Two Christmases have come and gone since I was given an Apple Watch, and it’s one of the best things anyone has ever gotten me. I love the manifold ways it gives me health updates. It tells me my heart rate, miles walked or ran, exercise minutes, standing hours and it even tells me the time! For the most part, having this watch and the data it provides has been good for my health and helped me to be consistently more active.
Recently I was reading the New Testament encouragement from the Apostle Paul to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances” and it hit me that I fall far short of living up to that standard most of the time. If my Apple Watch measured the urgency and vitality of my prayer life instead of my standing hours or the number of steps I take in a day, I don’t think I’d appreciate the technology very much, and the findings would be ugly. In fact, whenever the topic of prayer even comes up, my thoughts usually devolve into: “I’m terrible at prayer, I don’t pray enough, and I’ve got to get better at it.” While all of that may actually be true, I was recently relieved to see that Jesus doesn’t think about prayer in the same kind of me-centric, measure-y way that I do. And contrary to my approach, he doesn’t simply tell me to try harder.
In Luke 18, Jesus shares a story of a persistent widow. In so doing, he decidedly does not take the “close your exercise rings” approach to improving our prayer life, nor does he put forward a “how to hack your way into regular prayer habits” like you might expect to hear today. Instead, he uses story to slow us down and help us see underneath the many reasons we don’t pray. He paints a portrait of a widow who continually seeks justice from a self-involved judge who eventually caves to her demands due to her persistence. He surprises us by relating God to the unjust judge in the story and pointing out in a lesser-to-greater style argument that if the judge will grant the requests of the widow, how much more will a good God will listen to the cries of his chosen ones and care for us.
What’s unexpected for “spiritual vitality measurers” like myself about the approach Jesus takes is what Luke tells us the point of the story is meant to teach us. In Luke 18:1 it says, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” Luke tells us that Jesus wants us to learn to pray continually and not give up. But he “shows” instead of tells. He isn’t a solicitor at our front door trying to sell us something to improve our lives, rather, he’s like a family member or close friend who always uses the side door.
Jesus knows that our wills are often more resistant to the things of God than we like to believe, particularly because an appeal to our will normally teaches us to look to ourselves. The words “try harder” give us a fresh chance to buckle down and finally be more spiritual. But a story doesn’t work that way. Instead, a story compels us to respond. When I watch the beginning of the movie “Up” and see the love story between Carl and Ellie, including the pain of the loss when Ellie dies, my heart is compelled to love, cherish, and appreciate my wife all the more.
But reading the Bible goes a step beyond example-setting – and so does the story of the persistent widow. The main character leaves the screen and enters our lives, making the story not about our prayer life but about his, and that makes all the difference. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” He is the true persistent widow who tirelessly assumes our place and receives the justice we deserve on the cross. It’s this story of God’s one-way love that knocks at the side door to our hearts and compels us to turn from self and experience in Jesus a greater joy and refreshment than we could ever find on our own.