In the epic novel The Lord of the Rings, the elves of Lothlorien admit that they are losing their forest lands. But they battle on. They describe their struggle as “fighting the long defeat.” This is the source of the comment made by Paul Farmer, who fought a “losing battle” for health care for the poor. Farmer was a physician and medical anthropologist who co-founded “Partners in Health”, an NGO committed to the idea that good public health and medicine was possible to poor areas of the world. In Tracy Kidder’s biography of Farmer (Mountains Beyond Mountains) Farmer says, “I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing… I actually think sometimes we may win… So, you fight the long defeat.” His life and work reminds me of the persistent widow.
What is this gospel parable about? Jesus provides the answer at the beginning of the gospel: “the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” Paul Farmer took that to heart. While I admire and am inspired by Farmer and people like Farmer, I am sometimes envious of his persistence and the increased clarity that accompanies it. Lurking in the darkness of my heart there is a part of me that wonders if God will leave me to the “long defeat.” Or if He answers my prayers, now and then, it is only because He is tired of hearing my voice, that I am bothering a hardhearted God who finally just surrenders. Of course, that is equating God with the unjust judge, but unlike the judge we are assured that God will not be slow to answer. But we all have lived experience that seems to contradict that assurance – too often God seems to be quite slow, there are lots of delays, as though we are “fighting the long defeat.”
It is those moments of our struggles with prayer that might lead us to experience God very much as that judge. That assumes the parable is about God. Maybe its about us, the condition of our hearts, and the motivations behind our prayers. Maybe it’s about why we need to be people of persistent prayer.
The parable begins with the admonishment to pray without becoming weary – but it is also validly translated as “without losing heart.” I think I like that translation more; it opens up the deeper understanding of what the admonishment means – not to lose heart in our spiritual lives. What pops into your mind to describe that condition? Words like fatigue, resignation, detachment, and hopelessness? Does it include a loss of focus, direction, clarity, and the start of doubting God’s intentions? That’s on the inside. What about outwardly? A little more easily irritated? Quick to judge? Less charitable? Do we begin to lose all urgency and purpose that the widow demonstrates on a daily basis? The widow gets up every day ready to petition the judge. Do we move about without a dedicated focus?
But have you had the experience of being the widow and really persisting in prayer? My own experience of such persistence is that the reason I began to pray often morphs and reforms with more clarity and focus. I begin to see the grace of God in and around me. My own heart grows and opens up to other possibilities of God’s goodness that surround me. And like any good steward of my own life, I begin to count the costs. Sometimes unanswered prayer is heartbreaking. Sometimes it is hard work. And all of this may be the point of the parable. Will I hang in there as prayer is answered, unanswered, or throws me a curve ball? Will I trust so that when Jesus looks for faith on the earth, he will at least find me?
Of course, there is a possibility I am not the widow. What if I am the judge, and God is the pleading, persistent widow? What if God is the widow knocking down my door in the hopes that I will soften my heart and attend to the pain, injustice, and sorrow wounding God’s/widow’s very being?
Jesus describes the judge as a man who neither fears God nor has respect for people. Can I say I have never had “one of those days” and never fit that description? Have I ever been indifferent, impatient, or unsympathetic? Am I always open to the pain and brokenness of others?
Scripture attests to the fact that God not only hears the cries of the helpless; God is in the cries of the helpless. God dwells with the unseen, unheard, unloved, and unwanted. God is the wronged widow crying for justice, pleading with me to listen, to care, and to keep my heart open on her behalf.
The truth is, the judge lives in me – at least part time. Maybe persistent prayer is meant to wear down my inner judge, to soften my heart, and make me open to the others in my world.
The widow lives in me – at least part time. Maybe persistent prayer is meant to give me clarity, purpose, focus, and strength to “fight the long defeat” while resisting despair.
Ever assured that the arc of the long defeat ever bends towards victory in Christ.
And so, I pray the prayers that are answered or unanswered – and I trust.
Trust that when Jesus looks for faith on earth, He will find lots of us who prayed and did not give up.
Image Credit: Братья Белоусовы (Палех), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Modified to include both parts of a larger plata.