One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up:
“There was a judge in a certain city,” he said, “who neither feared God nor cared about people. A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, saying, ‘Give me justice in this dispute with my enemy.’ The judge ignored her for a while, but finally he said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or care about people, but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!’”
Then the Lord said, “Learn a lesson from this unjust judge. Even he rendered a just decision in the end. So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly! But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?” (Lk 18:1-8)
Jesus compares prayer to the status of being a widow—a woman who in that day and age had absolutely no means of financial support. For her, there was no other hope; if someone robbed her of her meager savings, she was done for. Imagine how she must have felt—desperate, afraid, angry, determined—constantly, frantically, pounding on the door of the only one who could save her. She sought justice, what was right, by pounding and pounding and pounding.
Compare that to most of the prayers you hear or pray yourself. “God, we pray for all those who are suffering in our world.” “God, grant me the strength to deal with my parents.” “God, please take care of me.” “God, please give me friends.” And so on.
We would do much better to yell our prayers, to beat our chests, to fall flat on our faces, and scream, “God… do you hear me?” Maybe that would be undignified, to actually admit that we need God so deeply. But I don’t think that’s the real reason why we don’t pray the way that Jesus depicts prayer here. There are plenty of times in life when we are happy to appear undignified (as evidenced by the antics on reality TV).
And I wonder if there really is anything that we feel strongly enough about that would drive us to that kind of prayer?
We Want, but not Enough
At one point in my life, I was a counselor, and I would sit with multiple people each week in different stages of distress. One of my clients, Kim, told me about all the things that weren’t as she wanted them to be. She wanted to be financially secure, she wanted to have a good job, but at the time, she was unemployed. And though she had signed up for a computer class, she never seemed to be able to make it. I saw many clients like that—they said they wanted different things in life, but they would not act to bring anything they wanted closer to reality.
I had another friend who wanted to be married, but he would go down the list of women he’d dated once or twice and tell you what was wrong with each one. Eventually, he stopped asking women out. And so, when he said he’d like to be socially active, but he wouldn’t do anything about it, his other friends and I said, “We’re not sure if you really want this.” One night over beers, the truth came out. He did want it—but not enough. He was afraid; afraid of heartache, afraid of rejection, afraid of hoping, and then being disappointed. It had happened too many times and eventually, he decided he’d rather not even try.
Many of us are the same way. We want a different life, a better life…but we have fears. What if I try my hardest, and it doesn’t work? What if I get out there, and then fail? It’s better to stay right here, we think, where at least we know the territory, where at least we know what we’re dealing with.
So why don’t we pray like the widow in Jesus’ story? It’s because we don’t want anything quite as desperately as the widow. And why don’t we want anything quite that desperately? Because we won’t let ourselves. To want something that desperately is to open yourself up to great heartache and disappointment…”What if I don’t get it?” Why don’t we pray like the widow in Jesus’ story? It's because we don’t want anything quite as desperately as the widow. Click To Tweet
We don’t pray greatly because we don’t desire greatly.
We don’t desire greatly because we won’t let ourselves—we are afraid to hope.
To risk desire is to risk disappointment…and a life of prayer is risky.
The Unjust Judge
So, we pray easy prayers and mistake them for mature prayers. “God, if it’s your will, please heal so and so.” “God, if it’s your will, please give me a wife or a husband or a friend.” “God, please change my heart.” The problem isn’t that we want too much—the problem is that we want too little and pray too weakly. So, we pray easy prayers and mistake them for mature prayers. The problem isn’t that we want too much—the problem is that we want too little and pray too weakly. Click To Tweet
The truth is that we suspect, deep down inside, that God really couldn’t care less. And we’d rather not face that suspicion or the disappointment of hoping and not having an answer, so we insulate ourselves with weak desire, small hopes—easy prayers.
In his parables, Jesus consistently portrays God as an unjust judge, a friend who won’t open the door for his neighbor, a harsh landowner who reaps where he doesn’t sow. In so many of his stories, Jesus uses this device of making God the bad guy, maybe just to get his audience’s attention, but maybe to put an issue out on the table. Maybe he wants to confront us with that deep, abiding human suspicion that God is not paying attention, that he’s not listening, that he doesn’t care about us.
The picture that someone has scrawled on the inside of our hearts is that of a closed door, a dead-bolted lock, lights turned out. And yet God says, “If you will knock on that door, I will open it.” But why doesn’t God just answer the door on the first knock? Why does he make it so hard?
I have a golden retriever named Bentley, and I sometimes I make him do tricks to earn a treat. We might be tempted to think that God is like the owner who waits for the dog to do the trick or to do enough tricks before he dispenses the treat. But I think that would be an inaccurate picture of God.
Maybe God wants us to pray and pray and pray to make sure that we really want what we’re praying for, that we really care about those for whom we are praying. But I tend to think that God wants us to pound and pound on the door, not to test how much we really care about that for which we pray, but to make us really care for that which we pray. He wants us to change our hearts and minds toward those around us, toward the world we are praying for, even toward ourselves.
God knows that I will be one type of person after one prayer. He also knows I will be an entirely different type of person after 100 prayers. He wants to develop in me the type of character that comes from caring enough about others to pray and pray and pray, and even caring enough about myself to pray and pray and pray.
To Pray is to Change
Richard Foster in his book Prayer writes, “To pray is to change. This is a great grace. How good of God to provide a path whereby our lives can be taken over by love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control.”
So, do we really want the things we say we want, do we really need the things we say we need? Do we really care about our world, about what’s happening in the lives of those around us, about what’s happening in the hearts of our families and friends? I wonder if our prayers reflect this.
Pound on God’s door. Bother him morning, noon, and night. “Let your requests be made known to God.” Risk desire—not just physical desire for things, but desire to see God’s hand in your life and in your world.
Pray bold prayers. Take the chance to care so much for someone that you pray for them. Take the chance that in praying for someone, God will cause you to care. Don’t wait for God to change you before you pray… trust that God will change you through your prayers.