“Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit.” Luke 18:1
Prayer for many people is exasperating. Passages such as Mark 11:24 boldly promise that whatever we ask, we will receive if we believe. Yet in practice that simply is not the case, the prayer in Gethsemane serving as exhibit A. Closer to home, every deathbed, conflict, and heartbreak is likely the subject of earnest pleas for God’s intercession, yet so often the exact opposite of this sincere, believing prayer comes to pass. The loved one dies. The tensions persist. The pain lingers. Doubts arise.
Now I say all of this as a firm believer in prayer. I believe prayer merges me more deeply into the life and mind of God, and that merging enables me to be an active part of “Thy will be done.” Something happens when I pray! I can’t explain it, or pin it down, or even predict what will happen, but prayer releases a kind of divine energy.
That image, in fact, fits in perfectly with the Hebrew idea of the power of the spoken word. God spoke and there was light and land and seas, and all of creation. Isaac mistakenly blessed Jacob and the course was irrevocably set. Prayer is like that. A word spoken to God never disappears into the void. Something happens. It doesn’t always make linear sense, but I choose to keep believing and keep praying even when I don’t get my way, and even when that frustrates me.
Prayer will always retain its mystery, even for the deepest saints among us. Acknowledging that is, I think, one of the cornerstones for a solid theology of prayer. You won’t figure it out, but don’t let that mute your prayers.
So having acknowledged the questions, let’s seek some firm answers. Two words are helpful to most people when it comes to prayer: perseverance and personal.
The parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-6) is vivid and usually completely misapplied. Jesus told of a widow who was being treated unfairly. She had a legitimate grievance, but absolutely no power or persuasion. After all, she was simply a poor widow.
She took her case to the judge of the city, but unfortunately he was corrupt, accepting bribes and doling out “justice” in ways that benefitted him. The widow’s adversary probably enjoyed a certain privilege and expected the judgement to go his way. This was the way of the ancient world. What nether party counted on, however, was the persistence of the widow who simply would not take no as an answer. She continually bothered the judge, and to shut her up he ruled in her favor.
At his point most people take the meaning of the parable and turn it completely on its head. We wrongly imagine that God is somehow like the judge and that we must persist if we expect Him to grant us our pleas. Jesus meant the exact opposite.
The parable does not invite comparison but contrast. The judge was both uncaring and unrighteous. God is neither. So we have a tremendous advantage of a God who is already on our side, so to speak. He wants to hear our pleas. He wants to be involved in our “case.” My persistence, therefore, is not an effort to wear down God, but a simple acceptance of the fact that God’s providence is a slow unveiling, and I want to be a part of it.
The alternative, of course, is to give up on prayer, and that many people do. If you have done that I plead that you review your verdict for a few minutes. To fling away from prayer means to embrace what? That we are alone? Or on our own? We’ve already acknowledged the sometimes frustrating nature of prayer, but let’s not overlook the fact that prayer is a boundless comfort to countless believers. I don’t believe prayer is a delusion. Something happens when I pray, so I will keep on praying.
The second word is personal, and I mean here that prayers need to be a loving God. Jesus drove home this point in many ways. He told us to address God as Father. He said God already knows what we need. I think He means that God’s knowledge of what I need already doesn’t render my prayers unnecessary, but more effective. I pray because God wants to be involved in my life.
I want to suggest another way we can make prayers personal: write them. Write your own prayers. I have begun doing this occasionally for the last couple of years. It’s helpful for me to have a written prayer because “free praying” can become very unfocused and subjects me to more distractions.
I’ve written a morning prayer and an evening prayer. I have a prayer for when I’m fearful. I wrote a prayer of blessing for my family. Trust me, it’s not hard and it certainly does not need to be long or impressive. It simply needs to be a personal expression of your desires for the day, your gratitude, your confession. Write it as if you are speaking to Someone who loves you beyond imagination, for that is precisely what you are doing when you pray.
I hope you’ll pray. In fact, I’ll conclude with a GraceWaves prayer for you: Father, thank you for giving me this forum to think and write about the most wonderful truths. Thank you for everyone who takes time to read these words. May they hear You and feel your love, grace, and peace always. And this week especially may we all pray to You, knowing that you love us and respond because of Your love. Amen
Dr. Terry Ellis
April 3, 2016