Perseverance In Faith
by Peter Jenkins
20th October 2013
If you’re going to speak on one of the parables of Jesus, the story of the persistent widow is quite a good one to pick. Some of the parables can get quite difficult or complex. But the story of the persistent widow is much simpler, not least because the Bible actually tells us not only what the story is about but also why Jesus told it. So Luke says, quite openly, Jesus told this parable to show his disciples “that they should always pray and never give up”.
So there you go, if you want to know what the parable is about and what it means for you it is this – you should always pray and never give up.
The widow and the judge
There are two characters in the story: first the judge, unjust and completely unmoved by a fear of God or any sort of public opinion. He doesn’t care what the right or just outcome should be – though I imagine he is quite happy to give you judgment for a price. Then there is the widow. She would not have the money to bribe the judge and is likely a person without any influence in society or with the judge. She will not be able to persuade him, she will not be able to pay him, she will not be able to shame him into giving her judgment – and yet eventually he does give judgment in her favour, because of her persistence.
Jesus doesn’t tell the parable to equate us with the widow or the judge with God. He is not saying, God is an unjust judge – quite the opposite. He contrasts the judge with God. But what he does want is for us to learn from the widow’s behaviour. Can you imagine just how annoying, irritating, frustrating the widow must have been for the judge to give her judgment. Every single morning, every single day she would have been there hounding him. And he would have tried refusing her, ignoring her, yelling at her until finally he knows the only way to get rid of her is to give her what she wants so she will leave him alone.
That is what Jesus wants to understand, not the being annoying or irritating part, but the sheer persistence and perseverance that meant the widow kept going no matter how many times she got rejected. It was the refusal to give up no matter how hopeless or how many times she got knocked back.
Why do we need to know the persistent widow?
So why tell us this parable. Well there are two reasons. The first is that Jesus knows that sometimes life is going to be hard. He tells us this. In John he says, “there will be trouble” in Matthew it is that each day has trouble enough of its own. There is no expectation that being Christians means we will have life of ease.
But more than that, the reason for telling this parable is because sometimes we are going to pray and we are not going to see an answer to our prayers. You see you don’t need to tell people to persist in prayer if their prayers are going to be immediately answered. You don’t keep praying for rain after the drought has been broken. And so there is no need for Jesus to tell us that we need to always pray and never give up if every prayer that we pray will always be answered quickly.
Many prayers will. But there will also be prayers that we will pray over and over again, seemingly without hearing or receiving any answer from God.
There is a whole theology around unanswered prayers, the reasons why sometimes prayers will not be answered and the reality that sometimes we just don’t know why that are not. I am not going to get into that. But I will say this, prayer is one of the key mechanisms of our relationship with God. It is one of the primary ways that we engage with Him and engage Him in our lives. And when prayer goes unanswered we wrestle with that, and we often find ourselves wrestling with God. And that is ok. Because very often it is through wrestling with God that we find ourselves changed, and sometimes our prayers will change too.
Genesis tells us how one night Jacob was alone and he encountered a man and they wrestled and Jacob refused to let the man go until the man blessed him. The man he wrestled with was God and he did bless Jacob and gave him a new name, Israel – which means one who wrestles with God. God also broke Jacob’s hip, wrenching it from the socket so that Jacob was forever changed by his encounter.
God doesn’t mind us wrestling with him, even when it might be through disappointment or anger or frustration at unanswered prayer. But what God does mind, what He fears, is that we will stop wrestling with Him. That we will give up. That we will not persist in prayer but throw up our hands and walk away.
At the end of the parable Jesus asks a question; when the Son of Man comes again, will he find faith? When Jesus comes again, will we have persisted through it all or will we have given up and walked away.
A few years ago I was on holiday in Suffolk in England. As some friends and I drove through the countryside we stopped at a flower market beside an old church. Now I am not really one for flower markets, so I went and had a look at the church. It was an old stone church, not very big, much narrower than this one. The stone was roughly cut and very well worn, the stain glass windows were very simple and there was no real elegance or beauty to the place.
There was pew sheet which told the history of the church and it turns out that it dated from the early thirteenth century and the pew sheet explained that there was no local noble or lord to fund the Church and so it had all been paid for by the local people who were mostly fishermen and farmers, which explained its simplicity.
I sat in that church and I thought about the history of England, of wars and plagues and famines. Of religious strife and political turmoil. And I thought about how for 800 years every Sunday people had gathered in that church to pray and worship God. There must have been some immensely difficult periods, often lasting for years or decades and yet the people still came together.
The Bible tells us that we are inheritors of Christ but I also feel that we are inheritors of those who have gone before us. It is like we are runners in a relay race and now the baton has been passed. Now it is for us to run and press on and keep going, not to give up.
In a way, the message from Jesus that we should always pray and never give up is even more important today – not because life is harder but because it is so much easier to give up. We live in a culture of instant gratification and there are so many other things to try and fill us when we get discouraged by prayer. So just as the temptation to give up is perhaps stronger, so the need to persist is greater.
So what encouragement can we take from this, what reason do we have for persisting in prayer? Well Jesus tells us, if persistence would force even an unjust judge to heed our call how much more will God, who is full of justice and love for us, respond to our prayers. Jesus tells us that there will be a day when God will respond and put things right. The answer to our prayers may not be when we want it, or how we expect it, but God will respond. We just need to keep on and not give up until that day comes – whenever it may come.
James Fraser was a young engineer living in Britain at the start of last century. In 1908, at the age of 22, he gave up a good job and a promising career to move to South China where he became a missionary to the Lisu people.
It is fair to say that his ministry was not an immediate success. He found it very difficult to establish himself, the people he tried to bring the Gospel to were for the most part completely disinterested. Worse, the few people he did bring to Christ would often turn around and renounce their faith to go back to paganism.
After five years of unfruitful ministry, James was almost at the end of himself with disappointment and despair. In wrestling with his disappointment and pain of unanswered prayer, James learnt that he needed to pray for God’s will (not necessarily his own). He also came to the realisation that what he needed to do was overcome and that the only way to do that was through constant and steady prayer. At the time he said this:
I am now setting my face like flint: if the work seems to fail, then pray; if services fall flat, then pray still more; if months slip by with little or no result then pray still more…
Slowly things began to turn around. By 1916 there were scores of converts, which became thousands and tens of thousands. Churches were planted, James Fraser developed an alphabet for the local language that allowed the New Testament to be translated. Here’s the thing: in 1938 James Fraser died of illness in China. Nearly 70 years later, after years of war, civil war, persecution and oppression, in 2007 nearly 80 – 90% of the Lisu people identified themselves as Christian.
We do not know and we cannot always see what God is going to do in answer to our prayers. But we do know He will answer them and that He will do something. And so the lesson for us is this: we should always pray and never give up.