Many of you will recognize Tony Evans. He’s a powerful preacher from Texas who is in great demand as a conference speaker. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Tony in person at Willow Creek Church a few autumns ago. He delivered one of the best messages on the Great Commission that I have ever heard!
Tony tells the story of being in Columbia S.C. to preach a crusade at the University of South Carolina’s football stadium. Thousands had gathered for the evening session, but news reports indicated a serious thunderstorm was on the way. In fact, the storm was expected to hit at 7:00 pm—the exact time the meeting was scheduled to start.
Well, the sky grew darker and darker. The organizers didn’t know what to do. I mean, if you’d have been in charge what would you have done. Here, you have thousands awaiting the service; you’ve flown Tony in and put him up at great expense, but it looks like rain is going to drown all your efforts. What would you do?
Well, it was a group of preacher and christians, so they decided to call a prayer meeting. When they came together, Tony says that all the preachers prayed “safe prayers” – you know– prayers where God would look good either way it went. Lots of comments about the Lord’s will and so forth, all quite undemanding of God. Then, a woman named Linda spoke up, asking if she could pray. Linda's prayer went something like this: "Lord, thousands have gathered to hear the Good News about your Son. It would be a shame on your name for us to have all these unbelievers go without the gospel when you control the weather, and you don't stop it. In the name of Jesus Christ, address this storm!"
Now if you had been there, which way would you have prayed? Would you have prayed more like the pastors or like Linda? And, furthermore, which one prayed the more biblically correct prayer? Well, questions like that can be confusing. After all, we will admit that our great and awesome God is sovereign, absolutely in control of every circumstance. And we will admit that our great and awesome God is all-knowing, certainly much more able to determine what is good, beneficial, holy and best in our lives. If He is so in control, and so Wise, then, why would we possibly attempt to direct him through our praying? Why would we even ask Him for anything we think we need, since He already knows what we need and has promised to bring what we need into our lives?
Now those are really great questions and they can leave us almost ready to abandon prayer with some misguided appeal to sovereignty. But, just about the time we think we’ve got it all figured out and that we never need to pray again, we hear about a woman like Linda who had the audacity to forget everything she thought she knew about God and just cry out to Him in faith.
Kinda reminds me of another woman I read about in the Bible. You find her story in Luke 18. It says there:
Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, 2 saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. 3 Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ 4 And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, 5 yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’ ”
Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. 7 And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? 8 I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”
I love this story. There’s no deep explanation of the “ins and outs” and the “do’s and don’t’s” of prayer. There’s a simple lady with a simple request who just keeps asking for the same thing over and over and over again. And when the smoke settles and the dust clears, what happens? She gets what she prays for!
You ever stop and just compare yourself to this widow? How do you measure up? I’m afraid I don’t very well. I find prayer one of the hardest things that I have to do, and, if the attendance at our times of prayer in this church is any indication, you do too! Now sometimes I have the same problem those preachers at Tony Evans’ rally had: I don’t pray because I am disturbed by my theology. I allow all the debates about how God is supposed to be approached weaken my prayer to some half-hearted prayer that means little to me and, perhaps, nothing to God. I miss the purpose of my praying and I don’t do it as I should.
Then sometimes I just get discouraged by my failure. What I mean is that there are times that I do ask boldly. I come and present my request to the Lord and I may even believe that He is going to answer, then, from my perspective at least, nothing happens. Listen, there are people I started praying for years ago who still haven’t been saved. Sometimes it gets mighty discouraging to plod along feeling like a failure and like your prayers aren’t getting anywhere. I tell you, in this prayer thing it’ real easy to get discouraged and some Christians do just that. They don’t announce in church that they’ve given up, but they have. They’re discouraged by their failure.
And both of these two obstacles to prayer find their root in this last one: You see, in this great journey of prayer it is really easy to be deceived by our pride. As confusing as it might be to sort out your theology on prayer or as difficult as it is to keep on praying when nothing seems to be happening, the most debilitating obstacle to prayer is pride. Christians don’t pray because quite often, they think they can handle things by themselves. Now, I know you’d never get them to admit that, but their very determination to work ont heir own problems without ever bringing them to God or taking the time to pray is silent evidence that they think they can do what God cannot! They don’t pray because their own pride and self-reliance deceives them.
Well, to the disturbed, discouraged and deceived, God offers an antidote to prayerlessness. It is found in that little story about the helpless widow and the heartless judge. A careful look at this parable reveals essentials to help a prayerless Christian overcome those barriers that are keeping him prayerless. How can you overcome the barriers to prayer? First,
DIV 1: YOU CAN UNDERSTAND GOD’S CHARACTER
One of the first principles of interpreting parables is the principle of careful analogy. Simply put, characters in the stories Jesus told stand for people he was usually addressing. For instance, when Jesus told the story of the Prodigal son, the elder brother in the story stood for the Pharisees, the Father for God, and the Prodigal for the Gentiles or for Jews who had not kept the law, the “sinners” if you will.
In this story, the characters stand for others as well. Of course, the widow stands for those who are trusting in God because they are making their dependence evident through prayer. If you contemporize this story, this widow could stand for you and me, if we know the Lord. Well, if the widow stands for you and me, just who does this unjust judge stand for? At first blush, we are tempted to say that He stands for God, but that analogy causes me some difficulty. Even though the unjust judge is like God in His authority, He is quite unlike God in His character. The parable says that this unjust judge “did not fear God, nor regard man.” He was unspiritual in His nature and uncompassionate in his relationships. That certainly isn’t like God!
If you read v 7 carfully, you begin to understand that what Jesus is setting up here is not a comparison, but a contrast. If this unjust judge will reach out and help a poor, defenseless widow, even though He doesn’t fear God nor care about anyone, surely our powerful, holy loving God will step into the situation we are praying to Him about and work on our behalf. That’s precisely what 18:7 says about God. It says: “And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?”
Now this contrast needs to be seen more clearly. This unjust judge provides a study into the character of God in a unique sort of way. In a sense this unjust judge’s character reveals how we often think about God and how that “stinkin’ thinkin’” tempts us not to pray. For one thing, the unjust judge is arbitrary. That is, the unjust judge does whatever He wants that suits his fancy. There seems to be no purpose other than his own whim and his own desire. As a result, living under the rule of this kind of a judge would lead to a life of disorder. It would lead to a life that had no real purpose that we could understand.
Isn’t that often the way it is with us and our praying? We pray and pray and things seem to just get worse, many times. Bad things seem to happen and we can’t understand them and it seems to us as if life is just out of control. Hey, if God really is there He must be arbitrarily doing things without any kind of a purpose that makes any sense. Like the unjust judge, he just seems arbitrary.
May I tell you that it is a dangerous thing to see God like that. In fact, seeing God as arbitrary is just one step away from seeing Him as absent altogether. A God without purpose would be a God without existence and when I begin seeing God as arbitrary, I am just a step away from dismissing Him altogether.
And not only is this unjust judge arbitrary, He is also immoral. The parable clearly states that this reprobate judge did not fear God nor care anything about men. His immorality is also demonstrated by the fact that he was not about to do anything to help this poor widow, even though that was precisely what he was supposed to do. Now you can imagine how that poor widow would feel about a judge like that. Hey, one of the reasons she kept nagging him was that she knew that she could not trust him to do what he was supposed to do. His immorality led to her lack of trust.
Isn’t that also the way it is with us and our praying as well. We pray for something that is crucial to us. In fact, to our own way of thinking, for God not to answer the way we think He should is, well, it’s just immoral. We pray and pray, yet, nothing happens, and in that vacuum of inaction, we begin to doubt the goodness of God. And, very often, we just stop praying altogether.
And not only is this unjust judge arbitrary and immoral, he’s also harsh. How hard would your heart have to be to refuse to help a poor defenseless widow? If you were simply observing this story in real time and you saw this hard hearted judge, I don’t think you would like Him very much. In a play this guy would be the villain you’d “boo” off the stage.
And again, that happens to us sometimes when it comes to prayer. We know that prayer is something that is supposed to bring us closer to God, but we pray with a broken heart for a son that is wayward, or a loved one who is sick, and things go from bad to worse and the God who used to seem so close, with each unanswered prayer, becomes more and more distant.
You see, this unjust judge reveals to us many of the obstacles that come up in our praying. He shows us many of the reasons we may even refuse to pray. He illustrates the barrier of disorder, the obstacle of doubt, and the roadblock of distance.
And if those are the obstacles, how do we overcome them? Well, in the first place, we must remember: God’s not like this judge! His actions or even His inaction may seem arbitrary, but you must believe that everything God does – EVERYTHING – has a purpose. Now, I’m not saying you will ever know what that purpose is, but it is important for you to remember that with God, there is no wasted motion. O listen, He is not the cause of bad things in your life; those are the result of sin. But, He is able to take even the bad things in your life and use them to conform you to the image of His son. He is purposeful.
God’s not like the judge in His morality. God is Good! Every good gift comes down from the Father, James tells us, with whom is no variableness nor shadow of turning. God is in control; God has purpose; and God is good.
O, and most of all, God is compassionate! He cares about you and I really think that’s why v 1 of this chapter says what it says. It says: “Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart . . .” You see, the only way you will ever discover God’s purpose; the only way you will ever connect with God’s goodness; the only way you will ever feel the love that He has for you is to KEEP ON PRAYING! That’s the secret of prayer! Primarily, prayer is not about what you get, but about who you know! Or maybe I should say, who you get to know. The primary purpose of prayer is for you to learn who God is and how He wants to take you through whatever you’re going through. It’s about getting to know Him, not getting things from Him. And when I learn who Jesus really is, I find out that He’s not like the unjust judge at all.
See I really believe that many Christians have a huge misconception of what this God is like and their misconception creates a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy. They pray for relief because they don’t understand Who God is and because they are praying for relief and not for relationship, they get disappointed in God and they stop praying. When they stop praying, they close off the only avenue they have of really getting to know God. They don’t pray because they misunderstand what this great God is like.
To John Barrier, it wasn't the 60 cents, it was the principle. Barrier walked into his bank to cash a $100 check and then asked the receptionist to validate his parking ticket. Even after mentioning that he was a "substantial depositor," the receptionist refused to do it. She explained that validation was only given for transactions involving a deposit.
That upset John. You see he was a contractor who often dressed like his construction workers and, even though he had millions in the bank, sometimes didn’t look like it. Barrier felt his appearance—those dirty construction clothes—contributed to his treatment. So when he received the same treatment from the bank manager (He said the bank manager looked at him like he'd "crawled out from under a rock"), Barrier contacted bank headquarters with his complaint. No one even bothered to return his call, so he started emptying his account, $1 million at a time.
According to Barrier, "If you have $100 in a bank or $1 million, I think they owe you the courtesy of stamping your parking ticket."
Isn’t this how we often treat God? We mistake the difficulty we are going through as evidence that he must not be whom he said he is and we treat him like the bank clerk treated the millionaire. We act as if He’s a penniless pauper, or a impotent fraud who can’t deliver on anything He promised and the result is disorder, doubt, and distance.
That’s why we must pray. As we pray we come to understand just who Jesus is, and when we learn His character, we come to understand that He is not like the unjust judge. He is purposeful, He is good, and He is compassionate!
And I can hear what some of you are saying: “I get it, Rusty. I know God is good, even when I don’t see it in some of the circumstances of my life. I get what you’re saying about His character, but you just don’t know what I’m going through. I just don’t see how this could possibly be His will. Why are things still going so badly in my life? I just have to be honest, I do want to know God, but I also need some concrete answers to some real needs in my life! My house is about to be foreclosed; my job’s been gone for weeks; my diagnosis is bad; my wife is gone. I have prayed and prayed and nothing’s happened. This prayer failure has built walls against prayer in my heart. How can I overcome these barriers to prayer. Well, you can understand God’s character and then you can
DIV 2: SURRENDER TO GOD’S TIMING
Now it is possible to miss the importance this parable places on timing. It’s possible to miss it if you consider what the parable says without looking at its context. Jesus tells this parable immediately after describing what its going to be like when He returns. The scene He describes in the last part of chapter 17 is pretty difficult. He’s going away and the disciples are going to be left without Him. In that difficult time, He tells them in v 22, “The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man and you will not see it.” Now, there is something in that verse for you and me: Hey, the stock market is hurting, the economy is failing, the country is held hostage by an out-of-gas dingy filled with pirates, abortion is back with a vengeance, marriage is being “re-defined,” and America is no longer a Christian nation. I don’t know about you, but the day has come for me when I desire to see the days of the Son of Man, Amen?
Now the reason Jesus tells this parable about not losing heart in our persistent prayers is because He knew that longing would be in our hearts and, in the middle of the darkness, we’d be tempted to begin to see our Lord as the unjust judge who didn’t care about us, and, in the middle of that pain, we’d be tempted to turn to the world’s unfulfilling substitute. Jesus predicts this temptation in 17:23. He says:
Then He said to the disciples, “The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 And they will say to you, ‘Look here!’ or ‘Look there!’ Do not go after them or follow them.
In the middle of our pain, we will be tempted to grab hold of the world’s substitute for God, whether that be a person who calls himself God, or whether it be the things of this world that quiet our longing for God. It will be tempting because God’s not coming back or delivering us on our timetable to turn to a “god-substitute.” Just understand if you’re bent on doing that, there is no SATISFYING substitute for God. Only He can really satisfy you.
It is so important that, when it comes to your praying, that you learn what it means to surrender to God’s timing. You see, because, even though it may seem like its never going to happen, even though you might have an unsatisfied longing and even though you may be tempted with an unfulfilling substitute, God will come through. That’s what verse 24 adds:
Then He said to the disciples, “The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 And they will say to you, ‘Look here!’ or ‘Look there!’ Do not go after them or follow them. For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His days.
Because the Lord delays His coming (Actually, you know, it’s not delayed. From His perspective its right on time!) I should say because it seems like the Lord delays His coming, the world feels justified in its disobedience; the Christian feels safe in His rebellion; the disappointed believer feels fine with his uninformed accusation against God. O listen, but the true disciple who knows the Character of our loving God doesn’t give up his faith. He keeps on believing and he keeps on praying and he waits for God’s timing. You see, he understands that God sees things from an entirely different perspective.
I read about some kids who lined up in the cafeteria of a religious school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. Evidently, some industrious teacher had been concerned that every child have one of those apples and, knowing that some of her students might be tempted to take more than one had left this note: “Take only one. Remember! God is watching!” At the other end of the table was this huge pile of choclate chip cookies. There a note, written in a 4th graders handwriting said: “Take all you want; God is watching the apples!”
In our impatience with God’s answers, that’s sometimes how we are. That’s the way we tend to think of God. He is limited just like we are. He can only watch one thing at a time. We begin to think in times of our limited perspective and, when we do, we begin to get impatient. We think that He has forgotten us or that He is not willing to act on our behalf. We forget just how big and all-knowing our God is.
I love what Madeleine L’Engle wrote in her book A Wrinkle in time. She wrote: “I have a point of view. You have a point of view. God has view. When we really come to grips with that, our prayers become less like demands and more like conversations. I know God and I do ask, just like that widow, but all the while I’m asking, I don’t feel like I need to nag in order to get my way, I ask with a faith that not only believes that God can, but with a faith that trusts Him to know when.
You see, it all comes down to this question: Whose plan will you prioritize? I know you’ve got a plan. I do too. I think I know when the boss should apologize, the wife should return, the market should turn around and the check should arrive. I think I know when my child should stop rebelling, my parents should stop arguing, my fiancé should stop procrastinating, and my loved one should stop suffering. I think I know when my candidate should win, my enemies should lose, my prosperity should start, and my persecution should stop. I think I know. But I really don’t. And listen, Christian, when I insist on my timing ahead of Gods, I simply reveal my own idolatry. I simply reveal that I consider MY sovereignty to be more important than God’s!
And I know you may say, “Well, Rusty, if everything’s going to happen in God’s timing anyway, what’s the point of my prayer?” I think it boils down to a statement that I remember Jim Cymbala saying when I heard him preach on prayer. He said: “Prayer is the only conveyor belt God uses to get His blessings into our life.” Can you picture that analogy? Stretched between earth and heaven is this cosmic conveyor belt. On one end it is connected to the blessings God wants to pour into us. On the other end, it’s connected to our lives. God wants there to be a continuous flow of His power and His blessing into our lives and He has ordained that the way to that blessing is through us consciously and consistently coming and asking Him. Quite frankly, that’s the only way He’ll keep us helplessly dependent on Him is to constantly come and ask. You see you must remeber that we as believers should never stop asking and believing God for the things we need and we should, in the process, never stop surrendering to God’s will and His timing in everything that we boldly ask of Him.
Which just brings us back to Linda. She was a bold pray-er if there ever was one. You remember she prayed:
"Lord, thousands have gathered to hear the Good News about your Son. It would be a shame on your name for us to have all these unbelievers go without the gospel when you control the weather, and you don't stop it. In the name of Jesus Christ, address this storm!"
What happened? Well, Everyone took their places under the dark, threatening sky. The leader of the crusade told the people, "We'll go as long as we can." Umbrellas sprouted up among the crowd. A man sitting next to Linda opened his umbrella and offered to shield her as well. Linda refused.
Evans says he and his wife watched as the rain clouds came up to the stadium and then split in two. The storm rained on both sides of the stadium and came back together on the other side. All of those gathered for the crusade stayed dry.
As Evans points out: "How did Linda get what the preachers didn't? She had the boldness, the shameless audacity, to ask." Do you?