He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart (Luke 18:1, nasb).
“Once I get to feeling better,” you may sometimes think, “I’ll start praying again with more regularity.”
“Once I’m not so upset, once my heart is not so overwhelmed, maybe I’ll feel like praying with more fervor.”
“Once I’ve been able to build up some faith, I’ll start praying with more hope and belief and confidence, like I used to do.”
But which comes first? The passion or the praying?
George Müller is known to us today mainly through his classic autobiography and his inspiring personal testimony of how prayer—or more accurately, God’s answers to Müller’s prayer—sustained the work of his orphanages in late-1800s England. But among my favorite George Müller stories is how he prayed throughout his lifetime, day after day after day, for five of his unsaved friends to come to Christian faith. One of them was converted within a number of months; three others within a matter of many, many years. And the last—the fifth, who remained unsaved at the time of Müller’s death—was finally captured by Christ in the aftermath of his old friend’s funeral. Fifty-two years of praying, every single day, resulted in prayers of faith that extended even beyond his lifetime.
But who prays like that? Every day? Again and again? Without fail?
And when we stop, why do we stop?
And what could get us started again after we’ve grown tired of praying and started coping instead of hoping?
Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18:1–8 is said to contain one teaching purpose—that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1, esv)—because prayer and losing heart are antithetical. People who persist in prayer don’t lose heart; people who lose heart don’t persist in prayer.
Praying is meant to keep you believing when your reasons for believing are hard to see anymore. Praying keeps you focused, even when the option of fretting or fixing the problem yourself seems a more promising alternative. Praying keeps you caring when your natural inclination is to concede defeat and move on to something else.
In other words, if you and I would keep praying, we wouldn’t lose heart.
No amount of waiting for certain emotions to align is enough to make prayer your go-to approach for days, weeks, months, and years. But by praying anyway—and persisting in it with a day-in, day-out refusal to give up—all your reasons for hoping are kept alive.
That’s how you as the pray-er (the one who’s praying) are changed and brought into conformity with the will of God for your life, even if your many prayers themselves don’t always lead to the outcome you most desired. But you can’t say you prayed and nothing happened, because in prayer God gave you strength and faith that wasn’t there before, and which would never have arrived or been allowed time to mature unless you’d persisted in prayer.
Sometimes the which-comes-first question comes with no clear answer. But in this case it does. Prayer comes first. Then your faith is able to last.
Heavenly Father, You know how frequently I’ve prayed and lost heart, how I’ve started and stopped and not always started again. Yet I know You would grow my faith and trust in You if I’d only keep coming to You in prayer. Forgive me, Lord, for wanting the work done around me and in front of me, but not inside me—for seeking my answers somewhere else when You, my Father, have invited me close and invited me to stay. Teach me to pray and not quit, and to make my confident, persistent prayers in the faithful name of Jesus, amen.