This week we’re starting a mini series on prayer.
Prayer is a universal human experience. Probably everyone of us has prayed at some point in our lives. Maybe we prayed for a sick pet as a child. We prayed for help on a test. We laid in bed at night contemplating our existence and said “If anyone is there, please show yourself to me.” We have all prayed.
And I’d guess we have all been confused about what exactly prayer is and what it does. Some of us have known the heartbreak of praying with all of our hearts and nothing happens. What do we do with that? How do we pray when it seems like nothing is happening and pain and injustice just seem to keep piling up everywhere around us?
The answer is in the parable of the Unjust Judge in Luke 18. The parable is introduced with a purpose statement in verse 1: “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”
That’s the first lesson about prayer.
1. You should always pray.
The Christian life is a life of ought, of obligation.
Grace does not do away with obligation.
Grace frees our hearts to freely accept the obligations of righteousness and allegiance to the Lord Jesus.
This is a source of peace in a world buffeted by the unrelenting, whitewater of anxiety. In our late modern world, we wake up each day facing the demands of unlimited personal expression and fulfilment. Christians move differently than this. We just do what Jesus says, we follow his lead, we put our necks underneath his yoke, and we don’t worry about anything else.
Though we often forfeit that peace, we can always at any given moment step back into it. You can do that right now, this morning. Is your chest buzzing with anxiety this morning? Is your mind constantly moving back and forth from one problem, one distraction to the next? Just say this – Jesus I’m worried about many things because I’m trying to be Lord, I’m sorry, I’m going to follow you. I trust you to take care of me.
The Christian recognizes that grace does not do away with obligation but it heals and restores our hearts to freely accept the obligations of righteousness and allegiance to Jesus. The Christian has no problem hearing the words: “You ought”.
What ought we do to? When a person becomes a follower of Jesus, what should they do? The first obligation of the Christian is to pray.
When should we pray? When we are forced to at community group because someone decided to make the prayer time a circle and now everyone is waiting for me because its my turn?
pray continually . . .
1 Thessalonians 5:17
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
We ought to pray continually, on all occasions. On the occasion of waking up in the morning, on occasion of sitting down with the kids for breakfast, on occasion of arriving at the office for work, on occasion of enjoying a sublime concert or a invigorating hike, we ought to pray on occasion of feeling anxious or angry, on occasion of experiencing loss or failure, on occasion of doubt and apathy, on occasion of ease and comfort. We ought to pray always.
What do we do with all of that obligation to pray? What do we pray about?
When you feel intimately close with someone, you talk about everything. That talk helps you process your life, deal with setbacks and discouragement and bask in joys and victories. You talk about everything; you share all your emotions.
Isn’t that what we see in the Psalms? David’s prayer was an ongoing process of bringing his inner experience into conversation with God. David prayed continually.
If we’re honest, we don’t do this do we? We don’t even come close. Why is that?
The answer is there in verse 1. We ought always to pray and not lose heart.
That’s the 2nd lesson on prayer.
2. You will be tempted to lose heart.
The problem with many of us, the reason many of us do not even come remotely close to obeying Jesus in our prayers is that our hearts aren’t in it. We lose heart. We give up. You can’t keep up a life of prayer when your heart isn’t in it.
Have you experienced what it is like to lose heart? This is a universal experience. Paul was always encouraging Christians to fight the temptation to lose heart.
2 Cor 4:1, 16 – we do not lose heart
Gal. 6:9 – let us not lose heart in doing good
Eph. 3:13 – do not lose heart at my tribulations for you
2 Thess. 3:13 – do not lose heart in doing good.
So we see that we ought always to pray and we see that we often don’t because we lose heart, now what do we do? The answer to that is in the parable.
In the parable we have two characters – a judge and a widow. The judge was likely a Roman appointee, a foreigner who had no interest in the welfare of the Jewish people and found much opportunity for personal gain in the exploitation of his position. This is a judge who did not fear God or respect people. Especially not a widow. A widow in the time of Jesus was vulnerable to oppression and injustice. When a husband died, the widow often had her property removed and in some cases was even sold as a slave to pay off her husband’s debts. This widow had an enemy who was taking advantage of her and she took her case to the judge, who was disinterested. She found no help. But she kept going back again and again, until the unjust judge finally caved in to her persistent requests.
The lesson: if this flawed judge can be expected to cave in to repeated requests, how much more can you expect God who is just to reply to your cries for help? This seems like an invitation from Jesus to be bold and persistent with our prayer. God will give you justice speedily.
Do you pray like that? Some of us used to pray like that. Until our heart felt prayers came back like a letter in the mail, marked return to sender. How am I supposed to trust Jesus here when God did not speedily answer my prayers when I needed help? The answer to that is in the context of the parable.
If you look back to the previous chapter, in John 17, you will see that Jesus’ lesson on prayer comes in response to a different question – “when will the kingdom of God come?” The context of the parable is a discussion on the second coming of Christ in judgment.
There’s a vital lesson here for us on prayer:
3. Understand God’s timing and you will not lose heart.
Jesus can truthfully tell us that God will answer our prayers speedily, because the deepest cries of our hearts will all be ultimately fulfilled at the return of Christ. And with the Lord, a thousand years are like a day.
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
2 Peter 3:8
What this means is that the apparent delay in God’s response to prayers for justice does not represent an unwillingness to hear or to act on those prayers.
Delay does not equal disregard.
Delay does not equal disinterest.
Delay does not equal distance.
And in light of 2 Peter 3, delay may not even equal delay.
There are two awe-inspiring scenes in the book of Revelation that reveal this future fulfilment of all of our prayers. At the beginning of the end, the unsealing of the scroll which releases God’s judgment on the world – a vital role is played by something visualized in golden bowls and a great censer – the prayers of the saints. When those prayers go up to God in the smoke of the altar of incense, God’s final answer comes down.
I see in those bowls the collected prayers of the centuries – every unanswered prayer, every cry of our heart that seemed to be disregarded by God, all of it carefully stored by God for that great day. That day is the key to understanding prayer and not losing heart. Nothing really makes sense in this world of injustice and sorrow without a clear and continual understanding of God’s ultimate plan.
We may suffer until that day. But we aren’t the only ones.
For as lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected in this generation.
The question is not “in the end, will God answer my prayer?”
The question is “in the end, will Jesus find anyone praying?”
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown