have about prayer. This is our lesson from the parable – being faithful in prayer, never giving up, even when it seems as though our prayers have little or no effect or receive no answer.
Jesus often taught in analogies, especially in his parables. It is helpful to use analogies – or parables – to help us to understand complicated topics. This parable, however, is not an analogy, but one that draws a very strong contrast. The judge in this parable, in contrast to God, did not listen, and Jesus makes that comparison in an interesting way, because the parable mostly describes what God is not. Most of the time, when we offer a description, we talk about a person’s attributes – they are really nice, they are funny, they care about people, etc. Jesus doesn’t offer a list of attributes about God, but instead makes a comparison between God and the unrighteous judge, and it’s a powerful set-up that he uses. A corrupt judge and a poor widow. Can there be any greater contrast? I get the image of Snidely Whiplash in my mind; does anyone remember that cartoon character? I think he was on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show (how often do you come to church and hear about the Rocky and Bullwinkle show?). Snidely Whiplash tied Nell Fenwick to the railroad tracks and Dudley Do-Right would come along in time to rescue her. When I think of this judge, I can’t help but have the image of Snidely Whiplash enter my mind. In the words of Jesus, this judge was one who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. Who could not be moved to sympathy for this widow who is ignored by this low-down, corrupt, good-for-nothing, rotten judge? A judge should be one who will seek justice for the oppressed, a judge should be one who demonstrates compassion for those who struggle, and a judge should not be cold and indifferent to the sufferings of those he is commissioned to serve. But this judge was not interested in any of those positive attributes. The characteristics demonstrated by the judge are all the things that God is not – the judge is cold, uncaring, indifferent, and lacking in compassion. God, in comparison, is all of those things that judge was not – caring, compassionate, sympathetic, and an advocate for justice.
We must not, then, think this parable is telling us that if we are persistent enough God will finally be moved to action. Jesus is very adamant in saying that is not God’s nature. But it’s interesting that it is prayer that makes God look bad to some people. It is the perceived inaction on the part of God that causes some people to simply give up on prayer, on faith, and on God. Jesus answers none of those challenges and one of the questions we have about prayer in this parable; he simply encourages us not to become weary and not to fall prey to the temptation of giving up on prayer or God.
There are those who would mock the very idea of believing in prayer. There are those who believe prayer is a fool’s errand. They would have us to believe we are wasting our time and that our prayers fade away into nothingness as quickly as the breath that carries our prayers from our lips. We must, however, trust that our prayers are an affirmation of the faithfulness of God, and affirmation of our faithfulness to him. Faithfulness is not contingent upon our getting what we want. Faithfulness is not dependent upon life being always good. Faithfulness does not require that every prayer be answered in the way that we desire.
Let’s acknowledge that life is tough, and there are many times we simply want to give up on many things. We become overwhelmed with the stresses and the pressures of life and we often wonder how we will manage to get through them. We open the mailbox and discover a stack of bills to add to a big stack of bills on our desk that demands attention, and we wonder how we will ever get ahead. We have strained relationships, maybe with parents, or children, or a spouse, and we wonder if the relationship will ever be what it once was. We go to work, where we’ve been a hardworking and faithful employee, and suddenly learn of the possibility of relocating, or worse yet, downsizing, and we worry about how we will take care of our families.
One of the functions of prayer is that we are given an opportunity to pour out everything on our hearts and minds to God. It’s like a pressure valve where we can pour out all of our worries and concerns, and in that way is a bit like getting on the counselor’s couch. Most people, when they are going through struggle, want some answers, but what is also needed is the opportunity to talk and to know that someone is listening. Have you ever had the experience of a friend talking to you about their problems; they talk and talk and you say very little, but at the end of the conversation they remark, you’ve helped me so much! And you wonder how you helped them when you said almost nothing, but it is the act of listening that is so important. Pray away, talk away – God is listening.
If you haven’t received the answers you desire, don’t give up; don’t quit. If you look and yet fail to find any logic to what God is doing in your life, don’t give up; don’t quit. If your life is not going the way you had hoped, don’t give up; don’t quit.
2. God is always working on our behalf, whether or not we see or understand.
I was riding with a friend of mine one time, and I was in a hurry to get to our destination. A big hurry. A really, really big hurry. He told me he knew a way that would save us time and I wouldn’t have to worry about being late. Now, my friend is one of those who does not tend to get in a hurry, and he is more of a back road kind of person while I’m more of an interstate kind of person. I was skeptical, to say the least. He took me down roads I didn’t know existed, and I was certain our journey would take at least twice as long as necessary. We were so far off the beaten path that I was sure at one point we passed the St. Louis arch, and I took several opportunities to tell him what I thought about his choice of routes. I would shift my feet and look time and again at my watch as a reminder to him that we were running far behind schedule (by the way, I see when you’re looking at your watch, more as a reminder to me to watch the time. If you haven’t noticed, there is a big clock on the back wall of the sanctuary so I can keep up with the time!) But, amazingly, we arrived on time and sooner than we would have it we had taken my preferred route. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. I couldn’t see any sense to his route while we traveled, but he was right. I couldn’t see any of that on the journey, but I eventually did.
What’s interesting about this passage is that it gives us no instruction about the content of our prayers and it doesn’t tell us how to pray. What we get is Jesus encouraging us to continue to pray even when it seems there are no answers. What Jesus tells is not so much how to pray, but of the nature and character of God. This is important because any question of prayer is, in essence, a question about the character of God. Does God care? Does God have the power to effect change? Does he?
You see, when we talk about prayer, when we think about prayer, when we pray, there is an underlying, unspoken question lurking in our minds and it is this – will God be faithful to not only hear my prayers but to act upon them? We believe God hears our prayers, but we can’t help but wonder at times – will God answer my prayer? That is no small question, especially in light of the fact that some people will walk away from their faith and walk away from God because they believe God did not answer their prayer or did not answer in the way they desired.
Just because we do not understand how God is working does not mean that he is not working on our behalf. Just because we cannot see how God is working, does not mean he is not working on our behalf. We don’t always know the greater purpose of God, but we can know this – God is always, always, forever working on our behalf. Always.
And so this passage is an interesting twist on the usual question, which is will God be faithful and answer our prayers? But the question raised by the passage is this – will we remain faithful, regardless of how God answers our prayers?
3. Prayer seeks to give us God’s perspective.
Philip Yancey has many helpful things to say about prayer, among them this quote –
Prayer has become for me much more than a shopping list of requests to present to God. It has become a realignment of everything. I pray to restore the truth of the universe, to gain a glimpse of the world, and of me, through the eyes of God. In prayer I shift my point of view away from my own natural selfishness. I climb above the timberline and look down at the speck that is myself. I gaze at the stars and recall what role I or any of us play in a universe beyond comprehension. Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view.
— Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? p. 29.
One of the reasons why prayer can sometimes be difficult is because it asks us to see things from God’s perspective, and that is no easy task for us. We see life and the world mostly from our perspective. If you are a parent, you know how quickly your perspective on life changes the moment your child is born. It’s not a gradual change in perspective; it’s immediate. When they wrap that precious little baby in a blanket and place it in your arms it is at that very moment that everything changes, including your perspective on life. In a single moment, you immediately understand why your parents said and did the things they said and did. You look at that precious little baby and say to yourself, I will do anything for this child. I would die for this child. God is no different. We are God’s children, and God’s expression is to do anything for us, even to die for us! As human parents, with all of our love and devotion and faithfulness to our children, it is but a pale reflection of the love and devotion and faithfulness that God has for us and exhibits to us.
C. S. Lewis wrote that when I pray it doesn’t change God; it changes me. May our prayers change us into the people God desires us to be and the people he created us to be – people who may have questions but remain faithful, people who may struggle but never quit, and people who may lose heart but never, ever give up.
Never give up! Never give up on prayer, never give up on hope. Never give up!