Most Christians who’ve read Galatians know it’s a bad idea to mix grace with works. Paul wondered of the Galatians:
“Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Gal 3:3)
Most believers know that we cannot finish with human effort that which was begun by the Spirit. Yet the great irony is that many Christians are trying to do exactly that. Instead of growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, they get caught up in dead works of the flesh. Instead of keeping their eyes fixed on the Author and Finisher of their faith, they get distracted by their own performance. And when you think you’re being blessed because of your effort, you nullify the grace of God.
How do we mix grace with works?
Let me give you an example based on the Parable of the Persistent Widow. I am sure you are familiar with this story. It starts like this:
“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men…’” (Luk 18:1-2)
…and you know what happens next. A poor widow comes pleading for justice but the uncaring judge ignores her. She gets no justice. Unperturbed, the widow doesn’t give up. She keeps pestering the bad judge until he finally relents. He thinks to himself,
“because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!” (Lk 18:5)
The lesson that most Christians take from this story is that we need to persistently bang on the doors of heaven, crying out to God day and night, until we get what we ask for.
And so they completely miss the point of the story and end up mixing grace with works.
There is nothing wrong with God’s hearing
Prayer is simply conversing with God. We can talk to God about anything, anytime. If you are facing a problem that won’t go away, by all means talk to your loving Father about it. He cares for you. He wants to take your cares off you. Give them to him.
If you have prayed for a breakthrough and it hasn’t happened yet, it’s perfectly fine to pray again. There is no prayer-limit. It’s also perfectly fine not to pray again but stand in the faith that the prayer you prayed once was heard.
But what is not fine is to subscribe to a method of praying that suggests God rewards our praying effort, that if God doesn’t hear us the first time, that we need to pray again and again and again until he does. To pray like this suggests that God is either deaf or reluctant to help, neither of which is true.
Does God hear our prayers, even our short ones? You bet! Jesus said so:
“When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Mt 6:7-8)
Who is the one that prays with many, repetitive words? It is the one who does not have a revelation of the nature and character of God.
Now you may say, “but Paul, isn’t that exactly why the widow in the story got her breakthrough? Because she was relentless in asking and never gave up?” Maybe, but this misses a larger point. Jesus did not tell us the parable to get us to strive for things in our own strength. Besides, why would he suggest we “keep it short” in Matthew 6 but “pray long” in Luke 18? It doesn’t add up.
The little widow that could
It’s human nature to cheer for the underdog who never quits. But Jesus did not tell us this story so that we might be inspired by the persistent widow. He did it so that we might get a better understanding of our good and gracious Father who, in stark contrast with unjust judges, cares for us and wants to bring about justice for his chosen ones.
Jesus preached the negative to accentuate the positive. The judge in the story was a lazy and wicked man. He kept stalling. He didn’t do the right thing. He didn’t even do what he was paid to do. But God is nothing like that. God is good! He loves justice! He longs to act quickly! Look at what Jesus said:
“And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” (Lk 18:7-8)
How do you pray?
Depending on whether you have more faith in the power of human effort or the power of God, there are two ways to read the tale of the persistent widow:
1. The works-oriented preacher says, “Look at the widow, she’s weak but never gives up.”
2. The Christ-oriented preacher says, “Look at God, he’s mighty and he wants to help you.”
Do you see the difference?
Listen to the first guy and when trials come your eyes will be on yourself. Listen to the second guy and your eyes will be on your mighty Father. Big difference!
If your focus is on yourself and what you are doing or not doing, you are likely to miss out on the grace of God. If you get a breakthrough, you may be tempted to think it was because of your many prayers. Don’t misunderstand me. There have been occasions where I have prayed for years to get a breakthrough (e.g., a friend coming to Christ). But there is huge a difference between standing on the unfulfilled promises of God and thinking that God is impressed by our praying efforts.
The works preacher says we must do stuff to get results. The grace preacher says trust God for the results. Of course we should pray. But pray with faith, with an attitude that says “both me and God fully expect his will to be done in my situation.” If you don’t know what his will is, ask for wisdom. Then pray with a conviction that God will do what he says, that his kingdom reality will soon invade your earthly reality.
The problem with the widow
Why do I have a problem with making the widow the hero of the story? Because you don’t need any faith to identify with the widow in her plight. She was in a bad situation. She took it upon herself to fix things and she succeeded. It’s a good story, but it is a godless and graceless story, a mere triumph of the human spirit. You don’t even have to be a believer to preach on the persistence of the widow.
Why would Jesus want us to be inspired by a widow who succeeded apart from God? He doesn’t! He uses her to show that we are a gazillion times better off because we have God. We do not need to depend on our own effort because we can trust in the grace of a good God who knows what we need even before we ask him.
In fact, God is so good and he knows us so well that he even answers prayers that we haven’t got around to praying. I experienced this just last Sunday. During the service I made a note to pray for something with Camilla. It was a family need and I sat there thinking, “we haven’t even prayed about this – we must do it tonight.” Straight after the service I went to find Camilla (she was out back with the kids), and even before I had a chance to speak she gave me some news that told me that God had answered our prayer. And we hadn’t even prayed it yet!
Who do you trust?
Does your praying testify to the strength of the human spirit or the strength of the Holy Spirit? The best test is to look at what you do when your prayers seem to have no effect.
When the breakthrough doesn’t come, the preacher of works says, “Pray harder! You must do more.” But the Christ-oriented preacher says, “Keep trusting in the goodness of a good God! He has not forsaken you.”
Again, did you spot the difference?
Trust in yourself and you’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. Trust in God and you’re setting yourself up for a miracle. It’s not how big your prayer is, it’s how big your God is. That’s why we need to remind ourselves just how big he is when we pray. We need to magnify him. Like David in Psalm 103 we need call to mind his many blessings: God forgives us. God heals us. God redeems us, crowns us and satisfies us with good things. He is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love.
Your choice: trust in your own efforts or trust in God.
Jesus wants us to have a revelation of our loving Father when we pray. He doesn’t want us to identify with the persistent widow, but to have faith in a good and gracious God who cares for us and helps us in our weakness. Have no faith in your own efforts but receive the grace of God. In the second part of this two-part study, I want to look at the reason why Jesus told this parable.