What is it with the vague, apprehensive feeling that persistent prayer is wrong?
A lot of people have this. For me, it was something along these lines: “God has perfect hearing, memory, and knowledge of our needs. Repeating a prayer reveals that you’re not thinking about God’s qualities.” There’s also the thought, pushing back like an invisible barrier, saying that we’re fortunate to be tolerated by God anyway and that we really shouldn’t be pushing our luck. The result is that importunate prayer often goes untried. “Just pray once and let it go.”
I do not deny that some prayers can be offered out of anxiety, ignorance, or selfishness. Those prayers are worthless before God, and should be countered with other prayers for sanctification and wisdom.
But would you have told Elijah to stop praying for rain upon Israel after his first prayer was met with silence?
Would you have told Moses to stop interceding for the Israelites’ lives after his first day of pleading was met with silence?
What about Jesus praying to God three times in Gethsemane for the cup of the cross to be taken from him?
Oh, and hoo boy: What do we do with the story of the Canaanite woman?
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 masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. (Matthew 15:21-28)
This is one of those stories that makes us…uncomfortable. We’re not certain how to apply it. Our first instinct is usually to say that it doesn’t apply to our lives, that those were special people in special times and all that chum. But Elijah was a man just like us (James 5:17). What if this story does have something for us in the here and now?
This Phoenician woman is gutsy from the start. She’s a Gentile, beyond the scope of Jesus’ mission to the Jews, for one thing. She’s also interrupting his search for solitude (Mark 7:24). Yet she tracks him down and begs for her daughter’s deliverance.
On the first try, Jesus says nothing.
This we can identify with. Many prayers are met with silence. We have a choice here – give up or keep praying. But praying forces us to face our worry that persistence might be pushy.
This woman evidently isn’t struggling with that. Or she struggles through it. She lets loose a second cry and gets Jesus’ disciples intervening for her. This is often our next step when our prayers seem to fail: we look for someone to intercede. “She’s a prayer warrior. Maybe God will listen to her.”
But Jesus now gives a clear negative to his disciples: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Her courage must be growing rather than shrinking, though, because now she actually throws herself at Jesus’ feet (and being a Phoenician, she probably hasn’t made a habit of Israel’s cleanliness laws). She asks a third time.
But alas, God in the flesh again says no – not silence, not to his disciples, but straight to her face. Three prayers, three denials. He even explains why – a theological “it’s not right” that would shame the rest of us from arguing further. She has now heard him unmistakably. As far as she (or we) can tell at this point, God’s will is to not deliver her daughter.
But the woman does something utterly amazing. She asks a fourth time. “Yes, Lord,” she said. “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
All right, what do we do with this? Have you ever read it this way? Let’s be honest here: if a friend told us that she’d been praying and had heard no three times, we would probably not encourage her to keep praying. We’d instead say something like “God has made his will clear. It’s not your place to second-guess him. Now is the time for you to go your way and trust in his plan.” That’s usually how we handle it.
This woman didn’t get that memo. She heard a no straight from Jesus’ mouth and kept asking. There’s just no other way to interpret this. And such unpolished prayer! No A-C-T-S, no “if it be thy will”, just “Lord, help me!”
And Christ calls it faith and rewards her.
It feels…dangerous. Like every believer who reads it will go off the deep end and start blithely ignoring any “no” they hear (a bad idea). It sounds irreverent, gallsy, a little too good to be true.
Yet God, a very intentional author, included it in the Gospels. He didn’t do that so we’d ruminate on how many people Jesus didn’t deliver. That’s ridiculous. The persistence angle is there for a reason; I’m just reading what’s there.
So…what can we learn?
First, this woman has some sense that Jesus won’t get angry with her for persisting. That alone might be all we need to hear today. All those jokes we make about God’s lightning? Maybe they reveal something deeper. Many of us, if we’re honest, are afraid of God in all the wrong ways. There are humans we view as more approachable than God. We don’t live daily as if he were “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love (Psalm 145:8)”. How would our walk with God be transformed if we did?
Secondly, surface-level exegesis stinks. The Bible does not treat God’s sovereign qualities as reason to pray only once. Some teach against persistent prayer because, in their minds, it’s a failure to trust God’s knowledge and plans. It’s the same logic by which we’re taught that consecrating things is unnecessary because everything belongs to God anyway, or that “inviting God” into worship sessions is unnecessary because he’s already there (I read that just the other day).
That is empty religion. It’s exposed by its fruit: weak prayer. And it drives me bonkers seeing it deflect my fellow millennials from real prayer.
Yes, God is everywhere and all-powerful. Absolutely. Yet Scripture commands us to engage him in all these ways. Otherwise we wouldn’t have Jeremiah 29:12 telling us to “seek Him with all your heart”, for something that is omnipresent cannot be sought. There is a vigorous, persistent, audacious-yet-humble engagement with God that he seeks from us. The Canaanite woman appealed not to any “right” or “claim” to the “promises of God”, but to grace. She knew Jesus owed her nothing. Yet she clung to her request.
And Jesus knew something about hers. Only someone who knows God’s good heart could hold fast in prayer as the Canaanite woman did. It is true that there are times when faith is grown by letting go; but not this time. She prevailed and Christ rewarded her.
Finally, when you throw this Bible story in with numerous others, a picture starts emerging: persistence matters. Include Daniel 10, where we see Daniel’s prayer for a vision interpretation delayed not because of his sin or any lesson from God, but by a demon’s intervention, and all bets are off. Clearly, there is more going on – a spiritual realm where prayer is an active agent. What does it say about prayer that Elijah, God’s designated go-to guy for Israel’s rain, still had to pray seven times?
There are some genuine “no”s that will come our way. Watch out for the lie that I struggle with – “if I just pray enough, he’ll say yes.” Maybe. I can’t corner him. God’s still smarter than me, more competent than me, and better than my ideas. Real prayer still involves surrender to that. (You might try asking God if persistence is needed.)
Yet if nothing else, we can glean this: God seeks persistence in our prayers. It may feel insolent, or risky to invest months in fervent prayer. But if God wants it that way, we have nothing to say about it.
Except “Lord, help me.”