The Power of Persistent Prayer
By Debra Celovsky
Importune: to trouble with requests or demands; insistent; refusing to be denied.
Like women in ministry everywhere, I sometimes find myself sitting with a woman who seems on the verge of being crushed under seemingly unbearable circumstances, wondering why her prayers remain unanswered. Empathetic answers and a shower of Scripture verses fall with little effect.
Recently, I took a long look at a short parable in the Gospel of Luke. Within its eight short verses, a powerful man and a seemingly powerless woman face off in a test of wills. This test of wills, oddly enough, goes to the heart of what it means to pray – and trust - with absolute perseverance.
This small story told by Jesus appears between the mighty portrait of “as it was in the days of Noah,” and the distinctive parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It may slip easily into the shadow of the other stories, but it shouldn’t.
Jesus ministered during the rule of Herod Antipas, a son of the psychopathic Herod the Great. Justice in the courts was uneven at best during this rather lawless period. The social strata of that day dictated that the wealthy and powerful received swifter and, almost certainly, fairer justice from the legal system than the poor. The scenario, as presented by Jesus, would have been familiar to those who heard Him. But is He calling God unjust? Would He convey a picture of God as being irritated by the same day-after-day request of a desperate woman? No. In an intriguing twist, Jesus uses contrast rather than comparison to make two clear points: do not stop praying, for God will respond at precisely the right time. Do not lose heart, for God’s delay is not God’s denial.
A judge, with a reputation for arrogance and supreme self-confidence, is presented with the daily annoyance of a widow who has been wronged. His reputation is no secret. This would require her to embark on her mission knowing that a fair amount of verbal abuse would have to be endured. She would likely be repeatedly dismissed.
However, this knowledge did not rise to the level of her personal outrage. This widow has been badly, unjustly used. What are her options? She has no power, no social standing, no other recourse. Ultimately, desperation and determination win out over the high probability of defeat. The judge, who “neither feared God, nor cared what people thought” was about to meet a resolute woman resolved to see her just claim satisfied.
The judge holds out on her for a time, Jesus tells the crowd that day. Yet for all his bluff and bluster, the judge actually takes some time to think about this aggravating situation: “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” (Lk.18:4-5 ESV). The hammer of importunity has found a chink in the wall of implacability.
If an obnoxious and unprincipled man will give in to the request of someone for whom he cares nothing (and who obviously annoys him), how much more will the Righteous One respond to those who are so dear to Him? This widow is a striking symbol of the people of God in desperate circumstances. She is a picture of hope driving a dogged request. Her only recourse is incessant petition. However, unlike the coarse and dismissive judge, our God is mightily pleased when we approach Him in confidence and resolute faith. Jesus uses the power of contrast to convey the boundless compassion of God. His eye on us is tender. We will not be turned away.
At the same time, it is certain from our point of view that God does delay at times in answering our prayers. “How long, O Lord, how long?” This has often been the cry of the suffering, the martyrs, and the bereft throughout the ages. Delay is assuredly never due to God’s absence or indifference or His unreadiness to help us. Rather, as much as we may resist the possibility, it may be our own unreadiness to receive the answer or the remedy God has in store for us.
“What does God want from this situation?” This can be a hard question to ask in the middle of extreme hardship. Our desire is to bring immediate relief to the woman in tough circumstances: abandoned or grieving or ill. But sometimes our responsibility is to encourage patient waiting and endurance. When relief comes, we may see far greater benefit from it. God is always at work on our faith, our character, and our future. Andrew Murray, in his classic little book, With God in the School of Prayer, writes: “Learn to give God time. He needs time with us . . . to exercise the full influence of His presence in us.” That “full influence” is a lifelong process developed most intensely in seasons of adversity.
But in the parable, Jesus, who has such perfect insight into our nature, presses His point. When God does answer with mercy to His beloved and perhaps even judgment upon her adversaries, will we actually be expecting His response? Or will we, exhausted after long hope and expectation, be surprised by the manner of His solution? Will our attention be elsewhere? Jesus emphasizes that the answer, when it comes, may not be swift, but it might be sudden. Will He find our hearts still full of faith? This is an uncomfortable question, but Jesus is less interested in our comfort than our confidence in Him.
There is a terrific word picture in Psalm 97:2 where “righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.” Not the armrests or the headrest or the beautiful adornments. No. They are the very elements upon which all other attributes of power rest. So when we approach the throne of our God, in our powerlessness and great need, our eyes travel from the mighty, immovable bases of unfailing righteousness and sure justice to the face of a King who loves us. Women, be encouraged to approach Him again and again, patiently, determinedly, and with absolute trust. There is no need to worry that it is a test of wills, as the little widow experienced. His pleasure is to hear us and answer with our greatest good in mind.