“Prayer is not helpful. Prayer is not supplemental. Prayer is essential.” Ray Ortlund
Luke 18:1-8—Prayer: The Voice of Desperation
In this series, we’ve highlighted desperation. As I’ve listened to and been challenged by Pastor Chris each week, I’ve had this past experience come to mind that reminds me of what I should feel spiritually.
A few years ago, my wife and I lived in a different house. The thing I enjoyed most about that house was it had a nice screened-in sunroom where I could be outside without the bugs. One Saturday morning, Melissa had gone somewhere so I went outside to sit in the sunroom, read, and enjoy my coffee. This was before our daughter was born, so I was still able to drink coffee while it was hot without being warmed up half a dozen times. If you know me at all, you know that sounds like the perfect morning: outdoors with the birds chirping, good strong coffee, and time to read. And I did enjoy it. But in Indiana on summer mornings, it might be a great temperature at one point but after an hour or two the heat and humidity crank up fast. I couldn’t take it anymore so I was going to head into the nice cold air, but when I turned the knob I learned I had accidentally locked the door. I had no phone and no spare key.
At this point I was not only hot, but all I had been drinking that morning was strong coffee. As much as I love coffee, you know how if you don’t drink water in the morning and then you drink a lot of coffee, you get really thirsty and dehydrated, well I was experiencing that alongside this rise of heat from the sun. I tried to wait it out and keep reading but before long, the sun was directly shining on me and my wife didn’t seem to be returning soon. I was so thirsty. Things always feel bigger and worse in the moment, so I felt like I was in some desert movie scene without water for days with blurry mirages in the distance. The longer I was out there the more desperate I became for water. I remembered we had a hose on the back of the house so I hurried back there, turned it on, and drank from it like it was pouring out ice-cold Dr. Pepper. To cool down I dunked my head in the water and then drank more.
I didn’t care about the rusty hose or earthy water, or how hot or cold it was. It tasted like manna from heaven. I didn’t care if my neighbors looked out the windows wondering why this grown adult is drinking from and playing in the water-hose. I was desperate so I did desperate things. Whether it’s a small experience like this in your life that reminds you of desperation, or a more serious moment where it felt like you hit rock-bottom, we know that when we get desperate, we do things different.
You’ve likely heard the phrase “Desperate Times call for Desperate Measures,” well in Luke 18 we’ll see the lesson that Desperate Times Call for Desperate Praying. While prayer should not be our last resort, we know that when things fall apart we must turn to God for help. Desperate people stop worrying about how they look before others and focus on what they desire from God. Today’s parable will encourage us both to become desperate in our prayers and to persist in prayer.
As we think about Luke 18 the first question to answer is, “What’s a parable?” A parable is a short and simple story used to illustrate a spiritual lesson. Parables teach one or two straightforward ideas. It’s not like you’re watching Interstellaror Inceptionwhere there are layers of complex insights to discover. The nice thing is John spells out the meaning of this parable. He writes in verse one, “And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” John frames the parable by saying don’t give into discouragement but keep praying. As Ray Ortlund says, “Prayer is not helpful. Prayer is not supplemental. Prayer is essential.”
In Luke 18 Jesus tells a story that moves from the lesser—persistence paying off before an unjust judge—to the greater—persistence paying off before a Loving Father eager to help. As we move through the parable, I want to (1) introduce the characters, (2) summarize the parable, and (3) consider Jesus’ comments after it. If you think a sermon isn’t a sermon without alliteration, we’ll look at the People, the Plot, and the Point.
Verse 2 brings the first character on stage. The judge is described as unrighteous in verse 6, and twice Jesus says he neither fears God nor respects man. The parable paints a picture of the judge as one unlikely to help the widow. He’s selfish and will only do what works in his favor. Since the case of a poor widow is unlikely to benefit him, he’s probably not going to listen or do anything to help her.
Verse 3 brings our main character on stage. The story isn’t so much about the judge but about the widow. Because the parable focuses on the widow, we might notice the point isn’t primarily God’s activity in prayer but the example given to us in this woman. We will see something about God, but the text is geared towards what Jesus wants to see in our prayer life. Verse 3 says, “And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’”
She has an adversary, someone who took advantage of her or wronged her. It must be a serious thing because every day she pleads with the judge to give her justice. She’s asking to receive fair treatment, that her being wronged would be made right. The widow has no assets, influence, and no voice. The only thing working for her is her persistence.
Jesus picks a widow because in this culture she was a desperate, dependent, vulnerable person. She lost her husband and apparently had no son, so she’s likely to be neglected or taken advantage of. She has no one to protect her and make sure justice is carried out on her behalf. She’s in desperate circumstances and has no one to help. This parable isn’t alone in highlighting how God works on behalf of the dependent and desperate rather than the self-sufficient. Luke 18 provides a string of examples.
In 18:9-14, it’s not the respectable, upright Pharisee who’s justified but the lowly tax collector. In 15-17, the kind of people fit for God’s kingdom aren’t strong and independent adults but the weak, dependent children who must seek help from someone. And then in 18-27 when Jesus talks to the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus isn’t looking for wealthy individuals or those who have it all in this life, but he’s looking for those who see everything in this life as dispensable compared to him. Luke 18 shows us Christ’s kingdom isn’t for the independent but the dependent; it’s not for the strong but the weak; it’s not for those who believe in themselves but it’s for those who need rescue; it’s for the humble, not the proud; it’s not for those looking to add Jesus into an already full life but it’s for those so desperate for Jesus they’ll walk away from anything to follow him.
Part of what I hope you see in this series is the gracious and gentle heart of God towards the humble and desperate. The gravitational pull of living in the suburbs is to do everything we can to put up appearances that our life is full, great, we’re happy, and blessed. Our culture finds a thousand ways to highlight the message of believe in yourself, you’re amazing, and you can do anything. This cultural hype of self-esteem blended with how social media tempts us to create the best version of ourselves works against Christians so desperation and weakness are seen as things to overcome or cover up.
One problem with this is when we say no to desperation and say yes to self-sufficiency, we’re essentially telling God we don’t need him. God desires to help, strengthen, give his sustaining presence, and work in us, but instead of receiving this through humility and desperation we stiff-arm God with pride and self-sufficiency. A key verse in this series might be: “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” God isn’t embarrassed, disappointed, or put off by us when we’re weak, broken, and desperate. Instead, like a loving father his heart is moved by compassion and kindness to draw near, wrap us up in his arms, and work on our behalf.
Having looked at our two people, I’ll summarize the plot. Verse 3 tells us this widow continually begs the judge, “Give me justice against my adversary.” Verse five reiterates her persistence when the judge says she keeps bothering me. However, the judge has no compassion and cares little about justice, so he ignores her. Day after day she gets denied. It would have been easy for her to be discouraged and give up. She knew she had no one to step in for her, no leverage to change the judge’s mind. She knows how hard-hearted and unrighteous he is. It seems like she should just give up. But she doesn’t.
Look at verses 4-5. “For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’”Finally, to get her off his back, he gives her justice and answers her request. She is rewarded for not giving up. Her persistence pays off. Justice is served.
Jesus moves to the point of the parable in 6-8. “And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
John already summarized the heart of the parable at the beginning: don’t lose heart but keep praying. Now Jesus reiterates that with an argument from the lesser to the greater. The point is if persistence for justice can win over an unjust judge, then we should be all the more motivated to pray to God since he invites us to pray to him and loves to answer our requests.
Finally, Jesus asks the question, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (18:8). Jesus flips it around. The question here isn’t “will God answer prayer” but “will we trust God and be faithful in our persistence in prayer?” Jesus calls us to trust and continue to pray. God’s timing is perfect, his heart is one of love, and his desire is to come to our aid. So don’t give up. Don’t get discouraged if things have not changed yet or you’ve not seen results. Trust God with these matters by continuing to persist in prayer and entrusting your cares to God.
Before we pray together, I want to share three closing applications on desperation in prayer. The first thing all of us, including myself, must ask in light of this series and this parable is whether our prayer life is missing a key ingredient of desperation. We could apply this personally, but I think one way to apply this is in our small groups. One temptation most groups struggle with is that rather than being humble, honest, and desperate in our prayers together we settle for offering surface-level prayer requests. Hear me, sometimes it’s good to pray over other people in your life or to pray about family, work, and health issues. But if week after week the only thing we have to pray about is our aunt’s hip surgery, then we aren’t desperate enough. I’d love to see small group prayer times be a place of personal, vulnerable, desperation where people ask God to do a powerful work in their hearts and lives that will not happen unless His Spirit moves.
Jesus tells this parable to push us towards desperation. A kind of desperation where seeing God at work becomes bigger than our fear of man, embarrassment, and concerns for comfort. Are we broken enough over our sin and idolatry that we’re willing to be honest in prayer? Are we concerned enough about our walk with Christ to tell others where we’re struggling or straying so they can intercede for us? Do we see spiritual dryness or a cold heart towards the things of God as even more dangerous than failing health and financial struggles? Is your secret sin, your broken marriage, your faltering faith, or your depression and anxiety enough of a concern in your life that you’ll humble yourself to invite others in and ask God to work? Or are all these things not worth bringing up, getting uncomfortable about, and risking having people ask follow-up questions?
The reason we have prayer services and small groups is because we all need other believers to walk alongside us in our struggles, and one key way is honest prayer about heart issues. God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble, and this is also true in whether we share real needs for prayer with others or in pride act as if our life is fine by giving surface-level prayers. My hope is that even this week our small groups would pray different. Desperate times lead to desperate praying, so if our prayers aren’t desperate then we aren’t yet desperate enough.
The second applicationis I would remind us part of God’s intent in allowing us to walk through hard things is he knows how good for us it is to turn to Him in prayer. When things get hard, we do become more aware of our need, and we remember how much we need God’s presence and God’s help. This can be the very means by which God grows us in our faith and creates intimacy with him. There’s actually something more important than our circumstances changing or getting an answer to prayer. That “more important thing” is knowing God. It’s walking with him and growing in our Christian walk.
When we’re not desperate, we casually pursue God through prayer. But when things get hard we turn to him and we experience his presence more than ever. We’re reminded how all we need is him. We’re reminded we might not be promised deliverance from the storm, but we are promised God will sustain us and be with us through the storm. I can tell you when I feel weak, when things are hard, when I’m empty, these times of turning to God in prayer end up being some of the sweetest moments with God. It’s simply drawing near to him and unburdening my heart onto his. It’s leaning on him in my weakness and being held up. And these moments of resting in God, talking to God, trusting in him and turning to him end up being the very things that grow my faith and increase my love for God. Yes, I want answered prayer too, but even more than answers from God I grow through intimacy with God. Desperate prayer does that. When we walk through trials, God might have one hundred different purposes in it. But, one is for us to turn to God and know him better. He is good and he is kind and he will draw near, especially when he hears the desperate cries of his people.
And finally, a third application is to persist in prayer. Jesus holds up the persistent widow as an example to believers and tells us to not grow weary or lose heart but to always pray (cf. Col. 4:2). Jesus is calling us to not give up on the things heavy on our heart God has not yet answered. He wants us to continue trusting God and continue seeking God in desperation and with faithful persistence. Not because if we pray often enough or get enough people to join us God will be worn out, but because God responds to the desperate cries of his people. God’s timing in answering prayer is always perfect. It’s on his time, not ours. We are motivated not only by the huge needs that are bigger than us which only God can accomplish, but we’re also motivated by the heart of God who calls us to pray to him, who delights in hearing us, who is a Father who wants to step in and help his kids, and who knows exactly how and when to answer.
Some of us have stopped praying about some things or been tempted to stop praying. Maybe it’s the salvation of a loved one or wayward child, for a broken relationship, for God to grant a desire of your heart, for a spouse or a child, for spiritual revival in your life, for wisdom in decision making, or for victory in an ongoing temptation or sin. It might seem like God has not heard you but God tells us not to give up but to keep trusting in him. He loves to work on our behalf. He wants us to continue to cast our cares on him, and to know and believe that the hears, he cares, and he is at work.