Benefits of Prayer

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Okay!  I get it.  Persistent, disciplined prayer is effective.  God wants us to pray.  We’re supposed to pray.  A lot!  Like this widow.

So I try.

In good Puritan fashion, I set aside time, I go into my figurative closet—wherever that may be—and I close my eyes and reflect on God, his blessings, my needs, and the needs of those I care about.

Or I utilize one of those ancient methods: centering prayer; lectio divina; the rosary.

Or I keep the discipline of the daily offices: morning and evening prayer.

Or I might even be fortunate enough to live in a community where others keep the daily offices with me: near a seminary maybe; or a school chapel (like here, where we hold Morning Prayer five days a week—during the school year anyway).

Yes!  Persistent, disciplined prayer is indeed effective.  God indeed wants us to pray.  Indeed, we’re supposed to pray.

Okay!  I get it!

But the truth of the matter is, it’s tricky.  Maintaining a consistent, God-honoring prayer life isn’t easy.

We live in a busy world, don’t we?  We balance heavy schedules and workloads—whether it involves getting the kids out of the door and to school on time each morning, closing some deal via skype with a business partner nine time zones away, or simply making the daily commute through San Antonio traffic—we can often feel that it took everything we had just to get through the day.  Who has time left to pray?

Jesus tells us we need to pray always, yes.  But, as the Gospel of Luke acknowledges, we “lose heart.”

And speaking of the Gospel, there’s a disconnection here.

Jesus told the disciples a parable, the text says, about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  But then the parable itself is about a widow who persistently brings her case before an unjust judge.  He neither fears God nor respects people.  Nevertheless, the widow’s persistence pays off.  The judge craters and gives her what she asks for—not out of any ethical concern, but simply to get her off his back!

Is this what it means to pray always and not to lose heart?  Are we to be like this widow: so persistent in our prayers that we don’t let up until we get our way?

For that matter, is God even anything like this unjust judge?  This judge neither feared God nor respected people.  Surely that’s not how we are to understand the god to whom we pray!

Another problem is that the widow is not even praying here.  Instead, she’s pleading a case, persuading and persisting, in dialog with another human being, not God, until she’s heard.

How, then, is this a parable about our need to pray always and not to lose heart?  How does this parable motivate me, a disciple of Christ, to be consistent in my own prayer life? to persevere in this spiritual discipline?

Truth be told, there are a lot of reasons why maintaining a consistent, disciplined prayer life is difficult.  But, at the same time, there are many benefits that come to you when you do observe prayer as a spiritual discipline.  Every one of these benefits is spiritual in nature, sure.  But in many cases these benefits have pragmatic value too.  Here are four from today’s passage.

First: Alignment.  Disciplined prayer lines you up with God’s will, not the other way around.

Notice what the widow prays for: justice.  No doubt, widows in Jesus’s day weren’t treated fairly.  Society was patriarchal.  There were no systems in place like we have today to take care of widows—no medical plan, pension, or social security.  Care for widows fell largely to extended family members and synagogues.  Even then, family members and synagogues didn’t have to do anything about widows if they didn’t want to: there were no laws to help widows out.

Such treatment was a social injustice.  Jesus knew it.  His disciples knew it.  The widow of his parable knew it.  The unjust judge knew it.  God knew it too—and he listened to the widow’s prayer.

By contrast, let’s just say you think it’s God’s will that you find a million dollars.  So, according to this parable, you begin to pray day and night that you might find a million dollars somewhere.  But after a while, you don’t find that million dollars.  If you are persistent about prayer, practicing it day and night, reflecting on the word of God, conversing with others about God’s will, and so on, then you will probably begin to see—hopefully—that it is not necessarily God’s will that you should find a million dollars.

God, in other words, has begun to change your mind.  Through your persistently unanswered prayers you have begun to realize that you’re not really aligned with God’s will in your prayer life after all.

Disciplined prayer aligns you with God’s will, not the other way around.

A second benefit of disciplined prayer: Awareness.  Disciplined prayer develops within you an increased awareness of God’s omnipresence—his everywhere-presence.

God is everywhere around you all the time.  You may know this in your head from passages like Psalm 139: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. . . .”  But do you live this out, from the heart?

Today’s passage says always: “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always.”  Too, Jesus explains that the widow cried out to God day and night.  She wasn’t crying out to the judge day and night, but only when she could get the judge’s ear.  But she cried out to God around the clock—whether she was in the act of standing before the judge or not.

Always!  Day and night!  It’s not just in your closets at home!  It’s not just using ancient aids like lectio divina!  It’s not just in the daily offices!  But always!

Think of it as an open ended conversation.  God is everywhere around you all the time.  Beyond that, God knows even your thoughts.  Whether you like it or not, then, to God your life is an open book!  You’re not going to hide anything from him.  Why not therefore be in an attitude of constant conversation with him?

You know what will happen then?  Your awareness of God will increase.

The third benefit: Action.  Disciplined prayer leads to action.

The widow knew that social injustices were happening all around her.  She prayed to God about these day and night.  But it wasn’t enough for her to sit at home in her closet and simply pray.  Rather, she did something about it!  Namely, she went to the judge and pleaded her case.

Go thou and do likewise!

Now, I am in no way discounting the examples of prayer I keep mentioning.  Yes, do pray in your closet!  Yes, do utilize the ancient prayer aids like lectio divina!  Yes, do participate in the daily offices—by yourself if necessary!  But then get out there and do something about what you pray for.

And finally, the fourth benefit: Astonishment.  God will astonish you through disciplined prayer.

Do you think the widow expected the judge to give in to her requests?  He was an unjust man, the text says, who had no fear of God and no respect for persons.  Yet she prayed day and night.  And she kept coming, persistently, pleading her case.  And God heard her.  Despite all expectations, the judge gave in to her requests.  Not because he feared God!  Not because he was ethical!  According to his thinking it was because he wanted her to stop bothering him!  But the bigger reason, which we know from Luke, is because she prayed consistently and according to God’s will.  And then, without knowing how God would answer, she acted on it.  No doubt she was astonished by his answer.

Pray then.  Align yourself to God’s will.  Increase your awareness of God’s omnipresence.  Act on your prayers.  And God will astonish you with his answers.


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