How to Pray

Text: Luke 18:1-14                                                     1/27/2013

Main Point: Prayer is a faith-filled lifeline to God for all of life.

I. Pray trusting God (Luke 18:1-8)

  • Life demands that we keep praying and don’t lose heart

You live in a fallen world that is sharp, cold, and difficult. You are prone to sin and you will make life more difficult than it has to be. Relationships are messy and hard. Jesus commands us to keep praying and don’t lose heart because he knows us and he knows God. He knows our insufficiency and God’s sufficiency. This parable is meant to remind us that continuing in prayer and not giving into discouragement are the two necessary ingredients for life until Christ returns.

Beware of the danger of doing life with only one ingredient. Some will be content to go through the motions of always praying but inwardly they have given up. These people believe that prayer doesn’t do anything but for some strange reason they keep praying. Still others will give up on prayer but they won’t give into discouragement. These people believe things will get better but not according to God’s wisdom so they throw themselves into any and every possible solution; every solution but prayer.

Look again at verse 1, “Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought to always pray and not lose heart.” Life demands two ingredients: keep praying and don’t lose heart. Continue in prayer and don’t give into discouragement. Pray without ceasing and trust God without ceasing.

Before we unpack the details of this parable let me give you this big truth concerning prayer

  • Pray believing God will give you what you need

Why does the widow in this parable go to the judge? Because she was convinced the judge could give her what she wanted. Why does every Christian go to God through prayer? Because every Christian believes God will give us what we need.

You will pray to God to the extent that you believe God cares about your needs and is able to meet those needs. If you begin to think God can’t or won’t meet your needs you will stop praying. What I am saying is your prayer life is based on your theology, so one of the best ways to improve your prayer life is to improve your theology. The more biblical you are in your understanding of God the more encouragement you will have to go to him and not give up.

We’ll get back to this point as the parable comes to an end so let’s begin working through the details of the widow, the judge, and God.

  • The Widow

Look at verse 3, “there was a widow.” In the first century widows were the classic example of the powerless. She had no merit whatsoever before this judge. The widow had no rights, no ace in the hole, no angle, no power, and no leverage. Verse 3 goes on to tell us that she kept coming to the judge saying, “Give me justice against by adversary.”

She doesn’t ask, she says. She doesn’t plead, she demands. Now, she has an adversary, an accuser. The Spirit through the Apostle Peter warns us to be on our guard because our adversary Satan prowls around looking for ways to destroy us (1 Pt 5:8). See could not come to terms with her adversary. Apparently her adversary was seeking to destroy her. So, she demanded justice. She demanded protection from her opponent.

Here is the picture: the weak and powerless is being oppressed. Her only recourse is the judge.  

  • The Judge

Jesus emphasizes the character of the judge; this point is important. In verse 2 Jesus tells us what type of man the judge is, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” This judge did what was right in his own eyes. He did not care about God’s standards and he paid no attention to the needs of the people under his jurisdiction. Without fear of God and without concern for others this man was a law unto himself. There is absolutely no reason why this widow should expect to receive justice from this man. He has no category of justice. This judge is utterly lawless and selfish. He cannot be trusted.

As we should expect the widow is ignored but keeps coming and keeps demanding justice. She keeps being refused. Over and over she goes and makes her case and the uncaring judge refuses to aid this woman in need. But then something happens. Look with me at verse 4, “For a while he refused, but afterwards 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.’”

The judge is a law unto himself who cares only for himself so when the widow began to plague him she struck a nerve. The unrighteous judge caved in to the powerless victim. He finally gave her justice but not because it was the right thing to do or because he cared for the widow. The judge gave her justice because she was wearing him out and he wanted to get her off his case.

Jesus gave us this parable so that we would compare this unrighteous judge to the Righteous Judge and be encouraged to continue to pray. In verse 6 Jesus said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says.” Think about what Jesus has just told you and apply it to God and prayer.

  • God and prayer

Here is the basic question concerning God and prayer, verse 7, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night.” The unrighteous judge did what was right surely God will do what is right. Here prayer is being grounded in the character of God. Can I trust him to right wrongs?[1] Jesus answers with a resounding “YES!” Verse 8, “I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” Vengeance belongs to God. You can trust him to avenge all evil. He will give justice to his elect.

Elect literally means called out and it’s often translated as chosen. This word “elect” brings the unrighteous judge and the avenging God into stark comparison. The unrighteous judge cares nothing for the widow while God has personally called out and redeemed his elect. The unrighteous judge has nothing invested in the widow while the Father has the life of his Son and the presence of his Spirit invested in the elect.

God’s concern for his elect makes me think of ‎Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” The Father has given you his Son. Rest assured he will give you justice. Don’t give up. Keep praying. Don’t let discouragement and difficulty crush your prayers. Justice may be a long time coming.

I’ve skipped over a phrase in verse 7 until now. The ESV, NASB, and NIV translate the phrase “Will he delay long over them?” Do you see that phrase in verse 7? The best translation is actually with the KJV and NKJV. It is translated “Though he bear long with them.” Literally the phrase reads like this, “And he is long-suffering or patient over them.”

Here’s what this phrase means: God is going to act. Vengeance will be handed out. Justice will be done speedily but maybe not as you and I count speedily. Unrighteous judges will continue to hold court and uphold wickedness. Family members will steal and go unpunished. Abusers will go free and wrongs will remain painfully wrong. Until Jesus returns we live in a fallen world where fallen men and women do sinful things making our lives harder while their lives seemingly improve.

But God is patient over his elect. God is long-suffering over his elect. Just because God hasn’t answered your prayer the way you desire in the time you would like doesn’t mean he won’t answer. It doesn’t mean he isn’t listening. Jesus wants to ground our prayers in the character of God and the surety of Jesus’ return. Jesus is coming back. Jesus the Judge will purge every court and right every wrong.

But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Will you be found in the faith when Christ returns? Will you be found praying at his return?

I will admit these have been difficult days. From cancer suddenly spreading to disease not responding to treatment to relationships falling apart there is much to tempt me to ask, “God, where are you? Aren’t you just? Do the right thing for your own. I’m praying and asking and knocking and seeking but you aren’t opening.”

It is precisely in these moments that we must preach the truth to ourselves. We must quiet our restless spirits before the Lord. Remind yourself that God is not unrighteous but he is just. Remind yourself that he is patient over you and though you aren’t getting what you want it doesn’t mean God doesn’t hear or doesn’t care. God is sovereign, ruling over every detail, and orchestrating things unseen. We must cling to the character of God. He will do what is right. We must not lose hope. Our righteous King is coming and though it is not made right today it will be made right then.

Stand firm Christian. Life is difficult and demands two things: keep praying and don’t lose heart. You belong to God. He hears. He will do what is just. Pray trusting in God.

II. Pray hating yourself (Luke 18:9-14)

These two parables, the parable of the persistent widow and the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector belong together. They belong together because it is very easy for each of us to begin thinking our idea of justice is God’s idea of justice. My wish is God’s command so God has to avenge me this way. We need both parables because we are prone to think that God owes us because of all that we have done for him.

Here is the big truth from this parable. We must

  • Pray in complete humility

Like the widow you have no merit with which you can persuade God. Like the tax collector you have great sin that would keep God from hearing even your most righteous prayers. You and I stand before God empty handed owing a debt we cannot pay. From our side there is absolutely no reason God should listen to us or give us justice. In fact, if God gave you justice he would condemn you quickly to hell. Pray in complete humility.

  • This parable is for the uppity self-righteous

This parable is for me and it is probably for you. Look with me at verse 9: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” This parable is not for tax collectors but for Pharisees. This parable is for people who serve when no one else will.

This is for people who look down their noses and treat others as if they are nothing. I’m a good husband; she’s a bad wife. I’m a good wife; he’s a bad husband. I’m the only sibling willing to care for our aging parents. I’m the good one in this relationship; he/she is the bad one.

This parable is for all of us who are tempted to comfort ourselves with our own religious accomplishments compared to the apparent failures of others. Let me ask you a simple question, Why should God listen to your prayers? In the honestly of your own conscience answer the question. Why do you believe God should answer your prayers?

Do you think God should listen to you because you’re a good person; I mean at least you’re not as bad as some. Maybe you’ve suffered a lot so God should listen to you. Maybe you’re a princess and Daddy should do what you say. Or maybe you’ve sacrificed a lot and served a lot so God should listen. After all these years doesn’t God owe you for all your hard work?

Look at verse 10, “Two men went up to the temple to pray.” Devoting yourself to prayer is a good thing. Making time to pray and seeking out a place that will help you pray are both good things. The problem is not prayer or the place. The problem is in the person.

  • The Pharisee

Verse 11 tells us that the Pharisee was standing. His actions were quite formal, respectable, and refined. Standing was the normal posture of prayer (Mt 6:5; Mk 11:25). If you’ll notice in verse 13 the tax collector is also standing as he prays. The posture is not the problem. The person is the problem. Let’s begin working in verse 11 and the Pharisee’s problem will become clear.

The best translation of verse 11 is not that the Pharisee was standing by himself but that he was praying to himself. His communication was not communication with God but only an inner dialogue with himself. This man thought he was praying and he looked like he was praying and he used the right words as if he was praying but he was not praying. I want to challenge you today with the biblical truth that you can say all the right words and think you are praying very well but in fact not be praying at all.

The Pharisee’s problem was pride. Look at verse 11, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Notice how much of himself is in his prayer and how little of God is in his prayer. He thanks God that he’s not like all those messed up, sinful, wretched people. Then he proceeds to celebrate himself in God’s presence. This is the epitome of pride. When a 20 pound catfish can celebrate the greatness of his pride in the presence of a 150 ton blue whale then there is a deep problem. This Pharisee is the catfish celebrating his greatness in the presence of the infinitely awesome God.

The Pharisee was spiritually blind. He had no sins to confess and no spiritual wants to be supplied.[2] He was financially stable, respectable, and religious headed for hell but convinced he was going to heaven. Let’s compare him with the tax collector.

  • The Tax Collector

Unlike the Pharisee who trusted in himself the tax collector despised himself. Look at verse 13, “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner.’”

He knew himself to be unworthy of God’s presence or to be a part of God’s people. He felt the weight of his sin as it separated him from God and from others. He could not bear to look  up toward the God he had sinned against. He had nothing to celebrate. He beat his chest angry at himself. His prayer was a simple, true, heart-felt confession, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” Unlike the Pharisee, this man, who our culture would want to medicate for his unhealthy depression, truly prayed.

He understood that he had not just done bad things. It was not that he had sins; he understood that he was a sinner. The original has the article so it’s right to translate his prayer, “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” This is like the Apostle Paul calling himself the chief of sinners or the foremost of sinners (1 Tim 1:15). Compare me to anyone and I will prove myself the worst. Here is the heart of true humility, being crushed under the weight of my real sin against a real God that leaves me thoroughly unworthy of God’s care.

Knowing his sin, the tax collector prayed to God and pleaded for mercy. But why in the world would a sinful man pray to a holy God? He prayed because the true God is the God who forgives sinners. The word mercy carries the idea of making propitiation. The tax collector longed for God to cover over his sins. He longed for forgiveness. He longed for atonement. He wanted to be declared not guilty of that which he was guilty of doing. He wanted justification.

Notice that the tax collector doesn’t want justice. If the tax collector received justice he would bust hell wide open. The tax collector longed for the burden of his sin to be lifted off of his crushed and defiled soul.

Look at the gospel in verse 14, “I tell you, this man (the tax collector not the Pharisee) went down to his house justified.” The tax collector found forgiveness and purity and a fresh start.

Here is the point, verse 15, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Let’s talk about

  • You and prayer

If the parable of the persistent widow addresses the question “Do you pray,” then this parable addresses the question “How are you when you pray?”.

Do you go to God rehearsing all the good things you have done or do you go to God hating all the sin you have committed? Do you go to God expecting him to rule in your favor or do you go to God knowing that he should never rule in your favor?

Let’s be clear, there is no hint of pride in the persistent widow. She doesn’t go to the judge expecting to get her way because of what she has done or who she is. She goes to the judge because she knows he’s the only one who can give her what she needs. Desperation and a clear understanding of the judge’s power keep her praying. Humble desperation and a clear understanding of God’s power should keep you praying. You are his chosen child. He will vindicate you. Keep praying don’t lose heart.

A deep honest evaluation of your sinfulness should also keep you praying. Only God can forgive and he stands ready to forgive because Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Christ has suffered for you. Christ has paid your debt. Don’t run from God in shame run to God with your shame. If you repent of your sins he is faithful and just to forgive you your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Christian after all this talk about prayer it is time to pray. We all have something to pray about. Maybe there is sin you need to confess. Maybe you need to confess the sin of unbelief because you’ve stopped praying and started doubting God’s character. Maybe you need to throw yourself on the mercy of God knowing that he must act. You need his justice. You are powerless, alone, and without merit. You need divine action. You are desperate for the God who loves you to act for you.

After I pray we will sing our final hymn. When we do I want you to know you are free to do whatever the Spirit leads you to do. Pray where you are, pray with your spouse, or come down here where there is more room. Get on your knees. Beat your chest. Stand far off. Plead and with faith be persistent.

Cast all your cares on God knowing that he cares for you.


[1] Hebrews 10:30 “For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”

[2] Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Lk 18:11–12). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

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