Here’s a question for you: How long should you pray for something or someone?
If you’ve been a Christian for a while, you probably know what I’m talking about. Let’s say you have a debilitating illness, or a loved one who doesn’t know Jesus. Or maybe you have a child who’s straying from the godly path you’ve tried to keep them on. Or you’re stuck in a horrible marriage, and it seems to just be getting worse. You’ve prayed, asking God to intervene. And again. And again. And again. And as best as you can tell, nothing has happened.
You might be familiar with Paul’s thorn in the flesh. No, I don’t know what it specifically was. None of us are sure. But the point is clear: Paul--undoubtedly one of the godliest men of his generation (only God knows if he was closer than Peter or any of the other apostles), the author of a majority of our New Testament--asked the Lord to take it away. Three times. And the Lord told him no. So there’s that.
But I’d like to draw your attention to a lesser known lesson we can glean from Scripture about prayer. I was tempted to talk about this when we were discussing the prophets, but it really fits better here while we’re on the topic of prayer.
You know that Jeremiah’s known as the “weeping prophet.” The vast majority of his prophecies were negative: God’s people were sinning egregiously, the Lord was about to judge and punish them, and they could either repent or face destruction. And as his nickname indicates, Jeremiah was far from happy about seeing people suffer and die, even though they would be suffering because they fully deserved it. Inspired by his Lord, he took no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that he turn from his ways and live; he didn’t want anyone to perish, but that everyone come to repentance. There was absolutely not a trace of Schadenfreude in his soul.
So he prayed for them. He undoubtedly asked that the Lord move their hearts away from sin and towards himself, in his (and Moses’) terms to “circumcise [their] hearts.” Or like Amos, maybe he just asked the Lord to stay his hand of judgment, to not bring on them the judgment they deserved. He tried to stand in the gap between a holy God and a sinful people, representing each one before the other.
This tells me something about this man. The responses he received from the people ranged all the way from indifference to violent hostility. They laughed at him and threatened him. To our knowledge, after all his preaching and pleading before the people, he successfully gained one convert. His response was to pray for these ungrateful sinners, to plead with God on their behalf.
And finally, the Lord told him to stop. Not once. Not twice. Three times the Lord specifically ordered his prophet to stop praying for the people of Israel. Apparently they were too far gone, and the Lord would no longer listen to any more pleas on their behalf.
Now, a huge part of maturity and wisdom is to recognize the danger of extremes and the value of balance. There’s very little in this world which you can’t do too much or too little of. Too much food and you’re overweight. Too little and you starve or at least hurt your health. There’s such a thing as too little and too much sleep, time with friends, time with your spouse, playing, working, etc.
It's possible to read your Bible too much, I suppose, if it’s to the detriment of other things. If you read it so much that you neglect telling others about Jesus, just to take an extremely hypothetical example.
And it’s theoretically possible to pray too much for someone. There might come a time, when you’ve prayed for the salvation of someone over and over and over, that that the Lord actually tells you the same thing he told Jeremiah.
But let me confess something to you, my friend. If that was the greatest fault in my walk with Christ, that I prayed for someone after God told me to quit, I’d be pretty thrilled.
That’s usually not my problem. My problem is the other extreme, that I give up way too easily. I ask him to intervene in someone’s life, don’t see immediate results, and give up.
So how can we tell when enough is enough? What about the reading from the Gospels, where Jesus warns us against “[keeping] on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”
Let’s be careful of the context here. Pagans would just keep mumbling things over and over and over, not even thinking about what they were saying. It was a rote prayer; quite frankly, I think there’s a rough equivalent when someone does a certain number of repetitions of the “Lord’s Prayer” or “Hail Mary.” Muslims and others offer rote prayers, and frequently they don’t even know what they’re praying. It might even be in a language they don’t speak.
No, the example I think of when I think of perseverance on which our Lord smiles is when a child asks something from their parent, and he says “We’ll see.” He doesn’t say “Yes,” or “No.” With our Father, a firm “No” is the end of the discussion. But if he doesn’t say “No,” then I'd take that as an invitation to keep asking.
Again, I suppose that it’s possible for us to spend too much time pleading for the salvation of others, but it’d be awfully hard to do, and I don’t think that’s my greatest problem.
I think I can stand to move further in that direction before I run into any type of danger. What about you?
Father God, I spend waaaaaaay too little time before your Throne of Grace, and too much time on things of no eternal significance. Please help reset my priorities.