Recently, a discussion arose in a Bible class for which I felt ill prepared to discuss in detail. After some reflection and study, I’d like to present some thoughts better organized than what I offered in the class. The question concerns persistent prayer. Specifically, should the Christian persist in a specific prayer before God until he gets his answer? Put differently, does it demonstrate a lack of faith if one keeps on praying for the same thing over and over.
The locus classicus seems to be Luke 18:1-8:
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
This is one of those odd parables where an evil person gives us a lesson for life (Luke 16:1-13 for another). Here, the unrighteous judge stands in place of God. We know this because he has the power to deliver the widow and because the text emphasizes his sovereignty as a judge (vs. 4). The aggrieved widow is the disciple. Her adversary represents any person or situation causing grief. The unrighteous judge refuses to respond to her plea for aid. Yet, she persists in her cries until he finally gives in and grants her petition. The actual source of her problem is not revealed and is irrelevant.
Contextually, the parable is declared to have the point of teaching that people “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (vs. 1). The word translated “ought” could also be rendered “necessary.” Such seems to be an even stronger encouragement than “ought.” In any case, Jesus is teaching his disciples that they should always be prayerful. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 has Paul saying almost the same thing. We know from Jesus’ own example that prayer is vital to our spiritual health (Mark 1:35; Luke 3:21; Luke 11:1; Hebrews 5:7). But on this, most agree. We should be a prayerful people. No, the question is not about generic prayers for strength or guidance, but specific prayers for a specific need. As an example, should we pray over and over for the loved one suffering a serious illness?
Are there Biblical examples of persistent prayer for a specific issue? The first is probably the Luke 18 passage above but there are more. The lengthiest is likely the book of Job. This suffering man had a single-minded prayer: deliverance. Job speaks often to his comforters but he is also talking to God. He repeatedly sought deliverance from his struggles. Likewise, the apostle Paul sought relief from a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Inspiration says he sought deliverance from the Lord three times (2 Corinthians 12:8). Consider also Jesus who prayed “let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus prayed this prayer three times (Matthew 26:44).
Now given the parable, given the examples of Job, Paul, and Jesus, it seems clear that persistent specific prayer is an acceptable practice. Is it wrong to pray once and walk away? I cannot say so. But I do conclude that if Paul and Jesus did it, I can too.