One day my daughter Mackenzie and I were playing in her room and we started to play keep-away. We both saw a penny on the floor and at the same time grabbed for it. I got there first and I closed my finger tight around this most desirable object. Mackenzie proceeded to climb onto my lap as she tried to pry my fingers open. According to the international rules of keep-away, once she got one finger open, it couldn’t be closed again. She worked at it until finally she was able to snatch the penny from my hand. Then she jumped down and ran away giggling, only to return when I had grabbed another toy and closed my fist tightly around it. Just a fun, simple game.
But later that night I started thinking of that game again. I started thinking about the struggle my daughter went through to pry that penny from my hand, and the struggle that many people have with God when it comes to the things they want or need. Sometimes when we come to God in prayer, we come for the pennies in his hand.
“Lord, I really need a passing grade on this test tomorrow.” “Lord, I need a job.” “Heavenly Father, my mom is ill, please make her well.”
We reach for those things and then when God grants the request we push his hand away and run off to the next thing on our busy schedules. In this way we treat God like a servant. We call on Him when we have a need, and then ignore Him the rest of the time. We treat prayer like something that we do if we have time or a pressing need. But Jesus taught his disciples, and by extension us, to pray differently.
Here are three quotes on prayer by Martin Luther (the guy who lived in the 1500’s and led the Reformation, not the civil rights leader)
“As it is the business of tailors to make clothes and of cobblers to mend shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray.”
“I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to get it all done.”
How different those quotes are from the way many of us approach prayer. Jesus taught that prayer was of supreme importance. This is where Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow comes in. I believe that in this parable Jesus is trying to strip away some of the baggage that we bring to prayer. And remember Jesus told this parable to drive home the point that the disciples should always pray and never give up.
Jesus said, “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 then Jesus 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 and speedily.” – Luke 18:1-7
Unfortunately, I think many times we equate God with the unjust judge. We act as if in order for our prayers to be heard we have to pester Him, or figure out the right formula, or get enough other people to pester Him in order for our requests to be granted.
This is not what Jesus meant when he encouraged his disciples to always pray and not give up. Jesus set up this parable in such a way that God is the opposite of the unjust judge. He says in verse 7, “Will not God give justice to His elect, to his chosen, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them?” Yes, Jesus encourages us to always pray, but the way in which He does that is important. Jesus doesn’t appeal to the Law. He doesn’t say, “Pray always, so that God will be moved to grant your request by your faithfulness or persistence.” Jesus appeals to the Gospel. He says in effect, “Pray without ceasing, because God has chosen you and you are precious to Him.”
This is how prayer works. We don’t come before a distracted, distant God whose attention we need to grab, and whose fingers need to be pried open. We come before a close, loving Father, who has called us to be His children and desires to hear and answer our prayers.