This is the fourth of a five-part series on how God invites us to pray. Check out the previous posts (“Why Do We Find It So Difficult to Pray?”, “Pray Desperately,” and “Pray Boldly”). And check back in tomorrow for the final post.
My kids know how to wear me out by asking for something repeatedly. For them, “no” isn’t an answer; it’s an invitation to an extended negotiation (in which they know I will eventually crumble). Rather than a successful defense, “no” signals to them the start of an all-out siege.
In certain ways, that same persistent attitude is precisely what God invites us to model in our prayers. As the parables from Luke 11 and Luke 18 both show, God answers the requests of the person asking because of their persistence. Jesus couldn’t have been much clearer about this: “Now he told them a parable on the need for them to pray always and not give up” (Luke 18:1 CSB).
You might say, as Paul Miller does, that all of Jesus’ parables about prayer show adults acting like children. The widow in Luke 18 and the pestering neighbor in Luke 11 are more like my kids than they are like me. Apparently God delights to answer those who are bold enough to keep bothering him.
To which you might say, “Well, how does this jive with the whole idea of God’s sovereignty? Are you saying that we can manipulate God into doing whatever we want, as long as we pray hard enough?” Not in the least. This is one of the mysteries of God’s sovereignty: God is still the one granting requests. Sometimes he says, “No.” Sometimes he says, “Yes.” Sometimes he says, “Not yet.” And sometimes he answers only after ongoing, patient, persistent prayer.
Why would God work that way? Why not give what we ask for the first time? I have a guess. I think God responds like this because he is glorified through our persistent boldness. By pounding on God’s door, praying, and refusing to give up, we declare our confidence in the goodness and the power of God. The more the pounding, the greater the declaration of confidence.
I know trying to manage the tension between God’s sovereignty and our prayer can make your head start to ache. But if you can stop trying to reduce God down to an easy syllogism and just listen to Jesus, the message is clear: If God’s not answering, keep praying.
The Apostle Paul got this. In at least one instance he literally had to be told to stop asking for something (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). A message came down from heaven, saying (in essence), “Paul, let this one go. God has a greater plan.” The early church got this, too. In Acts 12, for instance, we see that the church prayed all night for the release of the Apostle Peter (Acts 12:5, 12). They didn’t just mention it once and then pick up a John Piper book and meditate on the sovereignty of God. They prayed until he got out.
Now, I know this immediately makes you point to all the exceptions. You prayed for something and never got it. And yes, of course, Scripture shows that many times a prayer—even a persistent one—goes without an apparent answer. But when his disciples asked him how to pray, Jesus told stories with this lesson: Don’t let go until you absolutely have to. Make God “pull a Paul” with you and send an angel to tell you to stop asking. But don’t give up.
Don’t give up! If you’re praying and praying and praying and you have no answer yet, don’t give up. As a pastor, I could tell you story after story of the faithful men and women who prayed for years—seemingly in vain, at the time—only to see God answer those prayers in miraculous ways. But what if they had prayed for five years, 10 years, 15 years … and then given up?
George Mueller, a 19th-century evangelist, tells a story about committing to pray for the salvation of five young men, every single day. He prayed for 18 months before the first one came to Christ. His response? “I thanked God, and pressed on.” He continued praying for the four, every day, until another became a believer five years later. Six years later a third came to Christ. But after 36 years of praying, as Mueller approached his death, the last two were still not believers. Mueller wasn’t phased. He said, “They are not converted yet, but they will be. I hope in God, I pray on, and I look for the answer.”
When Mueller died in 1898, the last two men still were not Christians. God, however, honored Mueller’s faith, and within a few month’s of Mueller’s death, the final two came to faith in Christ.
If you were outside of God’s kingdom, wouldn’t you want a Mueller in your life to approach the throne on your behalf every day? Aren’t there men and women in our lives who need us, Mueller-like, to shake God’s throne with our requests?
I don’t know specifically what God will do with your persistent requests. But I know that God won’t answer a single prayer of yours that you aren’t asking. Have you given up hope that your father, for instance, might come to faith? Your brother? Your roommate or co-worker or son or daughter?
“Now he told them a parable on the need for them to pray always and not give up.”