By Rankin Wilbourne, Lead Pastor
If God knows all things and if God desires to give His children good things and if God hears us the first time that we pray, then why does God ask us to persist in prayer? Is there a time we should give up and stop asking?
I heard a sermon recently from a renowned preacher, in fact, a professor of preaching, speaking on Luke 18 who insisted that the point of the parable is NOT that we should persist in prayer. His explanation, while artful, was not convincing. The great masters of prayer have always been clear on this point: we should persist in prayer until we have an overwhelming reason not to. P.T. Forsyth wrote, “Prayer is never rejected so long as we do not cease to pray. The chief failure of prayer is its cessation.” But even more convincing than Forsyth is the New Testament’s insistence, Jesus’ insistence, that we persist in prayer. Two parables of Jesus make the point.
The first is from Luke 18, the story of a widow who has been mistreated. Day after day she brings her case before a judge who “neither feared God nor cared what people thought.” The judge is at first indifferent to the widow’s request, but then he is compelled to reconsider because she refuses to take “no” for an answer. He finally relents, saying to himself, “Though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.”
Jesus’ point is not that God is like an insensitive judge who must be badgered to respond to our request, but that how much more will God, our good judge and father, “bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night?” That is certainly how Luke understands the parable, for he prefaces it with the words, “And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”
Luke’s choice of wording, “lose heart,” suggests what is precisely our experience in waiting. God delays in answering our requests and we are disappointed, tempted to give up, to lose heart. Which is why Jesus concludes the parable with a rhetorical question, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” suggesting that unanswered prayers test our faith. We meet that test when we keep praying and don’t lose heart, in spite of our frustration, our disappointment.
Another parable from Luke 11 makes the same point. Here’s the punch line: Jesus says, “I tell you, even though he (the neighbor in Jesus’ parable) will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your impudence (ESV) or shameless persistence (NLT) he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.” Jesus concludes, “Ask and it will be given to you.” God wants us to persevere in prayer.
But like that preaching professor, once you start to think about it, it might raise other, even more troubling questions: Why should we have to keep asking God for what He knows we need? Does God need to be nagged? If we don’t need what we pray for, it won’t matter how long we persist in prayer, nothing will persuade God. If we do need it, it is odd that we have to ask more than once or even ask in the first place. Jerry Sittser poses the question like this, “What kind of God would refuse to answer prayer until or unless he was pressured into it?”
Persistence is for Our Sake, not God’s
If we always got exactly what we wanted the first time we asked, we would inevitably begin to treat God as our genie, only summoned forth to give us our hearts’ desires. But that is precisely what prayer calls into question: What do you really want?
Persistence compels us to the true center of prayer, which is not something but someone. Persistence deepens our relationship with God and compels the heart to examine what it really wants most. Do you want God’s will? Do you want God even more than you want what you are asking for? If not, then for God to grant what you are asking for, even if it is a good thing, might be the most unloving thing God could ever do.
Persistence demands patience, waiting. This is the ground of spiritual growth, spiritual vitality, and health! Because our natural inclination is to use God and not to love God, only frustrations in prayer can purge and purify our desires. Henri Nouwen captures the idea beautifully, “you must be patient…until your hands are completely open.” Perhaps God desires to give you exactly what you have asked for, but only in a time and way that the gift can truly benefit you instead of harming you.
“I prayed for many things,” writes John Chrysostom, “and was not heard. For even this occurs to your advantage. Since God realizes that you lost heart and are indolent, and that when you attain what you need, you depart and no longer pray, God protects you with the pretext of need so that you may concern yourself with Him more closely and devote yourself to prayer.”
God uses persistence in prayer to purge our desires. God also uses persistence in prayer to mold, even transform, our desires, to change how we pray and even what we are praying for so that we gradually come to pray closer to the heart of God’s will. For example, you might have prayed for years for your child or your parents to have a good marriage. And it doesn’t happen. You watch them divorce, but over time your prayer changes. You begin to pray that God will use that failure to move them closer to Him. (I’ll reserve for another time a question you might have right about now: “What if that was my initial prayer – for God to save their souls? Why doesn’t God answer a prayer that seems so in line with His will?” Good question.)
The Apostle Paul prayed three times for a “thorn in the flesh” to be removed. He never tells us what it is, simply that it is painful, a source of torment, “a messenger of Satan.” When God didn’t answer his prayer as asked, Paul changed how he was praying. He prayed that God would help him to rely on God’s grace, God’s strength, God’s power, which was made perfect in Paul’s weakness.
No doubt you have your story of frustrations in prayer. Take heart. Persistence does not guarantee that you will get what you asked for, but it does promise you will get something better and actually closer to your heart’s deepest desire. God will answer your prayers. Perhaps not when we wanted or even HOW we wanted, but in a way that we truly longed for in the depths of our soul.
Most importantly, persist with God in confidence that He persists and has persisted with you. In Genesis 3, God asked Adam, “Where are you?” and the whole Bible is the story of God’s relentless pursuit of a relationship with us. God won’t take NO for our answer. The Bible daringly depicts God as the spurned lover who will never give up, the abandoned Father who relentlessly draws back his wayward children, sometimes with discipline but always with the cords of kindness. God never gives up on you, so don’t give up. Persist in prayer. As it was with Jacob, the LORD actually wants us to wrestle with Him, to wrestle in prayer, as if our life depended on it. Which it does.