by Vern Sheridan Poythress
[Published in Decision magazine 39/10 (Oct. 1998) 31-35. Used with permission.]
For about fourteen years my wife and I have prayed that God would put a stop to abortion. For fourteen years we have prayed that God would end the persecution of the house churches in Mainland China. For years we have prayed for deep revival to come to our country. In all these cases, we haven’t seen much change. Are our prayers doing any good? Will there ever be an answer?
It is easy to give up hope if God does not answer our prayers right away. Jesus knew that we were prone to become discouraged, so he told the story in Luke 18:1-8. “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”1
How Do We Respond to a Hopeless Situation?
Jesus tells about a widow who had every reason to give up. We must picture a situation where some wicked person has wronged a widow. Perhaps he had taken over her home and kicked her out.2 Whatever the details, the widow desperately needs help.
The woman’s situation looks especially hopeless for several reasons. To begin with, she is a widow. Without a husband, she has no steady income or shelter in social situations.
She is also legally insecure. In ancient Jewish society the man who headed a family or clan would normally handle legal disputes. He would be familiar by experience with legal matters, and would probably know the judge personally. But this widow has no man to represent her—no husband, not even a father or a brother. She has to go herself, without the experience or social leverage that a man would have.
Now the situation worsens. The judge to whom she goes is unjust.3 He cares nothing for her plight. Can the widow perhaps hope to persuade him nonetheless? She can point out to him that God threatens to punish judges who pervert justice.4 But no, the judge does not fear God.5 Or the widow can argue that the people of the town will despise him for not helping her. No, this stratagem will not avail either. The judge “neither feared God nor cared about men.”6 He is indifferent to human opinions about him. Can she appeal to the man’s conscience, and make him realize how low he has sunk? No, the judge is already well aware of his position, and admits it freely to himself: “Even though I don’t fear God or care about men … .”7 The judge has so hardened himself that no human appeal can get through. Apparently nothing that the woman might say will have the least effect. There is no hope for a change.
Have you ever suffered through a situation as bleak as this one? Have you felt despair because there seemed to be absolutely nothing you could do? “Just give up,” the Devil tempts us. “Curse God and die!” Job’s wife says.8 Jesus understands how despair may sometimes grip us like an iron vise.
Amazingly, though everything is against her, the woman does not give up. “For some time he refused,”9 yet the woman persists. She continues to bother him, to pester him. Finally, the judge wakes up to his own selfish interests. He decides to give justice, but only because otherwise she will “eventually wear me out with her coming.”10 The woman gets relief because she persevered.
What Kind of Perseverance Do We Have?
Now what is Jesus’ point? He tells us to pray and not give up. God will answer. Jesus says, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”11
Jesus is making a comparison. The persistence of the widow is like the persistence that characterizes “God’s chosen ones.” The widow cries out to the judge to give her justice. Likewise, God’s chosen ones cry out to God to give them what they need. After awhile, the unjust judge gave justice to the widow. After awhile, God will answer his people , the chosen ones. Jesus gives the parable to encourage “God’s chosen ones.” To them he says, “Don’t give up. Persevere in praying to God. He will do what is right.”
How Does God Respond to Our Prayers?
But this comparison leaves many people uneasy. “What?” they say, “Is God unjust and reluctant and in need of being pestered like this horrid human judge?”
Jesus assumes that we know enough about God to see the point of the comparison. The Bible indicates that God is both compassionate and absolutely just.12 Far from being reluctant, God is like a father eager to give his children good gifts. “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”13
The comparison with an unfair judge shows how much more we can expect from God. If even an unfair judge can be persuaded, how much more can we expect God to answer us for our good? If even someone who has no love or care for us can decide to help, how much more will God respond to us in outpoured love? The Bible well expresses the depth of God’s love and commitment to us in Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”14 How tremendous a commitment God has made! We are to come boldly to God, knowing that he will answer us fully and compassionately. He has proved his faithfulness and eagerness to provide for us by giving the most spectacular gift of all, his own Son!
Note that these promises all come to God’s children, his “chosen ones.”15 Not all prayers are equally acceptable. Speaking to hardened, sinful Israelites, God warns, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.”16 For our prayers to be acceptable, we must receive forgiveness for our sins and be cleansed by the blood of Christ.17 Then we may have confidence that God loves and receives us even as he receives Christ his only Son.18
For What Do You Pray?
Is God’s promise to answer prayer like a blank check? No, even an earthly father knows how to give good gifts to his children. Not everything that a child asks for is good. A wise father takes into account the whole situation. How much more so with God our heavenly Father! We can be thankful that God in his wisdom does not always give us everything for which we foolishly pray. God must renew our hearts and minds so that we begin to pray for his goals rather than for our own selfish goals.19
The story that Jesus tells in Luke 18:1-8 points to the same truth. The widow in the story asks for a fair resolution of her case. Likewise, your prayer and mine should be for God to establish his righteous will.20 God answers such prayer: “his ears are attentive to their prayers.”21
But now we must understand God’s justice, his righteousness. God cares not only for just decisions in human courtrooms, but for what is right in every sphere of life. Every mean remark from a child, every social snub, is a violation of God’s righteousness. Every instance of right living and self-control expresses his righteousness. We are to pray for nothing less than the coming of God’s kingdom, the coming of his rule in all aspects of life. We pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”22 “Come, Lord Jesus!”23 Come and set things straight, wipe out evil, and make a new earth.24
God is so perfectly righteous that he cannot ignore sin. He showed his zeal against sin by the terrible punishment that he inflicted on sin when Christ bore our sin.25 We have only to look at the meaning of the cross to understand that God is utterly serious about righteousness, and utterly serious about punishing sin.
But the suffering of Christ issues in victory, in the glorious achievement of right when he is vindicated in his resurrection. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”26
God now works out true righteousness in history as people submit to what he accomplished in Christ. He abolishes sin in the souls of abortionists and liars and disrespectful children alike as people submit to Christ’s rightful authority: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”27 Thus, we are to pray for all people everywhere to submit to Christ’s universal rule, to acknowledge him as Savior and Lord. We are to pray even for those who sin against us.28 This is His command.
God’s plan is to exalt Christ. We can pray no greater prayer. So we pray for revival. We persevere in true prayer when we understand this goal and yield ourselves to Christ in our praying. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.”29 We pray for Christ to come and bring his reign to completion.30 We plead for righteousness to come in our own lives, and for others to be saved and come to Christ. When we are praying for these goals, the goals of God’s own kingdom, we can have confidence. God himself tells us to persevere. He hears. He will accomplish his purpose in us and around us.
We do not know the details. We do not know how long we will have to wait for God to answer a particular prayer, like the prayer for persecuted Chinese Christians. We do not know just how he will answer. But we know that God is all wise and full of mercy and love. He has shown it through giving Christ. We can have perfect confidence in him. Keep on praying!
This article was taken from Decision magazine, October 1998; ©1998 Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; used by permission, all rights reserved.