Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Luke 18:1-8)
I have a seven-year-old granddaughter by marriage named Madeline. She is blond, skinny, and tall for her age. When she comes to visit, we cook together. Our most successful dishes to date have been mashed sweet potatoes with lots of butter and crescent dinner rolls made from scratch. From the day Madeline was born, we have been able to look each other straight in the eye with no sentimentality whatsoever. The tartness of our love for one another continues to surprise me. It is easy to forget she is seven years old.
When she came to celebrate her birthday last summer, there were just four of us at the table: Madeline, her mother, her grandfather, and I. She watched the candles on her cake burn down while we sang her the birthday song and then she leaned over to blow them out without making a wish.
‘Aren’t you going to make a wish?’ her mother asked.
‘You have to make a wish,’ her grandfather said. Madeline looked as if someone had just run over her cat.
‘I don’t know why I keep doing this,’ she said to no one in particular.
‘Doing what?’ I asked.
‘This wishing thing,’ she said, looking at the empty chair at the table. ‘Last year I wished my best friend wouldn’t move away but she did. This year I want to wish that my mommy and daddy will get back together …’
‘That’s not going to happen,’ her mother said, ‘so don’t waste your wish on that.’
‘I know it’s not going to happen,’ Madeline said, ‘so why do I keep doing this?’
Since the issue was wishing, not praying, I left her alone that afternoon, but I know that sooner or later Madeline and I are going to have to talk about prayer. I do not want that child to lose heart. I want her to believe in a God who loves her and listens to her, but in that case I will need some explanation for why it does not always seem that way …
Don’t ask and you won’t be disappointed. Don’t seek and you won’t miss what you don’t find. As for that growing deadness you feel where you heart used to be, well, you will just have to get used to that.
What the persistent widow knows is that the most important time to pray is when your prayers seem meaningless. If you don’t go throw a few punches at the judge, what are you going to do? Take to your bed with a box of Kleenex? Forget about justice altogether? No. Day by day by day, you are going to get up, wash your face, and go ask for what you want. You are going to trust the process, regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself gives you life. The process keeps you engaged with what matters most to you, so you do not lose heart.
One day, when Madeline asks me outright whether prayer really works, I am going to say, ‘Oh, sweetie, of course it does. It keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back. There’s nothing that works any better than that.’