Persevering in Prayer

Dr. Brian Allison

Jonathan Goforth (1859-1936) was a Canadian Presbyterian missionary who had great evangelistic zeal. He was a Calvinist by profession. He attended Knox College, Toronto. His funeral was held in Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto. As a young man, he was influenced by various individuals, such as Robert Murray M'Cheyne, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and various Puritans. He was mentored in spirit by Hudson Taylor. The fires of his evangelistic zeal were stoked by reading the writings of Charles Finney. Goforth was called of the Lord to serve in India, and was mightily used there. He had the privilege of being part of the Manchurian Revival in 1907, in which thousands were saved. Now, one of the main reasons why revival broke out in Manchuria was that of prevailing prayer.

There can be no God-sent revival apart from the centrality of prevailing prayer. Brian Edwards writes, in his book Revival:

You cannot read far into the story of a revival without discovering that not only is prayer part of the inevitable result of an outpouring of the Spirit, but, from a human standpoint, it is also the single most significant cause...Praying for revival is not enough: we must long for it, and long for it intensely. We have our revival prayer meetings, but we are neither confident in God's willingness to answer, nor desperate for the answer....The revival that came to England in 1859, and particularly to the preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, can be traced back six years to the prayers of his London congregation. Spurgeon himself commented: 'When I came to New Park Street Chapel it was but a mere handful of people to whom I first preached, yet I could never forget how earnestly they prayed. Sometimes they seemed to plead as though they could really see the Angel of the Covenant present with them, and as if they might have a blessing from him. More than once we were all so awe-struck with the solemnity of the meeting that we sat silent for some moments while the Lord's Power appeared to overshadow us; and all I could do on such occasions was to pronounce the benediction, and say, 'Dear friends, we have had the Spirit of God here very manifestly tonight; let us go home and take care not to lose His gracious influence.' Then down came the blessing; the house was filled with hearers, and many souls were saved" (pp. 73,74,78).

Prevailing prayer accomplishes much. God is pleased to manifest His power, and to do something extraordinary, through the prayers of His people.

When God is pleased to act in wonderful and marvelous ways, He sends a spirit of prayer to His people, which is itself preparatory for the revelation of His glory. Luke 18:1-8 is the classic passage which teaches the need for, and benefits of, prevailing prayer, "Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, saying, 'There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God, and did not respect man. And there was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, "Give me legal protection from my opponent." And for a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, "Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, lest by continually coming she wears me out."' And the Lord said, 'Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?'"

The context of the parable

The wider context of this teaching concerns the end of history. This parable, if we are really to appreciate it's specific significance, must be understood in reference to the end times. So, Luke 17:22 reads, "And He said to the disciples, 'The days shall come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.'" And Jesus proceeds to teach about His second coming; and makes the natural transition to the matter of prayer. The implication for proceeding to teach about persevering prayer is that with the end times, just prior to the coming of Christ, there will be a period of severe tribulation and persecution. The people of God will go through a time of fierce affliction, and many will be martyred. Many will be given the opportunity to seal their testimony with their blood. This period of tribulation will be a time in which those who are really devoted to Christ, and committed to His cause, will be revealed. Mere professing or nominal Christians will apostatize. Thus, we can understand Christ's question in Luke 18:8, which concludes this teaching on prayer, "However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" The construction of the sentence in the original demands the answer "No."

Although this passage has specific reference to end times, I suggest to you that we find here a general principle of prayer that is relevant for all times – namely, the need to persevere in prayer. Let us work our way through Luke 18:1-8. Verse 1 is the introduction to the parable; verses 2-5 concern the parable itself; verses 6-8a concern the application of the parable; and verse 8b is a summary question.

The need to pray more

Luke 18:1a reads, "Now He [Jesus] was telling them a parable." It was Jesus' custom to use parables in teaching. He would tell pithy, earthly stories that were designed to convey spiritual or heavenly meaning. Now, this parable which He is about to tell has as its design to demonstrate that His people are to pray without ceasing – "to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart" (18:1b). Jesus Himself was a Man of prayer. If you read the Gospel accounts you will soon discover that Jesus often stole away by Himself in order to pray – "And after bidding them farewell, He left for the mountain to pray" (Mk. 6:46). He would rise early in the morning to pray. We read, "And in the early morning, while it was still dark, He arose and went out and departed to a lonely place, and was praying there" (Mk. 1:35). So, not only does our Lord instruct us to continue to pray, but He also is our example of persevering prayer.

The parable before us teaches that at all times people ought to pray; that is, it is necessary to pray. Often, we see prayer as an option. That is wrong. Some believers demonstrate (though I am sure that they do not believe this) that they can get by without prayer. In actual practice, prayer is not a central, vital thing in the lives of many of God's people. Many pray five minutes in the morning or five minutes in the evening, and mistakenly feel that they have done their religious duty. Though they are confronted with various circumstances and issues throughout the day – good and bad – there does not seem to be a compulsion to pray, recognizing that everything should be committed to God. They have not the consciousness that Jesus Christ is the Lord of life, and that in every area of their lives, they are wholly and absolutely dependent upon God for everything, and thus must present and commit everything to Him. Indeed, we profess that God is sovereign and that Jesus is Lord; and yet, the reality of those truths are not always demonstrated in the fact that we are people of prayer. Praying practically acknowledges that we are wholly dependent upon God.

If Jesus had to pray all the time, how much more do we? If Jesus felt the constraint to go without sleep, rising early in the morning to pray, in anticipation of the activities of that day, how much more should we? Many Christians take a cavalier attitude towards prayer, and I do not think that God is pleased. How many really feel an inner constraint, not simply to pray, but to pray always? So, Jesus says that it is necessary that we pray at all times, for God has ordained that through the prayers of His people, He would reveal His glory and His power. God has bound Himself to the truth that He will not move and work in the lives of His people apart from prayer because, as mentioned, in prayer we demonstrate our absolute dependence upon Him, acknowledging that without Him we can do absolutely nothing. We must come to Him in our utter poverty of heart, feeling the weight of our need, recognizing that only God can meet that need. Is that your attitude each day? Are you a person of prayer? Or do you simply pray every now and again?

Prayer instead of discouragement

Jesus teaches that His people ought always to pray "and not to lose heart" (18:1b). When things get tough, when the situation becomes difficult, when the pressures of life increase, there can be the tendency to become discouraged. We can find that life can become overwhelming and too much to bear; and Jesus teaches us, particularly during these trying and dark times, that we are not to 'abandon the ship', we are not to 'throw in the towel', but rather we are to press on in prayer; and to pray all the more. Are you on the verge of 'abandoning the ship'? Perhaps you are bemoaning your present circumstances; perhaps you are complaining about the difficult time through which you are passing, which is producing discouragement. Maybe you are reasoning this way, "Well, I have prayed and prayed and still there is no answer. God, where are You? What is the point of praying?" And you are ready to 'abandon the ship', to give up on God. Jesus says to you, "Stop bemoaning, stop complaining, and continue to pray." This is the recourse that God has ordained; and Jesus says, "Don't stop praying until the answer has come."

The parable: the judge and the widow

We read, "There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God, and did not respect man" (18:2). This man had a very unflattering reputation. In fact, this description was the judge's own self-evaluation, as verse 4 discloses, for he himself says, "Even though I do not fear God nor respect man." A judge is someone who should be concerned about establishing justice, about punishing evil, about pursuing the right; someone who should willingly take up the cause of the needy. But this judge was a wicked man; a disgrace to his profession and a liability to social justice.

This judge was neither swayed by religious principles, nor by public opinion. He was godless, on the one hand, and heartless, on the other. He was both unrighteous and unfeeling; and yet he occupied the position of being a defender of the needy and a preserver of justice. He had the authority to do good. Notice what we read in verse 3, "And there was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, 'Give me legal protection from my opponent'." This widow came to this unrighteous judge for help. As a widow, we may assume that she did not have anyone else to come to her aid. She was not only in need, but she was needy. She was a woman who had no personal influence, no social power, and no financial resources to deal with her particular distressful situation.

This widow had an enemy, and she went to this judge and asked him to avenge her, to execute justice for her. Maybe this is your present situation. Perhaps you find yourself not only in need, but needy; and we have to get to that point, if we are going to know anything of the glory and power of God. It is our self-sufficiency, our self-reliance, and our pride that are our undoing. God does not hear the prayers of those who have these kinds of characteristics. He hears the prayers of the needy. Are you in need? Have you found that all of your resources have been depleted, that you have no other recourse, that there is no' plan B', that you are in a state of desperation, that you need help? Is that your situation? Can you identify with this widow? In one sense, that is a good situation to be in – it prepares the way for God's visitation.

When this widow went to this judge, who was in a position to offer help, we unfortunately read, "And for a while he was unwilling" (18:4a). This man, who had the power to help the needy, had this poor, desperate woman come to him, crying out for support, and he was unmoved. He could not care less; he was callous. Apparently, he had no conscience. Sometimes you will find yourself in a desperate situation and you will turn to others for support, and you will find a wall of insensitivity – no one will express care or concern for you, no one will quickly respond to your plea for help, everyone will seem callous and indifferent to you. Take heart; God always cares.

As a legal authority, this judge was socially and morally obligated to extend assistance and render right judgement for this woman in need; and yet it says he was unwilling. He was void of compassion and sympathy. He 'thumbed his nose' to this woman's plight. But the judge's snub did not deter her. We further read, "But afterward he said to himself, 'Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, lest by continually coming she wears me out'" (18:4b,5). Now, think about that for a moment. This unrighteous judge eventually responded to this woman's need, her desperate plight; but it was not because he was moved with compassion, but rather, it was because he was more concerned about his own comfort and convenience. He said, in effect, "I will execute justice and take vengeance on her enemy because she is troubling me; she is a pest, she will not leave me alone. With her constant coming, she is exhausting me; and so to get her 'off my back', and 'out of my hair', I will help her." This woman knew that this judge was her only help; she knew that if he did not help her, then she was lost. And knowing that, she gave this judge no rest. The term translated 'wear out' literally means to hit someone under the eye, resulting in a blackened eye. That was this judge's emotional experience. With this woman's persistent or importunate coming, he was feeling emotionally beat up. She was an unbearable, vexing annoyance; and so the judge yielded and responded to her need.

I suspect that there are many Christians who give up too easily. Are you a quitter? This poor woman prevailed because of her persistence. This judge eventually responded because of her persistence. We are to take special note of the judge's behaviour, and learn – "And the Lord said, 'Hear what the unrighteous judge said.'" Amazingly, this hard and loveless man eventually responded to the persistent pleas of the helpless widow. Persistence can prevail against the most formidable opposition.

God delights in answering persevering prayer

In making practical application from the parable, Jesus says, "Now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?" (18:7). Now, it does not come out in the translation, but in the original, the language demands that we give the answer, "Yes, He will." In fact, Jesus Himself provides the answer in verse 8a, "I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily." Now, the critical point is this: If an unrighteous judge can be prevailed upon, one who is heartless and godless, how much more will a righteous and loving Judge be prevailed upon? It is not the case that, like the unrighteous judge, God is unwilling; and that is why we must keep asking Him for help. It is not the case that God does not have a desire to respond to our need, and that is why we must keep pleading with Him. Persistent prayer is not so much for God's sake as it is for our sake. You may say, "Why does God want us to continue to pray? He has all the power; He is sovereign. Why doesn't He just act? Why doesn't He just help me? Why do I need to go through all this pain and struggle? He is God – Lord, I will praise You if You come now; I will worship You; I will give You thanks. Why must I go through all this hassle? What is the problem?" And God says, "You are the problem!" You have a heart problem, and I have a heart problem. Remaining in prayer addresses and fixes the heart problem. It is not that God's arm needs to be twisted, and it is not that He is naturally unwilling to help, and it is not that He does not care, but God is looking for a certain kind of heart; and when He finds it, then He will answer, yet according to His time.

Persevering in prayer reveals our heart's desire

There are at least two reasons why we need to persist in prayer, with the guarantee that God will answer. Many Christians stop praying because they do not believe that God will answer prayer. They do not believe that God hears them; and in stopping, of course, they lose the opportunity of eventually receiving the answer. It is only as we persevere in prayer that we will enjoy answered prayer. This is self-evident. But the first reason why we are to persist in prayer is that God is looking for a heart that desires Him; and as we persist in prayer, we have the opportunity to reveal whether the true desire of our heart is God Himself – if we really want God, if we really want His presence, if we really want the disclosure of His glory. If He does not find this pure kind of heart, then typically the answer does not come.

God is waiting to see something in our hearts – a desire for Him. Isaiah 30:18a reads, "Therefore the LORD longs [lit. - waits] to be gracious to you, and therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you." God is pleased to be in the 'waiting game'. God is not in a rush, He is in no haste; but we are so often in a rush, saying, for instance, "Lord, I needed You to answer me yesterday." God delights in pouring out His grace and mercy. He wants to do us good; He wants to pour out His Spirit upon us. He is a good God. My brothers and sisters, never charge God with folly. That is sin against you. You dishonour Him by casting any shadow or doubt upon His goodness and love. God is good and nothing but good. That is His nature. He waits to be gracious and compassionate to us. His heart does run out to us. He does know our situation. He does see where we are bleeding. He remembers every tear that we have shed, and He has felt every twinge of pain that we have felt because He is our heavenly Father.

We further read in Isaiah 30:18b, "For the LORD is a God of justice; how blessed are all those who long [lit. - wait] for Him." My friend, you have to persevere. God is waiting (and I say this reverently) with great anticipation to pour out His grace and mercy upon you. How fortunate and happy are those who persist until God's appointed time. God wants to see where your heart is, whether you desire Him, or whether, in your discouragement, you will betray Him. Most people, in betraying God, do so during times of discouragement, charging God with folly.

Persevering in prayer births faith

The second reason why we are to persevere in prayer is to evidence the faith that will lay hold on His blessing – "And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he [or she] who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who [diligently] seek Him" (Hb. 11:6). Faith brings us to our spiritual goal. Often when we go to prayer, we do not have the kind of faith that lays hold on God. We are a mixture of good and evil, belief and unbelief, and that displeases God; but we need to have the faith in order to receive God's blessing. It is faith that storms the gates of heaven, and moves the hand of God. God cannot say 'no' to faith. Now, prayer is the practice of the presence of God; and for most of us, we need to spend a long time in prayer before faith actually receives reality and power. As we are waiting before the Lord, becoming more conscious of His presence, focusing on Him, self-consciously directing our hearts to Him, being taken up more and more with who He is, enjoying God as our environment; as we pour out our hearts before Him, speaking to Him, concentrating on Him, what takes place is the birth and the strengthening of faith. This is the genius of persevering prayer. We need to persevere in prayer, for such is the matrix and breeding grounds of faith. If we had pure faith as soon as we bowed our heads and closed our eyes in prayer, we would have the answer at that time. God does not want us to stay in prayer simply for the sake of staying in prayer because He is marking up the time, saying, "Oh, this dear soul has spent 24 hours in prayer this week. That is great. As a result, here is the blessing." Nonsense! That kind of thinking dishonours God. God is not in the ego-stroking business, nor does He play games with us as puppets. The important matter is not so much the length of time spent in prayer, as it is what actually should take place in prayer: the experience of God, knowing the leading of the Spirit in praying the will of God, enjoying the creation and growth of faith.

Mark 11:20ff. reads, "And as they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. And being reminded, Peter said to Him, 'Rabbi, behold, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.' And Jesus answered saying to them, 'Have faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, "Be taken up and cast into the sea," and does not doubt in his heart [and often when we go into prayer we are filled with all kinds of doubt, we do not believe that God will reveal Himself, we do not believe that He will manifest His glory and His power; and God knows that and He calls us to take up the work of prayer, that is the soil out of which faith comes, because prayer is the practice of the presence of God], but believes that what he says is going to happen, it shall be granted him [at the point of faith]. Therefore I say to you [interestingly, Jesus introduces the concept of prayer], all things for which you pray and ask, believe [while praying] that you have received them, and they shall be granted you.'" My brothers and sisters, we often pray unbelievingly. If you were to go to prayer now and ask God to bring 50 converts into your Church this coming week, would you really believe that He would? Perhaps not. But if you spent much time in prayer in the presence of God, praying for the revelation of His glory in the salvation of sinners, we would eventually get to the point of believing that He would. God wants to answer our prayers. But, according to His inscrutable wisdom and will, He has bound Himself to certain principles; and without faith it is impossible to please Him.

Persevering in crying out to God

Luke 18:7a reads, "Now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night." These latter words could be translated, "who shout aloud to Him day and night." Many Christians pray without passion (and passion is not the same as emotionalism). They simply go through the motions; it is all mechanical. They know the Biblical lingo, and they know the external forms, but the kind of prayer that is in view here – the kind of prayer that God delights in (because it reveals the heart) – is passionate prayer. Of course, what is presupposed with this kind of prayer is that we are in a desperate or needy situation. In that particular kind of situation, we will pour out our hearts before the Lord. There must be feeling to it; not that feeling is the main thing, for we can work up feeling, and even fabricate it; and God knows what is sincere, and what is mere affectation, and often God's people know too. But this is not the point. I am simply saying that if there is a right desire, if there is that heart for God, if we truly want God to bless – knowing that we will have no peace until He does bless – then that spirit will come out in how we pray. We will pour out our hearts before the Lord, and will give Him no rest until He blesses us.

Persevering in prayer until the appointed time

Again, God is looking for a certain kind of heart. He is not concerned about our religiosity. He is not primarily concerned about our religious activities. He is concerned about our hearts. God wants a heart for Him and for His glory. So, God will answer His people who cry to Him day and night. But He has His own schedule – "And will He delay long over them?" (18:7b); or, "even if He long-suffers over them." Again, God is waiting. He is being patient. God is not in a rush. We may be in a frenzy; we may be in a hurry; we may be flustered; but God is in no rush. He has His appointed time; and He is longsuffering. I suggest that God's longsuffering is a demonstration of His love and mercy to us because most of us have stubborn, hard hearts. God would be just if He were to wipe us off the face of the map. But He is pleased to give us more time to present to Him right hearts. However, I think the day may come, for some, when God will be fed up with their hardness and coldness of heart; with the complacency and indifference. One can presume on His grace for only so long. Having made a profession of faith in Christ, having believed that we are saved for time and eternity, how is it that we could not care less about His kingdom and His glory and the honour of His name? (Those who have ears, let him or her hear what the Spirit is saying).

So, God says that He will answer those who cry day and night; not the complacent ones, not the indifferent ones, not the cold ones; not those who could not care less, who do not care about His glory, who are not desiring the manifestation of His power. He will answer those who ache inside, who need to see the hand of God move in power. As we read in verse 8a, "I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily." That is, when God acts, it will be in a moment. When God does decide that it is time to answer, it will be done immediately. There will be no delay.

Persevering in prayer by faith

Notice the question by which Jesus ends this teaching. As mentioned earlier, it refers to the end times – "However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" (18:8b). It seems that many will apostatize during a time of great tribulation, just prior to the return of Christ. When there is persecution, the true Christians will be revealed. The faith of many professing or nominal Christians will prove to be bogus; but there will be a remnant, the elect of God – the ones crying to God day and night for justice, that is, ultimate deliverance from evil into His eternal kingdom.

Now, though this question by Jesus refers literally to the end times, we can make a spiritual application to the here and now. We are to persevere in prayer, which means that we are also to persevere in faith; we need to press on in faith. 'When the Son of Man comes' [and I know that I am spiritualizing] into our fellowship, when He comes into our prayer meeting, when He comes into our worship services, 'will He find faith on the earth'? Will He find those who sincerely believe in Him, and trust in Him, and abide in Him? In our faith, we are driven to lay hold on Him. Faith is the power of perseverance in prayer.

To persevere in prayer is to eventually prevail in prayer. Again, we should seek to prevail in prayer solely for the glory of God. That ought to be our motivation, and not that which concerns our personal comfort; if that comes, great! But the driving force in prevailing prayer ought to be God's glory. We must say, "Lord, we want people to be saved and brought into the Church, not that our personal reproach may be removed, not for the honour of our reputation, not for the protection of our image, but solely for Your glory. Lord, Your name is being dishonoured, the heathen are raging against You. Lord, manifest Your power for Your glory." We must exclaim, "Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to Thy name give glory because of Thy lovingkindness, because of Thy truth" (Ps. 115:1). I tell you, my Christian brothers and sisters, when we take up the work of prayer, persevering in prayer, and driven, controlled, and consumed by a desire for the manifestation of the glory of God, then we will see that glory, then we will know the presence and power of God in our midst; and then the Lord shall be our full and everlasting joy and rejoicing.