The easiest thing about praying is quitting. Giving up seems so reasonable, so easy to justify. It’s always been that way, which is why Paul wrote in Colossians 4:2, “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” Persevering in prayer when no one seems to listen strikes many people as a sign of fanaticism, if not mental instability.
Not long ago I received an e-mail from a friend who was facing the impending deaths of several people in his church. Soon after I learned of the untimely passing of an incredibly godly Christian man who left behind a grieving wife and two young children. In any given week I hear the same stories you do: a loved one dies, a job is lost and another not found, bills go unpaid, relationships are shattered, dreams fail to materialize. Rain does not fall and crops fail. A teenager is loved and cared for, yet rebels and abandons God.
What makes such incidents especially disturbing is that they all occur notwithstanding persistent and fervent prayer that they not. Why is it that a man or woman prays for relief or deliverance or some essential blessing to alleviate intense aggravation, but hears nothing? In humble faith, with sincerity of heart, not for a moment doubting that God is able both to hear and answer their prayers, they pray. But heaven is silent, or so it seems.
I recently saw the film The Island (that’s not a recommendation!) in which unsuspecting clones are nourished and sustained to serve as organ donors for their wealthy sponsors who aspire to live as long as possible. These “folk” know virtually nothing of the outside world or its ways. Two have escaped and are in conversation with a rather strange man who happens to mention “God”.
“What’s ‘God’?” asks one of the clones.
“Oh, well, you know when you close your eyes and ask for something?”
“Well, God’s the one who doesn’t answer you.”
It’s a bad joke, but for many people it rings all too true. People in Paul’s day faced the same temptation to quit that we do. But too much was at stake. Though defeated at the cross, Satan and his demons are still active. The weakness of the flesh abides. The threat of schism in the body of Christ is ever present. Great opportunities to share the gospel are at every turn. So, don’t quit, says Paul! Continue steadfastly in prayer. Keep watch at all times lest you despair. Be thankful for all God has done and will do in response to your petitions.
Much has already been said in Colossians concerning perseverance in prayer, so I won’t repeat myself here (see the lessons on Colossians 1:3, 9, 29; 2:1). Instead, I want to briefly address the reasons why a good God who can help often seems not to, or at least not to in accordance with our schedules. There are surely reasons other than these, but here are a few suggestions that I hope will encourage you to “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Col. 4:2a).
First, we are a presumptuous people! We just assume that God ought always to do what we ask, when we ask, precisely in the way we ask. By delaying his response, God awakens us to the gracious character of all answered prayer. In other words, that God says or does anything at all in response to our petitions is sheer, undiluted grace. Resolute continuation in prayer, watchful perseverance, is often the best way for us to learn this invaluable lesson.
Second, steadfast endurance in coming again and again to the throne of grace is God’s way of cultivating in us a sense of absolute and utter dependence upon him. We are by nature self-reliant, self-sufficient folk. If God were instantly and at all times to answer our every prayer we would gradually lose our sense of urgency. Truth be told, most of us would soon lose sight of the fact that it is God alone who is the source of all good. By suspending his response, God is saying to each of us: “Just how desperate are you? How conscious are you that I am your only source, your sole and all-sufficient supply?”
Third, persistent praying puts us in that frame of mind and spirit in which we may properly receive what it is that God desires to give. In other words, it isn’t so much that God is reluctant to give, but that we lack preparation to receive. Try to envision what a mess your life would have been had your parents granted you everything you asked for as a child! God often delays his answers because, quite simply, we are in no shape to receive them. Few of us are willing to admit that, but deep down we know it’s true.
Fourth, steadfast, watchful continuation in prayer helps us differentiate between impetuous, ill-conceived, selfish desires, and sincere, deep-seated, Christ-exalting ones. Persistence in prayer thus enables us to weed out improper petitions.
Fifth, endurance at the throne of grace purifies the content of our petitions. By repeating our prayers we are forced to think and re-think what we are saying. We are compelled to evaluate our motivation and aim for asking God for something in particular. It’s a bit like how I read, re-read, and read yet again each of these meditations before I send them out. It helps me identify mistakes, locate typographical errors, and re-phrase something that otherwise might be false or misleading. I can almost envision God saying, in response to my first articulation of a prayer: “Sam, are you sure you want me to answer that one? Think about it. Contemplate the long-term consequences of a Yes. Then come back and ask me again in different terms, with a purified purpose.”
Sixth, perseverance cultivates patience. By withholding an immediate response, we learn how to “wait” on God. Waiting on the Lord is far from a passive posture. It’s an active, expectant, persistent pressing in to the heart and purposes of a loving God. How might we ever learn to do this were it not for steadfastness in prayer?
Seventh, oftentimes God wants to give, but not now. The answer will come in better circumstances, at a more opportune moment. By delaying his response a greater and better and more God-glorifying end is secured than by an immediate answer.
Finally, even if none of the reasons given above makes sense to you, persevere anyway! God isn’t asking you to understand: he’s asking you to be faithful.
Longing to linger at the throne of grace,