The Power of Persistence

Luke 18: 1-8

This is the time of year when many people consider making new year’s resolutions. Have you made any resolutions? I am not going to give you America’s most popular top ten resolutions, but I would like to break that list down for you. Four are devoted to fitness and health. Another four address personal improvement, things such as becoming more organized, improving finances, etc. The final two are the most noble, helping others and spending more time with family and friends. If you have not made any resolutions yet, why not begin with those two?

All resolutions share one thing in common: they are all so very difficult to keep! A recent study shows that about 80 percent of people who make resolutions on Jan. 1 lose their resolve by Valentine’s Day.

Usually we give up right at the moment we are about to succeed. Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Sometimes we give up too soon when all we needed was a little bit more persistence. Remember when Jesus told the discouraged fishermen to cast their nets again, it was right in the same old spot where they had been fishing all night and had caught nothing. After listening to Jesus they dropped their nets again and their nets were filled!

John White’s book Rejection (1982) lists several artists who practiced persistence. Saroyan, a novelist, received thousands of rejection letters before being published. Gertrude Stein persisted for twenty years before a poem was accepted. The Dubliners, by James Joyce, was turned down by twenty-two publishers. e.e. cummings had a manuscript that was rejected by over a dozen publishers, and his mother finally published it. The dedication page, in upper case, read, “WITH NO THANKS TO…” listing those publishers. Impressionists were initially rejected: Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. Rodin was rejected again and again. When Stravinsky introduced Rite of Spring he enraged the audience. During much of his career Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the more widely rejected architects. Fred Astaire was called “a balding, skinny actor who can dance a little” when he was first rejected by Hollywood. The Beatles were even rejected by Decca Records because they thought groups of guitars did not sound well together.

My personal story of overcoming rejection happened on the first day I met my wife, Christine. On the day I met her, I told my friend “I am going to marry that girl.” He answered, “You should ask her out on a date first.” So I went to her door and asked her out on a date. “I can’t,” she answered, “I have to study.” “How about tomorrow night?” “I have an evening class.” “How about the next night?” “I really have to do some reading,” she answered. I knew that I was dealing with a very serious student, but I persisted, continuing to ask her about the following night until finally she relented and said she would go out with me. That is my personal testimony to the power of persistence!

We all have stories in our lives of times when being persistent took on special meaning. Healthy persistence is rooted in the positive, in hope for the future and faith for the goodness of life. It is progressive in outlook and courageous in spirit. Of course there are many types of unhealthy persistence, such as when someone persists too long in an abusive relationship, destructive behavior or thoughts, or in a burned out job. Those are times when we must find the courage to change directions in life and find a new path. If we do not, that is unhealthy persistence, and there is plenty of that in our world. Today we are talking about healthy persistence, new starts, a fresh beginning, New Year’s resolutions.

Yes, we all know how difficult it is to keep New Year’s resolutions. How much more difficult must it be for us to believe that we can persist in our spiritual growth? If we persist in prayer, the most accessible instrument for spiritual growth, we can persist through difficulties in life, according to Jesus. Jesus told this parable about the persistent widow and the judge, and gives very good reason why it is worth our while to persist in prayer. Remember how parables work—the Greek word is parabola, which means “ to lay alongside?” Parables are stories, usually with one point, made either by comparison or contrast. In other words, in parables Jesus explains a spiritual reality by taking a story from everyday life and laying it beside that truth.

Most parables challenge us to search for a message. This one declares the theme right at the start. Jesus knew his disciples would one day become subject to trials and persecution and that they would be in danger of losing heart. This parable has such application for us today. Persistence is a necessity for our survival. It is so easy to become frustrated and want to give up. Those who work with children, parents and teachers, are constantly challenged. Sometimes children respond but sometimes they do not. We believe that behavior modification will work because most of the time it works with pets, we reward and punish, but it does not always work with children. They seem to operate on their timeline as to when they want to respond in the way that we feel they should. It takes persistence to work with children. When we have lost a spouse, or are in a time of grief, or we have a friend or loved one who has experienced loss, we need persistent prayer to sustain us. When we are worried about our job security, growing old, the economy, our world’s peace, we need persistent prayer. When we are worried about losing our health or the health of a loved one, we need persistent prayer. This parable that Jesus gives is so applicable!

Jesus uses contrast in this parable, teaching that God is not like that judge, who is described as a haughty man that had no respect for God or humanity. Jewish courts seemed to be a tribunal format, with litigation being taken to the elders for a decision. Since there was only a single judge mentioned here the judge was probably a Roman magistrate. These Roman magistrates were infamous for their indifference to justice and their readiness to accept and even to solicit bribes. “Those Roman judges would trade justice for a dish of good meat.” That was a  popular saying of the day! Those judges cared about only those who could pay for justice. People enjoyed making a pun on the judges’ titles in the Greek, where, by dropping a single letter they could change their titles. Dropping one letter changes the word from “judges of punishment” to “robber judges.”

The second character in the parable was a widow. When a woman lost her husband and became a widow, she lost everything and was left powerless. The family’s property often went to the husband’s family. What little a widow had was taken away. Her options were charity at best and crime at worst. Those magistrates were known to ignore widows because they were the poorest of the poor. This widow had no resources for a bribe. She had nothing, but she did have persistence. She simply would not give up. Finally the judge says to himself, “Even though I could care less about God and can’t stand humanity, I will give this woman what she wants, just to get her out of my hair.” He said that he would do it before she “wore him out” using Greek boxing terminology.

The word used literally refers to a blackened eye, but it is translated as wore me out or bother as if the judge feared getting a figurative black eye in the community. Would the widow be able to hurt his reputation? The judge’s position came from Rome, and Roman authorities weren’t concerned about complaints from poor widows. This judge was not sly or sneaky, he simply had no conscience. Since he had no shame, I cannot imagine that he was worried about his already corrupt reputation. Could it be that Jesus was using humor in this parable? It could be that the judge feared a literal black eye from the widow. That is a very funny image: this corrupt judge looking over his shoulder all the time fearing this feisty widow’s punch! I can imagine that when Jesus told this parable, the disciples cheered or at least chuckled. They must have enjoyed the way the story turned out. The widow finally got her way!

Usually Jesus concluded parables without much interpretation, but this parable called for an immediate interpretation. Jesus hurried to his point, stating, “If the unrighteous judge will listen, will not God who is just and cares about us listen and grant justice?” Remember that God is contrasted, not compared, to the unjust judge. God is not like the unjust judge, he is like a good father, a good friend who will listen. So if the unjust judge listens, how much more will God listen. That might have been enough to convince his followers to pray always. But then Jesus adds that disturbing question at the end, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus had a wonderful opportunity to make this parable an emphatic statement about God’s faithfulness in answering prayers, but what does he do? He takes the pressure off God and puts it back on us. Jesus is charging the disciples to keep the faith when he leaves them. This parable is not about God answering prayers because he is infinitely better than the judge, this is about being like that persistent widow who will not quit! The question is, will we take God seriously enough to persist in prayer as the widow did? Do we give up too easily letting the unjust judges of this world have the final say? When we are challenged with unethical practices in the work place, do we lose heart? When we are confronted with helping the poor and powerless, fighting depression or loss, or simply coping with the stress of everyday life, do we persist? We need persistent prayer. Jesus is not asking for mindless repetition of prayers, but for an approach that makes connecting with God a backdrop to life. It is a discipline that will vary from person to person. Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, says that prayer is not an innate skill, but something we learn to do. Foster wrote, “One of the liberating experiences of my life came when I understood that prayer involved a learning process. I was  set free to question, to experiment, even to fail, for I knew I was learning.”

It is so difficult to feel trapped within ourselves. Prayer gives us a way out. An editor of Elle magazine and career journalist known worldwide, Jean-Dominique Bauby saw his fast-paced life come to an abrupt end in 1995 when he suffered a condition that left him in a state of virtual total paralysis. He said that he felt “like a mind in a jar,” like “a butterfly trapped in a diving bell.” Yet he persevered. He learned to communicate using an alphabet board by telegraphing series of long and short blinks with his left eyelid—the only muscle still under his control. His former editors were so moved that they convinced him to try to dictate a book of memoirs about his condition that he titled, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That 137-page book was published in France in March 1997, and Bauby died less than 72 hours later. One notable part of the book involves Bauby’s reflection on the possibility of future healing: “Is there a key out in the cosmos that can unlock my bubble? A currency valuable enough to buy my freedom? … I’m going there.”

Let us return to the key to the message of prayer that unlocks this parable. It is found in that final question that Jesus asks the disciples: “When I return, will I find faith on earth?” Jesus was teaching that prayer is more about relationship than about answers. Anything we might receive as a result of praying is meager in comparison to the greatest gift we will receive, that is, being in relationship with God. God is like a father, a good friend, who will sit next to our bedside and listen to us. Let us make prayer our first and primary task as Christians. Persistent prayer makes faith. There is a direct connection between prayer and faith! Persistent prayer is daily. It is not just a last resort when we feel as if our plans or power may have failed. I remember feeling the power of prayer in high school during my training in track. Daily I would run miles down lonely country dirt roads and just when I thought I couldn’t make it, I would recite the words of an old poem that my grandmother, a great lover of poetry who knew many poems, taught me.

“Believe in God, and in his

dream,

Though impossible things may seem

Somehow, someday, you’ll

get through

to the goal he has in view.

Mountains fall and seas divide

to the one who in stride,

Takes God’s hard road, day by day,

sweeping obstacles away.

Believe in God, and in his plan.

Say not, I cannot, but I can!

The prizes of life we fail to win,

because we doubt God’s power

within.”

This year we are certain to have resolutions fall by the wayside. We will also most certainly face challenges that are both expected and unexpected. We need the power of persistence, the power of persistent prayer, because it gives us a Christ perspective. Prayer teaches us a way to step outside ourselves so we can see ourselves, others, and God in a fresh relational perspective. We must believe that persistent prayer can change things. Yes, it can heal broken lives, restore severed relationships, and bring peace to our world. Most importantly, persistent prayer can bring us closer to God. This year let our new year’s resolution be to persist in prayer! Amen.