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Persistence as Spiritual Practice

Most of us have been taught that the parable about the unjust judge and the persevering widow (Luke 18:1-14, Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24) teaches the necessity of the quality of persistence in our faith. But what does persistence look like and in what ways are we to be persistent?

Now persistence sounds like a virtue, although not one of the seven named virtues. However I have to confess that it has sounded to me suspiciously like duty, stoicism, dogged determination and other reliable qualities. I am sure that persistence is actually amoral in itself, neither good nor bad – it is simply a human characteristic. But it is one that I wouldn’t judge myself to have a great deal of.

So why might I grow faint hearted at the thought of persistence and the biblical imperative to be persistent? Without boring you with my particular psychological profile and family history it is enough to say, that like many of my generation, I came to question the grim determination to be dutiful and predictable that my parents and grandparents were taught as it somehow seemed to lock some people, especially good women, into lives of repetition and limitation. It seemed to limit spontaneity and passion and new thinking, promoting mere survival and servitude rather than human flourishing. However as I have grown older I have had to review my earlier views and revisiting this parable and the other readings this week is provoking a rethink.

Everywhere there are humbling lessons in how persistence enables people in ways that bring life, allows passion to express itself in artistic acts of accomplishment, and strengthens those who seek justice for themselves and others. Most artists and sportspeople, scientists and political activists, have honed their skills with repetitious practise so that they are ready to act in ways that appear spontaneous and decisive. Persistence is the commitment to the long haul, is having the character to turn up time after time and get things done, and is about staying in relationship through the thick and the thin times.

So what is persistence in a Biblical sense? As always it is important to notice the context of Scripture. Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:27-34) was given an oracle of hope when the people were desolate and desperate for mercy and justice. The widow of the parable is also in a desperate situation: in a patriarchal society she has no adult male to advocate for her, she does not have the economic means to offer a bride to the judge in the court setting, but must go straight to him and beg/demand justice until he relents!

We may have been taught that this week’s stories are teaching us to be persistent in prayer – to pray for what we need without losing heart. With the reassurance that God, unlike the grumpy old judge, will not delay in granting justice to those who cry out. Which does sort of beg two questions – why then do we need to be persistent, if God already knows our need and intends to meet it? And secondly, well the world news does not always look like prayers for justice are met in recognisable ways!

I want to suggest that there are at least three ways in which persistence is desirable in the life of faith. Firstly that persistent steadfast crying out for justice is a faith response when we find ourselves living in hard and harsh times, in times like the chosen people in exile, in times like when the widow was not dealt with justly. When our child is imprisoned, when our neighbour’s water is being poisoned by industry, when our international neighbours are languishing in refugee camps, the right response is to be a steadfast companion and to stand alongside and add our voice and influence to the cry for justice until it comes. Being persistent keeps hope and life alive; being persistent is a practice in solidarity; and persistent presence is an expression of compassion when sometimes we do not have much else we can offer. Being persistent seekers of justice and mercy for ourselves and others is to maintain the faith that God’s rule is one of justice and mercy and we wait on those promises regardless of current realities.

Secondly, yes this story encourages persistence in prayer and faithfulness. But this story demonstrates that persistence is not just about nice polite dutiful repetition of requests and good deeds. Persistence is not so much for the sake of a hard of hearing God but for us who find it hard to hear and know ourselves children of God. Persistence is not so much to instruct God on the detail of justice or the gift desired but so that we learn faithfulness and commitment in relationship whether we are getting our desires met or not. And sadly there is no easy answer as to why some petitions are apparently answered in full and others are not answered in ways that we can recognise. Persistent faith keeps inviting us into intimate dialogue and communion even when we are aching for what we do not have or what we have lost.

And flowing on from this, thirdly, persistence in spiritual practice grows us into mature persons of faith who are shaped and formed by the ongoing dance of prayer and praise, lament and thanksgiving, strident crying out for justice and whole bodied silent meditation where there is no thought but the breath.

Part of what has humbled and encouraged me over the years is sharing meditation practice with Buddhists and Sufis, Christians of many traditions, and those of no religious affiliation, and coming to desire and respect the persistent practice of leaning into the silent wisdom of the divine and with each attentive breath coming to be known and to know, being undone and remade, being formed as a follower of the Christ, the fully realised human one.

Remember that early Christians were called people of the Way, or followers of the Way. To be a disciple was to be a person on a journey, to be a person completely given over to a life commitment of following. It was not only, or even primarily, about beliefs. It was about doing and being a person of faith. And so persistence was about a steadfast following of Christ, a perusing of the truth, a commitment to a relationship with the Christ. And this has not changed – surrendering, attending, and desiring union are still the Way of following.

Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come call me home to you, again and again until I am truly yours.



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