Persistent Prayer and Perseverance
Passage: Luke 18:1–18:8
Persistent Prayer and Perseverance
I wonder how many of us have come to church this morning feeling the weight of unanswered prayer. Surely, even in a congregation our size, unanswered prayers are never far from our minds. Perhaps you have prayed for the salvation of a loved one for many years. Maybe you seek change for a difficult marriage or a chronic illness. It could be a good thing you desire that for some reason God has not seen fit to provide. How many of us come this morning with unanswered prayers?
When we talk about unanswered prayer, we’re really talking about waiting upon the Lord, walking by faith. And waiting upon the Lord is the sum of the Christian life. As Christians, we are people in waiting. We wait for the day when we will see things with God’s perspective and not through a glass dimly. We wait to put off this sinful flesh and put on our glorified bodies. We wait for the return of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are people in waiting, so in that sense, unanswered prayer is a small version of the big picture.
Of course, waiting is not easy, is it? Walking by sight is much easier than walking by faith. Having every prayer answered when we want in the way we want would seem preferable to waiting upon the Lord. So, how do wait well? That’s the question I want us to answer this morning. How do we wait well? How can we persevere, even in prayer, when the wait seems long?
Our passage this morning deals with precisely this question. Today is a good example of why a church ought to preach through books of the Bible – because in doing so, you come across jewels of encouragement that you might otherwise miss. Our passage is like that. Here we find a jewel of encouragement from the Lord Jesus, a passage that addresses how to wait well.
As you heard in the reading, this passage is a parable about prayer. It goes by various names – the parable of the unjust judge, the parable of the nagging widow. I prefer to simply call it a parable of perseverance. It certainly focuses on prayer, but at the same time, it encompasses more than prayer. It ends up being a parable about persevering in the faith, of which prayer plays a central part. How do we wait well? Jesus is going to teach us the answer, at least in part, this morning.
Now, before we dive in to the text, I want to highlight two big picture points about this parable. To begin with, we ought to note the context of the parable – it follows immediately after a passage dealing with the return of Christ. Please note that connection, friends. The Lord Jesus will return, but we are waiting for that glorious day. How should approach this time in between Christ’s first and second coming? The parable gives an answer. We wait with persistent prayer. So, the context of the parable connects with the church’s life in between the first and second coming of Christ.
Secondly, we ought to note the nature of the parable. It is a lesser-to-greater parable. Jesus uses a lesser figure – an unjust judge – in order to highlight a greater figure – the perfectly Just God. In that sense, the parable builds to one grand application: If an unjust judge hears persistent pleas, how much more will God hear his children? That’s the point of this parable, in summary form.
But let’s not settle for a summary, friends. Like I said, this passage is a jewel of encouragement, so let’s consider the details. And let’s do so under the heading of persistent prayer. Luke 18 gives us four different perspectives on persistent prayer, and taken together, these perspectives provide great encouragement for perseverance.
The Need for Persistent Prayer
We start, then, in v1 with the Need for Persistent Prayer. As is often the case in Luke, we are given the purpose of the parable up front, in the very first verse. Notice again how the passage begins – “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” So, why does Jesus tell this parable? It’s very clear – so that his disciples will always pray. Now, the idea here is not that the believer is praying literally every minute of every day. That is an unrealistic approach to life. We are certainly called to pray, but as Christians, we are also called to work, to raise our children, to serve the saints – we could go on! There are numerous callings in the Christian life, so the point of v1 is not that we should retreat to a monastery and simply pray every minute of the day.
Rather, Jesus’ point is that prayer should mark every season of the Christian life. We should never be too busy to pray. We should never be so comfortable that we take a break from prayer. Whatever the season, we are to be people marked by prayer. So, before we go any further, brothers and sisters, let me ask you this question – How would you characterize your life of prayer? Are you always praying, to use the language of v1? Or is it more hit and miss?
And let’s just settle this right away – we’re not constant in prayer, at least not as we ought to be. Each of us has room to grow, don’t we? None of us has outgrown the need for v1. So, wherever you are in this pursuit of constant prayer, we all need the exhortation that is v1. And as one of your pastors, I want to stress to you how vital this is. There is a lot of talk in our day about the rising persecution that the church faces in our country. You can read innumerable articles on the internet about how the church needs to get ready for the storm that is coming. And all of that is true. But do you know what will best prepare us for what’s coming? Prayer – constant, steadfast, persistent prayer. Where do you need to grow, and how do you plan to do so?
As we continue in the text, you’ll notice there is more to v1. Not only is the parable designed to encourage constant prayer, but it is also designed to combat losing heart. We ought always to pray and not lose heart, Luke says. Losing heart is the same as giving up – throwing in the towel and concluding that prayer is pointless. That is what Jesus fights against in this parable – he doesn’t want his people to give up on prayer.
And friends, I find this quite timely from the Lord. The natural tendency in the Christian life is to be discouraged in prayer. Personally, we have prayers that appear to go unanswered, and corporately, we are still waiting for Christ to return. As such, it is natural to experience some discouragement. It is natural to think, “Prayer isn’t doing anything. Why do I bother?” Have you ever thought that? You may have thought that this week!
If so, then this parable is for you, brothers and sisters. In his kindness, Jesus meets you in your discouragement, and he gives you what you need to fight back against that natural tendency to give up. Do you see the kindness of Christ here, friends? He does not leave us where we are! He does not say, “Be constant in prayer,” and then leave us to figure out how to do that. He commands us, and then he gives us what we need to follow his command. What a merciful Savior we have! What kindness of God to give us his Word, where Christ meets us and equips us to follow him by faith!
So, we ought to be encouraged from the start, friends. The need for persistent prayer is great – it is natural to lose heart. But praise God, Christ meets us with encouragement.
The Example of Persistent Prayer
Our second perspective begins to describe Christ’s encouragement. In vv2-6, we see the Example of Persistent Prayer. This is the parable proper, and it has two characters. The first character is a judge who is utterly unfit for his role. Notice v2 – “He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.’” Now, according to the OT, judges were responsible to look out for the least of these. In fact, you could argue that a judge’s foundational role was to ensure that those in power not use their authority in sinful ways. In other words, to be a faithful judge, you had to fear God more than man. You had to have compassion toward others, particularly toward the weak.
But this judge has neither. He does not fear God, which is the same as saying he ignores the great commandment. He does not love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. And he does not respect others, which is the same as saying he ignores the second great commandment. He does not love his neighbor as himself. This is a man with authority who lacks the character to use that authority rightly.
But the unjust judge is not the only character. There is also a persistent widow, and she provides the example. Notice how Jesus describes her, v3 – “And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’” Now, the parable does not tell us what her situation is, but it is assumed that she is in the right. Her case deserves to be heard. What’s more, widows were precisely the kind of people judges were commanded to protect. Widows were in a very vulnerable position, often unable to provide for themselves and, thus, very prone to be taken advantage of. So, this is exactly the kind of situation where a just judge is needed.
But despite the widow’s situation, the judge ignores her, at least for a time. Suddenly, however, her persistence pays off. The unjust judge responds to her. Notice vv4-5 – “For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘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.’” It’s a remarkable turnaround, isn’t it? The widow causes enough trouble for the judge that he relents. He is tired of hearing her plea. In fact, he’s concerned that things could get worse for him. In the last phrase of v5, the judge is literally saying he’s afraid the widow will come and give him a black eye! He keeps refusing, but she keeps asking. She won’t quit. So, out of self-preservation, the unjust judge responds. He gives the widow justice.
And so, with the parable complete, Jesus calls his disciples to recognize the truth. Look at v6 – “And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says.’” Now, remember the nature of the parable, friends. It is a lesser-to-greater parable. That means the point is not that God will answer us if only we bother him enough. That would put God on the same level as the unjust judge, which is both blasphemous and contrary to the nature of the parable.
Rather, the point is to recognize the wisdom of persistence in prayer. If even an unjust judge responds to persistent pleas, then how much more will our God and Father respond to the persistent prayers of his children? The answer is much more! Do you see the connection, friends?
The judge has to have his arm twisted; our God is ready and willing to answer his people. The judge has no commitment to justice; our God is the definition of justice. The judge has no compassion, even toward someone in need like this widow; our God is full of compassion and abounding in steadfast love. The judge is cold and indifferent; our God is so attentive, he collects our tears in a bottle, Psalm 57. The point of the parable is not that we must bother God until he responds. No, the point is to show us, once more, the exceeding willingness of our God to answer.
Brothers and Sisters, this is the key to not losing heart in prayer. It is to remember the One to whom we pray – to remember his character, remember his greatness, remember his kindness and compassion and mercy and grace and wisdom and providence. When God looms large in our mind, discouragement is quick to flee from the heart. When God stands exalted in our affections, fear and apathy are driven out by the light of his glory. There is a reason why so much of the church’s teaching on prayer down through ages has begun with the character of God. It’s because right thinking about God leads to persistence in prayer. When we think of God rightly, then we find ourselves praying persistently.
Some of you may have learned to pray the way that I did – with the acronym A.C.T.S. Does anyone else remember that? A.C.T.S – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. I still use that acronym by the way. Few things have been more helpful in training my heart to labor in prayer, and I’ve still got a ways to go. Where does that acronym begin? With A, adoration – it begins with praising God for who he is. That’s not a formality, friends. If I could stress one thing today, it would be this. Beginning your prayers with adoration is not a formality. It’s actually a means of grace that helps you persist in prayer.
Surprisingly, this is what the unjust judge is saying to us. He’s telling us to recognize afresh the unspeakable kindness and compassion of our God. In the act of prayer, we have a better advocate than the widow. We have a good heavenly Father, and therefore, we ought to persist as well.
The Promise of Persistent Prayer
Friends, this leads naturally in to our third perspective on persistent prayer. We’ve looked at the Need for Persistent Prayer and the Example of Persistent Prayer. In v7, we find the Promise of Persistent Prayer. What are the promises that protect us against losing heart? That’s what Jesus deals with in these verses. There are a two that deserve our attention.
First of all, there is the promise of Christ’s return. Notice the language of v7 – “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” Of course, the answer is that God will not delay. He will give justice to his people because he is himself perfectly just. Again, it’s the character of God on display. God will not fail to give justice because he cannot be less than he is. He cannot be less than just. Therefore, every wrong against God’s people will be made right. Every pain and heartache will be repaid with comfort. Every injustice will be punished and rectified. Every persecution will be answered with glory for the saint and judgment for the wicked. Nothing that God’s people have endured in the path of faith will be left unaccounted for. Because God cannot be less than who he is, he will give his people justice.
But when will this occur? That’s the question. When will this great reckoning come? Should we expect justice in this life? Perhaps. It may be that God brings justice to the believer, on some level, in this life. But the point of v7, brothers and sisters, is to lift our eyes from the present in order to see the end. The justice in view here comes with the return of Christ.
Again, remember the context – this parable comes immediately after Jesus’ teaching on the second coming in ch17. That connection is key. One of the great promises of the church is that Christ will return, and when he does, he will right every wrong. He will bring justice. And that promise, friends, keeps us persistent in prayer. Even when it seems that God has not answered, we continue to pray. Why? Because we know that Christ is coming soon, and when he does, all will be made right. The promise of Christ’s return helps us persist in prayer.
But there is a second promise in these verses, and it is the promise of God’s grace. You might ask, “Where’s the reference to God’s grace in v7?” That’s a good question, and I’ll admit that the word grace is not present. But the truth is there. Notice how Jesus identifies believers in v7. Notice what he calls them – “And will not God give justice to his elect?” Now, this is the only time in Luke’s Gospel that disciples are referred to as God’s elect, so the choice here is purposeful and significant. What is election? Here’s how our statement of faith defines election – “Election is God’s eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life-not because of foreseen merit or foreseen faith in them, but [because] of His mere mercy in Christ.” So, in short, election is the act of God’s saving grace, which means the elect are those who have received God’s grace – not because they earned it or deserve it, but simply because God chose to give it. The elect are the recipients of God’s grace.
Now, what does this have to do with prayer? How in the world does election help us persist in prayer? The answer, friends, is that God’s grace cannot fail. The elect can never be unelected. The elect live every day with the promise of Philippians 1.6 ringing in their eyes – “He who began a good work in you” – election! grace! – “will bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus.” Armed with that grace, what do we do? We pray, and we keep praying. We persist in prayer because we know that regardless of how long prayers seem to go unanswered, our heavenly Father has nothing but grace for us. Even if our prayers seem to go unanswered for our entire lives, we still have the confidence that God is for us and not against us.
Do you see it, brothers and sisters? It grieves me that so many churches and Christians make the doctrine of election something to argue about. It is not a point of debate; it’s an anchor for the soul! Election is not a speculative doctrine; it’s a pastoral doctrine. So, shout it from the rooftops – God’s grace is unconditional! He elects whomever he wills! Shout it, friends, but even more, live it. And the way we live as God’s elect is to pray without losing heart.
That’s the perspective of v7, friends. Because God’s grace cannot fail, we know that he will hear us and answer us, if not in this life then certainly in the day of Christ Jesus. Armed with these promises – the promise of Christ’s return and the promise of God’s grace – we persist in prayer.
The Effect of Persistent Prayer
Our final perspective on persistent prayer comes in the final verse. V8, we see the Effect of Persistent Prayer. Jesus begins this final verse by answering the question of v7. Notice the first line, v8 – “I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” Friends, this is a good reminder that the life of faith requires that we see the world, including our lives, from God’s perspective. Jesus says God will give justice to his people speedily. He said this 2,000 years ago, so was Jesus mistaken? 2,000 years is a long time, perhaps v8 needs to be adjusted, right?
No, friends, it is our perspective that needs to be adjusted. A thousand years is as one day with the Lord, Psalm 90 teaches us. So, when Jesus says justice will come speedily, we must think on God’s timetable, not ours. When the final day comes, the justice of God will be revealed suddenly. Soon, Jesus says, God will vindicate his people, and that truth, brothers and sisters, is only received by faith.
In fact, this call to faith is how Jesus ends the passage. Notice the final line of v8, where Jesus asks another rhetorical question – “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Now, Jesus is not saying that he expects to find his people without faith when he comes. Rather, Jesus uses the question to prompt his disciples – and us – to think, to ask ourselves, “Am I walking by faith in the promises of God? Am I persevering in the faith, holding fast to the gospel?” In that sense, this final statement from Jesus is more of an exhortation than a question. He is pushing us to set our eyes on the last day, where our blessed hope will be revealed and where God’s justice will make all things right and new. So, it comes as a question, but it works as an exhortation. The way we live for the last day is to persevere in the faith today.
Of course, that raises a closing question, an important one. How do I persevere in the faith? If Jesus exhorts us toward perseverance, how do I take his exhortation to heart? There are many ways to answer that, brothers and sisters, since God has given us many means of grace. But in the context of this passage, there is one clear means of perseverance. There is one clear application that helps us continue trusting in Christ as we await his return.
What is this one clear application? It’s the subject of the parable – persistent prayer. One way that God keeps his elect to the end is through prayer that does not lose heart. Friends, do you see the incredible kindness of Christ in the symmetry of this passage? The call in v1 to pray always is the answer to Jesus’ question in v8. Persistent prayer is a God-designed means of perseverance in the faith.
Why is this the case? How does prayer keep us in the faith? The answer is that prayer continually resets our perspective. By nature, we tend to focus on today; prayer resets our focus to the last day. By nature, we tend to believe our circumstances are ultimate; prayer reminds us that God is ultimate. By nature, we are prone to wander; prayer anchors us in the truth. By nature, we tend to think first of ourselves; prayer teaches us to think first of God and also our neighbor. By nature, we are prone to judge God by our standards, by our timetable; prayer resets us to God’s timetable, the timetable of eternity. We could go on and on, friends, but I hope you see the point. In fact, I hope you see the wisdom and kindness of Christ in this brief parable. When Jesus returns, he will be looking for genuine faith. How do we remain in this genuine faith? Through the very thing Christ instructs us to do in this passage – through persistent prayer that does not lose heart.
So, back to where we started – with the weight of unanswered prayer. The reality is there are no unanswered prayers, at least according to God’s perspective and God’s timetable. He answers every prayer with perfect wisdom, though his answers are not always clear to us, and we may not be able to put the pieces together. But friends, that’s why Jesus gives us this parable – so that we will not lose heart. So that we will persist in prayer. So that we will wait upon the Lord, and in waiting upon him in prayer, we will find our strength renewed.
There is a day coming when there will be no more weight of unanswered prayer. On that day, when Christ returns, we will not see through a glass dimly. Indeed, we will not even see those unanswered prayers. We will see Christ, and in seeing Christ, we will know, for all eternity, that our God and Father is for us. Amen, Come Lord Jesus. Let’s pray.