Praying for the Lost

Have you prayed for people to know the Lord for a long time? For decades? How do we persevere? How do we keep coming to the Lord? Sometimes I feel as if the Father is tired of me bringing the same requests. Maybe I need to word it a different way? Maybe there’s an angle I’ve missed?

And how does the Father feel about those people? If I’ve prayed for decades for someone to come to salvation, and I have seen little to no fruit from those prayers, does that mean that God doesn’t care about them? If God waits to save for decades, what is His current heart attitude toward them? Is He indifferent to them? Is he indifferent to me as I pray? It’s so easy for our minds to fill in those blanks with negative assumptions.

These are thoughts that I never say out loud but seem to be always simmering in my heart of hearts. Usually I push them away and keep praying, but I think we need to take these thoughts in hand and examine them. Are they true? When I do that I realize I need to remind myself of at least two things.

My Limited Perspective

First of all, I need to remind myself of my limited perspective. I don’t know a lot of what’s going on in the hearts of those for whom I’m praying. In fact, I know very very little. And like Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 6, there is a lot I don’t see in the spiritual realm. My perspective is centered on here and now, whereas God isn’t limited by time or space. I want to see the end result, the salvation of my loved one, but God sees everything that needs to happen in order to bring that about. I need to remember John Piper’s exhortation: “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life [and in your loved one’s], and you may be aware of three of them.”

The Heart of God

But more than this, I need to anchor my prayers in the truths of the Scripture and in the character of God. I need to put on the corrective lens of Scripture so that I don’t get derailed into thinking that God is a distant curmudgeon in heaven with his arms crossed and I am in constant search for that one prayer that will light a fire under him so he will act. In Luke 15, Jesus pulls back the curtain a little on what God is doing and how he feels toward those who are lost. He tells three parables, and all three have to do with lost things.

A lost sheep.

A lost coin.

A lost son (or sons).

Remember the context. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. They couldn’t believe Jesus would degrade himself by associating with these kinds of people, people who, they thought, had sinned their way out of favor with God and the religious community. They had no compassion for these lost people. But in telling these parables, and notice the repetition, Jesus opens up to us the Father’s heart.

God is like the shepherd who has 100 sheep but notices if 1 gets lost, and then goes after that one. He leaves the 99 in the open country, unprotected, and goes after the one who is lost. He not only finds his lost sheep, but brings it back on his shoulders rejoicing! He doesn’t whip out the rod and beat this sheep all the way home.

God is like a woman who has 10 silver coins, and losing one, becomes like a white tornado, sweeping and searching until she finds it. And when she has found it she calls her friends and neighbors together so they can all rejoice. She doesn’t easily give up.

Now, if the Pharisees hadn’t gotten the point already, Jesus caps off this trifecta of parables with one that not only expresses God’s heart toward the lost sinner, but is aimed squarely at them. Read the parable again if you’ve forgotten it, and even if you’re familiar, read it again. In the following passage, focus on the father’s reaction and on his heart toward this lost and undeserving son:

“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”

The father had been looking. He saw him and immediately felt compassion. He ran. He ran! Stop and imagine it – robes gathered up and legs pumping. He embraced him and kissed him. The son repents and asks to be called a mere servant. (He had come up with a plan to come back and beg his father to give him some honest work so he would have something to eat.) But how does the father respond? He calls to his servants and commands them to treat his wayward son like royalty. He throws a party!

But this father hasn’t forgotten his elder son. Notice the father’s heart toward his technically obedient and yet ungrateful and bitter son:

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him…”

The father’s heart toward this son is the same. He goes to him. He seeks him out and entreats him. After listening to his son’s complaint, he reminds him of the wealth and privilege he’s had all along. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

In looking at these three parables again, I now see that the focus isn’t so much on what is lost, but on the One who is seeking. Jesus’ point in telling the parables wasn’t to highlight the plight of that lost sheep, the state of the one lost coin, or even the degradation of the lost son. No, Jesus tells these three parables to highlight the heart of the One who seeks what is lost. He is not indifferent. He is not crossing his arms in heaven waiting for us to say just the right prayer so he will act. He is seeking right now. His heart is yearning right now. And because of that, I can go again and again with confidence to his throne of grace knowing that he hears and he will act.

Let’s keep praying, reminding ourselves of our limited perspective and the compassionate heart of God toward those who are lost.

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