I was in a meeting with Christian leaders recently when the subject of prayer came up. One person mentioned that we really need to be praying, and you could sense a general agreement. If you looked a bit closer, though, you could sense something else: guilt. That guilt went away as one person confessed how difficult they found it to pray. Someone else joined in and mentioned that he had heard a respected Christian leader confess to still finding prayer to be very difficult. You could see the look of relief on faces around the room.
It's a dirty secret, something most of us have in common. We know we ought to be praying. We want to be people of prayer. Yet, at the same time, we struggle in our prayers lives. We feel guilty about it, and we think we're alone. Some of you might find prayer easy, but for most of us, this is our reality. We know we should pray, but we don't always feel like praying.
Today, I want to take a bit of the guilt away from you. You should know that you have something in common with the rest of us if you find prayer to be difficult. You're not alone. I'm going to be speaking on prayer today, and I can assure you that you don't need to brace yourself for the guilt trip. Prayer is difficult for a lot of us, and it doesn't seem to get any easier.
I have even better news for you. Jesus Christ himself acknowledged that prayer is hard. The passage we're going to look at today is found in Luke 18. It's one of the many parables that Jesus told - stories with a message. This is a parable with a difference. With most of the parables, you need to read the parable and look for the clues to what it might mean. Those who originally heard the parables often scratched their heads looking for the meaning. Occasionally, Jesus would explain the meaning to his followers after he told the parable. This parable is unique, because right at the beginning of the parable, we're told what the point is.
Luke 18:1 says, "One day Jesus told his disciples a story to illustrate their need for constant prayer and to show them that they must never give up." First purpose: to illustrate our need for constant prayer. Check. That's just what you'd expect Jesus to say. We need to pray. We can't argue with that fact, but if Jesus had stopped there, we might have been left feeling guilty.
There's a second purpose: "to show them that they must never give up." When I read this, I realize that Jesus knew exactly where we live. We're always tempted to give up on prayer. We know we ought to do it, but really, we don't understand it, and at first glance it seems to be the least effective way to respond to many situations. We never say this out loud, but it's exactly why we find it hard to pray. What difference does it make? We know we should do it, but it's hard. I find it very easy to give up on praying, and chances are that you do too. Jesus knew that we would find it to be difficult.
When Jesus told this story, he was teaching on the difficulties that his followers would face. He predicted that the world would reject his followers, and that it would seem sometimes like even God himself was ignoring them. They would suffer for their faith, and at the greatest moment of need, they would feel like giving up on prayer itself. Why? It would seem like God wasn't even paying attention. It's in this very context that we need prayer the most, but we're also most likely to give up on praying. It's when we need prayer most urgently that we're most tempted not to pray altogether.
So what do you do when you don't feel like praying, even though you need it? This is a pretty good question, because it's exactly the situation that we will face many times in our lives. We'll be at the end of our rope, with nowhere else to turn, and at that very moment it will seem like turning to God won't make a difference either. It won't remove the problem. The diagnosis will still stay the same. The circumstances won't become any more favorable, at least as far as we can tell. Why should we then pray?
Jesus doesn't answer with an argument. He answers with a simple story with two characters. It's not hard, given the clue that we've been given in verse one, to make sense of this story, except that there's a surprise twist in the story. Let's look at the first of the two characters.
Luke 18:2 says, "There was a judge in a certain city...who was a godless man with great contempt for everyone." The judicial system in Jesus' day was different from ours. They had a high religious court, but it was inaccessible to the average person. It would take incredible effort and great patience to have your case heard before the high court. So, they also had civil judges. The civil judge was a local administrative official who could settle cases quickly and was much more accessible. This one, though, was corrupt. He was "a godless man with great contempt for everyone." Hardly a very likable character.
The second character is introduced in verse 3: "A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, appealing for justice against someone who had harmed her." Here you've got a widow. Chances are we're not talking about an old lady. This was back at a time in which the age people didn't live as long as today. Regardless of her age, she was part of the most vulnerable and helpless group of society at that time. We don't know what her case was about, but we do know that her situation was bleak, and she had nowhere else to turn. The judge, on the other hand, probably had a docket full of widows. Because he was so accessible, he was probably besieged with cases like the widow's, and couldn't afford to become too concerned about a particular case. He did his job, but beyond that, he really didn't care.
You can already see where this is going. It's pretty obvious to see that the widow in this story is supposed to correspond to us. While it's not flattering to be compared to someone who is helpless and has nowhere else to turn, it's often true. We often have the illusion of control, but we've all been in situations in which things are completely out of our hands, and we've got nowhere to turn but God.
So what should we do? Verses 4 and 5 say, "'The judge ignored her for a while, but eventually she wore him out. 'I fear neither God nor man,' he said to himself, 'but this woman is driving me crazy. I'm going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!'" Here's where it gets a little discouraging. If you just walked away at this point, you'd conclude that the point of this story is that yes, prayer is hard, but the secret to effective prayer is to badger God until he gets so tired of us that he gives in. I don't know about you, but that doesn't make me feel like praying too much. If this is the point of the story, then God is a reluctant judge who is overwhelmed with prayer requests, and gives into those who bug him the most so he can get rid of them. It's hard to want to pray if God is like that.
Let's back up a little and look at the two characters again. I think we can conclude that the widow in this story is like us.
Like the widow, we need persistence
It's here that we can remind ourselves that prayer does take persistence. We don't pray simply because we feel like it. There are many times when prayer is the last thing we feel like doing. There are going to be times that we feel like giving up with praying, and Jesus acknowledges that. It's at these points that we can be honest and yet persistent in our prayers and pray even when we don't feel like it.
The widow's situation was unfavorable, and this story was told to a group of Christ's followers who were also going to face very unfavorable circumstances. We could safely predict that this is going to be true of us as well. Like the widow, we are going to be in spots in which we are vulnerable and without resources. There are going to be times that we have nowhere to turn but God for help.
Like the widow, too, there are going to be times when we cry out for help and nothing seems to happen. I don't know how many times I've prayed about something, and it doesn't seem that anything has changed. I know all the things we say when this happens: that God always answers prayer, but sometimes he says no. I know that. But it's still hard. There are going to be times when circumstances are unfavorable and we have nowhere to turn but God, but it seems like God himself is not even paying attention. So our situation is very similar to that of the widow.
It's here that we find a little twist in the story. Jesus says in verses 6-8:
Then the Lord said, "Learn a lesson from this evil judge. Even he rendered a just decision in the end, so don't you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who plead with him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly!
The biggest mistake we could make in this story is to make a one-to-one correlation with the characters. The widow does represent us in the story. There is a one-to-one correlation there. But when you get to the judge and God, you have opposites. The end result is the same - both God and the judge answer requests - but Jesus says that everything else about God is different than the judge. They are given as opposites, so we can learn how God is different from someone as crooked as the unjust judge.
Unlike the judge, God willingly answers our requests
There are three differences in this story between the judge and God. The first is this: God wants us to come to him. He really does. The judge in this story was only doing a job, and he really didn't want the widow coming back all the time. She was a bother to him. God never gets tired of us coming to him. He loves when we come to him. His docket is never too full. God really does want us to come to him with our needs, even (especially) when we don't feel like praying.
There's another difference. God never tires of us. You'll never hear God say what the judge in this story said: "This woman is driving me crazy. I'm going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests." God never gets tired of us coming to him. The point of this story is that we should constantly pray and never give up, and one of the reasons why we should constantly pray is that God never gets tired of us coming to him, even with needs. He invites us to come.
There's a third difference between God and the judge. The judge gave in only to get the widow off his back. Unlike the judge, God willingly answers prayer. He doesn't answer reluctantly. If even a crooked judge can find a way to do the right thing, Jesus says, don't you think that a good God who wants us to come to him, and who never tires of us, will "surely give justice to his chosen people who plead with him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?" Jesus answers the question with the answer we all need to hear: "I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly!" God answers prayer, not reluctantly, but willingly.
This doesn't answer every question we have about prayer. We still don't know what happens when we pray and seemingly nothing happens. But it does answer what we need to know. Prayer is hard, but we never have to doubt God's posture when we pray. God is not the least bit reluctant to hear from us, and he never gets tired of hearing from us, even when we come with our needs. God does not reluctantly answer our prayers. He willingly answers us. He won't delay in doing the right thing. Even when we have nowhere else to turn, even when it seems like all heaven is silent, we can know that God is listening and that God will willingly come to our aid.
If you don't hear anything else today, I'd like you to hear this: We should pray, even when it requires persistence, because God will willingly answer. I don't want to lie to you and say that prayer won't require persistence. It will. There will be times that you and I will still not feel like praying, but we should pray then anyway - not because we force ourselves, not because it's an act of willpower. We pray when we don't feel like it because we know something about the character of God.
What do we know that keeps us praying even when we don't feel like it? Because we know that God will willingly answer. It's because we know that, even when it doesn't seem like it, God's always ready to hear from us, and that he never delays in doing the right thing. When we are at the end of our rope, when we have nowhere to turn, God welcomes us to come to him, and he promises that he is there to listen.
There's one last question we need to ask. It's the question that Jesus asks at the end of this story, and it's a question that isn't intended for speculation, but for self-examination. In verse 8, Jesus concludes by asking this question: "But when I, the Son of Man, return, how many will I find who have faith?" Jesus asks, "What are you going to do as a result of this story?" Now that you know that God will answer, and that he will willingly answer our requests and meet our needs, will we have the persistence of the widow in our prayers? Will we pray even when we don't feel like it, not because we need to convince a reluctant God, but because we pray to a God who will willingly answer our prayers?
Tomorrow morning, we still may not feel like praying. But even when we don't feel like praying, we just might anyway, because God wants us to come. He never gets tired of us. And even when it requires persistence, prayer is worth it, because God is listening, and he's ready (not reluctant) to answer our prayers.