The New Testament Widow, St Monica and the Truth about Persistent Prayer

I’ve seen several posts on social media from Christian friends asking for prayer for a particular situation (pregnancy, job search, selling a house etc) where they are told to remember the persistent widow of Luke 18:1-8 by good Christians as proof that God will answer their prayer in the affirmative if they just keep at it. Catholics will often point to St Monica for intercession because of her ceaseless prayers for her husband and her son, St Augustine. I’ve personally been told to create a visualization of what I am asking God for as a form of prayer. For example: to take a picture of the house I was trying to sell and super-impose the word “sold” on it.

I’ve also seen and heard world-weary stories of those who have persisted in prayer for a while only to not see results. My heart aches for them. They just want a good job, a house without mold and lead paint, or a date that leads to a second date and keep coming up empty-handed. Sometimes it feels like you’re spouting off platitudes when you tell the couple trying for a baby for over ten years who’ve exhausted every avenue, “Think about the widow and the judge in Luke’s Gospel,” or, “St Monica never gave up!” It’s even worse when someone is praying for something like complete curing of a child’s cancer and it’s at the end of their battle and someone spouts that off.

When my young cousin Andy was diagnosed with a cancerous, inoperable brain tumor, I saw and hear lots of people say, “God will surely answer our prayers!” When they said that their meaning was clear: God will answer them the way in which we want Him to answer them.

As long time readers of this blog know, God answers ALL prayers. “Yes” is not always the answer. “No” and “Not Yet” are real answers to prayers.

So what then are we to make of that woman who pestered the judge and St Monica’s prayers? Well, first it helps to see these stories in context.

Let’s take the woman and judge first. Jesus’ point in telling the Apostles this story is laid out in verse one of Luke’s 18th chapter. And it wasn’t, “God will give you everything you want if you bug Him enough.” The purpose of the parable was to encourage them not to weary in prayer. That’s actually a pretty big difference. Jesus is teaching them that God is not a genie who grants wishes and that instant gratification is not part of being a follower of Christ. All the apostles except John would be martyred and never see the fruits of their conversions flourish. Jesus knew full well that there would be persecution and He also had the difficult task of preparing the Apostles for His death. Jesus knew that while Peter had declared Him to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, but just a few verses later, as Jesus is telling the Apostles of His death, Peter chimes in with “No Lord, not you!” to which Jesus famously replies, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matthew 16:13-23). After all, Jesus was not the king the Jews had been expecting. Even John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin who leapt in his mother’s womb at Mary’s greeting had sent his followers to ask Jesus if indeed Jesus was the one they were waiting for or should they be looking for another (Matthew 11:2-6). John the Baptist had preached a fiery end to those who did not believe. That the Messiah would be crucified and actually die…no, the Jewish Messiah wasn’t going to go down like that! Jesus was tasked with preparing those 12 Men to face that God’s reality was quite different than their own. There would be doubts, there would be despair, but Jesus had to teach them to never stop praying, to never stop believing. Many who started following Jesus in His lifetime on Earth would walk away, they would find it too difficult to trust in a God they could not see and give up what everyone had said was right. Judas would betray Him. Peter would deny Him. What He had to make clear to all of them was that, without Him, they would accomplish nothing. Without Him, it would all be for nothing. They had to be able to step out in faith, and prayer was the way to do that. Constant communication with God. They had to understand that God heard all those prayers, not that God would grant them.

Modern lore has many believing that St Monica was a pious woman who did nothing but pray for her son and he miraculously gave up his sinful life and became a father of the Church. Um, no. First off, Monica prayed but she also acted. She didn’t simply pray, “here God, convert him,” and then let God do all the heavy lifting. She chased her son across continents. As he prepared for baptism, she cared for him, his son and others also in preparation. And God did not make it easy for Monica to keep praying, if we want to look at it that way. Augustine had a mistress and a child that had to be accounted for. Augustine would trick her and sail out to Italy ahead of her from Africa. Monica’s faith was tested sorely. Perhaps a bigger miracle than Augustine’s conversion, was that Monica never lost her faith and never gave up that God was listening to her prayers, even when things seemed quite to the contrary. As Monica would find out, God’s timeline is often very different than our own.

This leads to the second thing to consider, with God, all things are possible but that doesn’t guarantee they will happen when or how we want them to. God sometimes gives us glimpses of what is possible so that we can continue to believe without quite achieving our desires. Monica was heartbroken when Augustine left without her, but she was beginning to see things might be possible and with that, renewed her resolve. When Jeff was looking for a job in education, he got a job offer in Colorado. We wanted a job in that part of the country but when Jeff went out and visited the school and community in question, he found it wasn’t right for our family. I was devastated that we’d waited so long for even interviews but I understood this was probably for the best. Similarly, last year when God presented us with two equally good options for jobs and one of the jobs seemed to be sealed up, Jeff went in to interview only to find out the principal only wanted a local candidate and that he had been vetted by an HR employee who wasn’t in touch with the administration. God opened my heart to that place and to find out he wasn’t really going to be considered was very upsetting but made me see that my family could handle the changes God was preparing us for. In the end, God came through in a big way when the day we closed on the sale of our old house, Jeff was offered his current job only five minutes from our new house. And the closing of our new house came 364 days after we had first listed our old house to disastrous results. We can learn from St Monica that sometimes what we asked God for doesn’t look to God what we envisioned it to look like.

Something to keep in mind about persistent prayer too, is that we should be, above all, asking for God’s will. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” When my cousin Andy died of cancer, my aunt Eileen, posted on his caringbridge site that she had prayed asking God to cure Andy and in the end God’s answer was, “I did.” In asking God for anything in prayer, I have since had to assure myself that in the end, I would be okay with whatever God’s plan was. This doesn’t mean I don’t get sad or disappointed at various rejections, however they manifest themselves, but opening myself up in my persistent prayer to God’s will does give a sense of peace and even joy. Trust me, it’s not easy. I fail. A lot. But I am learning as time goes on that sometimes just persisting in my prayer, gives me the opportunity to better trust God. It’s not all lost if it caused me to rely on Him. Maybe that was the entire point of the exercise and maybe I did better on it sometimes than others.

Regardless, it behooves us to understand that the power of persistent prayer lies not in getting what we want all the time, but utilizing it to better rely on God and not ourselves. In that vein, I would suggest that if your knee-jerk reaction to someone asking for prayers for something, anything, they’ve wanted for a long time, is to “remind” them of the persistent widow or St Monica (or any other saint) to move to a position of encouraging prayer and trust in God’s will. That is where the true strength in persistence of prayer is found.