Updated: Jul 27, 2019
The following is the eighth post in a series looking closely at the teachings of Robert Henderson found in his book Operating in the Courts of Heaven. I first suggest some theological questions that require answers before the teaching is embraced whole-heartedly, then evaluate the biblical passages used to back-up the teaching.
The parable of the persistent widow
Luke 18:1-8 1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ 4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Henderson’s makes the observation here that prayer is pictured in the context of a judicial system – a woman is seeking justice and petitions a judge.
A parable is designed to provide one primary message. If there is a second message, it will be a subsidiary point to the first. Thus, if Jesus is teaching about how they should always pray and not give up through this parable (and he is, see Luke 18:1), it is illegitimate to also conclude from the parable that prayer should operate in a judicial setting. Indeed, in the next parable in Luke 18:9-14, similarly about prayerful activity, both the prayers of the self-righteous Pharisee and the repentant sinner take place in the temple. Are we to conclude from this that prayer should be conducted in the setting of the temple? No. These are just the details of the story that hold up the main message.
Henderson does recognise the main point of Jesus’ parable here, and advocates for persistence in prayer or continued effort despite lack of results. He also raises one good point of correction for what he perceives to be a common practice in prayer. He notices that this woman takes her case to judge (God), not the adversary (see also Jude 1:9).
But is Jesus teaching about prayer? In this parable Jesus advocates for trusting in God, for He, unlike the unjust judge in the parable, is good and will speedily act on a petitioners behalf if they hold fast in faith (Luke 18:7-8). In the immediate textual context following in v. 9-14 Jesus is rebuking those who outwardly seem to trust in God but inwardly trust in their own prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and obedience. By exalting himself the self-righteous Pharisee was in effect putting God under an obligation instead of humbly relying on his mercy. It was not he that went home justified before God. In v. 15-17 Jesus speaks of child-like faith without which no one can enter the kingdom, and in v. 18-80 demonstrates anything that keeps us from fully trusting God is an idol and must be dealt with. Therefore, Jesus is teaching about the nature of the faith we use in prayer – not prayer as such. This faith should be a steady, constant, child-like reliance upon Him only, the God who is faithful and just.
Henderson advocates a different approach to prayer. He seeks to change its nature with some “secret” wisdom, and he offers the clue that Jesus placed prayer in a judicial setting in this parable as justification for this. Note that the only thing in this parable that puts prayer in a judicial setting is a judge with questionable character. There is no bailiff, no lawyers or attorneys, no witnesses or jury – not even a courtroom.
If the legal setting in the parable of Luke 18:1-9 is referring somehow to the ‘place’ where prayer should operate, then this should be clearly taught in other passages, or else, as Luther stated, “Scripture would become a laughing matter.” It is noteworthy that Jesus elsewhere clearly teaches on prayer (Matthew 6:5-15; 7:11; Luke 11:1-11; John 16:23, 26-27), and this is wholly absent any imagery associated with a courtroom. In fact, the overwhelmingly dominant imagery used to describe prayer is of a child relating to their Father. We could call this Father model of prayer.
This is a more biblically faithful model and makes prayer more than petitionary. As such, it is a superior response to the problem of unanswered prayer proposed by Henderson. As James Hastings has observed. “In the larger sense of the word, as the spiritual language of the soul, prayer is intercourse with God, often seeking no end beyond the pleasure of such intercourse. . . The lowest and crudest notion concerning prayer is that is consists in asking God for things, and its value consists in getting the things for which we ask. . . . This view is very superficial, and is the parent of much scepticism respecting prayer. It is no uncommon thing to find young person’s sceptical with respect to prayer because they have failed to get the things for which they have prayed; and often the faith of older persons breaks down from the same cause. . . . [I]f we would escape the painful doubts arising thence, we must revise and deepen our conception of prayer and its relation to the religious life.”
- James Hastings, D. D., The Christian Doctrine of Prayer, (London: T & T Clark, 1915), 21.
In “The Courtroom on Trial?” series of posts, some theological problems with the Courtroom model of intercessory prayer are discussed. These include;
- Is the nature of the Courts of Heaven obscured by the limitations of human language?
- Does the courtroom model suggest God is not the ultimate?
- Does the courtroom model suggest either God is not all-knowing or heaven is imperfect?
- Does the courtroom model suggest Christ’s atoning death on the cross was inadequate?
- Does the courtroom model suggest a theology of works?
- Does Operating in the Courts of Heaven imply a theological method that prioritises personal experiences over biblical revelation?
Following these the exegetical problems are discussed. These include;
- The persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8)
- The heavenly books
- Heaven’s council
- The five stage process (Romans 8:29-30)
- Simon Peter’s courtroom trial (Luke 22:31-32)
Finally, I provide my own conclusion and recommendations.