You know the one about the widow who kept going to the king for help? The Bible records that Jesus tells this parable to illustrate to his disciples that they must pray continually and not give up (Luke 18:1-8). I have heard sermons and taught Sunday School classes using this story as a way to communicate our need to be praying often and persistently. The story is even labelled “The Persistent Widow”, and it is that word “persistent” that bothers me. It makes it sound like God will answer our prayers just to shut us up. Not a very flattering picture of God or of us. It makes me think of a maddeningly persistentchild. I can remember those days when my children were little and I would have to scatter some M&M’s on their lunch plate between the grilled cheese sandwich and the apple slices just to get a little peace. I don’t view this as a particularly shining maternal moment; just a tired mom giving in to a persistent child.
I’m having trouble with the word persistent. These days I have come to view that parable from a slightly different angle. I’m sure that the king was hoping to quiet the woman, but was he responding to her persistence or the reason for her persistence? You see, this widow was aware that whatever her problem was, only the king could help her. He was the only person who had the ability, the authority and the right to dispense the justice that she needed. She petitioned him regularly because she knew that there was nowhere else to go. She had complete trust that the king would help her.
This , then is how we must pray. We can be persistent with God because we really have nowhere else to turn and we are truly in desperate need. So we cry out to the only one who can help us. God responds not to the volume or quantity of our prayers, but to the sincerity in our hearts and our trust of his ability and authority to help us.
It took so long for me to learn this. As a teenager, I had a hard time (well, who didn’t?). I started with a Christian base to answer my many questions but wasn’t satisfied with the few answers I was finding. At this point, I should have found a mature Christian to serve as a mentor, but being a headstrong, know-it-all teen (remember those “got-the-tiger-by-the-tail” days?), I decided to head out on my own. Since Christianity had disappointed me, I looked into Buddhism, HInduism, Islam, Transcendental Meditation, New Age and the writings of the great philosophers of the past. It would take twenty years before I would return to my Christian roots with that “tiger tail” between my legs.
My long journey wasn’t in vain. I have actually learned a few things. For example, I am starting to understand the mistaken perceptions fo my youth and it is this simple – I didn’t trust God. The secret of the widow’s persistence and the receipt of the king’s justice lies in her trust of him. But I didn’t trust God. I would pray for help with only one hand held out while the other grasped desperately at earthly straws. Now, God wants to answer our prayers. He longs to be gracious to us (Isaiah 30:18). But if we only put out one hand, He will only fill up one hand. If we don’t let HIm fill both hands, we end up feeling only half-filled and therefore unsatisfied. David sang that God satisfied him completely (Psalm 63) but that was only because he was so open to God. When we approach God still withholding parts of ourselves from Him, He cannot love us as completely as He wants to. This is not God withholding love from us. It is us not being open to God. When we approach God while still trying to keep secret our deepest, darkest thoughts (which He already knows anyway), He cannot love us as completely as He wants to. We are not allowing ourselves to be open to receive all that He has for us. And then we have the nerve to say that God isn’t answering our prayers!
Persistent prayers, in and of themselves, won’t touch God’s heart, Anyone can chant a mantra over and over again, that won’t make it true. Even repetition of the Lord’s Prayer won’t cause God to bend down (although it will help to soften your own knees). I think that God waits for words that pour forth from a trusting heart and listens for those words that leap from a loving tongue. God must look for those two hands opened humbly and trustingly upwards towards Him, so that He can fill them to overflowing with His graciousness. I’m learning Lord, it’s hard but I am learning.