(Eric will continue with his series in two weeks)
Perseverance And Prayer
by Alan Perkins
God values perseverance very highly. Why?
You and I live in an era of unprecedented speed. Technologically, the pace of change is almost beyond comprehension. A rule of thumb called “Moore’s Law” states that the speed of computer chips doubles every 18-24 months. My first PC, which I purchased in 1985 to write papers for seminary, was rated at six megahertz [never mind what a “megahertz” is]. The PC’s sold today operate at over a hundred times that speed. [Unfortunately, my mind still operates at the same speed as it did in 1985.] And the incredible speeds of those little semiconductors make possible all kinds of exotic applications, such as biometrics. For example, the police can now use video cameras to scan the faces of people walking through an airport, or sitting in the stands at a football game, and instantly compare those digitized images against thousands of photos of known terrorists. Or a computer can compare a fingerprint from a crime scene against the millions of fingerprints in the FBI database in a matter of seconds.
Not only that, but everyday activities which used to take days or weeks, we now expect to happen instantly. Federal Express delivers packages overnight. LensCrafters makes eyeglasses in an hour. At Walgreens, you can get film developed in an hour. Applying for a loan used to take several days; now banks are advertising loan approvals in thirty minutes or less. In fact, it’s difficult to identify any area of daily life that hasn’t been accelerated. Think about it. Microwaves. ATM machines. E-mail. On-line stock trading. America’s involvement in World War II lasted almost four years. Yet only a few days after we started bombing in Afghanistan, journalists were already referring to it as a “quagmire” and asking “how much longer is this war going to drag on?”
My point is that we’ve gotten used to having all our desires instantly gratified, and as a result we’ve become impatient. We’ve grown intolerant of any kind of delay. We expect to get what we want, when we want it. Now. Now. Now. Faster, faster, faster. Have you tried to use a rotary-dial phone lately? It’s torture! You’re waiting for that little dial to spin back around, and you want to yell, “hurry up, hurry up, hurry UP!” Or how about this one — what’s the smallest interval of time scientists have so far identified? No, it’s not a millisecond or a nanosecond. It’s a “honkisecond”. That’s the amount of time between when the light turns green and the driver behind you honks his horn. We have the attention span of a gnat. Have you ever noticed, when you watch an old movie, that they used to put the credits at the beginning? Not any more. These days, no one would sit through five minutes of credits before the movie. And have you ever noticed how much time the people in those old movies spent talking? Not doing anything, just talking? Not any more. We don’t have the patience for it.
Which explains why the Biblical virtue of perseverance is so rare today. Because perseverance runs directly counter to this mindset. Perseverance takes a long-term perspective. It focuses on the future, rather than the immediate present. Perseverance is patient. It keeps waiting, and believing and trusting, even when things take longer than expected. It keeps working, and seeking and striving, even when things turn out to be more difficult than anticipated. It remains faithful, even when there are ample opportunities to throw in the towel, to give up and move on. Perseverance means sticking with something for as long as God calls you to do so, no matter how long it takes, no matter how difficult or painful it becomes, no matter how many discouragements and disappointments and obstacles you encounter along the way.
Why is perseverance so important? Because it takes time to discover the true nature of things. As the old proverb states, “truth is the daughter of time.” For example, it takes time to know if a project or enterprise is going to succeed. Appearances can be deceiving. In fact, as we search the Scriptures, and study the history of God’s dealings with His people, we see that He has often been pleased to bring success and victory out of apparent failure and defeat. He likes to demonstrate his power and might by turning around seemingly hopeless situations. And so if we give up too soon, we may miss the blessing. The supreme example of this is the crucifixion of Christ. By all appearances, his mission had failed miserably. What could be more hopeless than a dead savior, a lifeless leader? But three days later came the resurrection. And that changed everything.
By the same token, it takes time and testing to reveal a person’s true character. Many people begin well, but relatively few finish well. In fact, when it comes to the issue of faith in Christ, perseverance is so important that only the one who finishes well, only the one who continues to the end, will be saved, because perseverance is of the essence of faith. John the apostle, referring to those in his day who had left the church and denied the gospel, writes,
“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” — 1 John 2:19
In other words, these people had never been genuine believers, although for a while it must have seemed that they were. During the time they had been a part of the fellowship, they likely gave every evidence of possessing genuine faith in Christ. They were baptized. They knew all the religious terminology. They could give a convincing testimony of their “salvation” experience. But when they left, the truth was finally revealed. Their leaving showed, not that they had lost their faith, but that they never had true faith to begin with. Their failure to persevere revealed the emptiness of their profession. Listen to the words of Christ: “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)
And listen to what the author of Hebrews teaches: “But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast. . .We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” (Hebrews 3:6, 14) Notice that He doesn’t say, “We will share in Christ if we hold firmly to the end.” He says, “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end.” In other words, if we hold on to the end, if we persevere in faith, it will prove that what we have now is real and genuine. Our remaining in the faith demonstrates the authenticity of our faith. And likewise, if a person abandons the faith, it shows that they never truly had it to begin with.
Not only does perseverance reveal the truth about situations and people, it also reveals the truth about God. It’s through perseverance that we come to know Him as He is. So if we abandon hope when trials come, we will never experience God’s power to sustain and strengthen us in the midst of suffering. If we yield to sin, we won’t experience God’s grace as sufficient for us to resist temptation. The only way to know God’s grace is to persevere in a situation in which we need his grace. If we flee, we may avoid the pain, but we will also be avoiding the chance to know God. If we give up on Christ too soon, then we will only see the tragedy of the crucifixion, and never the victory of the resurrection.
You may remember Joseph in the Old Testament. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, he was unjustly accused by his master’s wife and thrown into jail, he was betrayed and forgotten by one of his fellow inmates, Pharaoh’s cupbearer. Finally, through a series of unlikely events, he was made ruler over all Egypt; and he saved the whole nation from starvation, as well as his own family. But it was only by persevering in faith that he came to know God’s as good. In fact, God was good to Joseph all along; God was working out his good, and wise plan from the beginning. But if Joseph had given up, he would have never known that. He never would have seen how all his trials were working together for good. Joseph had to persevere in faith through years of what appeared to be God’s indifference and even hostility, before he could finally see that everything he had come through was a part of God’s good plan, for him and his people.
As Paul tells us, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) If we continue in following Christ, we will reap a harvest. We will find his grace and mercy to be sufficient. We will find his rewards to be worth all the suffering, and sacrifice, and labor, and tears. But we must not become weary and turn aside from following Him, or else we will never know God as He truly is. Perseverance in the midst of trial reveals who we truly are. It also reveals to us who God really is.
Let’s take another example. Marriage. God insists that marriage is a lifetime commitment; that with a few exceptions, once a man and woman take their vows, they are obligated to persevere with one another. Why? Well, obviously God knew that there would be many difficulties, many disappointments, many reasons to quit, many opportunities for both the husband and wife to persuade themselves that a mistake had been made, and they would be better off starting over with someone else. He knew that without that lifetime commitment, we sinful people would be very unlikely to stick it out, very unlikely to voluntarily weather the storms and persevere through the pain. He knew that sometimes the vow is all that keeps people from taking the next bus out of town.
But I think there’s something else going on. I think God wants us to persevere with one another because that’s the only way to get past the garbage to the glory. You have to be willing to stay together through the revelation of your sin, through the process of learning to forgive and ask forgiveness, learning to repent, learning to serve instead of being served, learning to bear with one another’s weaknesses — you usually have to go through a lot of difficult, painful, unpleasant stuff in order to get to the really good stuff. To get to the place where you and your husband or wife, are loving one another as God intended, and serving Christ together, where you can truly appreciate one another, instead of just tolerating one another. As with most things in life, it’s only by persevering through the trials and troubles that you can enjoy the deepest blessings and pleasures of marriage.
Is perseverance easy? Of course not. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be perseverance. No one talks about “persevering” through a hot fudge Sundae. Sports fans don’t need “perseverance” to make it through Monday Night Football. We don’t need God’s grace to “persevere” in the things we enjoy. The Bible exhorts us to persevere because God knows there will be times we want to quit. Perseverance implies difficulty. But it’s difficulty with a purpose, and that purpose is godly character, and hope, and joy.
“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” — Romans 5:3-4
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” — James 1:2-4
What’s the end result of persevering in faith? What’s the goal of continuing to follow and obey Christ? Spiritual maturity. Christlikeness.
I don’t want to give the impression that perseverance is a matter of grim determination; that following Christ means a lifetime of joyless toil and drudgery; that we get up every day and grit our teeth and clench our fists, trying somehow to brace ourselves for the misery and pain the day is certain to bring. If you’re approaching perseverance in that way, you will fail. You won’t be able to continue, because that’s not what God intended. We need to understand, first of all, that perseverance isn’t a matter of self-reliance. The power to persevere doesn’t come from ourselves, it comes from God.
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” — Philippians 2:12-13
And second, remember that God intends the life of faith to be a life of joy and contentment. This is true even in the midst of difficult circumstances, even when we are struggling and suffering; because our joy doesn’t come from our circumstances. It comes from the Holy Spirit. What did Jesus say?
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30
And Paul also reminds us, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” — 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
For the Christian, perseverance is not an unbearable burden. It’s not a matter of just trudging along, day after day, bowed down by grief and sorrow. On the contrary, by faith, our hearts can always be lifted up, because we’re not bearing our burdens alone; Christ is bearing them with us and for us. As Paul prays for the Roman Christians, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
Now, I’d like to talk a bit about how these general observations on perseverance apply to prayer. I said that perseverance is important because it reveals the truth, about us and about God. And this is certainly true in prayer, because our perseverance, or lack of it, will reveal how much faith we have that God will answer. If we pray about something a few times, and then give up, it shows that we never really thought God would answer in the first place. It was worth giving prayer a shot — why not, after all? What’s the harm? But after a while, when we don’t receive what we’re seeking, if we have little or no faith, we abandon the effort as a waste of time. And God doesn’t answer that kind of half-hearted, faithless praying. As James tells us,
“But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” — James 1:6-8
God answers the prayer of faith. And perseverance in prayer is a sign of faith. Perseverance says, “Lord, I know you can do this. And I’m going to keep asking until you do.” But when we give up praying, we’re saying, in effect, “Lord, I never thought you would do it anyway.” In fact, if you don’t have faith, I predict that you won’t be able to persist in prayer. Over time, you just won’t be able to discipline yourself to do something that, deep down, you think is useless.
By the same token, persistence in prayer reveals the truth about God. It reveals him to be a powerful, loving, wise, and good heavenly Father who hears and answers our prayers. But we can only know and experience him as a prayer-answering God if we persevere in faith and persevere in prayer.
“Keep on asking, and you will be given what you ask for. Keep on looking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And the door is opened to everyone who knocks. You parents–if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” — Matthew 7:7-11, NLT
Perseverance in prayer also shows that we value the things we’re asking for. God wants to give us the things we really desire, the things we’re serious about. God isn’t likely to answer prayers that are nothing more than passing fancies, just the idle musings of our minds. If we pray about something once or twice and then forget all about it, it probably isn’t something we really care about. If God were to grant that prayer, we might not even remember having asked for it. On the other hand, if we persevere; if we come to God over and over again with our request, it shows that this is something that really matters to us. And that’s the kind of “good thing” that God delights in providing. And one more thing: if there’s something good that we know we should want — like humility, or patience, or holiness — then praying for it with perseverance will help increase our desire for it. In other words, the more we want something, the more we will ask for it. And the more we ask for something good, the more we will desire it.
In closing, let me encourage you to persevere in faith. Remember, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9). Persevere in prayer. Keep praying when you’re discouraged; keep praying when it seems God isn’t listening; keep praying when your faith is weak; keep praying when you want to give up; keep praying when it seems that there’s no hope. But whatever you do, don’t stop. Don’t stop believing and don’t stop praying. Remember that Joshua and the people of Israel had to walk around the walls of Jericho every day for seven days before the walls finally fell. And remember that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). The purchase price for all of God’s blessings has already been paid. All we have to do to receive them is to keep believing, and keep praying.