When You Pray, Never Give Up
June 5, 2007
My goal in this sermon is very simple. I hope to convince you of the importance of persistence in prayer. I want you to see that God is greatly glorified when we continue in prayer over a long period of time. Or to say it another way, I want us to understand that we ought not to give up when we pray. We can say the same thing two different ways:
It is good and important that we not give up.
God is greatly glorified when we do not give up.
Not long ago I received an email that raised this question in a very particular way:
I teach a Bible Study course at my local church. The question that was asked, “Should I pray for something (believing the prayer will be answered) and then the next time I pray thank God for answering my prayer (although it has not come to fruition) or should I pray the same prayer request over and over again?”
Does it mean that if I ask over and over again I lack faith in God answering? If I thank him and wait, does that mean I am not praying unceasingly?
Or is it a combination of the two. Sometimes we know in our heart the prayer request has been answered so we thank him and sometimes we are led by the Holy Spirit to ask over and over again.
We’ve all wondered how long we should we pray for something. Here is the general rule I follow. You should pray for something until …
The answer comes, or
The circumstances change, or
God changes the burden on your heart.
We shouldn’t discount the importance of that third one. It’s hard to define a “burden,” but we all know what it is like to have deep concern for others. God may give us a burden to pray for our church or for revival or for the spread of the gospel in Thailand or for a certain city or for the people where we work. Burdens come in all shapes and sizes. We should be sensitive to those burdens and use them as incentives to prayer. But we need not feel guilty when our prayers begin to change. God may be calling us to focus our prayers in a new direction. Obviously we will always be burdened to pray for our children and for our spouse and for our immediate concerns. But beyond that inner circle, our prayers will change over time.
But what about praying for the same thing over and over again? Is that a good thing or a sign of a lack of faith? Let’s begin by noting that many times when we pray, we simply don’t know how God intends to answer our prayers. That often happens when we pray for a loved one who is desperately sick. We generally don’t know in advance if God intends to heal them quickly or slowly or if he does not intend to heal them. And when we pray for certain things to happen, we don’t fully know the mind of the Lord. I often think of prayer as if we are peering through a keyhole and focusing on one tiny portion of a vast and ever-changing scene. Because we focus only on the part that interests us, we can’t and don’t see the bigger picture of how the parts of life fit together. Only God sees the whole landscape of life–past, present and future, with all its interlocking pieces.
There is another whole category of prayer that might be called prayer for spiritual growth. We may ask God to grant wisdom, strength, perseverance, discernment, courage, deeper understanding, a fresh anointing of the Spirit, a new desire to serve Christ, clear guidance or peace in the midst of trials. Those are extremely biblical requests, and we may be sure that God will answer those prayers. But the how and when rest in the hands of the Lord.
The last part of the question speaks to a situation that happens occasionally. As we pray, together or with others, we may sense that God intends to answer our request. In those cases, I see nothing wrong with moving from prayer to thanksgiving. However, let’s be clear that God is sovereign and he is not held captive by our subjective sense of what we think he will do in the future.
I. Three Key Scriptures
I have been encouraged by three particular Scriptures:
1) “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:17 NIV). Note the phrase “I keep asking.” Paul did not believe that if you made a prayer request, you never had to make it again. When Paul prayed for the Ephesians, he prayed the same request over and over again–that they would know God better. Sometimes I hear it said that since God knows everything we say before we say it and everything we think before we think it (which is true), that we should never repeat ourselves in prayer (which is not true). We don’t pray to inform God of anything. He knows what we are thinking long before we voice our prayers to him. But if he knows all, why pray at all? The simple answer is one you have heard before: “He’s God and we’re not.” We pray to express our total dependence on him in every circumstance of life. As we continue to pray for the same things for our loved ones over and over again, the godly desires of the heart grow stronger and we are reminded that every day we must be 100% dependent on him. We can’t live on yesterday’s blessings and we can’t depend on yesterday’s prayers. So just like Paul, we “keep asking” on behalf of our loved ones.
2) “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 NIV). That means we don’t have to impress God or use big words or pray long prayers. We don’t have to repeat ourselves when we pray and we don’t have to worry about getting all the details correct or throw in flowery language when we pray. Since God knows us through and through, he knows our needs better than we do. He knew your need before you bowed you head. The Bible tells us that he numbers the stars in the sky, the sand on the seashore, and the hairs on your head. He even calls the stars by name (Psalm 147:4). Ponder that for a moment. Billions and billions of stars and he knows the name of each one. Think how easily you get flustered on Sunday morning trying to remember that person you met last week.
But God not only knows all the people in your church, he knows every person attending every church everywhere in the world. More than that, he knows the names of all 6.5 billion people who call planet earth home. But even beyond that, he knows the names of everyone who has ever lived and everyone yet to be born.
If God knows all that–and it’s not even a strain for him, do you think he going to be surprised that you’re worried about your finances or that you don’t like your job or that your kids are getting on your nerves? He knows your thoughts before you think them, your words before you speak them. So pour out your heart to the Lord. Nothing you say will surprise him.
3) “Jesus told his disciples a story about how they should keep on praying and never give up” (Luke 18:1 CEV). The King James says that men should always pray and not faint. Persistent prayer honors God because it expresses our complete dependence on him. Since God knows what we need before we ask him, we don’t have to repeat ourselves to get his attention. But that’s not the whole story. We all know from personal experience that not all our prayers are answered the first time we pray them. Sometimes we receive immediate answers, but often we must wait days, week, months, or even years before the answer comes. When I was in the pastorate, we had some people who prayed for years for their loved ones to be saved. I know because they filled out the same prayer request week in and week out. Is that a lack of faith? To the contrary, repetition is proof of faith. I would add that it sometimes seems that the more something matters to us, the longer we will have to wait for the answer to come. This is very often true when we pray for our loved ones to come to Christ.
II. The Persistent Widow
In order to help us understand this principle, Jesus gave us the parable of the widow who wouldn’t give up in Luke 18:2-8.
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.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
If you have ever known a widow, you know how true to life this story is. I can still remember the moment I realized my mother had become a widow. A few weeks after my father died, I was home from seminary for a brief visit. Just before supper Marlene and I were talking to her when she called the family to the table. As she had done for many years, she called out my father’s name, then she gasped, realizing he was not there to answer her call. No one said a word, but I realized that suddenly my mother was alone in the world. Widows had an even more difficult position in the first century. They were quite literally unprotected. Many became homeless and destitute after their husbands died. Often they were taken in by cunning con men, including some religious leaders who would “devour widows’ houses” (Mark 12:40), a sin that brought a fierce denunciation from Jesus. In order to survive a widow had to learn how to fend for herself in a male-dominated society. She couldn’t count on anyone to come to her aid, and she had to assume that others would quickly take advantage of her.
This is what we know about the widow in the story:
1) She had an adversary.
2) She couldn’t solve her own problem.
3) She was persistent.
4) She had a genuine need.
5) She got what she wanted.
This is what we know about he judge in the story:
1) He didn’t fear God.
2) He didn’t respect man.
3) He was unrighteous.
4) He didn’t care about the widow.
5) He was unwilling to help at first.
Evidently the facts of the case didn’t move him and he had no desire to see justice done. To him she was just another bothersome woman. And note this key point. His only motive for helping her was utterly selfish. He only helped her because she was persistent.
She “kept coming” and “kept bothering him” until he feared she would “beat him down” with her “continual coming.” From beginning to end, he doesn’t care about the woman, doesn’t feel her pain or worry that she isn’t getting justice. He only gives her what she wants because she keeps on coming and bothering him with her request.
In the morning it was, “Give me justice.”
In the afternoon it was, “Give me justice.”
In the evening it was, “Give me justice.”
Give the widow credit. She never gave up and she got what she wanted.
Give the judge a little credit, too. He gave her justice, even if he did it for the wrong reason.
It’s a simple, true to life story. The widow got through the uncaring judge and got what she needed.
III. The Moral of the Story
In order to get the lesson that Jesus intends, we need to understand two key points:
A. We are like the widow in need.
Our problems are two sizes too large for us. No matter what we do, things get worse. And there are times when the whole world seems to come crashing down upon us. We may go weeks or months or even years thinking we can solve our own problems, but the line between happiness is tragedy is mighty thin. It only takes one phone call to put us face down on the floor begging God to help us.
B. God is not like the unjust judge.
The judge was an uncaring jerk who lacked all compassion for the widow. He granted her wish simply because she kept on coming before him. But if that is true, why would Jesus use an illustration like this? He seems to be calling us to persistence in prayer by using as his example a man who is nothing like our Heavenly Father. The only way I know to explain this is to share something from my own experience. My own father came from what you might call the “old school” of parenting. Because he was a busy man (he was a surgeon with a bustling practice in the small Alabama town where I grew up) and because he was from a different generation, he wasn’t like the fathers of today. My dad came from another generation and followed another set of values. He always wore a coat and tie, he treated people with respect, he believed in good manners, and he didn’t think children should talk back to their parents.
But there is more to the story. Dad built a basketball goal in our back yard–and occasionally shot baskets with us. He took us with him when he made house calls to homes in rural Franklin County. He would sing “The Donut Song” and a song about a cow on the railroad tracks. To keep us occupied on long trips, he taught us how to play “Cow Poker,” which isn’t as exotic as it sounds. And we learned to love the Ole Miss Rebels because he took us to watch them play football 45 years ago. He was big on education. There was never any question that we were going to go to college. I remember during my high school years he would often come home late from the hospital. If he found us doing our homework, he would give us a quarter. I think I made 75 cents that way.
And he was “old school” in another way. Fathers of today often try to be buddies and pals to their children. They want to come down to their children’s level and be best friends with them. My dad would have been mystified by that approach. Parents are parents, kids are kids, and the world works best when we all remember where we belong. Dad didn’t come to my parties–and I didn’t go to his. He knew my friends, and they all said, “Hello, Dr. Pritchard,” when they saw him. Sometimes he would stop and chat for a moment–but only for a moment. Dad was not my best friend; he was my father. And there is a huge difference.
My father was a busy man and we never spent time in deep conversation. But I never doubted–not for a moment–that he loved me and that he was there for me whenever I needed him.
Even though I come from a different generation, I have tried to follow that same principle. I want my sons to know that whenever they need me, they can talk to me. Once when I pastored a church in Garland, Texas, we decided to have an all-night prayer meeting. Josh couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old at the time. At about 10:30 PM I was speaking to the group just before a time of prayer when Josh came into the room, walked to me, asked me a question, and then walked off. After I finished my remarks a man came up to me and said, “Did you realize what just happened?” I had no idea what he was talking about. “While you were speaking, Josh came up to talk to you. You stopped, turned to him, answered his question, and then you continued your talk as if nothing had happened.” I didn’t even remember it.
Because he is my son, Josh knew he could talk to me whenever he wanted.
Because I am his father, I will listen whenever he wants to talk to me.
I think that explains why Jesus used this unusual illustration. If persistence wins over an unjust man, think what it does with my Father in heaven who cares for me.
Persistence works on earth.
It works even more in heaven.
IV. Three Questions to Ponder
Jesus brings the point home with three questions:
1) Will not God bring about justice? The answer is yes.
2) Will God keep putting us off? The answer is no.
3) Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth? The answer is maybe.
When the Son of Man comes …
Will he find faith in your church?
Will he find faith in your family?
Will he find faith in your heart?
At this very moment I am looking at the sermon notes from the final sermon I preached at the first church I pastored after seminary. On that parting Sunday I told the people, “I have some prayers I have prayed for a long time.” I listed a number of the requests that I had brought before the Lord. My notes say that I had just talked with someone whose marriage was in trouble because of an enslaving habit. They were in despair and needed a place to live. No name is written down and I can honestly say that 25 years later, I have no idea who I was praying for back then. But I added this …
“Not all my prayers have been answered … yet!!!”
This week I read again the story of George Muller of Bristol whose life story remains a powerful testament to the virtue of persistence in prayer. Near the end of his life, he confided to a friend that he had been praying for two men to come to Christ for over fifty years. When the friend wondered why he continued to pray, Muller replied that if God had given such a burden, surely it was because he intended to save those two men. It came to pass that one man came to Christ shortly before Muller died, and the other came to Christ shortly after his death.
I leave you now with one final insight from the story. I have already said that the unjust judge is not like our Heavenly Father. Yet the judge is like him in one respect, and we will not fully understand this parable unless we grasp this truth.
The unjust judge delayed his answer for unjust reasons.
Our Heavenly Father delays his answers for righteous reasons.
What else could Jesus mean when he refers to the elect who cry out to God day and night (v. 7)? Sometimes God seems to be like that unjust judge. We often feel that way, especially when we cry out to God for our loved ones and the heavens seem as brass. Even the most righteous experience periods where God seems far away and uncaring. There is no way around this reality, and we shouldn’t deny it or pretend it isn’t there.
The question is not, Is God like the unjust judge? The answer is no.
The question is rather, What will we do when it seems to us that God is like that unjust judge? Will we give up or will we continue to pray?
This parable makes no sense apart from a full theology of God as a Father who not only loves us but who also knows what is best. Here we come up against the bedrock of God’s sovereignty. And it is precisely at this point that good theology will save us.
If we think God is like the uncaring judge, then we will get angry and stop praying.
If we think we have to talk God into loving us, we’ll become cynical Christians.
If we think our persistence convinces God to do something he wouldn’t otherwise do, then we’ll end up thinking our prayers are more powerful that God himself.
But if we believe that God is a “Father Almighty” who loves us without limit and who knows what is best for us, then we will cry out to him day and night, believing that when he answers, it will come speedily, quickly, just in the nick of time.
Why, then, is persistence important? Here are two key insights:
1) The one who knows the answer must be able to give it.
2) The ones who seeks the answer must be able to receive it.
Persistence is a great instructor in the school of Christian growth. “God does not become more willing to answer because of our persistence, but we may become more capable of receiving the answer.”
Persistent prayer does not change God but it does change us.
–It purifies our motives.
–It forces us to confront our helplessness.
–It distinguishes deep-seated desires from fleeting whims.
–It makes us ready to receive God’s answer.
–It humbles us so that God alone gets the glory.
Many prayers we pray shouldn’t be answered because they are so shallow. If God answered every prayer the first time we prayed, we would soon become complacent in our faith. Because God conditions his answers on our persistence, we realize how helpless we are and how totally dependent we are on him for everything.
What are you praying for right now?
A family member to come to Christ?
A loved one with cancer?
Victory over a stubborn habit?
Wisdom to make a big decision?
Guidance for the future?
A prodigal son or daughter?
A marriage on the rocks?
A pastor for your church?
A deeper walk with God?
Growing love for others?
Deliverance from a critical spirit?
Grace to forgive those who have hurt you?
Hope for the future?
Money to pay your bills?
Relief from discouragement?
A friend in deep need?
Courage to keep going?
Strength to make it through another day?
Boldness to share Christ?
Let me add one more thing to your list. Pray for persistence. Pray for gritty determination to hang on to the Lord until one of three things happens:
–God gives the answer.
–God changes the circumstances.
–God removes the burden altogether.
God is greatly glorified when we do not give up in prayer.
Not all our prayers have been answered—yet!!!
Don’t give up and don’t stop praying. Keep believing and keep on praying. You never know what God will do.
And all God’s people said … Amen!
(If you believe what I just wrote, say “Amen!” out loud. It will do your heart good and will probably startle the people around you.)