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Pestering Prayers

How does God really feel when we wrestle with him about our requests?

The great people of prayer—Moses, Jeremiah, Paul, and a nameless Gentile mother from the region of Tyre and Sidon—insist that prayer is a dialogue with a personal God, even at times a struggle and a wrestling. In fact, it was this anonymous mom whom Jesus singled out as an exemplar of prayer after she had wrestled with him over her request.

This had to chagrin his disciples. They'd tried to send her away because she was an annoyance, a pain in the neck. "Pain in the neck" is a good expression for someone who, like a stiff, sore neck, will irritate you no matter which way you turn. She wouldn't take no for an answer. She pestered and probed and cajoled until she got what she wanted. And Jesus, the master of prayer, lauded this pain in the neck as a great example of how to pray. That's the way it so often is with God: his ways are not our ways, and what makes us want to stop our ears, opens his. God, it would seem, likes to be pestered.

Shameless in Her Pleading

Part of what so moved Jesus about this woman's prayer had to have been the fact that she was a mother. Matthew's Gospel (15:21-28) says that she approached him when Jesus went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. "A Gentile woman who lived there came to him, pleading, 'Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely'" (Matthew 15:22).

She was a mom at prayer. There is something deep in the character of God that responds to the prayers of parents, and to all who pray the way parents pray. Maybe it's because the prayers of moms and dads can be so humble and self-effacing, because to be a parent is, almost by definition, to be humbled, even humiliated.

This can make parents shameless in their pleading.

Probed behind the Silence

I think Jesus also loved it that this Gentile woman wasn't turned back by his silence. When at first she prayed to the Lord, "Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word," neither a yes nor a no (Matthew 15:23, italics mine). The silence of God is the greatest test of our faith. Sometimes it's in places with names like Dachau, Buchenwald, or Pol Pot's Cambodia; or as we look into the terrified eyes of an abused child or the gaunt stare of an AIDS baby. God's silence can be seen in the rows of amputees in a veteran's hospital or the mentally tortured in a psychiatric ward. God's silence is felt in the weight of crushing grief, described by C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed:

"Meanwhile, where is God? … When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?"

God can be silent when people aren't. The disciples weren't silent; they had plenty to say. They wanted to be done with her: "'Tell her to go away,' they said. 'She is bothering us with all her begging'" (v. 23).

But nevertheless the woman clung to the silent Jesus because she sensed that the silence of God was to be measured by other standards than human silence. She groped and probed behind the silence, because the silence of Jesus isn't the silence of indifference; it is the silence of higher thoughts. It's the silence of Jesus deep asleep in the boat as a storm raged around his disciples and threatened to sink the boat. Even nature spoke, but he didn't. And the Cross, God's greatest silence, was the silence of his greatest and deepest thoughts. So the woman persisted in spite of the silence.

Undaunted by Perplexity

And when Jesus finally spoke, what she heard was worse than what she hadn't heard.

"Then Jesus said to the woman, 'I was sent only to help God's lost sheep—the people of Israel'" (v. 24). In other words, he said to her, "You're not on my agenda. I have higher priorities than you and your little girl." Those words would have crushed me. I would have walked away shaking my head, wondering, What kind of God is this? But instead of walking away, she pressed her case. He might have said awful things she couldn't understand, but she was convinced that he could help her and that was all that mattered.

Undeterred, "she came and worshiped him, pleading again, 'Lord, help me!'" (v. 25, italics mine). And when she did, things got even worse! "Jesus responded, 'It isn't right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs'" (v. 26).

It doesn't take an expert in biblical interpretation to see that Jesus added insult to injury: the children equal Israel; the dogs equal the Gentiles, her. Not only is she excluded from his circle of concern; she is included in his circle of contempt. Or so it seems. Once again, he said awful things she couldn't understand, worse things! But she remained convinced that Jesus could help her, so she pressed in, "That's true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters' table" (v. 27).

Far from taking personal offense at this deliberate rebuff, the woman gracefully turned the last shred of her pride into a burnt offering for her suffering daughter. And Jesus answered her, "Dear woman … your faith is great. Your request is granted" (v. 28). Her daughter was instantly healed.

Sometimes Jesus doesn't talk the way one might expect the Son of a compassionate God to talk. He can sound harsh. He can seem as mean as the title of Mark Galli's book, Jesus, Mean and Wild. There are plausible explanations by Bible commentators for why Jesus spoke to her the way he did, all of which try to demonstrate why he probably wasn't really as nasty and curmudgeonly as he sounded. With a little cultural context and a closer reading, they show how Jesus comes out sounding much nicer. I have no fundamental argument with these interpretations. But I also think we should let his words stand as the difficult thing they are. The point of his brusque language, it seems to me, is that God is often a perplexing God, and if we're not prepared to wrestle with perplexity, we aren't prepared to persevere in prayer to this God. God is not, as philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote in Three Philosophies of Life, "a hard, bright, brittle, little formula but a mystery. He is the God of whom Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, 'God is not nice. God is not an uncle. God is an earthquake.'"

Loaded with Chutzpah

The woman seems to know this about God. There is so much she can't understand about him, but she is absolutely clear about one thing: God is her only hope, and she won't let go of her only hope until she gets what she needs. Her faith isn't the capacity for a comprehensive and nuanced theology, or for mystical experience and flights of religious ecstasy. Her faith is the raw, relentless trust that Jesus can help her, and the dogged determination to keep going to him until he does.

The lady is loaded with chutzpah—a Yiddish word that means something like headstrong persistence, brazen impudence, unyielding tenacity, bold determination, raw nerve, even gall. In his parables on prayer, Jesus loved to portray faith as chutzpah: as a friend banging on a sleeping neighbor's door at midnight, waking up a whole village, in order to shame him into providing the food he needed for his guest; or a widow badgering a corrupt judge for justice he doesn't want to give her, until he relents, throws up his hands, and growls, "This woman is driving me crazy. I'm going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!" Both are pains in the neck!

Chutzpah is the Gentile woman's essential quality, which makes all the others possible. Chutzpah is another word for faith. It was in reference to the pain-in-the-neck widow who drove the corrupt judge crazy that Jesus said, "When the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?" (Luke 18:8, italics mine).

P. T. Forsyth, the great theologian of prayer, hated resignation and fatalism in prayer. He believed that sometimes to resist the will of God is to do the will of God, if what we resist is what God wills to be temporary and intermediary—poor health, a bad job, a difficult marriage, or a demonized daughter, for instance. It may be God's will that you be in these circumstances now, but not that you stay in them. He wrote in The Soul of Prayer: "He has a lower will and a higher, a prior and a posterior. And the purpose of the lower will is that it be resisted and struggled through to the higher." Wrestling in prayer from the lower to the higher is one of God's chief means of educating our spirits.

He continues, "Resist God, in the sense of rejecting God, and you won't be able to resist any evil. But resist God in the sense of closing with God, cling to him with all your strength, not your weakness only, with your active and not only your passive faith, and he will give you strength. Cast yourself into his arms not to be caressed but to wrestle with him. He loves that holy war. He may be too many for you, and lift you from your feet. But it will be to lift you from earth, and set you in the heavenly places which are theirs who fight the good fight and lay hold of God as their eternal life."

To pray with chutzpah is to pray with the same agon, the same fierce determination and focus that Jesus said was necessary to enter his Kingdom. When Luther watched his dog waiting for a bone, furiously wagging his tail, eyes gleaming with anticipation, he said, "If only I would pray that way." That's chutzpah.

Armin Gesswein said prayer was simply pleading the promises of God, insisting that God do the kinds of things he said he would do, and not stopping until he does. That's chutzpah.

It may also have been Luther who said prayer is throwing the bag of God's promises at his feet and delighting to discover that it's so big he can't step over it! That's chutzpah! And God loves it.

Excerpted from Muscular Faith. Copyright © 2011 by Ben Patterson. Reprinted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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