The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 14, 2017
Prayer is, even for those who cherish it, a practice in which it is a struggle to persevere.
Those of us who pray struggle because, though we keep praying, we often feel God’s distance more keenly than God’s closeness. We seek a word of guidance, and hear God’s silence. We seek God’s presence, and experience God’s absence.
This struggle is intensified all the more as we make requests in prayer only to see either a long delay in any discernible response from God or an outright deny of our request. Sometimes, hands folded in prayer bleed at the knuckles from endless and seemingly fruitless knocking at a door that doesn’t open.
What’s going on here? Does God not care that much? Or is God unable to do that much?
Jesus understands how easy it is to lose heart in praying. So, to encourage us to keep at it, He tells this parable about a persistent widow who by unrelenting importunity wears down a judge, who cares not about God or others, and gets him to help her just to get her off his back!
Now, if you think Jesus means to suggest God is like that uncaring judge, a reluctant helper who’d rather not bother about our concerns but whom we can pester into helping us, you’d have Jesus’ intention here backwards. Jesus is speaking to people to whom He thinks He has already made it abundantly clear that God loves to love them and sits on the edge of His heavenly throne in eager readiness to bless them. Jesus’ point here banks on our realizing that God’s goodness of heart is the opposite of this judge’s indifference of heart. The logic in Jesus’ line of thought is then this: If persistence pays off when we’re making requests of someone apathetic to our welfare, how much the more will it pay off when we’re making requests of Someone who is passionately interested in our welfare and thrilled to do for us even better than we expect.
Of course, we many not immediately see results from our praying, and thus we may struggle to keep at it. But the biblical vision is that the struggle is one aspect of the blessedness of prayer. Praying always serves us well. For praying puts us, and keeps us, in contact with God, even if we are doubting God or accusing God of failing us.
In other words, so-called “unanswered” prayers are also well-answered prayers. They are disguised, gracious responses by which God does something better than give us what we ask for. They are acts of severe mercy by which God gives us a struggle that turns out to bless us.
But how can that be?
The prayers we make are not coins we insert into a Vending Machine God that we use to get what we want. God is better than a vending machine. God is a Person with whom we can have a relationship – and that relationship develops, over time, and perhaps in struggling times more than in sweet times, into a bigger gift than any other gift God might give us. Prayer then is to be pursued, not just because by it we may get the objects of our desire, but because by it we will get the One who is more to be desired than anything and anyone else.
Every prayer is answered. For, even when God is not giving us what we ask for, God is giving us Himself in a life-enhancing, soul-satisfying friendship that may not make everything OK in our life but that makes us OK whether or not everything is OK.
Persevering in prayer makes sense when we value knowing God as the primary reward to it. Prayer is first and foremost a deep form of interaction with God, even though that interaction might be our fighting it out with Him. But God can take our belligerence, and God welcomes it. He has no problem with our telling Him off for not doing what we think He should do as long as we give Him His turn and let Him tell us what we should do – and what we should understand. To pray is, in other words, to engage honestly and openly with God, mind to mind, heart to heart, passion to passion, agenda to agenda. Why, even to complain to God’s face about His delays and denials is a way to spend time with Him and to come to know Him better – until we know that, whatever other answers to our prayer there may be, God Himself is always the answer, and the best one of all.
Persevering prayer in the end helps us to take in the gracious reality of God, and eventually sets a fire in our belly to walk with Him through all the ups and downs of life. It makes us appreciate that, when we have an honest, give-and-take relationship with God, we have everything – and we are blessed even when God is just about the only blessing we have.
If God were to quickly give us quickly everything we ask of Him, we’d soon, in our preoccupation with His gifts, forget about Him, the Giver. We’d give Him no more mind than the vending machine that quickly and reliably dispenses our favorite candy bar. And we’d end up gorging ourselves on such empty calories and ruining our health, when we could have feasted on an endless spread of divine grace that makes us stronger and stronger.
Thanks be to God for His not always answering our prayers as we want, for His giving us prayer as a blessed struggle, and for His always giving us Himself in prayer!
Let us then, as Jesus hoped, pray always and not lose heart!