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HOW TO PERSEVERE IN PRAYER

Luke 18:1-8, Mathew 15:21-28

"Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.  He said: 'In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men.  And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, "Grant me justice against my adversary.  For some time he refused.  But finally he said to himself, "Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!"  And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?  Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.  However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"'

 "Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, 'Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!  My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.'  Jesus did not answer a word.  So his disciples came to him and urged him, 'Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.'  He answered, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.'  The woman came and knelt before him.  'Lord, help me!' she said.  He replied, 'It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs.'  'Yes, Lord,' she said, 'but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.'  Then Jesus answered, 'Woman, you have great faith!  Your request is granted.'  And her daughter was healed from that very hour."

The Bible interprets the Bible.  Some clearer parts of the Bible help us better understand other less clear parts.  What Jesus said about persevering in prayer in his very clear parable of Luke 18 helps us understand his own personal treatment of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15—treatment that would otherwise be difficult to understand.  Placed together, the combination is a powerful lesson about the process God uses to develop perseverance in prayer in our lives.  In these two texts the lesson is the same.  They show us what Jesus taught about perseverance in prayer and what he himself did to develop it in the Canaanite woman.  Notice the nine steps through which the woman passed.

1. Received No Answer.  23  "Jesus did not answer a word."  Silence from heaven.

Have you ever prayed and received no answer?  Since this is such a common occurrence, let us come to terms with the training process through which Jesus is bringing us when we pray and He does not answer.  Jesus is developing persistence and tenacity in his followers.  Unfortunately, receiving no answer detours some from continuing to seek Him or even to follow.  But Jesus is more willing to take that risk than to allow someone with weak faith, capricious, or unfaithful character the privilege of discipleship and the benefits of prayer.  Apparently, Jesus is more interested in having fewer tenacious and persistent followers than in having a large crowd of weak ones.   If Jesus is that concerned about perseverance, let us understand his program for our development and learn to persevere.

2. Endured Rebuke by the Disciples. 23 "So his disciples came to him and urged him, 'Send her away. . .'" Rejection from people.

We are not told why this time the disciples urged Jesus to "Send her away."  Perhaps they were prejudiced against women, non-Jews in general, or Canaanites in particular.  In another place we are told that the disciples brought people to Jesus.  Andrew, for example, brought his brother, Peter, and also the Greeks (also foreigners) who came saying, "We want to see Jesus." Disciples are followers of Jesus; they are supposed to follow him and urge others to follow; not tell potential followers to leave.  These disciples did the opposite of what disciples are to do.  Have you ever felt rejection from other believers?  Have you ever felt like they were thinking, if not saying, "Send her away"?  If so, you are not alone.  Others, too, have endured such treatment and learned to persevere.

At another time, when some mothers brought their children to Jesus for Him to bless them, the disciples said they should not bother the Master.  At that time, Jesus, Himself, intervened in behalf of the mothers and children saying, "Let the children come to me."  This time, however, when the disciples said, "Send her away," Jesus said nothing.  By His silence He allowed the disciples to discourage the Canaanite woman. 

The important thing in this lesson, however, to the woman and to Jesus is the woman's response.  She did not allow the disciples to interrupt her search for the Savior's mercy and the healing of her daughter.  When and where there are obstacles to our faith, the obstacle is not the main point; our reaction is what God is interested in.  How we are reacting to the obstacle is the thing on which to focus. The combination of the others seeming to want to send us away and God's silence seems like a double difficulty in our hour of need.  Yet, God is training us to persevere.

3. Suffered Further Resistance from Jesus Himself.  24  "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."  Seeming rejection from God.

We are only told what Jesus said; we are not told the tone of his voice.  The fact that he even was willing to be engaged in conversation with a foreign woman may have given her some encouragement, or perhaps she had elsewhere or earlier heard of his kindness.  The contents of Jesus' answer, when He did finally speak, however, are not encouraging to her, but rather discouraging.  "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."  This amounted to Jesus saying, "I was not sent to foreigners.  I don't care about you.  You are not important to me.  You are not one of the elite.  You are not one of the ones I came to help."  Have you ever felt like your prayer was not being answered because your concern did not matter to God?  Have you heard of others receiving answers to their prayers, but your prayers go on unanswered?  Remember God's training program.  Your concern does matter to God; He is just testing you and developing perseverance, faith, and character in you.

There seems to be a contradiction here, and contradictions in Scripture usually are resolved by the discovery of a deeper truth.  If Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, why didn't he stay in Israel?  If Jesus was uninterested in helping people in the Tyre and Sidon area, why was he there?  By just being there, Jesus seemed to be making himself available even though by saying he was sent only to Israel, he seemed to be rejecting her.  Where Jesus was and what Jesus said were inconsistent.  We must learn to discern the hints of encouragement in the midst of the apparent rejection.  The training process through which Jesus develops tenacity in his followers has the right mixture of subtle encouragement and apparent rejection.  Even in the face of the rejection one feels when the answer does not come, look for the encouraging signs—however subtle they may be.  We are not told what encouraging sign she held on to and persevered—perhaps it was simply Jesus' reputation—but there must have been some indication of Jesus' concern, and she noted it and by faith held on to it.  It is as though Jesus, in teaching us to persevere is motioning with one hand, "No, you cannot have this answer," and with the other hand is signaling, "Yes, you can have it.  Come and get it.  Press in there.  Persist.  Keep praying. You can do it."  When our prayer seems rejected, look for and discern the encouraging sign.

4. Worshipped, Even Before She Received Her Answer. 25 "The woman came and knelt before him." Unconditional worship.

In the face of clearly stated rejection of her request and before she received her answer, this woman knelt in humility before the Lord and worshiped him.  It is easier to worship the Lord when we receive answers to prayer.  It is more difficult to worship God when He does not.

Can we throw ourselves at his feet saying, "Lord, I want the answer to my prayer very much indeed, but I submit the matter and myself to you in humility.  I love you unconditionally.  It is you I seek.  Though you slay me, yet will I trust you"?

If we worship only when we receive something from God, is it possible that we are more interested in what we receive from him instead of loving God himself?  Delays in receiving the answer to our prayers are opportunities for us to test ourselves—do we love God and his will or just his answers to prayer? 

5. Surrendered to Jesus' Lordship. 22, "Lord, Son of David" 25, "Lord, help me." 27 "Yes, Lord," Submission.

In addition to worshipping Him in the face of rejection and before receiving the answer to her request, she called him Lord three times.  Had she only called him Lord one time, it might be difficult to build the case that this woman was submitting herself to the authority and Lordship of Jesus.  But, since the title "Lord," is mentioned three times, this consistency, along with her worship, seems to indicate the woman truly considered Jesus the Lord and that the title was being used sincerely.

When we experience training in Jesus' school of perseverance in prayer, our belief in the Lordship of Jesus may be the only thing that keeps us praying instead of resenting that he does not answer.  Those who acknowledge him as Lord, will, as unto him, continue to persevere in prayer.  Prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance; it is laying hold of his willingness.

The insight Luke 18 throws on this text helps us to realize that Jesus is training disciples and that his intention is to teach us to "always pray and not give up."  When we discern that it is the will of the father that we persevere in prayer, we persist because we know he wants us to persist.  We are not to persist out of rebellion, selfish praying, self-willed praying, or resentment; but we are to persist out of faithfulness.  He encourages us to persist even while resisting us.  We persist in prayer because He is Lord, because we know He wants us to persist; not in spite of the fact that He is Lord, as though He did not want us to receive our answer.

6. Prayed with Fervency. 25, "Lord, help me." Prayed from her heart.

This brief, one sentence prayer, given in response to Jesus' first stated rejection of the woman's request, has less conceptual content but more passion and feeling than any other part of the conversation.  It shows emotional urgency.  Our prayers are insipid if we do not put feelings into them.  Fervency is not the only thing needed in prayer, but without it all else could become formal, intellectual, and casual, as though prayer in itself were the goal and there were no concern as to whether an answer ever came.  The answer is what we want in prayer, and prayer is incomplete without the answer.

7. Used Her Mind and Reasoned with Jesus. "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." 27 Using our heads, too.

God does not mind us using our reasoning powers.  He is not intimidated by our arguments or rhetorical questions.  He wants us to engage him intellectually.  That is part of being honest with God.  The Bible says we should love Him with all our mind.  Through Isaiah He invites us: "Come now, let us reason together."   While interacting with a real physical situation and an intentional affront, she refused to be insulted or detoured.  After claiming to be sent only to the lost house of Israel, Jesus further said, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." (26)  To this rebuttal the Canaanite woman cleverly responded, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table."

When called a foreign dog, she humbly and effectively used the same metaphor in her response.  She did not ignore what Jesus said; she used it to counter argue that even foreign dogs might eat crumbs that drop from the table.

Proverbs says, "A soft answer quiets anger."  This woman's gentle insistence in the face of the insult displays marvelous perseverance.  Jesus is the master of reverse psychology.  He knows how to urge us to further perseverance by providing the correct amount of resistance that develops tenacity, perseverance, consistency, patience, and faithfulness in us.  His resistance neither crushes us nor lets us coast along on existing levels of maturity.

Jesus is the tender-hearted, sympathetic, compassionate, Savior and comforter.  Here, however, his training program for developing tenacity brings out another truth—He is developing discipline and character.  His training for disciples is different than the gentle nature shown to the lost, burdened, sorrowful, and down-trodden sinner whose grief He came to bear.  The target audiences, the needs, and the results are all different.  When appropriate, He does comfort wonderfully, and when needed, He develops tenacity with correctly administered challenges to our faith.  Muscle builders all know that resistance is needed in order for muscle tissue to be broken down and then made stronger in the rebuilding process.  God is developing spiritual muscle in his intercessors and knows that resistance is part of the process.

It takes great strength on the part of the mentor to give the protégé the training through which Jesus put this Canaanite woman.  In training his children to persevere in prayer, Jesus is more concerned about permanent results than the temporary difficulty through which he puts the trainee.  He knows how the process works and is developing statesmen for his coming kingdom.

8. Received the Lord's Promise Because Of Her Faith. 28 "Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted." The indication the answer would come preceded the actual answer.

The word for faith and faithfulness is the same in Greek.  If we have faith we will be faithful.  This woman had great faith and Jesus told her so.  It was not until this late juncture in the conversation that Jesus' words indicate that the woman's faith had helped her pass the test of perseverance.

The development of faith is a process, and it was only after the test was complete that Jesus eventually, finally encouraged this woman.  Through His address to her, He also addresses us.  If you endure the process and remain faithful in prayer, you too will be rewarded with the answer to your prayer.

Jesus delivered the congratulatory address at the successful end of the course.  He told her she had great faith and that her request was granted.  Her faith was active and helped her persist in tenacious and faithful prayer.  She was rewarded with Jesus' promise that her prayer would be answered.

9. Jesus' Words and Actions are the Same. 28 "Her daughter was healed from that very hour." She received the answer Jesus promised.

Jesus has his systems integrated.  What He says and what He does are the same.  Jesus' action—healing the daughter—was consistent with Jesus' words—"your request is granted."  God's Word and His action are consistent.  This is particularly valuable since the words of Jesus are so good.

God's Word says He will forgive us if we repent.  He does forgive the repentant.  God's Word says He will heal our bodies.  He does heal our bodies.  Jesus promised He would never leave us nor forsake us.  He keeps that wonderful promise.  God's Word says Jesus has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us.  He is preparing a place for us.  God's Word says Jesus will return to take us to be with God forever.  He will do that.  Jesus has said, "I will build my church."  He is doing that.

Conclusion:  It takes wisdom and strength on God's part to resist our requests and force us to grow in character, faith, and the ability to persevere in prayer.  God cares enough about our development that He is willing to put us through the training process.  It may help our faith if we envision God as being even more eager than we are for the answer to come our way.  He restrains Himself for a more noble purpose—our development.