A while back I took the Red Rope and joined a small group of believers for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. We’ve been friends for a while and gone for it together on a number of projects and challenges. But life moves on and sometimes things go wrong, people behave in ways nobody expects, sickness appears out of nowhere, adventures and successes fade into disillusionment and questions about whether we should keep on keeping on or take seriously the greener grass in the field next door. Some of the group were facing very sad situations that they still hoped would change but they were becoming painfully aware that they needed a miracle.
As I shared the Red Rope message and led into prayer, two stories in Scripture made the headlines. The first is one I regularly speak about. The Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30) is a woman with a very sick daughter (demon possessed). She tries to get to Jesus to request a divine intervention, but the way to Jesus is barred by numerous obstacles. Firstly he is hard to track down and is trying to find private places to rest, eat and recover from his busy schedule. Then there are all those minders who block access to him and through whom a visitor has to push in order to be heard. Then, most importantly, she is not a Jew and the plan of God at this point in history is to visit the Jews (commonly referred to by the Jews as the “children” of God) and give them the first opportunity to respond positively or negatively to the person and programme of Christ. Only later will the blessing go further afield to the gentiles (commonly referred to by Jews as the “dogs”). So that means a request from a gentile woman to Jesus, even if it happened in a formal meeting rather than breaking into a private meal, should receive “not yet” as a response.
But that’s not how the story plays out, eventually. Initially the woman breaks into the meal and yaps at the feet of Jesus pleading for help for her daughter. Jesus asks if the children can finish eating before the dogs get any of the food – which seems an odd phrase to us but in context made sense and was gently humourous, even if it still amounted to saying “not yet”. But then she make a funny and determined reply, “Cannot the dogs even get the crumbs from the children’s table?” Jesus loves the rejoinder. “For such a reply you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” And it was so!
The response to the initial request was, “Not Yet”. And yet, after a back and forth discussion with Jesus, Not Yet became Done Now!
What a shame if she had given up too soon. What a shame if she had taken No for an answer. What a shame if she had not kept coming back expecting Jesus to be more gracious than even his followers expected. What a shame if she had done what so many of us do; just submitted to the apparent will of God rather than arguing until she had what was right and just and good and kind. What a great example of persevering prayer.
That was the first story. But there are other stories in Scripture. An important balance can be found in the story of King David praying for the first son of Bathsheba. (2 Samuel 12)
God has used Nathan to confront the king in his sin – stealing Uriah’s wife, bedding her and then organising for Uriah’s death in order to cover his tracks. Bathsheba has given birth to David’s child. God says through Nathan that David will be judged and that the boy will die. Very soon after this pronouncement the child becomes sick. David starts praying. Praying, pleading, fasting, lying on sackcloth, making himself ill as he starved himself to try to impress God about his repentance and asking for mercy rather than judgment. He is praying so fervently that those around him feel he has lost it and are tip-toeing around him with fear that one more thing will send him over the edge. If this is how he behaves when the child is sick, they wonder, how will he be when the child actually dies?
Then the boy dies. What now? The attendants all start asking each other in whispers what they should do. Do we tell him? Can we just leave him in the dark? David notices the furtive glances and conversations. “Is the child dead?” he asks. “Yes” they reply. David instantly gets up, washes, dresses and starts to get on with his life. No more prayer for the child. The boy is dead. Nothing more can be done. While there was hope David would not give up. Now things are beyond hope, he gave up and got on.
Don’t give up in prayer, unless you have to.
Just one more thought! When Jesus walked the earth he even raised the dead. So maybe David gave up too early? I have met those who say they have seen the dead raised. So we should add that in as a possibility if this message is to be complete. This also relates to other issues we may be praying about. For example, most people would suggest to a woman who is past the menopause that she should give up praying to have children. But the Bible records that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, became pregant at that point of her life. Later in the Bible is says that, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations.” (Romans 4:18)
So there are exceptional situations where God calls us to continue praying after all sense and facts tell us that things are now hopeless.
But …. David’s story encourages us that there is a time to face the facts. To stop pleading, fasting, crying. To give up…. and get on.
(Thanks to my friend Nat Gillet for the Red Rope styled image at the top of the page)