Rev. Shane on Prayer (Part II)
In my first article, I explored Luke 11: 1-13. In this passage, Jesus told a story about a grouchy neighbor who refused to help a friend in need at midnight because he would have to get out of bed and open the door. The person needing help just kept knocking and the grouchy neighbor eventually dragged himself out of bed and granted the request. The story is followed by these verses, “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will be given what you ask for. Keep on looking and you will find. Keep on knocking and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives. For everyone who seeks, finds. And the door is opened to everyone who knocks.” The question that arises for me is how do I reconcile these incredible promises with my personal experiences in prayer? I have prayed for hundreds of people to live who have died, I have asked for countless things I didn’t receive and have looked for many things I still have not found.
Every month I balance my checking account on Quicken. I am usually within a hundred dollars one way or the other and I have zero interest in getting down to the penny if I am that close. When I am done, the computer informs me that I have failed to “Reconcile” and asks if I want to “Adjust.” That means it will credit me or dock me for my inability to reconcile and I hit the “Adjust” icon every time. There are many times I do the same in my prayer life. I do the best I can with my limited understandings and then I have to trust God to “Adjust” what I cannot fully “Reconcile.” If prayer is the communication between an infinite God and a finite being like us, there are going to be a lot of things we won’t ever have our heads around. Mature Christians don’t have prayer reconciled down to the penny at all; they just continue to hunger for God as they adjust.
When I was a young Christian, I was taught the ACTS method of prayer. To put it in the most simple of variations, prayer consists of:
Adore Worship of God. Lord, you are ________…
Confess Repentance for Sin. Lord, forgive me for ________…
Thank Gratitude for Blessings. Lord, thank you for ________…
Supply Petitions. Lord, I ask you for __________…
In this series of articles we are going to explore several aspects of prayer and today we are going to look at persistence in prayer. Let’s unpack Luke 18.
V. 1 One day Jesus told his disciples a story to illustrate their need for constant prayer and show them they must never give up If prayer for you is simply bringing petitions before the Lord, then you may infer this is a verse about persistence in petitions. However, petition is not only just a small part of balanced prayer life; it is the part most informed by the other parts. The reason it is last in the ACTS paradigm is because you really need to adore, confess and offer thanksgiving before you have any idea what to put on your supply list. Prayer an ongoing conversation with God and the better we get to know God, the better we can gage which petitions are appropriate and inappropriate when we pray.
Jesus instructs us to engage in constant prayer. When I was a kid there were only land line phones. Having a conversation with someone too far away to yell at them was a mathematical improbability. First you had to be home because your phone was at home. Second, no one else could be on your phone. Third you had to hope the person you were calling was home, fourth you had to hope no one else was on their phone and fifth they had to answer it. When you think about it, it is amazing any phone calls were completed in the 70’s at all! In those days, conversations happened one at a time and you hung up when you were through. Today is a world of constant communication. It is not uncommon for me to be engaged in twenty text, e-mail, Twitter or Facebook conversations at once at any moment of the day. Being constant in prayer is being engaged in an open ended conversation with God that never ends!
I call the story Jesus tells next the Parable of the Crooked Judge. Throughout the Bible, there is a reoccurring cry for justice from the oppressed and a mark of the coming of the Kingdom is that people will receive justice. This is not the account of a Jewish judge; in Jewish courts there were three judges; one chosen by the defendant, one by the plaintiff and one independent judge. This is the account of Roman law where there was but one judge and that judge normally offered the people all the justice they could afford. Being appointed a judge was a lucrative business and most judges operated on the “pay to play” system. The other player in the story is a widow and no one in ancient Israel had less clout than a widow. Unmarried women in the Empire had no legal status and since there was no social net, widows with no family to support them often became beggars.
Here is the story Jesus told: There was once a crooked judge. There was a widow in his jurisdiction who had been unarguably wronged and she asked the judge to provide justice. While getting a fair hearing was a matter of life or death for her, it was simply an inconvenience for the judge. The judge ignored her because he could, because there is no money in dealing with poor widows and because he didn’t want this “people wanting justice thing” to get out of hand. The judge initially ignored her but it appears that this widow invented stalking. Everywhere the judge went, there she was asking for her case to be heard. She sat outside his home, she protested outside the courthouse, sat in the booth next to him at the restaurant and would not leave him alone. The literal Greek here means, “This woman is giving me a black eye” which means she probably got so frustrated that she drilled him. Finally, he can’t stand it anymore and he says, “This woman is driving me crazy so I am going to hear her case and give her justice.”
V. 6-8 Jesus said, “Learn from this evil judge, he eventually rendered justice. So don’t you think God will render justice to those who plead with him day and night?” God will grant justice quickly. As in the Parable of the Grouchy Neighbor last week, do not make the mistake of assuming that we are the desperate woman, God is the crooked judge and Jesus is telling us to become God stalkers. The point is that God is NOTHING like this judge! The judge’s decisions could not be trusted but God’s judgments are trustworthy! When we bring our prayers to God, we can trust that he will hear us and quickly makes the proper decision. Jesus clearly states this is a story about persistence in prayer so let’s talk about persistence. We are not taught to be persistent because God wants to see us really sweat before answering our prayers or because God won’t do the right thing unless we bug him. We are taught to be persistent because anything worth having in this life is achieved only through persistence. We develop relationships through persistence, we achieve through persistence and we grow in our Christian lives through persistence. Too often in prayer we infer that we are to keep asking until God hears us. In reality, we need to stay before God until we hear him!
There are three refining things that happen in the process of persistence in prayer. First, prayer increases our faith. When we pray, we dare to believe that there is a God and that God wants to be in contact with me, wants what is best for me and is able to act on my behalf. Second, persistence in prayer moves us from our limited perspectives. When I was a little kid playing baseball for the Murphy-Wall State Bank in Pinckneyville, Illinois and a storm bank was approaching on late July game day, I asked God not to let it rain. It never occurred to me farmers all over Southern Illinois praying for the very rain I was praying against. I prayed like a kid because I was a kid; prayer gives us a better grasp on the big picture. Third, each time we come to God in prayer we are better able to see into our own hearts and motives. There have been several petitions on which I have pulled the plug because after I prayed for the Kingdom to come, souls to be saved, children who are starving to be fed and wars to cease, my petition was frankly…embarrassing.
Finally, Jesus says that God will answer quickly. There are essentially only three responses to a prayer of petition; yes, no and wait. The “yes” and “no” responses often happen quickly but there are some prayers that by their nature require persistence. There are specific things for which Jesus asked us to pray like laborers for the harvest, unity in His church, forgiveness for sin and the coming of the Kingdom. Other prayers requiring persistence are those prayers that are beyond God’s control. Yes you heard me right. Somewhere in the instruction manual of the cosmos is the rule that God will not override free will in humans. Were God to do that, it would violate the nature of love which must always be a choice. If you have been praying for someone to receive Christ for years or a prodigal son or daughter to come home, I encourage you to keep praying. Pray that God will send people their way to offer Christ, pray for their protection from the enemy and pray that God would show you how to witness to them but understand that not even God can make them accept Christ or turn their lives around. That is on them. Jesus assures us in this text that our prayers are heard by a benevolent God and not a dishonest judge.
But when I return, how many will I find with faith? Of all the things I do not understand about prayer and they are legion, one of the things I have struggled with most of all is persistence in prayer. I have moved through four phases. 1) As a child I felt persistence let God know I was serious about my request. I remember Reban’s Restaurant in Pinckneyville was giving away a free bicycle and I became convinced God was going to give me that bicycle. After all, dad was a preacher, we were always having some sort of drama and we were so poor we could only pay attention once a month; God at least owed me a bike. I prayed every day for that bike and when the drawing came…I really don’t know what happened. We went into Reban’s one day and the bike was gone. Somebody had won it, probably some rich kid whose dad didn’t have to be a preacher. 2) As a teen I became convinced that praying about the same stuff over and over was a lack of faith. I would pray once, realized God had heard me and move on hoping I had earned a point or two for believing in prayer on one hand and not being a nuisance on the other. 3) As a young adult, Melissa and I briefly visited a tradition that truly believed that God was obliged to do what we wanted, when we wanted, the way we wanted as long as we had the right formula. People would memorize a few scriptures, repent of their sin, tithe and then boldly ask God for a new Cadillac. It never jived with me. Why would God not hear the prayers of Christians crying out for freedom in communist countries or parents pleading for the lives of a dying child and give this guy a new Cadillac? 4) These days I pray persistently simply because Jesus told me to do so. Let’s pray for those who do not know Christ to find salvation, for our church to be effective connecting people for Jesus Christ, that bad water and Malaria stop killing children in impoverished countries, the dying experience compassion and that people stop killing each other. When we pray about these kinds of things persistently, our prayers to win the giveaway bike at Reaban’s find their proper context. In the “ask, seek and knock” passage we explored last week the gift promised is the Holy Spirit and not a new Cadillac. Our petitions asking God for salvation, forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, boldness and that our lives would better reflect his nature are prayers will be answered every time! Here is the point; if we persistently ask for more of God, He will reveal more of Himself to us! If we persistently ask for things we are missing the point all together.
Next Jesus talks about faith. Faith is being able to trust that God’s response to our prayers is the best response. I was once at a funeral service in which a fellow pastor named Tim Pate lost his college aged son in a tragic accident. Rev. Don Burroughs preached the service and said something I will never forget. “God does not ask us to understand…just to trust.” You know what I call that kind of trust? Faith! Jesus says when I return how many will have the faith to fully place their lives in my hands? The hymn writer wrote, “There are things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand but I know who holds tomorrow and I know who holds my hand.”
I want to close by entering a wormhole in time and space and offering a final reason to pray persistently. Paul said in Ephesians 6:12 that we do not battle with flesh and blood but with: 1) Evil rulers and authorities of an unseen world 2) Mighty powers of darkness that rule this world and 3) Wicked spirits in heavenly realms. As Christians we believe there is a temporal world and a spirit world; Earth on one hand and heaven and hell on the other. These worlds exist in different, but not mutually exclusive dimensions. Jesus said in Matthew 6:18 the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. This is a non-linear concept because it explicitly states that the church in one world is prayerfully assaulting the gates of the hell in another. In Luke’s Lord’s Prayer Jesus asks us to pray for the coming of the Kingdom, physical needs, forgiveness and deliverance. If we are instructed to pray for these things then there must be spiritual forces working against these things. Satan is persistently attempting to delay the coming of the Kingdom, deny our physical needs, keep us from forgiving and being forgiven and tempt us towards evil; John 10:10 says Satan comes to, “Steal, kill and destroy.”
We will never be completely free of sin, vice, poverty, crime, hunger, violence, disease, abuse and greed in this world but our persistent prayers batter the gates of hell in the next. I love the No Greater Love evangelism trips when we carry a cross down Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday during the Mardi Gras. We won’t shut down the party but we remind the devil that the world isn’t always going to be a stinking cesspool, God will eventually win the day and we won’t back down in the meantime! Our persistent prayers for Kingdom Come are a part of God’s frontal assault on hell itself and we are guaranteed that one day those evil gates will collapse, prisoners will be set free, the abused restored, the hungry fed, the sick healed, the lost saved, prodigals will come home, the church will be redeemed and God’s Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. Christ Church, our prayers change us, change the world, usher in the Kingdom and are battering rams pounding the very gates of hell. We must never, ever, ever, give up!
PRAYER FOCUS: ADORE
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois.