Persistence vs Insistence

As our Lenten journey toward Easter Sunday continues, I‘m so excited about our church’s focus on prayer during this season!  Over 170 of us are praying together every morning as we share the videos created by members of our own community (it’s not too late to join us!)  I genuinely can’t think of a better way for us to deepen our individual and communal prayer lives together, and I have no doubt that our exploration of Jesus’s prayer life on Sunday mornings is only going to add to that.

As I continue to ponder Jesus’s prayer habits and teachings about prayer, I can’t seem to escape the parable he tells in Luke 18 about the widow and the unjust judge.  I referenced it briefly on Sunday morning, but there’s an element of this parable that is problematic for many of us:

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’  For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I love Jesus’s reminder to be persistent in our prayer lives.  Some of us need this encouragement to set aside timidity and boldly share with God the desires of our hearts.  There is an implied courage on display in this widow who refused to be brushed aside or intimidated by the judge’s power (how interesting, by the way, that Jesus uses a widow as a consummate image of perseverance, courage and strength in a culture that tended to dismiss women as lacking all three).

Nonetheless, if we spend a few too many minutes with this parable and run it through the lens of our experience in prayer, then we eventually come face to face with the reality of unanswered prayer.  What are we supposed to do with the distance between Jesus’s encouragement to ‘persist in prayer’ and our own experiences that sometimes suggest that even persistent prayers seem to go answered?

This is key for us to understand as our prayer lives grow and deepen: prayer does not function as a talisman that can force God to act according to OUR will. Jesus’s ‘persistence’ is not the magic formula to get whatever we want from God.  Rather our prayer is always in the context of ‘Thy will be done.’  

Notice in the parable that the widow is persistent in asking for that which is just, and she doesn’t relent until the unjust judge does the right thing.  But God, who is perfectly just unlike the judge in the parable, will not need to be convinced to do the right thing! Thus our persistence in prayer is more a demonstration of the depth of our trust in God’s capacity to respond to the cries of His children than an act of shaming God into doing the right thing.  This means that there are limits on the faithfulness of our persistence.  If God has answered our persistent prayer, but he has done so in a manner or timeline that differs from our expectations, then our persistence becomes insistence in getting our own way.  

The persistent prayer is unafraid to take our heart’s desire before the throne of God and cry out for justice, healing, forgiveness or deliverance.  However, when the prayer has been answered – even if not according to our desire – then our persistent prayer transitions to a prayer of surrender that acknowledges not only God’s sovereignty but God’s benevolent omniscience.