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Struggling with God

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Luke 18:1  And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 
Luk 18:2  He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 
Luk 18:3  And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 
Luk 18:4  For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 
Luk 18:5  yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 
Luk 18:6  And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 
Luk 18:7  And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 
Luk 18:8  I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” 

Genesis 32:22-31  | Luke 18:1 -8

Text: Luke 18:1  “he told them … that they ought always to pray and not lose heart”

Have you ever prayed to God for an answer – and felt like your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling?

Let me give an example: you have to make a decision between two things, both of which are good: and you pray to God for guidance? And then you still struggle to know which one is right, because God seems to be silent.

I certainly have had moments when my prayers seem to be a struggle - And then to make matters worse I hear someone casually say “The other day the Lord said to me”. At such moments it is easy to become discouraged – because the Lord is not saying anything to me!

This is what the spiritual leaders of the early church have called times of desolation.

It seems that Jesus is aware of this: and so Luke 18:1 teaches us that the desire of Jesus is that his followers “ought always to pray and not lose heart”.

So today I want to speak about continuing to pray – even when it feels like God is not listening. This is the essence of the two scripture passages that are set for the Christian Church to use today.

The Old Testament is Genesis 32 – a story of Jacob returning home from exile.

And the New Testament is Luke 18 – a parable of Jesus about a persistent widow .

Prayer can be like wrestling with God

Genesis Ch 32 tells of Jacob wrestling with God in prayer.

Genesis 32:22  The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 
Gen 32:23  He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 
Gen 32:24  And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 
Gen 32:25  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 
Gen 32:26  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 
Gen 32:27  And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 
Gen 32:28  Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 
Gen 32:29  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 
Gen 32:30  So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 
Gen 32:31  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 

You will remember how Jacob is the one who goes to his dying father disguised as his older brother, and cheats his brother out of his inheritance. He then runs away in fear of his brother’s revenge, and lands up in Haran, where he spends 20 years in exile.

This turned out to be a very profitable decision, because he gains two wives, 11 children, and many servants – as well as flocks of sheep and goats. Finally he decides to return home.

But the closer to home he gets the more his worry increases.

And now it is the night before crossing into his father’s lands.

He sends his family and his flocks across the Jabbok River – which is about 45 miles below the Sea of Galilee and serves as the border to his father’s territory.  And now he cannot sleep: he is thinking about the thing he is about to do – which is to meet the older brother he cheated.

Make no mistake: reconciling with his brother is the right thing to do. It is clearly the thing that God would want him to do: But that does not make it easy! I can almost hear him thinking:

  • “Have I made a mistake?”
  • “What will my brother do to me?”
  • Am I exposing my family to danger

And then probably – “O God tell me what to do?” And so he spends a sleepless night – sweating and straining and tossing and turning. As Genesis tells us: it felt like he was wrestling with God.  What I find helpful in this story is that it never says that Jacob was wrong to struggle with God! So when we struggle in our prayers – let us be encouraged by the story of Jacob:

Like Jacob – you might have made a decision that will affect the whole family…and you wonder if you have done the right thing

Like Jacob – you might have made a mistake in your youth that comes back to haunt you later in life…and you lie awake thinking about the consequences of your foolishness

Like Jacob we all pray about our future – how will things turn out in our lives?

Perhaps like Jacob we pray about our family, or the people of our town, or the citizens of our nation – and we lie awake trying to hear an answer from God.

Here is the good news – it is OK if you do not hear a booming voice from heaven or see that moving hand writing on a wall. It is OK to struggle with God. In fact throughout history people have struggled with the will of God:

  • I think of the Apostle Peter: God said to Peter go to the house of Cornelius – and Peter immediately objected and said “I do not go into the home of Gentiles”. And he struggles in prayer all night.
  • I think of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. Wesley struggled to believe that God loved him, and he prayed without success for many years until he had that moment when his heart was strangely warmed
  • In face we can go all the way back to Jesus:
  • Remember how Jesus spent a sleepless night in the Garden of Gethsemane struggling in prayer? We are told that this struggle was so great that it looked like he sweated drops of blood!

So it is OK to struggle with God to find answers for our life. What’s not OK is to give up praying! The promise is found in our text for today: Text: Luke 18:1  he told them … that they ought always to pray and not lose heart

The promise is that the answers will come….

Jesus compares this to a woman Pestering a Judge

Our New Testament reading for the day tells of a widow who feels that she has been unjustly treated, and who seeks to right a wrong. The judge turns her away, but she is not put off…and keeps coming back to him until she succeeds.

In effect Jesus is saying – pray until you have an answer: while occasionally this might be easy, more often it will be like a widow who does not give up – or like Jacob who sweats it out through the night.

I want to invite us to discover the ability to pray without losing heart. I say this not because we don’t pray (you would not be here if you did not pray) but because I suspect that we do not pray like Jacob, or like the widow in the parable – or like Jesus.

Some people treat prayer like a kind of spiritual magic:

  • we say a prayer and then want to watch the magic happen – and if the answer we want does not materialise, then we go in search of other magic words so that the prayer will work;
  • or we seek out that magical special place– go to Lourdes, or to the River Jordan – because God must then obey our demands
  • or we need to get the right magician to say their prayers – need to go to the famous television evangelist, or go to the person who has the magic hands.
  • And way too many people think of prayer as a kind of spiritual alarm clock: where we need to remind God of something that God needs to do – as if God has forgotten.

The kind of prayer I am speaking of is not a one off prayer that expects an instant answer. Today’s Scripture passages challenge us to learn  Persistent, Patient, Persevering Prayer. I believe such prayer allows us to deepen our relationship with God: This for two reasons:

  1. Such prayer allows the Spirit of God to work in our lives. The fact is that as we wrestle with God, so God goes to work in us:
  • God might be saying: keep praying while I work things out. It is entirely possible that God’s “plan A” has been disrupted by someone who is not listening – so God goes to work on a new “Plan A”. And we pray in anticipation of people opening their ears to hear God’s plan.
  • OR…God might want us to slow us down:

Certainly with Jacob: we are told that God touched his hip socket and slowed him down! This allowed Jacob to move from dependence on his own strength to dependence on God.

  1. When we spend time struggling in prayer …..we are changed: did you notice that by the time he was finished praying, Jacob had a new name – it had changed from Jacob to Israel. Jacob meant one who grabbed the heel of his brother, while Israel means “one who is triumphant with God”. The focus has changed: no longer does this man look at his brother’s heel. Instead he is now a man who looks to God. His time of wrestling in prayer had changed his focus from his brother, to God. And he is now ready to face his brother – because his eyes are fixed on God.

There are way too many of us who pray for God to change the hearts of others – without being willing to be changed ourselves! Let us take our eyes off the heels of those around us, and look instead to God and ask how God wants to change us.

So let us be people of prayer: Persistent, Patient, Persevering Prayer

“To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936)