The Persistent Widow
The Jews believed in limiting prayer as to not weary God. Daniel’s example of three times a day (Daniel 6:10) was considered the maximum. But as he talks about his second coming, Jesus speaks against that belief. God cannot be wearied. Jesus says the days ahead are going to be hard, especially for those who follow a crucified and risen savior. They’re going to run into opposition, hardship, and trials of every kind. But they won’t be left alone, and Jesus will come again to restore it all. Whatever they face in the days ahead, God will bring vengeance in the end. But the waiting will be difficult, and we’ll want to pray the same thing repeatedly, “Lord, how long?” Jesus says that’s ok, and, furthermore, don’t ever give up on that prayer. We don’t have to limit our prayers. Instead, we ought always to pray and not lose heart. Jesus invites us to bother God in prayer because our prayers, as it turns out, don’t bother God at all.
But our prayers don’t all receive an immediate answer. And our prayer for God’s return, where he’ll bring final justice to the earth will be one of those delayed-answer kinds of prayers. We want things done at a certain time and in a certain way, but God operates the world on his economy. As Peter tells us in 2 Peter 3:8, “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.”
But God’s delay should not lead to our failure to pray. Rather, Jesus is telling us we should always pray but we should do so with patience, trusting God knows best. We must tap into the child-like ability to ask the same thing a million times but do so with the wisdom of an adult who knows, sometimes, it’s best not to answer immediately.
The Parable of the Persistent Widow – Luke 18:1-8
1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
We Ought Always to Pray
Jesus uses the story of a wicked man—a judge—and a helpless woman—a widow. The judge “neither feared God nor respected man.” He thought only of himself and did only what was to his advantage, an ironic thing for a judge who should be about justice in every way. But the widow cared not for the judge’s feelings. She cared not for his selfishness. She cared not for even his godlessness. She cared for justice, and she knew he was the only man in town who had the power to set right the wrong done to her. But she had no standing in the community, no husband to fight on her behalf, no money to bribe him with. All she had was her request. And so, with that request, she went, and she went, and she went. She went until he became tired of her. Then, desiring to be rid of her, he gave in. He granted her request, giving her justice. If the unjust judge would do that for a widow, won’t God do that for his elect?
Jesus is making a “how much more” point. If the unrighteous judge who neither fears God nor respects man will grant justice, how much more will God grant justice to his elect? As Leon Morris says, “If a wicked man will sometimes do good, even if from bad motives, how much more will God do right!”
God is not uncaring. He is not unconcerned. It’s not that he doesn’t know what to do or simply doesn’t want to think about the situation. God knows everything. He sees everything. But God doesn’t answer us according to our wishes. He answers according to his wisdom, and, sometimes, his wisdom requires a delayed response. Sometimes, the work God must do takes place over a long period of time. Sometimes, God asks us to labor in prayer for a long season for the work he has planned.
It seems odd to compare God to an unjust judge, but Jesus does so for a very important reason. We are tempted to distrust God when our prayers are not immediately answered. We think maybe he is an unjust judge, even if we’d never admit that to ourselves. It shows up in our prayer life. When we give up on the prayer of justice, we give in to thinking God isn’t for us. We believe we’re lower than the widow in this story, and God doesn’t care about justice.
We ought always to pray, Jesus says, because in our praying, God acts. The world may look gloomy and dark, but God is at work in it now, saving more and more, preparing for the return of Christ. In the in-between time of Christ’s first and second comings, the trials of his saints are hard, but they are coming to an end. God will grant his people justice. Let’s not fail to pray about it.
So how do we pray such a thing when it feels as if God is unwilling to answer? David shows in Psalm 13.
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
David feels like the widow, voiceless before the judge. The first two verses are filled with both sorrow
and dismay that God would not answer. David considered it a personal offense, as if it was a friend shunning him rather than a distant judge delaying his response. He has real, urgent needs. God cannot remain silent forever. It was always this way with David. As Derek Kidner says, “Awareness of God and the enemy is virtually the hallmark of every psalm of David; the positive and negative charge which produced the driving-force of his best years.”
The enemy constantly surrounded David, and in their midst, he had a choice to make. He could trust God’s promises or not. Verse 5 gives us the answer, he would trust God’s steadfast love. Kidner comments, “However great the pressure, the choice is still his to make, not the enemy’s; and God’s covenant remains. So the psalmist entrusts himself to this pledged love, and turns his attention not to the quality of his faith but to its object and its outcome, which he has every intention of enjoying.”
David faced the same problem we all face: will God bring justice? So David did what David does, he prayed. Before Jesus showed up to tell us we ought always to pray, David was praying. He turned his doubts into prayers, letting his prayers rise on the wings of faith to find the bountiful dealings God has with man. God will not only grant what we need, he will do so in a way far beyond what we could ask or think.
Of course, David prayed similar prayers throughout his life. Psalm 13 was not the only one. The biblical model is consistent prayer for God’s provision. It, apparently, even stretches beyond this life into the heavens. Revelation 6 tells of the opening of the seven seals. When the fifth seal is opened, John says, “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Revelation 6:9-11)
The heavenly saints are following Jesus’s call to always pray. Their prayer is the same as the widows: they want justice. As Leon Morris says, “The first Christians found a problem in the fact that God does not punish sin here and now. They saw part of the answer in the cross. The cross does not mean the abolition of judgment. It means that people will be judged by their attitude to the sacrificial love of God shown on Calvary. But the cross also shows that God has no truck with evil. Finally, it will be totally overthrown. God waits and the number of martyrs grows to its completion. But the final destruction of evil is certain. It is not a question of ‘Whether?’ but of ‘When?’.”
So Jesus commands us to always pray because God hears our prayers, and he will not disappoint. The end of the age is coming, and the justice we long for will come, and, in fact, as God always does, it will come in greater measure than we can ask or think. It is not a matter of ‘if’, only a matter of ‘when.’ God is not an unjust judge. He’s far better.
We Ought Not Lose Heart
William Still pastored a church in Scotland for 52 years. During an early season of his pastorate, he met regularly with a group of pastors to pray for revival. Over the course of three years, they met weekly and offered up prayer to God that he would pour out his Spirit on their land. They went about their days with their eyes open, awaiting God’s answer. Why would he not grant their request? At the end of the third year, they all felt a collective release of their burden, though none of them visibly saw any signs of revival. They had been the persistent widow, approaching God’s throne regularly, and now, it seemed to them, God was saying, “that’s enough.” But he didn’t answer.
Nearly twenty years went by and the pastors continued preaching the gospel and shepherding their churches. A new generation had risen, and many began coming into their churches, longing for the gospel. Older men, too, had been coming in droves—men in their 40s and 50s, with gospel vigor. William Still and his fellow pastors realized something as they heard the stories of these men. Those many years ago, as they met for prayer, God was hearing and answering. Many of these men were born during those years. The older men were converted during those years. It took around twenty years for Still and his fellow pastors to see God’s answer, but he had heard and had responded with a “Yes.” But it was a yes they couldn’t see for a couple of decades.
What are you praying for right now? What request is constantly before the Lord? He’s not required to answer it simply because we bring it, but are you bringing anything? Too often, our prayers are too little, too infrequent, and too mild. God loves a bold pray-er. He loves to hear grand prayers, prayers that reach out beyond our sphere of influence. He loves prayers for world-wide justice, for global evangelization, for his name to be spread far and wide. God longs to grant the glory-filled prayers of his people. But, Jesus knows, we are tempted to give up on prayer. We are tempted to throw in the towel, move on, to simply stop. Jesus urges us to do no such thing. If God granted William Still’s prayers for the revival of his part of Scotland, why would he not grant our prayers for revival of our land, or of our country, or of our world? In fact, he will, even if it takes until the end of the age for the “yes” to come. It may look as if he will never come back, but he will. In God’s timing, Jesus will return to set all things right, to restore the universe, to make all things new. Are we praying to that end?
The widow had no rights before the judge. She had no money for a bribe, no husband for support, no social status for influence. She had only a request, and that was enough for her. If such a woman could have her request granted, how much more will God’s elect children have their requests heard? If the poor, outcast widow could not lose heart, how is it that we could? Jesus tells us to persevere. Do not grow tired of praying, for God hears his children’s voices.
The problem Jesus is confronting is not the issue of God’s silence in the face of small matters or issues of preference. God cares about the entirety of our lives, but Jesus is not addressing what we do with silence in temporary decisions. He is addressing how we make it through the time between Jesus’s first and second comings. His disciples are wondering what to do to endure till the end. And the answer Jesus gives is, “Pray, and keep praying.”
We all know how difficult it is to continue in the same direction for a long period of time. God knows too. But what we encounter as we wait on God is the same thing saints have encountered throughout the ages. Abraham was brought to the Promised Land without the promised child. He tried to help God out a few times, but that didn’t work. So he had to wait. He and Sarah grew old—so old that when God came to them with the promise of a child, they both laughed. But in the course of time, God’s promise proved true. No matter what Abraham did to compromise it, God stayed true to his word. And in the end, Isaac was born.
David was anointed King of Israel years before he ascended to the throne. He worked in the house of Saul, dodging spears as Saul became angry and envious. David was driven into the desert, hiding in caves. One day, as Saul searched for his enemy, he came down to David’s cave to relieve himself. David could have killed him then, but he stayed his hand. On another occasion David stood above Saul’s sleeping body with a spear in his hand but gave the order not to kill. He would not touch God’s anointed king, even if he was the heir. God would bring him up in due course. Time was not his to control. It was God’s.
The widow had no rights before the judge. But we are not like the widow before the unjust judge. We are like children before the Father. We are like Abraham and David, whom God protected and provided for. We are God’s elect, his chosen people. Though our prayers be long and labored, though they be stretched across times and seasons, though we grow tired and impatient, we should not lose heart because God is for us, and if God is for us, who can be against us?
We Ought to Have Faith
The widow’s persistence proved her faith. She believed that in the end, justice would be granted. Her faith drove her before the judge’s bench. Jesus calls us to have the same kind of faith. What do we need from the Lord? We long for justice. We long for his name to be glorified. We long for the end of suffering. We long for the provision of his mercy and grace. So since we long, we should pray. And we should never stop praying, even when the road gets hard. God is not worse than the unjust judge who finally granted this widow’s request. He is far better. Shall not the judge of the earth do right (Gen. 18:25)? The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether (Ps. 19:9). He is righteous in all his ways (Ps. 145:17). He exercises loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth, for he delights in them (Jer. 9:24).
So Jesus ends this parable with a question. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” What is this faith that Jesus asks about? Surely it is not something we do. If it’s in our hands, we will fail, and Jesus will find no one to bring home when he returns. Faith does not spring up from within; it is placed deep inside from without. God himself grants it. Jesus is not saying otherwise. He is simply asking us what faith does. Faith holds on to the promises of God’s goodness. Faith never gives up. And faith never gives up because God never lets us go. Augustine said, “If faith fail, prayer perishes.” Faith and prayer are joined together. The faithful pray and faith fuels prayer. Our prayer lives are good indicators of our faith, and Jesus is using this question to further spur us on to pray and not give up. Faithful Christians never give up on God because God never gives up on them.
Think of this: Jesus came to earth to show us how God’s story ends—with resurrection, restoration, renewing! He tells us beforehand that the latter days will be difficult. He tells us we will be prone to giving up. He tells us we must keep pressing on. He urges us to always pray! Why? Because it’s good for us to bang our head on a wall? Because he delights to see us wrestle with things larger than us? No! He urges us to pray because, in the praying, we are entering into the Father’s heart. We are pleading with God for God’s vision. We are asking for what God is going to grant. Jesus will come again, and no matter how dark the night is right now, the light has come into the world, and one day, he will come again. We should all be like the widow: needy, persistent, and faithful.
We are not left without an example of such faithful prayer. Jesus himself is our model. Look at the way he prayed to the Father in John 17.
1 He looked toward heaven and prayed:
“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4 I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.
6 “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.
13 “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Jesus didn’t pray this in a corner of the world. We don’t have to wonder if he really prayed this way. He prayed this at the last supper with his apostles. He wants us to know that the prayer of the widow was the prayer of the Son. How much more then should it be our prayer as well?
Jesus was the most faithful man to ever live, and his faith caused him to pray. But notice who he prays for: he prays for us. He prays that we will continue to know the Father and the Father’s love. Truly, he prays the Father’s love becomes our love. And with a love like that, Jesus will find faith when he returns.