And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.
This is the opening of Jesus’ famous parable of the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge. The parable itself is a fascinating piece of teaching by Jesus, but I would like to ask a question that arises before he even gets into the story. Why does Jesus teach a parable specifically to encourage persistence in prayer? The counterintuitive answer is that he gives this teaching because discouragement is the most normal experience in the life of prayer. The Greek word translated “lose heart” here means to be deflated, weary, tired, despairing, in a mood to quit. That describes most Christians sometimes and some Christians all the time. Oddly, what Jesus is basically saying is that prayer, by its very nature in this age, will be at times a very frustrating exercise. Why is it this way? Let me offer at least three possible reasons.
First, answers to prayer do not usually come quickly enough to keep our attention. Many divine responses come long after we have given up praying for the thing! Our gnat-like attention spans lose track of the request long before the answer arrives and so we are not impressed. On top of that many of us are closet skeptics anyway, and so are prepared to interpret events as coincidences or accidents unless they happen immediately.
Second, answers to prayer rarely present as “miracles.” The Lord isn’t in the entertainment business and much of his work slides under our sensory radar unless we calibrate our awareness to look for him. Also, we expect a certain sort of answer and he often solves the problem in a completely unexpected and unimpressive way. When this happens it doesn’t occur to us that he did the thing, because it wasn’t quite the thing we requested.
Third, time itself is a crucial element in all that God does in this fallen era. Speed does not improve God’s work, either in our hearts or in our circumstances. Any cook knows that time in the oven is just as crucial as any other ingredient in the recipe. Especially relational issues are this way; friendships, romances, business partnerships, anything that relies on humans to know and trust each other, will take time—usually more of it than we want to invest. This is why the Psalms are filled with exhortations to wait on the Lord.
All three of these issues conspire to discourage us in prayer. So, the Lord says we must not give up. A rule of thumb that I use is that if I am severely tempted to give up praying for something important, that’s the time to specifically stay at it. It’s good to know that being discouraged is a normal part of being a prayer partner in any meaningful aspect of God’s work.
So, let us pray …