Sermon 10-16-2022: “To Pray Always and Not Lose Heart”

Scripture: Luke 18: 1-8

I’m excited this morning to talk about a parable that, frankly, I have misunderstood for most of my Christian life: the Parable of the Unjust Judge… or the Parable of the Persistent Widow—depending on which character you choose to emphasize. 

I must caution you from the outset: this parable shares some themes with a parable we looked at over the summer from Luke 11—the Parable of the Friend at Midnight. As in the case of that parable, I need to remind you: just because God is being compared to an evil or unflattering character—in Luke 11 to a grouchy neighbor or in today’s scripture to an unjust judge—doesn’t mean that God is like those people! Not at all! In fact, in both parables, Jesus says, if even these badly flawed human beings will eventually give in and do the right thing, well… you can be sure that God your heavenly Father will always do the right thing!

But I want to make three points this morning about today’s parable: Point Number One, I’m going to talk about one very real danger of misunderstanding today’s parable. Point Number Two, I want to talk about the distorted way we often read these words. Point Number Three, I’m calling the devil and daily living. 

The danger, the distortion, the devil and daily living… That’s what this sermon is about.

First, the danger

Back in 2019, there was a deeply sad story involving members of an influential megachurch, the Bethel Church, in northern California. This story made headlines around the world—in part because Bethel’s worship team is responsible for writing and publishing many popular praise-and-worship songs that churches across the world—including our own—sing every week. In fact, the story that made headlines involved a member of Bethel’s worship team, and her husband—whose two-year-old daughter died tragically.

The parents refused to accept the finality of the child’s death, insisting—based on miracles in the New Testament itself—that their child could and would come back to life… so long as they had enough faith and prayed hard enough.

I promise I’m not trying to judge this couple too harshly… I feel sympathy and compassion for them. 

What was more controversial than the behavior of shocked and grieving parents over the death of their young child, however, was that the the church itself lended support to the couple in their efforts to raise their child back to life—the church held a prayer vigil for them, and encouraged members of the church to pray alongside them for this miracle.

And you can imagine how badly all that turned out… 

Regardless, as some of you know from painful personal experience, it is nothing less than unjust when a child dies like this. It just feels so wrong!

Speaking of which, I’m reading a new book by a New Testament scholar at Princeton named Dale Allison. The book is called Encountering Mystery: Religious Experience in a Secular Age. And in the book Allison argues that—contrary to the modern-day prejudices—a significantly large number of perfectly normal, perfectly sane people around the world—including right here in the United States—experience events in their ordinary lives that they can only categorize as “supernatural” or “miraculous.” And the reason we don’t hear more about these fairly common events is because the people who experience them are afraid of telling others, afraid of being judged; they don’t want anyone to think they’re crazy—so they don’t end up telling anyone, or perhaps only a few trusted family members and friends. 

As a Christian, Dr. Allison has no trouble believing that God, of course, is the One often causes these supernatural events, at least in some cases. And Allison also believes that there is a spiritual realm of angelic or demonic creatures, just as the Bible says there is.

So I really like the book… It’s eye-opening, except… I mostly can’t stand the chapter on prayer. I was so disappointed. Now, Dr. Allison believes in prayer, and he prays every day… It’s just that he is skeptical that God ever answers specific prayer requests. His skepticism, he says, is based in based in large part on a painful personal experience he had: When he was a young man, his good friend Barbara, who was 16-weeks pregnant at the time, suffered a traumatic brain injury in an automobile accident, which was caused by a drunk driver. Dr. Allison writes:

Her parents were Baptist, so Baptist prayer chains were active on her behalf. She was Eastern Orthodox, so she was named in liturgical prayers across the country. And she was a lovely person with many friends, almost all of whom must have been praying for her. In short, supplications aplenty were regularly ascending for my friend and her unborn son. I cringe to recall that, one afternoon, as I contemplated how many were praying for her, I thought: We’ve got this covered. God cannot ignore all these heartfelt pleas, all the more as she has two little children at home. God will not let her and her baby go away. What good would come of that? But, after several weeks in the hospital, Barbara and her baby went away. 1

He writes, “So too did my confidence in prayer.” He goes on to say that he himself was in a near-fatal car accident at the hands of a drunk driver just three weeks later—except in his case, of course, he survived. And many people at the time credited the power of prayer for rescuing him from death.

But why him and not Barbara? It bothered him greatly. It didn’t seem fair.

And you know what? As much as I disagree with Dr. Allison on this point, as much as I want to argue with him—“No, God really does intervene to answer prayers, and here’s why”—I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sympathize with him completely, or feel the pain of his heartbreak… the same heartbreak that that couple at Bethel Church experienced. It often hurts when God doesn’t answer our deepest prayers… or I should say, when he does answer them, but his answer is no.

And here’s what I worry about… Here’s the danger… Here’s Point Number One: In both cases—when the couple at Bethel Church was confident that God would bring their child back from the dead and when Dr. Allison was confident that his friend Barbara would be rescued… in both cases I worry that their confidence came, at least in part, from a misunderstanding of the very parable that Jesus tells in today’s scripture. The danger is, if we misunderstand Jesus’ teaching here, we will get hurt—and as in the case of Dr. Allison, it may even harm our faith in Christ… and in the truthfulness of God’s Word.

I don’t want that for you. That’s what’s at stake here… That’s the danger… That’s Point Number One. 

So how do we distort the meaning of this parable? How do we get it wrong? That’s Point Number Two.

The distorted modern interpretation—and I say “modern” because Christian commentators of previous centuries didn’t interpret the parable this way… but the popular modern interpretation goes something like this: “If you want God to do something for you, be persistent in praying for this thing that you want God to do… Don’t give up… Even when it seems like God is saying ‘no.’ Don’t give up. Don’t take no for an answer! Eventually, if you pray hard enough, God will reward your persistence and give youwhat you pray for!”

That’s the popular modern interpretation…

If this interpretation is correct, the widow in the parable represents each one of us individual Christians as we take one or two urgent prayer concerns to God. With confidence we “draw near to the throne of grace,” and we don’t leave leave God’s throne room until he gives us what we ask for!

Now let me give you three reasons why I believe this is a distortion, and see if you don’t agree with me. The first reason is context. The second reason is Jesus’ other teaching about prayer. And the third reason is the example of the apostles.

First, context

We get a clue about the context from verse 1 and verse 8. In verse 1, there’s that little word “and.” And he”—Jesus—“told them a parable…” The word “and” means that something Jesus is about to say is related to something he has just said. And what has Jesus just said?In verses 20 to 37, he’s talking about what? The end of the world as we know it… the Second Coming of Christ. And our urgent need to be ready for it when it happens.

Now, when he finishes the parable, look at what he says in verse 8: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes”—that is, when the Second Coming happens—“will he find faith on earth?” 

So, within the context of this discussion about the Second Coming, I believe the parable is mostly about the Church—the universal Church—the communion of saints, all of us Christians together—remaining faithful to Jesus in the often trying, difficult, and evil time between Christ’s First Coming and his Second. Which is… the time in which we currently live. And if I’m right about that, the widow represents not just one individual Christian at prayer, praying for a handful of prayer concerns, but the entire body of Christ in our world at prayer—praying, among other things, that God’s kingdom would come and his will would be done on earth as in heaven.

The context proves that there’s something much greater going on than just an individual Christian praying for things…

Reason Number Two that the popular interpretation is wrong: it contradicts what Jesus himself teaches about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. He teaches there, in Matthew chapter 6, that prayer should be simple and direct. You don’t have to say a lot. As I said when I preached on prayer last summer, Jesus teaches that prayer should be easy. If the popular interpretation of this parable is correct, then prayer isn’t easy; it’s hard! And unless you pray hard enough, God probably won’t give you what you ask for!

But prayer, Jesus says, should be easy. And to make that point in Matthew 6, he contrasts the way pagans usually pray with the way he wants us Christians to pray. Pagans, Jesus says, also make prayer very difficult. Because they believe that unless they do it exactly right, with many words and strenuous effort, then their god or gods won’t answer their prayers! We’re not supposed to pray like that… In Matthew 6:7 and 8, Jesus says:

When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! 2

But do you see the problem? If we’re not careful, we can interpret today’s parable to be teaching the exact opposite point from Matthew 6… something like this: “You have to keep asking God for the same thing, over and over, and if you don’t—if you don’t show God how important this prayer concern is to you by continuing to ask him—well, God may not give it to you. And if God doesn’t give you this thing, you’ll only have yourself to blame because, after all, you weren’t like the persistent widow; you didn’t pray hard enough!”

No… Jesus teaches that prayer doesn’t have to be hard. Life is hard, yes… Prayer shouldn’t be. Because “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him.” 

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are meant to encourage and reassure us. So he’s not saying, here, “You’re not praying hard enough.”

Besides—and here’s the third reason that the popular interpretation gets it wrong—it also contradicts the example of the apostles… In 2 Corinthians 12, for instance, Paul says that the devil caused him to have something he refers to as a “thorn in his flesh.” We don’t know what that “thorn” is meant to represent—maybe persecution, maybe some physical ailment or disease. Regardless, Paul, who was as faithful in prayer as they come, did take “no” for an answer… after praying just three times for God to remove this thorn! He prayed until he got his answer, and the answer was no. Was he mistaken to stop praying that God would remove this thorn? Would God have removed the thorn if he hadn’t given up praying for it after only three attempts? Of course not! That’s ridiculous!

Paul received his answer… Did he hear an audible voice? Maybe. We don’t know. But he may have discerned the answer the exact same way that we usually do. Not with an audible voice but through our prayers, through thoughts and intuitions, through circumstances, through the guidance of other believers. We don’t know. Regardless, Jesus gave Paul his answer, and the answer was no. No amount of praying on Paul’s part would change that!

And… I can’t stress this enough: Paul also tells us why Jesus told him no… how he used this adversity in Paul’s life… for Paul’s good.

Of course, the Bible doesn’t promise us that we’ll always know why our Lord tells us no. But when God tells us “no,” it won’t be because we didn’t pray hard enough!

God isn’t reluctant to answer our prayers. On the contrary, remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:11: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” 4

What devilish theology this is! What kind of Christian leader could ever say something like this? And I think, “How hard it must be to be an authentic Christian in Russia today—to stand up for your Christian faith, to resist a government hell-bent on doing evil, to refuse—out of faithfulness to Christ—to take part in this evil. All the while the head of your church is calling good evil, and evil good.” 5

It’s gross!

The church in Russia—I mean the true church made up of authentic believers—they can relate to this widow and her repeated demands for justice. How desperately they want to see justice defended and their cause vindicated. I’m sure they take inspiration from this persistent widow, as they should.

And of course, Jesus and the apostles both teach that before Christ returns, there will be a great tribulation: the suffering, persecution, and martyrdom  of Christians will increase dramatically. I don’t know whether we’re nearing the end yet. I suspect it will get much worse for all of us Christians first—even those of us living in the comfortable Western world, where religious freedom is often protected by law. 

But what I do know is that there are Christians all around the world right now who—to say the least—are enduring far more suffering and persecution and violence and injustice than I can even imagine! I’m sure they can relate to verse 7: “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?”

And then there’s me… 

In general, I’m not like this widow. I’m so comfortable. Sure, I can get worked up about politics, or things happening in the headlines, just like the next guy… but mostly I’m okay. Unlike the widow in the parable, I don’t really have an “adversary” against whom I’m crying out for justice…

Or do I…? 

I’m remembering some scripture: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:11 and 12. Or how about this? “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8. Or how about this? “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” Ephesians 4:26 and 27.

My point is, we do have an adversary… every single one of us. The devil. And we ignore him at our own peril. And the devil doesn’t need big things like an unjust war, or widespread persecution of Christians, or frightening pandemics, or natural disasters like famines, floods, and earthquakes in order to inflict great harm on our souls. And to even cause great injustice in our lives. You know what’s unjust? The two-year-old daughter of that couple from Bethel Church in California, the child who died tragically. You and I suffer those kinds of injustices. And of course there are a million-and-a-half other reasons we can look around and see our need for justice against our adversary, the devil.

But we have another “adversary”… Turn in your Bibles to the previous chapter, to Luke chapter 17, verses 26 to 30… and see what Jesus says:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all—so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t even mention the spectacular sinful behavior of the people, which led God to wipe out the earth with a flood in the first place… Jesus doesn’t mention the spectacular sinful behavior of the people of Sodom, which led God to destroy the city in the first place. 

No, he doesn’t mention their sinful behavior… Far from it, he mentions normal behavior… like “eating and drinking,” “buying and selling,” “planting and building,” “marrying and being given in marriage.” There is nothing wrong with those things at all. They are good and ordinary and unremarkableand mundane parts of life. This is our world—a world we recognize: a world of having kids and raising families, of paying bills and commuting to work, of grocery shopping and doing laundry, of hunting and fishing, of watching college football and scrolling through social media.

Jesus is describing, in other words, an ordinary, relatively happy, prosperous, and comfortable life—he’s describing our life, in most cases… most of the time.

And he’s saying, Watch out. Be on guard. Be alert. Our adversary isn’t simply the “big problems” of the world like violent persecution, and warfare, and natural or man-made disasters. And it’s not simply the devil and the spiritual warfare he wagers against us.

Our adversary also includes normal, ordinary, comfortable, mundane, unremarkable daily living. Or perhaps I should say, the devil uses daily living to harm us. And the devil is distracting us with it… Look over here, at the economy… Look over here, at this nasty political campaign… Look over here, at your favorite sports team… or more than anything else right now, Look over here, at the screen on your phone, or on your tablet, or our favorite streaming platform on your TV.

The devil is using these little things of daily living to distract us from what matters most… 

Speaking of what matters most, what about the Great Commission? Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

As I’ve said in this sermon, we are supposed to pray persistently until our Lord tells us “no,” at which point we accept this answer and trust that he knows what’s best.

With that in mind, here’s a prayer that our Lord has not said “no” to: the prayer that he would use our church to reach the large majority of people in Stephens County—probably 15,000—who are choosing to sleep in this morning—in large part because they do not yet know Jesus as their Savior and Lord… 

He has not said “no” to that prayer… Indeed, Jesus says, in John 4:35, “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes and see that the fields are white for harvest.” 

So we must keep on praying! “Show us what our church can do to be more effective in reaching the lost for Christ! Give me opportunities to share Christ with others! Show me who I can invite to church, that they may hear the gospel and be saved.”

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Dear Lord, give us the faith we need remain vigilant until you take us home to be with you, or until you return. Amen.

  1.  Dale C. Allison, Encountering Mystery: Religious Experience in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022), 58.
  2. Matthew 6:7-8 NLT
  3. Matthew 7:11 {/efn_note] God isn’t waiting to give us something good only after we prove to God how badly we want it. No… But if we discern that God is telling us no, then we accept that answer—and we trust that God has good reasons for telling us no, whether we know what those reasons are or not.

    Besides, as I’ve said before, if we’re Christians, then God’s no to us—in the short run—often means that God is saying yes to something far better—in the long run… something better than we dare hope or imagine!

    How badly I want to tell this to Dr. Allison—the brother in Christ I mentioned earlier who became disillusioned about prayer… Remember, he said he just can’t imagine why God would say “no” to prayers for his friend Barbara’shealing, and then turn around and say “yes” to prayers for his own healing. 

    Why would God say yes to one healing and no to another?

    It’s a good question… But fortunately we have God’s Word to guide us in answering it: We must remember that his friend Barbara was a Christian… She was someone who through faith in Christ was made part of God’s family forever

    Since that’s the case, how can anyone say that Barbara wasn’t healed? Of course she was healed! Because when Barbara died, she was immediately taken to be in the direct presence of our Lord Jesus Christ! Paul says, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21. When considering his own imminent death, Paul says, “I am hard pressed between the two”—that is, between living and dying—“My desire,” Paul says, “is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Philippians 1:23.

    Far better than what? Far better than remaining here on earth!

    Barbara is healed… And I’m confident that if she were given a choice to remain in heaven right now or come back here and resume her life on earth, she would choose heaven. See, unlike Dr. Allison, Barbara is no longer suffering or struggling or enduring the difficult trials that come to us through the world, the flesh, and the devil. Unlike Dr. Allison, Barbara has been eternally healed. 

    While it’s true that Dr. Allison is complaining on Barbara’s behalf, you know who’s not complaining? Barbara herself!

    All that to say, even God’s no to our prayers often means an even better kind of yes!

    And that’s Point Number Two: Let’s avoid the distorted way we often view this parable and hear what Jesus is actually teaching.

    Point Number Three… The devil and daily living.

    I saw in the news recently that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill—who’s already been shunned by other leaders in the Eastern Orthodox churches—not to mention Catholics and Protestants—but Patriarch Kirill recently encouraged Russians to join the army and fight for Russia against Ukraine, and that by sacrificing their lives for Russia, they can be assured of salvation and heaven when they die. 3  “Orthodox Church Leader Says Russian Soldiers Dying in Ukraine will be Cleansed of Sin,”, 26 September 2022. Accessed 14 October 2022.

  4. Isaiah 5:20

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