A pair of hands with palms pressed together has served as an image for prayer at least since the early 16th century when Albrecht Dürer created his well-known sketch. These days, Internet images of prayer may feature people in a reflective posture with palms pressed together while beams of light shine down from on high. Let's call this the praying hands image of prayer.
Betende Hände by Albrecht Dürer gallery.euroweb.hu. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
In the introduction to the parable of the widow and the corrupt judge (Luke 18:1–8), Jesus tells us, "Pray always and don't lose heart," promising that God’s help is coming quickly. When life goes well, we find it easy to follow this advice. We pray, help comes, and we celebrate: The surgery was successful! Cancer is in remission! Praise God!
A problem arises when God's help does not come quickly. We pray, and beams of light do not shine down from on high. Justice does not come. Injustice persists and spreads. Losing heart looks like realism. When life brings unrelenting struggles, if our understanding of prayer is too simple, we may lose heart and blame ourselves. Or we may conclude that God is absent or irrelevant.
An episode in Genesis (32:22–31) offers us one possible image of prayer robust enough to hold up to the struggles of real life. Jacob is poised to cross the ford of Jabbok on his way home to make peace with Esau, whom he swindled years ago. But he's just learned that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. He sends his family on ahead with an enormous present for Esau, hoping the gift will persuade Esau and his men not to wipe out Jacob’s party. Jacob lingers behind, alone. Suddenly, without explanation, he is wrestling with a mysterious figure who seems to represent God. Jacob’s hip is dislocated in the all-night contest, and he walks away limping. His physical struggle offers us a metaphor for prayer.
Prayer can be a struggle when we pray repeatedly for something obviously beneficial, obviously blessed by God, and yet our prayers go unanswered.
Luke’s parable about the widow and the judge offers another robust image of prayer. Even though the corrupt judge stands in sharp contrast with God, the widow’s persistent petitions serve as another metaphor for prayer. She keeps at it, begging for justice, despite refusals from the judge who cares nothing about justice. She won't give up. As Fred Craddock writes, the parable implies that prayer must be “continual and persistent, hurling its petitions against long periods of silence. . . .Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is” (Luke: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Westminster John Knox, 1990).
As with Jacob, prayer is struggle, but here the image is boxing, a fact hidden by most English translations. When the judge finally gives in to the widow’s pleas, he says: “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out” (Luke 18:5; NRSV). A literal translation of the Greek might be, “Because this widow continues to beat me, I will grant her justice, so she will not give me a black eye!" Let’s call this the clenched fists image of prayer.
Where is the good news in prayer as struggle? Without a vigorous image of prayer to guide us when life hammers us with one thing after another, we find our faith giving out. If the body of Christ puts forward an image of prayer that is too mild for the real-life struggles we face, we who are in the midst of hard times may feel that our anguish has no place in the faith community. We may be tempted to hide our pain, only adding to its depth.
Those facing mental health challenges are particularly vulnerable to feeling as though Christian faith has no place for us and our pain, but I suspect any difficult life circumstance can confront us with this feeling. Perhaps we live with a chronic illness. Perhaps we’ve prayed for a bully to stop picking on us, or for someone we love to stop making self-destructive choices. Perhaps we're praying for world peace or for members of congress to work together. For any of us, prayer can be a struggle when we pray repeatedly for something obviously beneficial, obviously blessed by God, and yet our prayers go unanswered.
A mother watches her ten-year-old child sink ever deeper into a depression that is making the whole family miserable and disrupting all semblance of normal life. She worships on Sunday morning, week after week, month after month, praying to God for relief. Years pass, and her child struggles on without any lasting relief. She hurls her petitions at God, who seems to reply with oppressive silence. She hangs on the edge of despair, nearly ready to give up on prayer and on God altogether. The mother’s mental health suffers. All the platitudes she has heard fall away. “God will not give you more than you can handle.” I am surely not handling this, she thinks. “God is punishing sin or teaching a lesson.” Whose sin? Surely not a child's, and if I am the sinner, why punish an innocent child? The illness seems if anything to be driving her child away from healthy relationships, including a relationship with God and with the church.
Recognizing that prayer can include clenched fists as well as praying hands provides a way to hang on in the face of intense, persistent struggle. The stories of Jacob wrestling and the widow demanding justice tell us we shouldn’t be surprised when chronic difficulties besiege us. Clearly, the biblical writers endured such struggle and left us stories we can identify with.
But is the good news in these scriptures only that others have walked this road before? Must we hang on by our fingernails and wait for God to wound us like Jacob and leave us limping? A key piece to understanding the parable of the widow as good news lies in recognizing the community audience for which it was intended.
The social order of Jesus’ time required that a woman have a man to speak for her in any public arena. Since the widow lacks a male defender, Justo González points out, “It is the responsibility of the entire people of God to care for her and to make certain that justice is done” (Luke: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, Westminster John Knox, 2010). The widow is not an individual begging in isolation for justice. She symbolizes an entire community, pleading with one voice that God's justice will prevail. Her story invites faith communities to enter into the struggle of those walking through difficult times. It urges us to unite in bringing our prayers to the throne of mercy, not giving up when answers are slow in coming.
When deep troubles shatter a sister or brother’s capacity to pray, it is our job as the body of Christ to enter the struggle, walking side by side with them.
When deep troubles shatter a sister or brother’s capacity to pray, it is our job as the body of Christ to enter the struggle, walking side by side with them. We pray not only in words and quiet meditation but also through actions, embodying Christ to one another. We resist the whirlpool of dark despair that threatens to engulf those who struggle and unravel the easy answers and clichéd responses we have wrapped around our faith.
Families affected by mental illness and other troubles with no quick resolution need brothers and sisters in Christ to enter the abyss alongside us, to remain there as long as it takes, without trying to gloss over the hard times with platitudes. A small group listens with compassion and no judgment to unfolding stories of pain as a couple helplessly watches a loved one in a mental health crisis spiraling downward with self-destructive choices. The group seeks out ways to repair damaged relationships. The family knows God’s presence through friends who show up with sleeves rolled up to pack boxes and clean filthy living quarters, haul mattresses, and give rides. They feel the love of Christ through strangers who provide shelter and a bed for their loved one. In these actions the Word becomes flesh—an essential part of praying together through struggle.
The community that embodies Christ in such situations creates safe spaces where those in pain can bare their souls, where praying with clenched fists is honored as a sign of a faith strong enough to bring doubt and demand to God. We pray with our sleeves rolled up, ready for the hard work of persistent companionship and practical support through adversity. Although the wrestling may leave us limping, like Jacob, we too demand a blessing. When it comes, the blessing takes us by surprise as we discover Christ among us, where two or three are gathered.
The parable of the widow concludes with a searching question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” When we embrace both the joy and pain that come from struggles shared, we can rejoice that the Son of Man will find faith on earth, not hidden, but in plain sight, embodied in the grace and care of brothers and sisters living in the redeemed community. For we are showing the world around us that Love is possible, and here is what it looks like, as we wait in hope for the coming of Christ’s reign in all its fullness.
This article by ADNet program director Christine Guth appeared in the Feb. 27, 2014, issue of The Mennonite. Adapted from a sermon preached at 8th Street Mennonite Church.