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Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer: Persistence and Patience

August 26, 2007

Luke 18:1-8

Today, we continue our series of sermons Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer. I have appreciated interacting with you about these sermons. As you know, I have not tried to dodge the thorny issues that all of us face in the life of prayer. We certainly come to a difficult one today as we consider persistence and patience in prayer.

Several weeks ago, a man in our congregation shared with me that one of his relatives told him he just did not have enough faith. The man said, “I have been praying about a concern I have. My relative said that if I really had faith, I would only pray about something one time and then leave it with the Lord.” The Bible does not teach that.

Jesus told two parables that emphasize the importance of being persistent in prayer. In the parable of a widow who goes to an unjust judge, he says he is teaching his disciples that they should always pray and not quit. Another translation words it that they should always pray and not lose heart. I wonder if at some point in time, you have prayed about an issue that created much concern for you. You started thinking, “Maybe I am pestering God. He seems disinterested.” Did you feel like quitting? Did you lose heart? Jesus wants us to learn this important lesson along with his disciples.

Turn with me to Luke 11, beginning at Verse 5, which is one parable Jesus told to focus on persistence in prayer.

Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’

“Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

In Prayer, Does It Make Any Difference? Philip Yancey comments on these two parables. He refers to Kenneth Bailey, who was a missionary in Lebanon for forty years. Because of his familiarity with that particular culture, Bailey comments that those in the Middle East would have simply laughed when Jesus told the parable. He says it would be unimaginable to deny bread to a neighbor who came asking so urgently, asking even though the request would have disrupted the household. A Palestinian home was simply one room, divided in two sections. The animals – the sheep and the goats – would come into the house at night and stay in the front section, which had an earthen floor. The family rolled out their pallets at night and slept a raised platform in the back section. Having the animals inside created warmth for the household and provided protection for the animals. If a friend came at midnight and roused the family from sleep, the man of the household would have to step over his children and wife, then make his way through the animals to open the door. It certainly would disrupt the family and the animals asleep in the household. Denying this request from a friend though would have been unthinkable.

Jesus’ purpose in telling this parable is to teach his disciples that they need the same kind of boldness, the same kind of persistence, when they pray. He gives the familiar phrase, “Ask, seek, knock,” making the promise that if you ask, seek, and knock, God will answer. We tend to read those words in a punctiliar sense, as if we ask only one time. We seek one time. We knock one time. The Greek construct in this instance, however, is a linear tense. Jesus is teaching his disciples to keep asking, keep seeking, and keep knocking. The implication is that we, too, must persist. We must have perseverance in prayer.

The parable of the widow in Luke 18 presents another scene right out of Middle Eastern culture. Kenneth Bailey says to imagine this courtroom. An unjust judge is seated not at a bench, but on a couch surrounded by soft pillows. People approach the nearby advisors and engage in much whispering. You can see money, bribe money, exchanging hands. The judge hears the case of the person and makes his decision based on who pays the most money. A plaintiff who pays more money is more likely to have the case go in his favor, no matter what the law says. Bailey says that a widow who has no money would have little chance of having a judge hear her case and certainly little likelihood of having a decision in her favor. This poor woman will not take “No” for an answer. She persists and persists and persists until the judge hears her case.

Is God like the judge who will not hear the pleas of the woman? Is prayer pestering God, bothering Him? Is prayer, in essence, glorified nagging? It would be easy to draw that conclusion, but these parables fall in a category that we might call the “How Much More?” parables. Jesus presents a reluctant friend at midnight and an unjust judge at court as examples of why we should persist in prayer. Then he adds, “How much more would a loving Father respond to your requests? How much more would God, the Great Judge of the Universe who longs for righteousness, grant justice to His children?” We must consider the purpose of the parables. It is so easy to quit, but God wants our persistent prayers.

We have what I might call an internet mindset. We can go online, find a website, and find any information we want. We can make all types of purchases with just an internet connection and a credit card. At our house, we have a Mussolini computer, one that is old. It has a dial-up modem because we are unable to get a DSL connection. We live in the middle of a technology-impaired doughnut. A satellite connection would be prohibitive. We cannot even get cable television at our house.

Our daughter-in-law June, who is visiting with us this week, was trying to check her e-mail on that computer. She got quite frustrated with how slow it is. Clare and I actually think it is quick. I can remember having to search for information in the encyclopedia and dictionary. I could not just go to the internet and find out what I needed. We live during a time in which we want instant gratification. We want what we want right now.

God thinks differently. I refer again to that wonderful passage in Isaiah 55:8: “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” says God. “My ways are not your ways.” God does not think as we do. Instant gratification is not a priority with God. Richard Foster, in his wonderful book on prayer, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, says that this is the very nature of supplication, that supplication requires our persistence. Many of us have been praying for rain. We have had a little, which the earth quickly absorbed. Sometimes God answers our prayers in that manner. He does not just give us a bucketful of blessing. He just gives us a little sprinkling, not quite what we had hoped but enough to let us know He is responding.

God wants our persistent prayers. An important question to ask is, “Why is this so important?” Ask. Seek. Knock. George Buttrick says that his experience with prayer is that the knocking is not just a light tapping on the door. He says that he has rapped and rapped and rapped on the door at times until his knuckles were bloody. Philip Yancey says that sometimes prayer is storming the gates, battering the gates with persistence.

Persistence has great value. Think of William Wilberforce, who went before Parliament year after year after year, proposing the bill to abolish the slave trade in England. Only with Wilberforce’s persistence did Parliament pass a bill. In our own Congress, Senator William Proxmire gave 3,211 speeches over a period of nineteen years, trying to get a bill passed against genocide. Finally, Congress passed such a bill.

Let me suggest to you seven reasons why persistence is important in our prayer life.

Henri Nouwen, a great man of prayer, a Roman Catholic priest, said that sometimes he thought that praying about the same thing was just so tedious and boring. He pondered why God would require such persistence in prayer but finally learned that persistence was a necessary discipline in his relationship to God. It occurred to him that God desires time with us. God wants a long-term relationship with us; He does not want us to treat Him like a vending machine. The first reason we need to be persistent in prayer is so that we can cultivate a long-term relationship with God. Nouwen said that after meeting with God hour after hour, day after day, he found that his relationship to God had grown much closer. Eventually, he could see that God was answering some of his persistent prayers.

Second, persistence is important because prayer creates a change. The great Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard says that our prayers do not change God’s mind. Prayers change us, the person praying. I am not so sure that we do not occasionally change God’s mind, but I do know that in my own life of prayer, most often the changes that occur are within me. Think of prayer as a kind of spiritual front-end alignment. The life of prayer aligns my misaligned will with God’s will. Prayer does change things. Prayer also changes the lives of other people. That is why Richard Foster refers to prayer as supplication.

On the last night of a revival I led in the mountains years ago, a man in his sixties came up to me and said, “Dr. Neely, I want you to meet my wife.” He introduced me to this little mountain woman and explained, “I want to tell you about her. I have only been a Christian for three years. My wife prayed for me for thirty years.”

I wonder if you are praying for someone you love. Could I encourage you follow Jesus’ advice? Pray and do not lose heart. Pray and never quit. Persistent prayer has great value.

Third, I would like to suggest to you that persistent prayer produces within our lives the Fruits of the Spirit, which Paul lists in Galatians: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. Persistent prayer produces patience, one of these fruits. What a hard lesson to learn! We call the people in hospital beds “patients” for a good reason. If you have ever been a patient in a hospital bed, you know that your position is well named. Healing requires patience. Patience is a part of the benefit of persistent prayer. St. Augustine said that during prayer, God is not receiving instruction from us; God is at work, constructing us. That process takes time.

One of my favorite illustrations about prayer develops from my experience as a father. Our children used to bring home pictures they had drawn in kindergarten. Sometimes their drawings would include a house with misaligned windows, a crooked door, and a chimney usually coming out of the roof at a 45-degree angle. I would never take my child’s drawing to an architect and say, “I want you to build me a house just like this.” We put those pictures on the refrigerator with a magnet because we treasured them. Our child was sharing his or her perspective with us, not giving us information we desperately needed.

God, perhaps, regards our prayers that way. We are not telling God how to govern the universe. We are sharing our perception. Doing so allows God to correct us very tenderly so that over time we have His perspective and not our own.

Fifth, the patience that we cultivate through persistent prayer produces hope in our lives. The Apostle Paul worded it this way in Romans 8:24: “Hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees? But if we wait with patience, hope becomes a reality.” Hope fills our lives because through patient, persistent prayer, we learn to yield to God and to His plan.

Sixth, persistent prayer teaches us how to pray ceaselessly, as Paul directs. Ceaseless prayer is hard to learn. Some of the time, maybe much of the time, we must pray with our eyes open. We must pray by just breathing little prayers throughout the day. We must also cultivate the ability to be aware of God’s activity. Whenever I see an emergency vehicle – an ambulance, fire truck, police car with a siren, a hearse, a moving van – I breathe a little prayer for the families involved. Persistent prayer means that we learn to pray, beyond just bowing our head and closing our eyes, a practice that is of great value. I learned most about this practice when I was in seminary by reading a book by Brother Lawrence, an eighty-eight-year-old monk. In The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence said that he had learned to pray through all of his life experiences in the monastery. He had learned to pray just as effectively while washing the pots and pans of the kitchen there and cleaning the monastery stables as he could while kneeling at the appointed times of prayer with the other monks in the chapel. Praying without ceasing means that we practice God’s presence with us at all times.

The seventh value of persistent prayer is that we begin to understand the mind of God. Please understand me. We are never going to understand the mind of God, but we begin to understand it. Have you ever thought that God’s relationship to you is one of persistence? One of the great images of Christ comes from Revelation 3:20, where Christ is standing at the door, knocking. God seeks us. God asks things of us. God knocks at the door of our hearts. God wants to be just as persistent in His relationship to us as He wants us to be persistent in our relationship to Him. My goodness! Is He ever patient! He has been so patient with me. Our relationship with God is a double search. It is a double line of communication. We seek, and God seeks. We ask, and God asks. We knock, and God knocks. Prayer is a relationship. God is not passive; He is very active in this relationship with us. We learn that through persistent prayer.

After conducting two weddings yesterday, I went home and checked the mailbox. I first noticed the back cover of a magazine inside because a naked woman appeared on it. I notice things like that. I would judge that this woman is in her sixties. It is a discreet picture for our day and time, I guess, though it would have horrified my grandmother. I flipped the magazine over and discovered that it was an issue of TIME Magazine. The appearance of that woman on the cover ought to increase the circulation of that issue.

I flipped the magazine over to the front cover, which also featured a picture of a woman, Mother Theresa. A new book about Mother Theresa, a journal of her writings to people who were significant in serving as her spiritual guides, her confessors, has been published. We think of Mother Theresa as a great person of prayer, a woman of great devotion; but these journals reveal a different side to her. Mother Theresa’s original work with an order of nuns was primarily educational. In the book, she describes an encounter she had with Christ on a long train trip through the heartland of India. Christ said to her, “Theresa, come be my light. I want you to have a ministry among the poorest of the poor, the sick, and the dying of Calcutta.” Come Be My Light is the title of the journal. Mother Theresa’s vision was very significant to her. When she returned to her superiors and told them about the vision, they were quite reluctant about letting her pursue this goal. She persisted though, taking her case all the way to the Vatican. She finally received permission to start her own order, The Sisters of Mercy, and to carry out the ministry she felt she had received from Christ.

Then something remarkable happened. She entered a long period in which she experienced the absence of God. You would not think that Mother Theresa would have doubts. Her relationship with God appeared to be one of intimate closeness. In these journal entries, however, she reveals that she went through what John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” For about fifty years, she prayed to have another vivid experience with Christ like the one she had had on the train. She had no further occurrence, however. Toward the end of her life, she wrote to one of her confessors that she had finally found joy in this darkness. Her joy was that the agony of Christ had become her agony. She now saw that what Christ was doing in her life was allowing her to suffer this loneliness so that she could have a heart to minister to those who are the loneliest. She finally saw in her persistent prayer that God was doing a work in her life that was not at all what she wanted. It was what God wanted.

I take great comfort in the fact that Mother Theresa had a period of darkness. If it can happen to Mother Theresa, it can happen to anyone. We all have our times of darkness. We all have our doubts. Pray and do not lose heart because God is working out His will in your life.

Have you surrendered to God? Have you acknowledged Christ as your Savior? If you have never done that, we extend to you an invitation to accept Christ Jesus as your Savior. It may be that God has placed some other decision on your heart, a decision perhaps regarding church membership. You know that He has brought you to Morningside and that He wants you to affiliate with this part of His family. We invite you to respond to whatever decision God has laid on your heart as we stand and sing together “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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