Mixing Grace with Works: It’s Not About the Widow (Luke 18:1-8)

fathers hand

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.

10 Comments on Mixing Grace with Works: It’s Not About the Widow (Luke 18:1-8)

  1. This is great! I used to always think I had to be like the persistent widow and God would reward my insistence and continual praying. But I was looking at it the wrong way—MY PRAYERS, not HIS GRACE and FAITHFULNESS! Thanks for bringing this understanding to light. This completely changes my prayer life!

  2. In two pregnancies, the life of my unborn child was threatened. Twice I felt I could change my situation by persistent prayer. In both cases, I did not see the fulfillment of my request and felt some responsibility and guilt that I didn’t fast enough or spend every night in sleepless prayer. But in the second instance, I took something away with me. On that morning as I prayed I felt the power of God in the room and had (have!) full confidence that He is mighty to save. The day progressed and as my son was born without a heartbeat, I yet knew this to be true. But I felt something more… I think it is love. I was impressed with Isaiah 53: He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. A gentle probing, and this almost rhetorical question: “Do I know Jesus better?” In my sorrow, in my grief, in the pain of my loss, compassion was born.

  3. Something to share:

    I have been feeling down and lonely these days. I am clear of my agenda here but there are quite a few things which are beyond my effort and expectation. The good and worst result, i always expect it. But before it, i have to stay faithful. Last night, that was a sudden relief of my emotion, heartloss and devastation. A few minutes later, i prayed hard. I really wanted Him to listen to my cry out. I believe that He did hear my prayer and feel how i feel but i stongly wanted to hear from Him. (Maybe i did not stay firmly in faith at that moment?)

    Later on, i opened the bible. I read Psalm 16. In verse 8, it writes,`I have always set the Lord before me. Because He is at my right hand, i will not be shaken.’ This is something i missed out. Sometimes, i am quite easy to let things bother me, rather than fixing my eyes on Christ. Indeed, He is with me and has been trying to direct me, whereas, maybe i passed it. He is the source of my peace but i put the noise in. I did not notice Him before but now He raised me up once again.

  4. Paul Ellis // June 22, 2010 at 5:22 pm // Reply

    @Paulette – That’s wonderful. I hope you see breakthroughs left and right.

    @Gerry – Thanks for being real.

    @Kimberly – Sometimes we may not see him, but the LORD is always before us. He’ll never leave us or forsake us. Thanks for writing.

  5. In Luk 18:1-8, Jesus is putting prayer in the context of a legal system for a reason. When we go before a judge we bring with us points of law to make our case to show that we have a legal right to what we are claiming. We do not bring our opinions or what our friends think is right infact we get a lawyer to help us present our legal case to the judge. If you did bring your opinion to a judge he wont even let you finish your statement because opinions do not matter in a court. I have heard this passage taught like this: “You have to come before God and ask Him over and over again until you get what you are praying for. Be like the widow and continually beat on the doors of Heaven until your prayers are answered.” This is the furthest thing from the truth. “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also FREELY give us all things?” (Rom 8:32).

    God is not up in heaven waiting for you to ask him 1000 times for something before He decides that you have waited long enough before He answers your prayer. God is not the judge in this parable. Your soul is the unjust judge in this parable. You need to bring points of law (the bible) before your soul until your soul believes what your are confessing. Your soul is an unjust judge because it will accept evidence other than the bible as truth. For instance: You fell and hurt your ankel. You start confessing “By His stripes I am healed” You soul then will turn to your ankle and take evidence from it and your ankle says “I’m in pain! Don’t you feel that?” then your soul renders a verdict something like this “At the present time I have more evidence that your ankle is in pain than I do that your are healed by His stripes.”

    Continual confession of the word over your situation will weary your soul (the unjust judge) out until it believes what your are confessing. When your soul truly believes what your are confessing that is when God is able to do what you have been confessing. Confession doesn’t move God to give you what you have been asking for. You coming to the point where you actually believe what you are confessing is what frees God up to give you what you have been confessing…

    You have to believe what you are praying for. If you do not believe what you are praying for then God has made a way for you to believe. Our soul is an amazing thing. It will become what we subject it to the most. So if you subject your soul to the bible then guess what? You will believe what the bible says and that will free God up to do what you have been confessing. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” (Pro 18:21). You will have what you speak so speak life. You will never rise above your confession. What ever comes out of your mouth is what you will have. Knowledge is not enough by itself. Confession coupled with knowledge is what creates the belief that allows God to move on your behalf.

    -Shawn

  6. Whilst I totally accept what you say about it not being about the strength of our prayers but the strength of our God, how can you say that , ‘the lessons most Christians get out of this is that we should persistently bang on the doors of heaven.. and that they totally miss the point.’
    What else does this text mean: ‘Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.’ I have always understood that this means Jesus is teaching them that persistence in prayer is important!
    Why is this incompatible with a gospel of grace?

    Hilary

  7. Thank you, really enjoyed reading this God-honouring study and looking forward to Part 2.

  8. I know this post is over 5 years old but it is still quite relevant.
    I have been trying to reconcile some things about prayer because I have been going about it all wrong. I used to see nothing wrong with praying like the widow so that I could just get what I wanted. If I bugged God enough He would then give me what I wanted but if I didn’t get what I wanted then I must not be faithful enough or I didn’t ask it the right way or because I must have some unconfessed sin then God would say NO.
    I know now that my theology and views of God were just plain wrong.
    I’ve been praying for marriage reconciliation with my wife. I keep hearing from believers “to be like the widow in my persistence” or to “trust that God is going to bring it about” or to “just have faith” as if it’s a foregone conclusion and my wife has no choice but to do what God says. What bothers me about these well meaning statements is the implication that I need to do these things in order to get God to rubber stamp this as a Yes prayer. I understand now that my efforts and works are an attempt to please God or show myself as worthy because of my faith and prayer.
    I found this post entry because I want to learn a different way to pray. Paul, your explanation of this parable is a breath of fresh air to me. Thank you for sharing your insight.

  9. And if you “practice the presence” (I prefer saying: “Enjoy the presence”), as your prayer, you will see the wonders of Abba at every point, good or… “HELP!!!”), and “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your heart(s) in Christ Jesus” (Phill 4:7)

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