Persist in prayer

You can read the original post on what I mean by “echo-location” here

Everyone, at some point, is treated unfairly. The injustice may be a relatively minor one, as when a parent dismisses a child’s point of view without listening. Or it may be a major one, as we continue to see in the horrifying specter of racially-motivated violence. As different as these examples might seem, they share one thing in common: the offense of a person with power against someone who has less, even none. Where do the powerless turn for help? To whom can victims of injustice go to be heard, to find solace, to get help?

Those who believe typically turn to God in prayer.

But you know the experience. You pray, and you pray, and you pray — and nothing important seems to change. Your spouse still cheats on you. Your boss still takes advantage of you, and you fear losing your job if you complain. You still stand accused of something you didn’t do, and no one comes to your defense, even though you know they know the truth.

I know of people who despite years of faithful ministry have been railroaded out of the church, scapegoated in a congregational conflict, forced to take the fall publicly in order to hide inconvenient truths. Some, in utter disillusionment, walk away from ministry altogether; some walk away from God. Those who continue in ministry somewhere else may carry with them whole suitcases of confusion, anxiety, and shame. What happens to their relationship with God?

What happens to prayer?

. . .

Both the followers of Jesus and his detractors were looking for the kingdom of God. Yet it’s clear from the gospels that none of them understood the kingdom Jesus actually brought, the kingdom that would be consummated in his return. They were looking for a tangible, earthly kingdom in which Israel would be restored to glory and the Romans (or the oppressor du jour) would be ousted from power.

In Luke 17, the Pharisees actually ask Jesus when the kingdom is coming — a surprising question, since it’s unlikely they believed he had anything to do with bringing the kingdom personally. His response is surprising in turn, full of cryptic predictions of what will happen when the Son of Man returns. There are explicit allusions to Noah and Sodom, invoking the images of destruction by flood and fire. There are allusions to Lot and particularly Lot’s wife, accompanied by the paradoxical statement that “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (vs. 33). The overall effect is disquieting, as if Jesus were saying, You have no idea what you’re asking. The kingdom isn’t what you think it is; in fact, it’s already here. But when the Son of Man comes back, there’s going to be trouble and suffering. Get ready.

Continued faithfulness in times of trouble requires dogged, prayerful perseverance. Thus, at the beginning of Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable to encourage his followers to persist in prayer:

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God or had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my accuser.” For a while he refused, but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” … Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:2-8, NRSVUE)

It’s no accident that he makes a widow the protagonist of the story; in a patriarchal culture, widows were emblematic of powerlessness. This widow comes with a legitimate and poignant request: she is being falsely accused and hasn’t the power to defend herself. The judge seems to know her cause is just, but he doesn’t really care about justice. He ignores her, hoping she’ll go away. But she persists, until he finally gives her what she deserves just to get her off his back.

This is not, of course, meant to be a picture of God. Jesus is not saying, “Just keep bugging God; if you annoy him enough, he’ll eventually give you what you want.” Rather, we need to hear the echo of ancient texts that the disciples would have already believed about God:

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. (Deut 10:17-18)

These are the words of Moses. This is not some incidental text, buried in the details of Mosaic law. The people are getting ready to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses, knowing that he won’t be crossing with them, is rehearsing the history of the people’s rebellion and warning them against further disobedience. He retells the story of receiving the second set of stone tablets from God, culminating with the rhetorical question, “So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you?” (Deut 10:12a).

The answers are the expected ones, an encapsulation of what it meant for the people to be faithful to God and the covenant: fear God, love God, serve God, keep the commandments (Deut 10:12-13). Moses then describes God’s side of the relationship: though everything already belongs to God, he set his heart on you; he chose you (vss. 14-15). It is in that context that Moses summarizes the incomparable greatness of God, not in terms of his demonstrations of power, but his justice and love toward the powerless.

Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Jesus is not saying that God is like the unjust judge; quite the opposite. He’s saying, “If even this man will give the widow justice, how much more will God do so, and quickly?” His words also echo the faith of the psalmists, who plead with God all day and all night, knowing that God will hear and answer. Psalm 86 is a good example:

Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
    save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
    for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
    for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
    abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
    listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
    for you will answer me
. (Ps 86:2-7)

But we must also be careful here. In our impatient, results-oriented world of quick fixes and the Ten Best Ways to succeed at anything, it’s too easy to judge faith by the concrete results of answered prayer. When Jesus wonders whether he will “find faith on earth” on his return, he seems to picture people who are still hard at prayer in the midst of tribulation.

What counts as faithful, persistent prayer, in other words, is not determined by the timetable of our desires and expectations. It is less a matter of faith in what God will do than it is faith in who God is: the one who loves and chooses a people, the one who defends the defenseless, the one who answers when we call. Faithful prayer continues to call even when the answer seems too long in coming. We persist in the face of injustice because we believe that God is just — one might say that God is the ground of all justice! — and one day, justice will be restored, on God’s timetable and in his way.

Persist. Keep calling. And believe that God is who Moses and Jesus say he is.