How Do I Persist in Prayer?
Welcome back. On Monday we took a question from Rose, a woman who has emailed us several times over the years. She emailed us the same brief question: “How do I pray for my husband to be saved?” It’s a question from desperation, and maybe from weariness too. So how does a woman like Rose not lose heart in praying for her husband over years — maybe even over decades? Pastor John ended his answer with a brief mention of Luke 18:1–8 — a great parable for those who need motivation to endure in prayer. But it is also a very odd parable. It has sometimes been called “The Parable of the Unjust Judge,” which is where one of the problems rests. How and why is God likened to a godless, unjust judge? Because of this, we often just prefer to call it “The Parable of the Persistent Widow.” That’s cleaner. But no matter what we call it, this remains perhaps the oddest parable Jesus ever told. Odd because of how many false correlations we need to untangle to understand it. That’s what we do today, in a clip from a sermon preached on January 9, at the end of the first week of 1983. Here’s a very young Pastor John, preaching during a pretty intense season of focused prayer for himself and for his church. Here’s what he said.
It’s one of the few parables to be interpreted right at the outset, lest we miss the point. Verse 1 of chapter 18 of Luke is the interpretation of the parable. “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Jesus’s answer to the question “How can you endure to the end and be saved?” is “Pray, pray, pray, and don’t lose heart in your praying.”
The parable goes like this:
In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, “Give me justice against my adversary.” For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” (Luke 18:2–5)
Now, don’t be offended that Jesus compares God the Father to an unjust judge. That happens several times in the Bible. For example, the most familiar one is that Jesus’s coming is called the coming of a what in the night? Thief, which is not very complimentary to Jesus. But clearly, when the New Testament talks like that, it doesn’t mean Jesus is the thief. It means that the point of comparison is suddenness, unexpectedness. So here, the point of comparison is not that God is unjust, but that he gives in to prevailing prayer.
Verse 7 draws out the lesson very clearly, which was stated in verse 1. “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” The answer, of course, is obviously God will vindicate his elect who cry to him day and night — that is, who always pray. Therefore, the point of the parable is cry to God day and night. Show yourself to be the elect by acting the way the elect always act — cry to God day and night. Or to use the words of verse 1, pray always and don’t lose heart. And if you do that, you will not become like Lot’s wife — in love with the world — and turn back into a pillar of salt. You will not be left in judgment as one is snatched away from your home. You will endure in faith and love, and God will vindicate you when the Son of Man flashes from one horizon to the other. So, always pray and don’t lose heart.
Pray, Pray, Pray
Now, what’s driving me this morning in this sermon is that this is the last day of a week of concerted prayer. So, we’re at the end of prayer week. That’s a dangerous place to be, according to this parable. “Don’t end” is what this parable is saying. If we end praying, we’re in trouble — deep trouble. Some of us this week have had a great time. I’ve prayed more hours in the first week of 1983 than any week in my life. And many of you have too. Now what? The word of Jesus to us this morning is, “Don’t stop praying. Don’t peter out. Don’t be fickle. Always, always, always pray. Cry to God day and night.”
“Jesus’s answer to the question ‘How can you endure to the end and be saved?’ is ‘Pray, pray, pray.’”
Here’s the way Peter put it in his first letter: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). The closer the end draws near, the more threat against the warmth of the faith of the church and the greater the need for persevering prayer. The pressures of worldliness will be so great as the end draws near that only a few will make it. After all, Jesus said, “The love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). I hope we’re among the number.
Now, how does this parable help us and encourage us to pray continually? The widow comes to an unjust judge, and she pleads for help. Evidently, she’s being oppressed by some rascal, and she’s helpless. And she asks the judge, “Vindicate me. Help me. Tell him to stop that.” And that’s us, right? The widow — weak, poor, no husband to stand up for her. Her only recourse is the judge, even though he is unjust, and our only recourse is God.
Not Like That Judge
Now, the argument of the parable is not, “Well, if you can get on the case of the judge long enough, he’ll try to get you off his back by vindicating you. Therefore, if you get on God’s case long enough, then to get you off his back, he will vindicate you.” You could interpret the parable that way, but there are two reasons why you shouldn’t.
The first is that that would contradict clearly Luke 12:32, where it says, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” He’s not reneging on any promises. He’s eager to give you the kingdom. But the main reason why we shouldn’t construe the parable that way is that there are two clues right here in the parable for the fact that God isn’t like that judge.
Notice in verse 2 that this judge neither feared God nor regarded man. And those two things are repeated in verse 4. “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet . . . I will give her justice.” Now when it says, “Yet I will give her justice,” that must mean that not fearing God and not regarding men are big obstacles to helping the widow, right? If you don’t fear God, it’s an obstacle to get over to help her. He gets over it by ulterior motives. But notice first, he doesn’t fear God. And if fearing God is an obstacle to helping the widow, then presumably, if you did fear God, you would incline naturally to help the widow, right?
That must mean that God isn’t at all like this judge because, if he inclines the people who fear him to give to the widow liberally and quickly, he must be that kind of God. And so, by saying that this judge doesn’t fear God and, therefore, doesn’t answer her readily, he shows that God isn’t at all like the unjust judge. And so, the argument of the parable is an argument from lesser to greater. If, by knocking on the door of the judge who doesn’t have an ounce of justice in his body, you can still get your answer, how much more, by knocking on God’s door continually, will you most certainly be answered, because he’s not like that judge at all?
Voices God Knows
The second thing it says about the judge is that he has no regard for man. Now we need to ask, Since he doesn’t know this widow and, therefore, doesn’t care about her at all — has no regard to her — is God like that when we approach him and pray to him? Verse 7 makes it very, very clear that that’s not the case, because it says, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?”
“In Jesus’s mind, prayer and faith stand and fall together.”
See that word elect? That’s a dynamite word. That means, when we come to God and pray to him, we’re not coming like a stranger, a widow whom he doesn’t know or care about. He has chosen us, elected us, set his favor upon us, adopted us into his family, made us his children. When we knock on the door and say, “It’s me,” it’s very different than when a strange widow knocks on an unjust judge’s door and says, “It’s me” — and he answered, “Who?”
God knows our voice. We’re his children. We’re the chosen. We’re the elect. And therefore, Jesus argues from lesser to greater: if an unjust judge who has a stranger, whom he doesn’t care about at all, knocking on his door will give in to her, how much more will God, who not only knows us but chose us, loves us, adopts us, readily and lovingly answer our request?
So, the parable is intended to encourage us to get on with the business of praying because we have such a hopeful prospect of being answered. When Jesus asks at the end of the parable in verse 8, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” that could be also phrased like this: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find that we have kept praying, or not?” Evidently, in Jesus’s mind, prayer and faith stand and fall together.