READ : Luke 11:8
That’s what makes the difference. When you pray without ceasing it means that however much you stumble and fall you don’t give up. You keep going back to it.
It’s remarkable how much Jesus said about persevering in our prayers. Think of those familiar verses in which he says, “Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). In the Greek language the verbs are in the present tense, which means a continuing action. So what Jesus is saying is: “Keep on asking and you will receive. Keep on seeking and you will find. Keep on knocking and it will be opened to you.” I think we could say that Jesus stressed the matter of persistence more than almost anything else in his teaching about prayer. Two beautiful little stories, or parables, about it highlight that very lesson.
Here’s a man who goes out at midnight to try to get bread for a friend who has come to visit him. And it’s late at night. He has nothing to set before his guest, which is a great failure of hospitality. So he goes out and starts knocking on his friend’s door to try to get bread. The man, understandably, doesn’t want to be disturbed. He’s just put the children to bed, and he doesn’t want to get up and give him anything. But the man keeps knocking and eventually the person inside gives up, gets out of bed, brings whatever bread he has and almost throws it out the door! Jesus says, “Though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.”
Our second story is about this judge who is a rascal. He has no fear of God, no concern for people. There’s a widow who keeps coming to him saying, “Avenge me of my adversary. Give me justice.” And the judge says to himself, “Though I don’t fear God and I don’t care about people, yet because this widow keeps bothering me I’ll take her case. I’ll give her justice, so that by her coming she won’t wear me out.” Then Jesus says:
Hear what the unjust judge says. And will not God give justice to his own chosen ones? He will give them justice speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?
This is a teaching about the same lesson but with some different nuances. Here the character of the judge stands out. He has no fear of God. He has no concern for people. He’s the most unlikely person to respond to a request like this. Yet he yields to perseverance. And the lesson is, “How much more God, who loves us intensely, who wants our good? How much more will he hear our persistent prayers?”
TO KEEP US FROM LOSING HEART
Now Jesus told that parable, Luke tells us, “so that they would always pray and not lose heart.” I’m convinced that this is the big reason for his constant emphasis upon this theme. He knows how prone we are, how vulnerable we are, to losing heart when our prayers don’t seem to be answered. Nothing happens for days, weeks, months, perhaps years or even decades, and it’s easy to give up. Jesus says, “Never give up!” When God lays something on your heart to pray for, don’t abandon the quest. Persistence wonderfully, powerfully, wins the day.
Sometimes people confuse persistence in prayer with what Jesus said about vain repetitions. They think that if you keep asking God for the same thing, it’s like a mechanical routine, like turning a prayer wheel and expecting that the messages on the paper inside will somehow reach up to the gods and have effect. Or they see it as saying prayers without heart. Remember the king in Shakespeare’s Macbeth who said, “My words fly up. My thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never did to heaven go.” That’s what vain repetitions are. They are words without thought and even more, they are words without heart.
But persistence in prayer is at the opposite pole from that. Those who persist in prayer in the sense that Jesus is speaking about are those who want something passionately and plead with God day after day after day because they want it so much. They won’t stop asking.
Some of you have had children gravely ill, like our Billy stricken with measles encephalitis. There was hardly a day for the remaining 18 years of his life that we didn’t plead with God to restore him, to deliverhim from his paralysis and his seizure problem, and all the other things that went with that. Persistence in prayer is something that arises out of passionate longing to see God work. So persistence and faith are friends, not enemies.
PRAY WITHOUT CEASING
What does it mean, as you think about it, to “pray without ceasing”? You’ve heard that phrase from 1 Thessalonians 5. I was studying that letter of Paul a while ago and noticed that the word unceasing is used three times. First, in chapter one, Paul says “He’s remembering unceasingly your work of faith and labor of love and patience of hope” (1:2-3).
I ask myself, “What does that mean that he remembers those things unceasingly?” It surely doesn’t mean non-stop. He’s not thinking about precisely that at every moment. He had to remember a few other things, right?
Then in the second chapter Paul says he thanks God unceasingly for the way they received the word (2:13). When they received it, they received it not as the word of man but as the Word of God. And that was a great blessing. It’s dear to every preacher’s heart when people receive the Word in that way. But unceasingly? He must have thanked God for other things as well. He writes about being thankful for all things.
And then there’s this verse that we started with: “Praying without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. What does that mean? It can’t mean that they are never to sleep, never to eat, never to concentrate on other tasks.
DON’T GIVE UP
I believe the thought is this. Praying without ceasing means we keep coming back to it. We refuse to give up on it. That helps us when we think about following Jesus in prayer, following Jesus in every way. We never have a trouble-free life as disciples. We aren’t on a steady plane upward where we’re always gaining and never falling back. It’s more like making progress, stumbling and getting up, going on and falling on our faces, and then progressing again. And that’s what makes the difference. When you pray without ceasing it means that however much you stumble and fall you don’t give up. You keep going back to it.
And how do you build that in your life? Why, you build prayer practices. You have a practice, I would imagine, many of you, of praying before you share a meal. That’s a wonderful thing to do, as the Scripture commends it as sanctifying a meal. But why not pray when you get into your car to go somewhere? Don’t you wish everybody did – that everybody would pray when they get in their car for God’s keeping and his blessing on the trip where they’re going? What about praying when you pick up the phone that God will give you the right word? If you’re a teacher, praying as a question comes to you that you’ll have a faithful answer? What about celebrating a blessing?
We live in a retirement center where we go up to the sixth floor every night to have our dinner. Helen and I have become accustomed to praying as we ride up on the elevator that God will fill us with his Spirit for the interactions we’ll have with people and give us his love for those we may meet and dine with. That’s building into your life occasions where you keep coming back to prayer. You never consent to letting it slip to the fringes of your life. You’re always giving it a central place.
PERSISTENT FAITH IN ACTION
Now here’s something about this persistent faith in action. Remember the Syro-Phoenician woman who came to Jesus and pleaded with him to do something about her daughter? She was terribly driven by demons (Matt. 15:21-28). At first Jesus didn’t answer her a word. Even the disciples seemed more kind. They said, “Jesus, why don’t you send her away? She’s crying after us. “But he said nothing.
She wasn’t daunted by that. She wasn’t angry. She didn’t burst into tears. She didn’t go away mad. She kept on asking him. When Jesus said to his disciples, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” that seemed to shut her out, because she wasn’t of Israelite descent. But she came and kneeled before Jesus and said, “Lord, help me.”
And then Jesus said, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the little dogs.” That sounded like an insult. Think of it. At first, there’s seeming indifference. And then there’s seeming rejection. And then something like a put-down.
But what does this woman do? She simply takes the word of Jesus and brings it right back to him and says, “Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” And at that a big smile, I imagine, came over the face of Jesus and he said, “Woman, your faith is great. Let it be done for you as you have wished.”
She came to Jesus with her need. She humbled herself. She kept asking in spite of delays and disappointments. Her faith was great. Now why did she keep on that way? Why does anyone keep on when there are these delays and disappointments and seeming rejections? She believed that behind all of that he really did care, and he really would help, and she was right!
And, you know, we have a thousand times more reasons to believe that today because since she came to him, this same Jesus took a cross on his back and walked up a hill and died there on that cross for the sins of the world. There God drew back the veil and let us see the wonder of the love that’s in his heart for us so that we should know that nothing will ever separate us from that love. God wants the best for us. And it’s faith, you see, that keeps on in prayer in spite of many things in life that would make us lose heart.
The Tzeltal Indians in Mexico have a phrase in which they translate the word “faith.” It’s “hanging onto God with your heart.” That’s what people do who keep on praying. They hang onto God with their hearts because, against all appearances to the contrary, they know that God loves them. They know that he’s faithful to his promises. They know that he will not abandon them, that they will not be ignored or forgotten. So with that faith burning in their hearts, they keep on praying.
Winston Churchill in the years after World War II, whenever he was asked to speak, always included this brief message, “Never give up! Never give up! Never, never, never give up!” That’s God’s word for you about your praying. Never give up!