Now if you will, turn with me to Luke's gospel chapter 18, Luke's gospel chapter 18 - now this is not the passage that we want to concentrate on this morning, but it does bear some light on the portion of Scripture that we'll look at it just a few moments. You remember we started off our week of prayer on the subject that great things happen when the church really prays, and we looked at Peter's deliverance from prison - can you remember that far back? Well, we're going to look this morning at 'The Problems And Promises Of Persevering Prayer'.
Verse 1 of chapter 18 of Luke: "And Jesus spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?"
And this is our portion for consideration this morning, Matthew chapter 15 and verses 22 to 28. This is a fascinating portion of Scripture from the records of the life and teaching of our Lord Jesus, which maybe has mystified you as it has mystified many as they have read it in their daily readings. Hopefully we'll learn what the spiritual truths are behind it - chapter 15 verse 22: "And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto the Lord Jesus, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel . Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour".
There is a hymn that is found within the Redemption Hymnal whose first verse goes like this:
The prayers your lips have pleaded
In agony of heart these many years?
Does faith begin to fail, is hope departing,
And think you all in vain those falling tears?
Say not the Father hath not heard your prayer:
You shall have your desire, sometime, somewhere'.
Now I don't know about you, but for many of us one of the mysteries of prayer is the delay within God's answers. It seems, at times, we're praying to God continually for certain things, and the answer does not come, or at least we begin to fear how long we're going to have to pray until God does give us that answer. We wonder, perhaps, how a God who declares Himself within His word as a gracious God, a kind God, a God who is ready and willing to bless, a God who loves to answer prayer, has to be continually supplicated time after time - maybe even year after year - until His answers come. As far as we are concerned, as we're on our knees praying to God, our need is urgent - we need God's answer now - yet the dispensing of that answer does not seem to be urgent to Him. We ask ourselves: does He not know? Does He not understand what I'm going through? We say, perhaps, even worse than that: is there any point having faith in God? Is there any point in praying to God when He never seems to answer my prayers the way I want Him to?
I think sometimes one of the pitfalls that most of us have fallen into is to think: 'Well, God is just simply not answering my prayers in this regard, I'm going to have to stop praying. It's obviously not God's will to give me this thing I'm asking for'. I know that there are certain things that we have to resign to the mystery of the providence of God, there are things that we will never understand, there are things that God gives us that we haven't asked for - we wonder why He gives us them, and often they are problems - and then there are things that we do ask for that He never seems to bring our way, and He withholds from us, and it's usually for our best. But I believe that at times we often resign to God's providential mysterious dealings things that are simply problems on our side, where we have failed to persevere in prayer, we have failed to really keep on seeking God for that thing.
Let me just say that it is noteworthy that Paul the apostle three times came to the Lord and prayed that God would remove from him a thorn in his flesh. You remember the answer, God told him that He wouldn't do it, but His grace was sufficient for him, and God's strength would be made perfect in his weakness. But that is used so many times, I believe, as a cloak or an excuse for the lack of persevering in our prayer life - and when you consider that that is an exception within the theology of prayer in the Bible, rather than the rule, we realise that the rule of prayer is: 'Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you'. We realise, perhaps, we're using the exception too often, rather than the rule that the Lord Jesus Christ so often throughout the Gospels has given to us.
What am I saying to you today, and to my own heart? Well, it's simply this: often the problem of unanswered prayer lies not with God but lies with our lack of persevering, our little persevering, and the message that I think God is bringing to our hearts today is: do not give up, do not be discouraged, even when it seems that God is not answering your prayer, and even when it seems that God is working against the answer to your prayer, God answers prayer! It is the belief in the fact that God does answer prayer that brings the answer, it is the belief that if we continue coming - if I could say it - if we weary Him in our coming, continually, He will answer our prayer, that engenders faith in our hearts and causes God to answer prayer.
Let me quote to you Andrew Murray, who was a great writer on prayer. He says: 'When faith has taken its stand upon God's word and the name of Jesus, and has yielded itself to the leading of the Spirit to seek only God's will and honour in its prayer, it need not be discouraged by delay. It knows from scripture that the power of believing prayer is simply irresistible, real faith can never be disappointed - it knows how, just as water, to exercise the irresistible power it can have. It must be gathered up and accumulated until the stream can come down in full force, there must be a heaping up of prayer until God sees that the measure is full, and the answer comes'. What he is simply saying is what the Lord said in this story that we read in Matthew 15, it is this: the prayer of faith in the will of God will never be disappointed or discouraged, even by God's delays. Because faith, true faith, knows that persevering prayer is necessary - only that will sustain the answer.
Let me show you this from the life of Abraham. Keep your finger in Matthew chapter 15, and turn with me to Romans 4. Abraham, the father of faith, is used as an example of how we have to persevere in faith. Romans 4, Paul is simply citing him as an example of what true faith is, verse 18 of chapter 4: 'Who against hope, Abraham believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be'. Now Abraham was above childbearing age, as was Sarah, but God had promised him that it would happen - and what Paul is saying here is that this father of faith hoped against hope, in a hopeless situation Abraham hoped. Now what had he hoped in? He hoped in nothing but God's word, and we read right throughout the Old and the New Testament that through faith and patience Abraham inherited the promise.
You see, we need to see that God's delays are His way of training us in persevering prayer, so that we will be so sure that we will obtain God's answer - it increases faith in our heart until we are so expectant that we believe that God has even answered the prayer before we see it - we hope against all hope! Murray said in another place: 'Each believing prayer is a step nearer the final victory, each believing prayer helps to ripen the fruit and bring us nearer to it. It fills up the measure of prayer, and faith known to God alone conquers the hindrances of the unseen world, it hastens the end'. I'll tell you this, and this is when we get down to brass tacks in our practicalities of everyday life: for many of us, and in regard to many of our needs, it will be nothing but persevering prayer and faith that will bring the answer. Not just coming to God and saying our prayers at night five minutes before we go to sleep, not just getting up 10 minutes before we run to the bus or the car for work in the morning - that will not bring us the answers that we need to the problems that we face in our lives individually and in our church!
Let's turn to Matthew 15, because I believe we can learn many lessons from this woman's experience with the Saviour. Now here's the first thing I want to leave with you this morning: in her experience is the experience of many. In her experience we can see our own experience, and indeed the experience of most believers who have been on the road of faith for any length of time. Here's what I mean, here's the first thing we see in her: her need was great. What was her need? Well, she came to the Lord Jesus Christ and she told Him that her daughter was grievously vexed - verse 22 at the end - with a devil. Her daughter was tormented with the devil's power. I don't know whether she was demon possessed or not, but if you could have seen her writhing and contorting on the floor because of evil's power over her, you would realise that this woman was in great need.
So what does she do? She comes with her great need, a mother that is burdened with a child like this who looks hopelessly and helplessly at the circumstance, and while her little daughter's body is being pulled apart with incarnate evil, she comes to the Lord Jesus Christ. Now I don't know what your problem is, I imagine it's not this problem specifically, but I'm sure as far as you're concerned your problem is equally as great. In your circumstances, in your individual environment, personal experience, as far as you're concerned what you are facing is an insurmountable obstacle, and you feel you're in great need - yet to that great need God seems to be bouncing your prayers back to you like a rubber ball from heaven as soon as they're ejected to Him.
Well, her experience is the experience of many. Here's the second thing: she went to Jesus. She was in great need, and she felt that the only place that her need could be met was with Jesus. She heard about Him, we see that in verse 21, that He was in the area, she heard of the things He was doing in Tyre and Sidon, so she went to bring to Him her great need. I think she must have tried many other things already, and Jesus - as far as she was concerned - was her last resort, He was her only hope. She came before Him, and she poured out her whole heart at His feet. I'm quite sure that this woman wasn't familiar with the New Testament, she may have been familiar with the Old Testament - I'm not sure about that either - but she could have said, if she had the biblical knowledge that many of you have since we've been knee-high, 'Well, hasn't the Lord told us to come to Him in prayer? Hasn't He asked us to do that?'. Yes, of course He has. We could cite, we've already mentioned a couple of them, but 'Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will answer thee' is one; 'Ask and it shall be given', and so on; 'Ask in my name and I will give it to you', Jesus says - over and over again and again. We could take the promise box and empty it all out of prayer promises that assure us that God wants us to come and pour out our heart before Him.
But what happens to this little woman? She, in her great need, comes and does exactly that, and she faces utter disappointment - and mark this: disappointment in prayer in the face and at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here was a praying mother, and a silent Jesus. The Lord didn't answer - now listen, there's no point going through this exposition if it's not touching your heart - do you find yourself there? Your problems couldn't get any greater as far as you're concerned, you've done what has been asked of you to bring your prayers, and go to Jesus with them and pour out your heart, and all you face time after time is disappointment!
All her hopes were on this man Jesus, and He was able, she knew He was able, she'd heard about everything that He'd done before, but it seemed apparently that He just didn't want to help her! Oh, He had the power within Him to do it, but not for her. I don't know whether she'd heard of this one, but there was one occasion that the Lord Jesus asked a man who had been sick 38 years, and apparently didn't have any desire at that moment for healing, because he didn't ask for it specifically from the Lord Jesus - Jesus asked him in his intransigence, and lack of faith: 'Wilt thou be made whole?'.
Here's the opposite scenario - this women is begging Him for the daughter to be made whole, and what does she face? Disappointment, silence, no response whatsoever, the heavens are brass to this woman. How do you account for this? Well, if you've experienced it, you can't account for it. You know all too poignantly what it is to seek and not find, what it is to knock and the door stays shut. Nothing seems to come from heaven at all, and you cry like David in Psalm 13:1: 'How long wilt Thou forget me, O Lord, forever? How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me?'.
The disciples start to get impatient with this woman, and even perhaps the Lord, and they're anxious to send this woman away. But I wonder are they anxious just for the Lord to heal her, and let's get rid of her, because she's pestering us? Even they probably wanted the Lord to help this woman: 'Lord, is this not a worthy case?'. But it didn't even matter when this little woman had men, even the great apostles on her side, when God was silent - Jesus was not sending the answer. You know what I'm talking about - it doesn't matter how many people put their arm around you and say, 'Look, it'll be alright, it'll come to pass. Listen, do you not believe that verse 'God works all things together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose'?' - they just don't help, sure they don't? They mean well, but you know that man cannot help you in this situation, it must be God - and as far as you're concerned God isn't helping you, in fact it would seem that God is against you.
When the disciples requested for this woman to be helped, what did Jesus say - gentle Jesus, meek and mild? He answered and said: 'I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel '. This is a hard Jesus, isn't it? Can I say that many of us, at times, feel that we encounter a hard Jesus? Don't misunderstand what I'm saying - He is not hard, He is the gentle Saviour, the loving compassionate Saviour - but from our experience, when we're getting no answers, when nothing seems to be changing in our chaotic circumstances. What did this woman do? I'll tell you, she may, as far as we're concerned on our human level, have been justified turning on her heels and just going away and saying 'He can't even help me'. Isn't that the way we feel sometimes when we get off our knees? 'Not even God can help me in this situation'.
What would we do? I'll tell you, many pigmy theologians among us of prayer, who don't have much of a prayer life themselves, would have gone home and concluded that 'It's not the will of God, I heard it from His own lips with my own ears'. Would you have had the Word of God for it? Yes, you would have, the word of Christ Himself, you would have had it: 'I'm not come to these people. I'm come to the Jews', He said. There you have it! God's Word: it's not His will, He doesn't want to answer me - but what did she do? She didn't do what many of us would do, it says that she came to Him again - again! Because she had true need - now, I'm not saying you don't have true need - but one mark is sure of true need is that it cannot be repressed, for the true needy person knows that there is none that can help but God. 'To whom shall we go, for Thou hast eternal life? Who have I in heaven but Thee? Who is there on earth that I desire beside Thee?'. And you know that if your need is to be met, it can only be met at the feet of the Lord Jesus, so you go back again - and I'll tell you: if your weight is weighing heavy enough on your heart, you'll not say 'Now I'm giving up, I'm giving up'.
True need gives birth to persevering prayer, and those who have a true need cannot stop their praying toward God. In fact, like this little woman, they would rather die at the feet of Christ than stop supplicating His throne. Remember old John Knox? There was a party going on in his house, and he was heard to say, as he went out to the garden for some solitude crying unto God: 'Give me Scotland or I die'. Here's where she is different from us, I've talked to you about in her experience we find the experience of many; her great need, she went to Jesus, she was disappointed - but here's the experience of a few, here's where she went beyond many of us, here's where she excelled: one, she stopped Him. She stopped the Lord Jesus Christ - it says she came to Him, and said 'Lord, help me', verse 25, and she worshipped Him. She came and worshipped at His feet, but what did she actually do? He was moving on away from her, and she fell at His feet and stopped Him on His way: 'Lord, help me! I'm not letting you go, you've got to help me'.
Have you ever come to the place where you've said nearly all you can say, and you're exhausted, and you just cry to the Lord: 'Oh, help me!'. Do you not think He would answer her now? I mean, what does He need, is He trying to bring blood from a stone? One author said: 'We would expect that the greater than Joseph would not control Himself any longer, and must reveal Himself to her. Could He who wept at Lazarus' grave, and who was moved with inward compassion over the multitude refuse this woman any longer?'. But believe it, or believe it not - what happened? The situation got worse! I'll tell you, this is real life, isn't it? Praying, knowing your need, bringing your need to the Lord Jesus, disappointment after disappointment, and then trying to stop the Lord in His tracks to get Him to hear you. He says, He tells them that it was not her right to have the bread of the children, but it was to be cast to the dogs and was more worthy of dogs than it was of her! In other words, do you know what He was saying? 'My healing power is not worthy of you' - my friends, imagine if the Lord Jesus Christ came and said: 'My answers to prayer are for others, but not you. You have no right to them'. OK, we find it very hard to imagine the Lord Jesus like this, but here He is - and it's not too hard, if you are a praying person, to imagine how at times the closet can be a very dark place; to know that there is nothing worse than to be a man or woman of prayer, but to find that there is a silent God above your head.
What if the Lord begins to speak justice, just like He spoke to this woman, rather than grace, and He says to you: 'I can't do this for your sake. You have no rights where this is concerned, only I have rights' - and He doesn't give you anything in grace and in mercy? Now, what would you or I do? We stop the Lord in His tracks, and He doesn't answer us, and He says: 'Look, I've nothing for you, I'll answer other people's prayers but not your prayers'. I think probably I would become bitter, maybe pride would raise its head and say: 'I'm no worse than others, I'm a sinner, but so is everybody else. Why do I not have a right to this like everybody that gets it?'. Maybe we would say: 'Can I help it if I'm heathen? Can I help it if I'm not a Jew? Was I not born this way, it was no choice of mine?'. Or maybe you would be offended at being called a dog by the Son of God, but what did this woman do? Now this is what I want you to see, what did she do? She agreed with the Master! She said: 'Truth Lord, that's right, I am a dog, I don't deserve anything from your hand - I have no rights, and I am unworthy, I am sinful' - and let me tell you what that is, just for a moment in case you miss it: that is the attitude of prayer. Blessed are the poor in heart! She agreed with Him.
One: she stopped Him. Two: she agreed with Him, and that is where God wants His people when they are praying - to speak well of God, and much to God, even when all seems a lost cause to them. Now, what did she do next? Well, she didn't give up, that's for sure. You say: 'Well, what did she not give up? There was nothing given to her of God!' - oh, was there not anything given to her? The Lord Jesus Christ gave her a crumb, a crumb of hope. She hoped that it might fall from the Lord's table - she says: 'Yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table'. What was this woman doing with the Lord? She was catching the Lord Jesus Christ by His own word - now please see this, because this is the teaching within this story if ever there was any teaching. This is how her experience differs with ours: she stopped the Lord, she in persevering prayer arrested the Lord - can I say, like Jacob, she wrestled with the Lord and would not let Him go until He blessed her - and then she agreed with the Lord, and then she caught the Lord by His own word.
I know you pray, I know you do - but do you ever take Christ by His own words? Do you ever take Him at His own words? She caught Him in what He had said to her: He had spoken of the dogs who were given the leftovers, and in doing so He was leaving the door ajar. He was giving her something there, a loophole of His word that she, if she was persevering enough, could grab hold of by faith and enter into. Do you see it? What did Christ do? The Saviour allowed Himself to be caught by His own words, and praise God the Lord still does. Oh, yes, He lets us see the impossibility from our side, but that in order to make room for the possibility on His side! Philip Brooks, the great puritan, said: 'Prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance, but laying hold of His willingness'.
Now it would be hard to see at a casual reading of this story that the Lord Jesus was willing at all to meet this woman's need - but we know He was, don't we? 'Then Jesus', verse 28, 'answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour'. Listen: I don't know what problems you're facing, and we've all faced them at some time, where we feel that God is just not hearing or answering our prayers. Apart from praying not according to God's will, and all those exemptions, and the providential mysterious dealings of God which are fewer than we would like to say, there are promises that God allows us to take, He allows us to overtake Him in, so that we might see His almighty power. But the problem too often is that we are not persevering enough - and if we were [in a situation] like this woman, we would have given up long ago.
Old John Wesley the evangelist said: 'Bear up the hands that hang down by faith and prayer, support the tottering knees. Have you any days of fasting and prayer? Storm the throne of grace and persevere therein, and mercy will come down'. We - we could illustrate it in a million ways - are a generation of quitters. Few people in our society, let alone the church have this striving spirit that is needed. Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees, that's for sure - but I'll tell you this: Satan has a measured power to hinder our prayers, as with Daniel, read that story. Twenty-one days he fasted and he prayed, and one thing we learn from that is this: Satan may have power at times to hinder our prayers in measure, but he has very little power against persevering prayer.
George Mueller was a man of God, and it annoys me - I'll let you into a wee secret - time after time again, when people say: 'Ah, George Mueller, he had a special gift'. I'm not entering into debate on that one, but I know this: he had everything that you and I have in Christ Jesus in heavenly places. He had all the promises of God, and all I ever see in George Mueller's life is him taking those promises and claiming them by faith. George Mueller wrote, that great prayer warrior, answers to prayer in the morning when they had no food for the orphanage, he got them and all the rest, you know all about them - but once in his life he wrote this: 'The great point is never to give up until the answer comes. I have been praying 63 years and eight months for one man's conversion' - did you hear that right? George Mueller: 'He is not saved yet, but he will be - how can it be otherwise? I am praying!'. The day came when Mueller's friend received Christ, but it didn't come until Mueller's coffin was being lowered into the grave at his funeral. An open grave, seeming defeat, but in the heart of God there was a willingness, there was an openness, the door was left ajar for a man who was persevering enough not to quit.
Now this was engineered by my volition to be given at the end of a week of prayer, that matters nothing, but we need to continue and have a year of prayer. We need to continue and not quit - do you remember those disciples gathered in the upper room, with the world of evangelisation before them - they had been given the promise of power direct from the Lord Himself, the Holy Ghost, yet they didn't at one moment in fatalistic resignation say: 'Oh, God has promised that, I'll just wait until it happens'. The Lord even told them when they were to receive that power, after so many days, neither did they simply usher up the odd request in accordance to the promise, because they knew it was going to come anyway, whilst they got on with their business. No, they continued in prayer and persisted in it until the promise came.
Adoniram Judson was a mighty missionary, a pioneer in it, and he said these words with regards to his prayer life - and these are astounding words to me, and I hope, I pray that I could say this at the end of my life: 'I never prayed sincerely and earnestly for anything but it came at sometime. No matter at how distant a day, somehow, in some shape, probably the last I would have devised, it came'. One thing our passage tells us this morning is that God surrenders Himself to importunity. You say: 'Well, He hasn't surrendered Himself to me'. Right, let's ask the question: have you ever spent a whole night in prayer like Jacob? Have you? Have you ever fasted? Like Elijah, have you ever ceased after even the first petition, when the heavens could scarcely yield any rain - have you kept on praying and praying and praying? Do you know what the Lord's rule for prayer was to His disciples? 'Men ought to pray and not faint'.
Can I leave you with a portion from a sermon of C.H. Spurgeon with regards to prayer, it may even have been on this text itself that we've read from. Listen to it very carefully, it's important, and after this we finish. He says: 'Whether we like it or not, asking is the rule of the kingdom, asking. 'Ask, and ye shall receive' (John 16:24). It is a rule that never will be altered in anybody's case. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the elder brother of the family, but God has not relaxed the rule even for him. Remember this text: Jehovah says to his own Son (Psalm 2:8), 'Ask of me and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession'. If the royal and divine Son of God cannot be exempted from the rule of asking that he may have, you and I cannot expect the rule to be relaxed in our favor. Why should it be? What reason can be given why we should be exempted from prayer? What argument can there be why we should be deprived of the privilege and delivered from the necessity of supplication? I can see none: can you? God will bless Elijah and send rain on Israel , but Elijah must pray for it. If the chosen nation is to prosper Samuel must plead for it. If the Jews are to be delivered Daniel must intercede. God will bless Paul, and the nations will be converted through him, but Paul must pray. Indeed he did pray without ceasing; his epistles show that he expected nothing except by asking for it. If you may have everything by asking, and nothing without asking, I beg you to see how absolutely vital prayer is, and I beseech you to abound in it'.
Now let's bow our heads, and let me just say in case people misunderstand what I'm saying, I'm not saying that if you ask for anything you're going to get it if you keep praying for it. That's not what the Scriptures teach, we've got to pray according to the will of God, as found in the word of God. You'll not get things that you've no right to ask for in that sense - but if it is a true need, and you come in persevering prayer by faith, and if it is according to God's word and His will, you can persevere and know that you will receive. But do we persevere? I wish at times, sometimes I don't, that I could see a video recording of my life from a prayer perspective - and see where I had left off and given up, and then also see a little bit longer down the line when God was just about to give the answer, but I gave up.
O Father, help us to be persevering saints in the case of prayer. Lord, I confess I am weak, I confess my shortcomings where this is concerned. Lord, we all have them, and we pray: 'Teach us to pray and not faint, teach us to persevere, teach us to pray through the blessing'. Lord, these great burdens that many hearts in this place at this moment feel, we pray that if it be Thy will, Lord that you would relieve those burdens in answer to prayer in faith, for Christ's sake, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the tape, titled "The Problems And Promises Of Persevering Prayer" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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