When we pray in faith, we see the answer to a prayer in our hearts even before physical reality has caught up to us. Because of faith, we’re comfortable waiting for the request and reality to line up.
Sometimes, though, God’s answers aren’t swift, and we find ourselves coming before him again and again with the same request. Some might call this lack of faith. But if we know God hears and answers prayer—if we are certain he alone holds the power to rescue us—we are sure to return repeatedly to his throne of grace. Persistence isn’t lack of faith. It’s an expression of our faith.
Let’s read the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18. Jesus told this story to his disciples to make sure they understood the need to pray without giving up. Just because they didn’t see an immediate answer didn’t mean the answer wasn’t coming.
In the parable, a widow keeps coming before a judge, asking for justice. He finally grants her request, not because he is a fair man, but because he is tired of her knocking on his door day after day with the same request. Jesus shows us the principle of persistence working on an earthly level, even when God’s love isn’t involved. He then drives home the point with this statement:
And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:7-8)
The widow’s persistence pays off when she is dealing with a man who “neither feared God nor cared about men” (Luke 18:2). How much more, Jesus said, can we expect success when dealing with the God who created us and loves us. But notice the second half of verse 8. The stinger in this story is Jesus’ comment that true faith is hard to find. Obviously, we need to examine the faith that undergirds our prayers.
The Canaanite woman’s faith
Now let’s examine a story about a real woman’s request for justice. This woman heard Jesus was near her home in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Like the widow in Jesus’ parable, she found Jesus and began asking for her daughter’s deliverance.
First, the woman requested mercy and explained her problem; Jesus completely ignored her. Not to be deterred, the woman continued asking for mercy; Jesus continued to ignore her but told his disciples He hadn’t been sent to minister to non-Jews. The woman knelt before Jesus, looked him in the eye and asked him for help; once again Jesus rebuffed her, but this time he spoke to her directly. He told her it wasn’t fair to help her when Israelites needed his help. But still the woman persisted. “‘Yes, Lord,’ she said, ‘but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’” (Matthew 15:27).
This whole exchange seems completely out of character for Jesus. This is the same Jesus who healed the centurion’s servant, spoke to the woman at the well and preached the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus came to help and to heal all people, yet here he seemed intent on ignoring a simple Canaanite woman.
If you notice, the disciples weren’t concerned at all that Jesus was ignoring the woman. They just wanted Jesus to send her away because her crying was annoying them. Jesus, it seems, was merely acting on the motives his disciples believed were right.
Look up at the beginning of chapter 15. Jesus and his disciples had been in Gennesaret when some Pharisees came to him, questioning his adherence to the law. The disciples were concerned about this. “Do you know the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” they asked (v. 12). Now, in his dealings with the Canaanite woman, Jesus seems to be addressing several touch-points at once.
By ignoring the woman, Jesus was acting in accordance with the Pharisees’ rules. When she didn’t accept his refusal to acknowledge her, Jesus responded, but still within the rules of propriety for a Jewish man. It took the woman falling at his feet and putting her request directly in front of him for Jesus to speak directly to her. He told her exactly what the disciples believed was an appropriate response. And still the woman argued.
At this point, the Canaanite woman seemed to know Jesus better than his disciples. She knew he preached love and mercy to all people. She knew he’d had compassion on everyone he’d met. And she was confident he’d have compassion on her as well. She probably didn’t understand why Jesus was being so cold toward her, but she knew healing was in his hands. And she had decided she wouldn’t leave until he’d granted that healing.
The woman told him justice is due to all people, not only Israelites, and even crumbs are sufficient to satisfy the need for justice. She was telling Jesus she didn’t need to be treated like a sister. She only needed a portion of his power to be tossed in her direction. That was enough for Jesus. I imagine a smile spreading across his face as he finally looked her in the eye. “Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted” (Matthew 15:28).
I’m not sure Jesus was testing the woman, but if he was, it was for the sake of his disciples, not the woman. Even so, the Canaanite woman passed the test with flying colors. Her faith told her she didn’t have to leave without the answer she was seeking. She knew Jesus was her only source and his nature wouldn’t allow him to turn her down. Because she refused to leave without her answer, she didn’t have to.
Jesus’ point benefits us as well as his disciples. It doesn’t matter who you are. You don’t have to have memorized a lot of Bible verses or spent a lot of time volunteering at your local soup kitchen. You don’t have to be anyone special. You simply need to know who it is you’re talking to.
Jesus loves you. He is the only source for the answer you’re seeking. And you don’t have to stop asking until you get that answer. What you do need is faith to persevere.
• Think back to a time you wanted something from someone so badly, you wouldn’t stop asking until you got it. Would you have persisted if you hadn’t believed you could wear down that person’s resistance? Do we tend to believe we can wear down God?
• Read Jeremiah 29:11-13. How does this passage explain the Canaanite woman’s success in requesting Jesus’ help? Can it help us know how to pray?