Persistence in Prayer
There may be another reason why God answers ‘NO’ to our prayers, and answers “NO” when he really wills to answer “YES”. God gives his “yes” to the persistent prayer. Some prayers are granted only as we persevere in prayer.
Let me read you three passages from the Gospel of Luke, the book that gives the most prominence to the matter of prayer.
Luke 18; 1-8 – The Unjust Judge
Jesus told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Vindicate me against my adversary’. For a while he refused; but afterwards he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect people, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out [blacken my eyes] by her continual coming’ And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says, And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night Will he delay long over them I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily.”
Luke 11; 5-8 – The 3 Friends
Jesus said to them, “which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend. Yet because of his insistency he will rise and give him whatever he needs.”
Luke 11: 9-13 – The Present Progressive Tenses of Prayer
Jesus said, “Keep on asking, and it will be given you, Keep on seeking and you will find, keep on knocking and it will be opened unto you. For everyone who continues to ask, receives, and the one who continues to seek, finds, and for the one who continues to knock, it will be opened. What father among you, if your son asks for a fish will instead of a fish give him a serpent. Or if he asks for an egg, will give a scorpion If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him’.
All three of these passages underscore the need for persistence in our praying. But that is a problem for us. Why are we to persist in our praying? Why doesn’t God answer as soon as we begin praying or even before we begin to pray?
If it is a problem for us, by the way, it was a problem for the Psalmists of Israel. Psalm 13 is typical of 40 out of 150 Psalms that wonder why God is so slow in answering our prayers.
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemies prevail over me?
That is the problem. Why does God take so long to answer some of my prayers, and why does Jesus tell us to keep on keeping on in our praying?
It is not because God is reluctant.
Let me begin by insisting that it not because God is reluctant to answer our prayers. These 2 stories are not given to picture God as a reluctant Deity. They are ‘How much more’ parables. If persistence works as it does, on a grouchy neighbour, how much more effective with God who neither slumbers nor sleeps, and whose heart is moved by the needs of his children. If persistence works, as it does, with an unfair judge, how much more with God the judge of all the earth, who always does right.
Yet these stories indicate that there is a place for persistence with God. That still raises the question “Why?” Is it that we must badger and harass God before he answers? Must he be cajoled and convinced before he says “yes.”
God is not reluctant. Persistent prayer is not like putting an arm lock on God until he yells “uncle”. Nor is God a tease. I like to think that I have always been a good father to my three daughters, but memory tells me otherwise. When my children were young I would place something of value in my hand and hold it out to them. A daughter would try to pry my fingers open to get it. She would succeed for a while, as one, then two fingers, opened, but upon working on the third or fourth finger, the first one would re-tighten its grip and the process would go on, until I knew I had better open my hands or end up with a rather upset child.
Stephen Olford tells the story of the circus coming to a small town. There was a strong man who would squeeze an orange until all of its juice was gone. Then the Master of Ceremonies would offer $100 to the person who could squeeze out one more drop. In town after town young men would try, but to a man failed, until the day the circus came to one town. The strong man in his leopard skin tights had done his work, and then the offer was made for others to try to get more juice out of the orange. Several of the brightest and best tried to no avail. When suddenly a snicker went through the audience. A wizened old man started down the aisle towards the platform. In a quavering voice he said, “I’d like to try.” The patronizing M.C. said, “why not”, thinking this would be good for a few laughs. The old gentleman took the remains of the orange, straightened out his skinny arm and began to squeeze. Wonder of wonders, first a drop, then another, then a veritable torrent of orange juice poured from the crushed remains. Then the old man reached out his left hand for the $100.00 bill. The M.C. reluctantly handed it over, but as he did so, he said, “Can I ask you a question? How did you develop such wonderful fistic powers?” The old gentleman responded, “I am the treasurer of my local church.”
Is it that God has great fistic powers, and only gives to us, if we can break his hold? Must we have great fistic powers to squeeze anything out of God? Oh no! His hands are open hands, not fists. Crucified hands that embrace us all.
I remember with some embarrassment a sermon I preached on this same theme 45 years ago. I likened persistence in prayer to the stonemason who wishes to break a great block of granite down the middle. I told that long suffering congregation that the stone cutter takes his hammer, and strikes the granite block a blow, then another in the same place with the same intensity, and then again and again in the same spot with the same force, for he knows that if he persists that block will crack. I later came to realize that was not a good illustration. It made God into a block of granite that if you hit him often enough he’ll crack. Our God is not like that.
Then we are still left with the question “Why then must we persist?” A few reasons come to mind.
1. There is no power in prayer
Perhaps God postpones an answer to our prayers to underline that there is no power in prayer. “Prayer changes things” is the often-heard phrase. But prayer does not change a thing! God changes things. Prayer does not make things happen. God makes things happen. Prayer is asking, not causing.
In the ancient world prayers were seen as magical spells. If we chanted the right words, the gods had to give us the answers we were seeking. Prayers were powerful instruments to get the gods on our side, serving our needs.
And if we got an answer for every prayer we prayed, one prayer in, one answer out, we too would begin to believe in our prayers rather than believe in God. When we pray there is no guarantee of automatic response. There is no one-for-one correlation between asking and getting. We face God as a person, not as a vending machine. There is no power in prayer; there is power only in God who may choose to say “yes” or “no” to our prayer. Again, prayer is asking, not causing!
2. Our greatest need is God himself
There may be a second reason why we need to persist in prayer. George MacDonald tells the story of a little boy who runs away from home. About 3:00 p.m. he leaves home and starts out towards the end of town. He is mad at his mother. But about 4:00 p.m. he starts to get hungry. His stomach begins to growl. He has a change of heart. He decides to return home. He thinks that his greatest need is to have his supper. But his greatest need is for his mother.
We come to God with our requests. They are very important to us. And so we begin to pray asking for what we want. And for many of us, it is the only time we seek God.
I am sure you have heard the story of the Sea Captain, who in a terrible storm feared the loss of all lives. He asked if anyone knew how to pray. No one volunteered. So the captain, prepared to do a captain’s duty, agreed to pray. His opening words were, “God, I’ve never bothered you before, and if you help us through this storm, I’ll never bother you again.” That is hardly what God desires from any of us.
God knows that our greatest need is for Himself. If he answered our prayers immediately, we would become hit and run drivers. We would hit him up for what we wanted, then run off until the next time we felt a twinge of need. But, when our prayers are delayed then we spend more time in his presence and that is ready what we need.
Grocery stores use this method. They advertise some needed commodity at a very low price, a “loss leader.” They may lose money on the item. But the store knows that though most people may only come for the sale items, they will end up buying much more before they leave.
And perhaps God’s intention is that we come for our small requests, but leave with far more, as a result of tarrying. The greatest bi-product of our persistence is communion with God Himself. The highest form of prayer after all is worship, adoration, and fellowship with God Himself.
3. God desires to enlarge our desires.
There is a third reason why God may want us to keep on asking. God desires to enlarge our desires. C.S. Lewis says, “Our desires are not too strong, they are too weak.”
When we come to God with our request we often come very casually. We ask and then leave. When we do not get an immediate answer we return with the request but more urgently. The longer we do without what we need, the more we are aware of its importance to us, until like ancient Jacob we say “I will not let you go until you bless me.” If we really need something from God, we will find ourselves returning again and again.
It is God’s will to give us the desires of our hearts, not merely the requests of our lips. By delaying answers he creates a greater desire for that thing. God says “You will find me when you seek me with all of your heart.”
Easy come, easy go. If we get too easily the things we want, we may find ourselves not wanting the things we get. We may fail to value the gifts of God.
I am a book lover. Especially books by the Wesleys. I am the proud owner of a book written in the 1600’s by Samuel Wesley. It is over 300 years old. It is a large leather bound book with rich engravings. It is Wesley’s story of the Life of Jesus Christ written in poetry. I had to pay considerable for that book. ($140.00) (By the way it is currently offered on the internet at $1,500!)
That book was valuable to me because of its author, because of its contents, because of its cost, and because of its beauty. But when I think about that book one other thing comes to mind. It is loved because it was longed for!
Nelson’s Book Room in England print catalogues every few months of books they have for sale and mail them to thousands of customers around the world. When I first saw the book listed, I knew I wanted it. But because of snail mail from England to Canada, I just knew there were thousands who had seen the same book listed. I didn’t think I’d get it. But I checked with Amy to see if I could spend such a high amount of money on one book, then with her permission I sent off a letter saying, “I’ll take it!” And then waited, and waited, and waited. The nuisance about Nelson’s is that they never tell you if you are too late in ordering a book. It is first come first served with them. And so I lived in hope for days, weeks, months, wishing & hoping. Then one day, a package came in the mail. It was the book.
What has made the book so valuable to me was not only its contents and its cost, but my waiting had increased my appetite for it, and so it was received with significant gratitude upon its arrival.
It may be that God withholds answers to some of our prayers so that we yearn for the answer and then value that which has been given. God wants to enlarge our desires and increase gratitude in our lives.
4. Deferred Gratification is Good for Us.
There may be a fourth reason God may want us to persist in our praying. Our culture desires instant gratification of all its desires. We want sex before marriage, we want to buy things now and we will try to pay later. We want what we want, and we want it now. We do not want to defer gratification of our desires.
But God is in the character building business. He wants us to grow strong through the seasons of life. He wants to blunt the deeply rooted selfishness of our lives, so that we become the mature sons and daughters of God. If we refuse to develop frustration tolerance, we shall remain immature all our lives. God may say “no” or “not yet” to our prayers because we need to grow up.
God, says C.S. Lewis, is intent upon our “Extreme Makeover.” He writes: “ I find I must borrow yet another parable from George MacDonald. Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself… The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less!” (Mere Christianity, p. 160)
God has not come to simply repair what is damaged. That can be done quickly. But he is intent upon taking a hovel and transforming it into a mansion, and that will take time and significant disruption. Can we be patient while God makes a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?
5. It Is Not Bad To Live With Mystery.
God does delay answers to our prayers. Of that we are sure. We cannot, however, ever be sure if any or all of the above reasons are valid in any specific case. But knowing God, can we trust him with the mystery of his ways?
Paul tells us in Romans 11:33-36. that God’s ways are not revealed always and God does not answer the “why?” questions too frequently.
Job is never told why.
Jeremiah is not told why.
Habakkuk is never told why. (3:17-19)
And we too must live with mystery in this regard. We may never know why some prayers are postponed.
King George VI faced a great crisis in December of 1939. War was on all shores as Hitler and Nazism spread like a plague and threatened to bring on a new dark age. The King needed to speak a word of encouragement to the commonwealth. He read over the airwaves the lines of poetry written by a Mrs. Haskins. These are the words:
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “go into the darkness
and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be better to you than light
and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth and finding the hand of God
trod gladly into the night,
and he led me towards the hills
and the breaking of the day in the lone East.
When we do not understand why answers to our prayers are delayed, put your hand into God’s hand. And continue to pray for those things you know to be his will.