Read Luke 18:1-8 to start.
As you probably know, I have four children. They’re pretty great kids, not perfect, but of course neither am I. They are good at some things, but others, not so much. One thing they are generally good at is asking for things. And when I say ‘good at’ what I mean is persistent. Their actual asking skills, well, those can be hit and miss at times. But when my children want something, they generally ask for it. Sometimes they ask only once. But then there are other times when they ask so many times it more than makes up for it.
Many times their requests get a hard no, asked and answered, no, you aren’t getting a snake, or an illegal knife, or a package of bubble gum – I hate bubble gum and will not permit it in my house, it gets stuck to everything and it’s just terrible. Other parents here, take note, if you are having a birthday party and one of my children is invited, if there’s gum in the treat bags, I’m likely going to throw it out if I find it. Gum is evil. But I digress. My kids still ask for it. You would think the kids would stop asking for these things, but they don’t.
However, asking for things can be effective. A recent example from my family, one of the children was looking for a particular toy, a rather large toy, either for Christmas or for a birthday present. Or I suppose, if I had felt like randomly buying the toy for no apparent reason, the kid would not have complained about that either. This child went so far as to mark the name of this toy on the calendar on Christmas day, much to my disapproval.
There was no mistaking that this toy was wanted, because the request came up again and again. And you know what, it worked. Even though this toy was certainly over the normal birthday budget, and we were not about to buy one child a gift that was nearly twice as expensive as the other kids got for their birthdays, we came to an arrangement. The child made a cash contribution to cover the difference, and they got the toy that they had so deeply desired.
When I think about this, I can’t help but think of the parable we read to start. Not that it’s anywhere close to an exact parallel, mind you. The widow of which we read, she had more serious concerns than getting a particular toy, she had some manner of lawsuit or similar legal action against someone who had wronged her. And likewise, while I do dispense justice to my children from time to time, I don’t think of myself as an unjust judge, for as much as I’m far from perfect, I always strive to be fair, and I fear God and generally try to have respect for other people.
The judge in the parable, he sounds like a self-serving jerk. A magistrate who doesn’t fear God or regard man, well, he probably shouldn’t be that position. He should have been dispensing justice because it’s the right thing to do, not because a complainant bothered him. That’s what the widow did, she essentially nagged the judge into hearing her case. He did dispense judgement, but only after he got tired of her repeated requests. Verse 5 says “Lest by her continual coming she weary me.” I would say that her continual coming had indeed wearied him, because he decided to do his job and hear her case.
The apparent lesson of this parable is that we should repeatedly bring our petitions before the Lord if we are looking for them to be granted. That meshes nicely with what we read in Matthew chapter 7, following that often misapplied verse about not judging, and the directly related matter of taking care of your own issues before criticizing others, from verse 7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: 8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. 9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? 10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
Clearly God wants us to ask Him for what we need. The description of God as being a father to those who love Him is one that is no doubt familiar to us all, but it’s become far more apparent, far more real to me as I’ve spent more time as a father myself. The relationship parallels are striking, and while we could easily spend an entire sermon on that topic, it’s in the asking and in the giving that we see my theme for today. God gives us what we need, He gives us far more than we need, but He wants us to ask for it. And quite often He does not give it to us right away.
I’ve said this more than once, but God is not a vending machine from which we can expect all manner of blessings if only we enter in the right combination of prayers, giving, and service. We can’t put in our toonie and press B-5 to get the spiritual equivalent of a Mars bar or a bag of chipotle ranch Cheetos. Some people really do seem to think that this is the case, some people essentially preach that kind of message, that you if you follow God, if you trust and obey, if you pray in the correct manner, if you, and this one is often held up as the key ingredient, if you have enough faith, then God will grant you the desires of your heart. People trot out Psalm 20 verse 4 and/or Psalm 37 verse 4, pulled out of context, of course, to support these notions.
Of course, when you do all this and you do not end up getting what your heart desires, then it’s easy to blame a lack of faith for a lack of results. If we treat God like a vending machine, then when God doesn’t deliver, we must have done something wrong. So many people blame themselves for so much failure and disappointment thinking that they must lack faith or that God is displeased with them, and it no doubt leads to much heartache and pain.
As unfortunate as that may well be, the alternative is even worse. For if we think of God as a vending machine, and He does not deliver as we expect, then it’s easy to think that instead of our own shortcomings as being the problem, that instead God is somehow broken. That is a sure fire way to weaken and diminish whatever faith you do have. That is a version of the first lie, the first seed of doubt that we see in scripture, which was the notion the serpent put into Eve’s mind that God didn’t really want good things for her, and that what God had said wasn’t entirely true. We know how that ended up.
There is nothing good which comes from the belief that God is there to grant our desires, that He serves us, instead of the other way around. That line of delusional thinking is false, and will give rise to disappointment, resentment, and apostasy.
Looking back to the father and child metaphor, I’m not a vending machine for my children, and I don’t want them to treat me like one. If they did, and did so persistently, then I might start to think about giving them rocks and snakes that they did not ask for. I did have to make that last part clear, because I’ve seen my kids collect rocks, and on at least one occasion one of them has asked for a snake.
Thankfully, God is much better at providing for our needs than any of us ever could be, and likewise, He has far more patience than you or I do. And that last part, about patience, that is important, because the verses that we read do seem to suggest that we should be persistent with God. The parable of the importunate widow and the unjust judge says this outright, God will do justice for His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though he bear long with them. That does not promise instant results, quite the opposite, instead insisting upon long term commitment and delayed gratification. Those are akin to curse words in our culture today, we know what we want and we want it now. We don’t like to wait for things, to work for them.
And in Matthew 7, we see that we should ask, seek, and knock, all of those imply a certain amount of effort. You don’t seek something that is right in front of your face, and you don’t knock on a door that is wide open. And you don’t ask for something which has already been handed to you. God wants us to work for it, not have things land in our laps all the time.
Note that sometimes God does drop what we need right in front of us, that’s actually more common than we realize, and certainly more common than we deserve, but we should not expect it. That is not how we learn to be patient or to trust in God’s provision.
Notice though, that the verses we read from Luke and from Matthew do not talk specifically about faith. Not that faith isn’t important, but as James says in the epistle that bears his name, faith without works is dead. The idea of just having enough faith is perhaps a bit too simplistic. Otherwise why would God give us instructions such as this? Why would Paul tell the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing? Why would Christ have instructed His disciples in the proper manner of prayer, which includes such items as our basic needs, ie, our daily bread, and the need we have for forgiveness, as well as our almost as great of a need to be able and willing to forgive others? Sometimes we forget just how important it us for us to forgive those who have wronged us. Not to diminish the forgiveness of God for a moment, but let us never forget to forgive. Failure to do so leads to bitterness and resentment. But I digress.
As I mentioned a moment ago, we are told in 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 to be specific, to pray without ceasing. To do so demonstrates a level of commitment. In the world today there is deep hesitation when it comes to commitment, commitment of any type. Of course, that’s hardly a new thing, but it has become easier to get what you want without committing to much of anything. God wants us to be committed to Him, to our families, to the church, to righteous living, and to prayer. He wants us, He expects us, to continue in these things, not only when it’s convenient.
Clearly we are to pray, to suggest otherwise is ridiculous. Why else would we be told to pray for one another, as well as for those who are authority over us, and those who are our enemies? Undoubtedly we are to pray, we are directed to do so, we are to come before God in prayer on a continual and a repetitive basis.
Does that mean we are supposed to, for lack of a better term, nag God? To even suggest that concept feels completely wrong to me. But it sounds like the widow in the parable nagged the judge, depending on how you define the word nag. She continued to bring her petition, her request for justice, before him, and he eventually decided that it was more advantageous to do his job, with whatever effort that entailed, than it was to put up with her continual visits. That could be described as being nagged into action.
The word nag, of course, has a negative connotation. It has the idea of complaint mixed in with the request to do something. No one likes to be nagged, and I don’t know how many people like doing the nagging. Probably there are a few who do, but mostly people nag because it’s effective, not because it’s enjoyable.
Maybe you’ve heard the expression “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Think of a shopping cart, how many times have you gone into a store and taken a cart and by the time you’re thirty feet into the produce section you can tell there’s one wheel that’s going to be a problem? It squeaks, it sticks, it generally makes the experience of shopping more unpleasant than it needs to be. And while most of us don’t carry a can of WD40 along when we go to Sobeys, there are times when that would be really useful. The squeaky wheel does not inspire joy, but it does catch your attention.
Does God want us to be squeaky wheels? That might be one way to put it, and I would say that yes, perhaps we should be, at least to a certain extent. Look at the widow in the parable again, we are not told that she specifically complained or grumbled, but she continued in her pursuit of justice, and did not allow that unjust judge to forget about her case or uncaringly dismiss it. She may or may not have been squeaky, but she was certainly not silent.
Looking again at Matthew 7, we are told to knock, to ask, and to seek. All of those are actions, they are not passive activities. We’ve all likely heard the cliché “Good things come to those who wait,” but that is hardly Biblical. It’s not even an accurate quote. The original quote, so far as I can tell, is from Abraham Lincoln, and what he actually said was “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” There is a time to wait, but if we sit around expecting that all things will come to us, we will likely instead receive disappointment. After all, the exhortations to patience that we have in scripture are often as much about endurance as they are about waiting.
God wants to provide for us, He wants to give us good things. And He wants us to ask Him to meet our needs. Not that He is unaware of those needs, or that He needs convincing. Once again, He is not a vending machine with specific buttons to press in order to get what we want. He is the creator of the universe, and well aware of what obstacles block our way, what fears we face, and what gaps we need filled. That’s not the reason we pray. We pray because we trust God to answer, and we trust that His answers are better than our own solutions.
We see this throughout scripture; people with problems try to find their own solutions that leave God out of it. Abraham and Sarah, waiting on the promised child, decided to introduce Hagar into the mix, resulting in Ishmael, instead of the promised child Isaac. Jacob, instead of trusting in God to provide the blessing he felt entitled to receive, connived a way to steal his brother’s blessing instead. Moses, instead of obeying God and speaking to the rock at Horeb, struck the rock in frustration and ruined a picture of Christ’s later work on the cross.
God wants us to obey, and He wants us to work for it, to put in the time and the effort. Not that we have to do all the lifting, or even much of the lifting at all, because we are unable, but we must be involved. Could God simply just give us our answers just like that? He could, but it would teach us to be lazy and uninterested in doing God’s work. We would build up very little in the way of spiritual muscle, with no faith, no knowledge, no prayer life to speak of. We would grow lazy and fat in our faith, and be of little value to the Lord’s work taking place in the world today.
When we pray, when we pray for something, or someone, perhaps for years, perhaps for decades, it shows God that we care, and that this is actually important to us. When we pray casually, intermittently and inconsistently, then it shows that whatever we prayed about is probably not all that important to us after all.
I can hardly believe that I’m going to reference the Spice Girls, but God wants us to tell Him what we want, what we really, really want. Prayer, persistent and consistent prayer, is doing exactly that.
That’s a good thing. And that’s not the same as nagging.
Nagging, and the grumbling and whining that generally come with it, that’s another thing entirely. I’ve worked with squeaky wheels, the human type, moreso than the spinning, circular type. I’ve been the squeaky wheel myself at times. And while bringing up a problem and looking for a solution is useful and valuable, continual complaining is unpleasant and aggravating. The squeaky wheel may well get the grease, but sometimes the squeaky wheel gets replaced. There have been times when I’ve gotten a bad shopping cart at the store, and so I’ve just abandoned it and gone and gotten a different one. There are a hundred shopping carts at the supermarket, I can take one that works instead of one that’s going to drive me bonkers.
There are some who object to nagging, or what they term as nagging, because of laziness and lack of motivation. If I don’t want to do something, when reminded of it repeatedly, I might protest that I’m being nagged about it. This might well be an excuse, especially if the reminder does not come bundled with grumbling and complaint. Ultimately, though, it’s the complaining that is the problem.
In Philippians chapter 2, we read at verse 14 Do all things without murmurings and disputings: 15 That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world;
We live in a crooked and perverse nation, frankly, no matter what nation you might point to, it is crooked and perverse, as much as some people may think that their own country is somehow above reproach; that is not the case. We live in a crooked and perverse world, one that is filled with discontent and ungratefulness. We are faced with an onslaught of complaint, not all of it directed toward us personally, thankfully, but the murmuring and disagreement is continual. People are not content with whatever it is that they have, no matter how small or great their own possessions, abilities, and opportunities may be. And so they complain about it.
As believers, as those who trust in God, we have vast blessings that the world does not enjoy. Not in material things, although some of us have more than others when it comes to that, though none of us are starving, but we have salvation, we have the Saviour, and we have the assurance of knowing our final destiny. That is precious to me, and it should be to you as well.
As far as what we have, we may not be content, as much as the Bible tells us to be content with such things as you have. But we are to bring our petitions before God, not our complaints. Not our grumblings and our ingratitude. Those should be set aside to make room for thankfulness.
The children of Israel, and we could turn to the book of Exodus and read time and time again of how they murmured against Moses and against God during their time in the wilderness. It was a matter of days from the time they crossed the Red Sea, escaping from Pharaoh’s chariots in a miraculous deliverance until they started to complain how they were hungry and of how good they had it back in Egypt. They forgot so soon of what it was like to be in slavery, to be under the lash of the taskmasters, their forgetfulness fuelled by their empty bellies. God send them manna so they might eat, and before long they complained about that. They complained that they were thirsty, they complained that the Promised Land was occupied by giants, they complained about Moses’ leadership, and they complained when God punished them for their complaints.
I’m not here this morning to pick on the Israelites. I’m here to remind us that we have been blessed with great spiritual blessings. We have been blessed with ample material blessings as well. We have no just cause for complaint. There will always be someone who has something better, something more than we do. And there will always be someone who has less.
We are to bring our needs before God in prayer, we are to do so with persistence and perseverance. But we should take a moment and think of what it is we ask of Him, and why we ask it. If your prayers are fuelled by selfish desires, ingratitude, or covetousness, if you have a complaint behind your every request, then you are being the worst kind of squeaky wheel. God is rich in mercy, He gives us more and better than we need or deserve, and He puts up with far more than we ever would, but let us not test the extent of His mercy. That would be foolish in the extreme. We see in scripture how God punished those who murmured and grumbled continually. Not that I promise God will punish you for complaining, but likewise, I don’t promise you that He won’t. And living with a spirit of ungratefulness, bitterness, and discontent is frankly its own punishment. What’s more, when those who profess to follow God, to know the Saviour, when they live in a manner that demonstrates complaint rather than joy, then what sort of witness is that? What damage will our poor attitudes do to the world around us, a world in desperate need of Christ? How will we convince anyone that our good news is worth much when we grumble and whine about petty concerns?
If, on the other hand, we seek out good things from God, if we ask Him to grow our knowledge and our faith, and if we put in the effort to move those things forward ourselves, to draw closer to our Saviour, if we seek to bless others, and to expand God’s kingdom here and now, then those are prayers that we can and should expect to see answered. Maybe not how we expect, or when we would prefer, but God hears the prayers of the faithful, the patient, and the committed.
We should be squeaky wheels. Not stuck, problematic, and unworkable, but rather always calling attention to how things can improve, to the presence of sin, to how needs can be met, how we can serve. When we glide along silently and without notice, the impact we make on a fallen world is negligible, and the opportunity for God to work through our lives is small. When we trust in God, when we turn to Him first, when we are continually before Him in prayer, the opportunities for good are far greater.