Why Prayer Requires Persistence
Scriptures: Luke 18:1-8, Luke 11:5-13
I got my first and only community theater experience in Potlatch, Idaho. In Spokane they had plenty of better actors to choose from, but in Potlatch they were glad to have me. One year we put on a Neil Simon comedy called The Good Doctor, and in one of the scenes I played a banker talking to a woman who came into to complain that her husband’s employer had wrongfully deducted money from his paycheck. In the scene I listen to the woman’s concern and nod sympathetically, then I say to her, “Madame, I don’t wish to be unkind, but I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. Your petition, no matter how justified, has nothing to do with us. You’ll have to go to the agency where your husband was employed.”
“What do you mean?” she shrieks. “I’ve been to five agencies already and none of them will even listen to my petition. I’m about to lose my mind. The hair is coming out of my head,” and she pulls a fist full of hair off of her head and plops it on my desk.
“Please, Madame,” I say, “keep your hair in its proper place. Now listen carefully to me. This is a bank. A bank! We are in the banking business. We bank money. Funds that are brought here are banked by us. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“What are you saying?” she asks.
“I’m saying I can’t help you.”
She scowls and says, “Are you saying you can’t help me?”
“I’m trying, but I’m not making much headway.”
Then she gets really upset. As the scene unfolds she waves a doctor’s certificate in my face, faints on the floor, and finally climbs up on my desk and puts a curse on the entire bank. Finally I say, “Stop! I beg of you.” Then turning to an assistant I say, “Give her the money. Give her what she wants. Give her anything, only get her out of here.”
And that, Jesus says, is how we should pray to God. An interesting comparison, don’t you think?
Last week Jesus compared being a disciple to being a dishonest manager. This week he compares God to a corrupt judge. But the point is not that God is a corrupt judge. It is a “how much more” parable. If even a corrupt judge will listen to the persistent pleas for help by a poor widow, how much more will God. We simply need to keep praying.
But why? According to Jesus, God knows what we need before we ask. So why do we need to ask? And why must we keep asking?
In a book called Holy the Firm Annie Dillard tells about living on Lummi Island on Puget Sound. She writes,
There is one church here, so I go to it. … On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty…. The minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world—for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all—in the middle of this he stopped and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much (quoted in Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God, 183-184).
Why must we pray the same things every week? Why must we confess our sins over and over again? Why must we pray over and over for peace in our world and healing of our loved ones? Why must we repeat every week these same words: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Didn’t God hear us the first time?
Beaver made this point last Sunday night at SPC Together, but let me repeat it. Prayer is not just about getting what we want or even what we need. Prayer is about building a relationship.
Notice what Jesus says in our first scripture reading. Verse 9: “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Sometimes people take this to mean that if we ask for something we will get it, if we have enough faith. But that is not what Jesus says. In verse 13 he says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” The promise is not that God will give us whatever we ask, but that when we pray God will give us the Holy Spirit, which means that God will give us God! That God will give us not what we ask for but the most important thing we could have: a relationship to the God who created us.
Jesus makes the same point in our second scripture reading, but in a different way. He says that God will grant justice to those who cry out to God day and night. God will not delay in helping those who cry out to God for help. “And yet,” Jesus concludes, “when the Son of Man comes [meaning when Jesus himself comes], will he find faith on earth?”
The question is not whether God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That is not in doubt. The question is whether we will have a relationship to the One who brings these things. And that relationship is built day by day, prayer by prayer, knocking again and again at God’s door, not so that you can get to God but so that God can get to you.
Let me close by reading a portion of a book by Frederick Buechner. Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister from Vermont and has written a book about key aspects of faith called Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. This is what he says about prayer.
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According to Jesus, by far the most important thing about prayer is to keep at it. The images he uses to explain this are all rather comic, as though he thought it comic to have to explain it at all. He says God is like a friend you go to borrow bread from at midnight. The friend tells you in effect to drop dead, but you go on knocking anyway until he finally gives you what you want so he can go back to bed again. Or God is like a crooked judge who refuses to hear the case of a certain poor widow, presumably because he knows there is nothing in it for him. But she keeps hounding him until he hears her case just to keep her out of his hair. …
Be importunate, Jesus says—not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there is no way of getting to your door. …
(And) when the prayer goes unanswered? Who knows? Just keep praying, Jesus says. Remember the sleepy friend, the crooked judge. … Keep beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if he does not bring the answer you want, he will bring himself. And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for.
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That is why prayer requires persistence.