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The Power of Perseverance

Never Give Up!

Syrophoenician Widow

by Dennis Pollock

One of the most intriguing, instructive, and controversial stories from the gospels is found in the narrative of the Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus for deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. It is intriguing because Jesus seems to say no to this woman and then changes His mind. It is controversial because He appears to use a derogatory term for her and her race. And it is instructive because nowhere in the Bible can we find a better example of the value, efficacy, and benefits of persevering prayer.

The story is told in Mark's and Matthew's gospels and begins with Jesus taking His disciples out of the land of Israel to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Mark tells us "He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret" (Mark 7:24). Apparently Jesus was wanting some badly needed rest and some time for quiet sharing with His closest disciples. But it wasn't to be. A Gentile woman from the area discovered where the Jewish rabbi was staying and determined to see Him. She came to the Master and pleaded with Him, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely." What manifestations this girl experienced from her demon possession we are not told, but it was clear to the mother that her daughter's affliction was unnatural and demonic. She wasn't just tormented by some quiet little demon that bothered her occasionally; she was tormented "severely." The little girl was in great need of relief, but no doctor could provide the cure. In desperation this lady went to the Jewish teacher for the deliverance of her little daughter.

It is highly significant that she refers to Jesus as "Lord, Son of David." Every Jew and many of the Gentiles recognized that the Messiah promised in the Scriptures would be a descendant of David, and the term "Son of David" and "Messiah" were used interchangeably. By calling Jesus the Son of David she was acknowledging Him to be the Messiah of which Moses and the prophets spoke and wrote. Blind Bartimaeus had done the same thing when he cried out to Jesus as He passed by, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mark 10:47). In this woman's case, this was a powerful declaration of faith coming from the lips of a non-Jew. She looked to Jesus not as a physician but as the promised Messiah.

Not a Word

Initially Jesus does not seem particularly impressed, however. Matthew tells us "He answered her not a word." Other than a flat rejection, silence from the mouth of God is the most painful response possible when we are pleading with Him on behalf of ourselves or our loved ones. If He is not going to give us an immediate yes, then a maybe would be nice, or perhaps "wait a while," or "we'll see." But stark silence is the last thing we want to hear.

And yet silence is so very often God's response to our most desperate and heartfelt petitions. There is no word of encouragement, no sign of a smile on His face, no little indicator that He is considering our request, no token of good things later to come, no acknowledgement that He has heard us at all. Just the maddening stillness, the same stillness Mary and Martha experienced when they sent a messenger to get Jesus to come and heal their dying brother, and He delayed for days without any reply. It is the same silence Hannah endured for years when she pleaded with God for a son, the same quietness Israel experienced when they went through 400 years of no prophetic voice between the death of Malachi and the birth of Jesus. God is a wonderful communicator, but He is also not the least bit reticent to hold His peace and wait and watch as His people's intercessions rise continually before Him. His silence does not signify apathy or hostility; rather it is a test which filters out the carnal and insincere. Those who would learn the ways of God and enjoy the richest treasures from His magnificent storehouse must pass the test of silence and time. Whether warm feelings are present or entirely absent, whether having encouraging dreams at night or nightmares, whether experiencing all sorts of "coincidences" and unusual circumstances that seem to point to the desired end, or simply enduring one dreary day after another, those who have learned the ways of Jesus will cling to the Master in faith alone and refuse to be discouraged until their desire is accomplished.

Man on Assignment

The woman next turns to the disciples, hoping they can use their influence to get her an audience with Jesus. The disciples have little patience with this loud, demanding woman who just doesn't seem to get the point. They go to Jesus and urge Him, ""Send her away, for she cries out after us." Finally Jesus breaks His silence. But the words that come out of His mouth are not the words she is wanting to hear. He declares, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

Jesus was very keenly aware of the mission that had been assigned Him by His Father. He was sent to the little nation of Israel to minister to the people of Israel as their Messiah. With His miracles and His brilliant teachings, He could have made a huge splash in the Gentile world, had He desired. He could have gone to the heart of Rome, raised a few dead people, healed some blind and lame folks, and become an international celebrity. Strangely He stayed within the bounds of tiny Israel, ministering to a poor and captive people that had almost no influence on the world at large. But Jesus was a man on assignment, and He knew His assignment very well. He was to stay within the confines of Israel all His short life, and bring the good news of the kingdom of God to a people who descended from the loins of God's good friend, Abraham.

The woman knew little of this, of course. What she did know was that she had a small daughter that was being tormented day and night by an evil spirit, a little girl who would never be normal, never get married, never have children and a family, indeed never enjoy her life without a miracle. And a miracle requires a miracle worker, and the Man who stood before her was the only one she knew. Falling down on her knees before Jesus, she uttered a short sentence that perfectly described her need and her want: "Lord, help me."

The Children's Bread

Still Jesus hesitated, and elaborated on His previous statement, telling her: "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs." Jesus has been greatly criticized for this statement by the skeptics, who suggest that He was calling her and all other Gentiles dogs. But the Greek word He used is not the common word used for dogs in those days. In the Middle East most dogs were wild and ran wherever they liked. They made their shelters wherever they could find a dry place, and were never allowed in people's homes. But occasionally families would harbor a small puppy for the children's amusement. They were known as "house-puppies" and were greatly beloved, especially by the children. This is the term Jesus used here. He was not insulting this lady; He was telling her that His mission and His ministry were for the children of Israel. Throughout His ministry He had thousands of Jewish men and women come to Him for healing, and He never turned any away. They were the ones to whom the Father had sent Him.

For anyone else this would have been the end of the conversation. Jesus had made it clear that His priorities at this time lay with the people of Israel. He would not deviate from His God-ordained boundaries. Still this determined mother refused to give up. She instantly grabbed upon His illustration about the house puppies, and replied, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." What an amazing woman! She had endured silence, she had endured the unsympathetic disciples, she had endured statements which indicated that Jesus wasn't called to minister to her or her people at that time, and yet still she persevered. She didn't need a loaf, she didn't need a sandwich – just a crumb would do. Surely the Master could spare a crumb, even for a Gentile.

Finally she noticed a change in Jesus' countenance. The Savior was moved by the incredible faith, humility, and perseverance of this troubled mother of a tormented daughter. He must have sensed in His spirit that here was an allowable exception to the Father's Jews-only policy. The positive response she had waited for finally came: "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire." And the Bible tells us "her daughter was healed from that very hour." This non-Jewish lady was commended for her faith in a way Jesus never spoke about His own people. She doesn't just have faith – she has "great faith." She had a faith that accepted nothing less than that which she so desperately needed and wanted, a faith that passed the test of silence, the test of delay, and the test of apparent rejection. As she walked home her heart must have been ablaze with joy. "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life" (Proverbs 13:12).

Tests of our Faith

Test

When we come before God in great need or desire we prefer answers that are quick or even instant. And if there must be delay, we want God to provide us with all kinds of encouraging signs along the way, so that every time our faith starts to lag, some new blessing or signal from heaven will put us back on track. Sometimes our Father graciously grants us our petitions quickly and we find no need for the "fight of faith." But at other times He requires us to suit up with all our spiritual armor and go forth with faith and persevering prayer and petition, doggedly maintaining our praying and our praising, our waiting and our watching until the answer comes. Whether it comes in days, weeks, months, or years is not our responsibility. Ours is to persevere, even in the face of discouraging circumstances, just as the Syrophoenician woman has taught us.

Sometimes when we begin to pray, circumstances get worse instead of better. We start to panic. What is wrong here? Does not God notice I am doing some serious praying down here? My situation should be improving, not disintegrating! We forget that there is no cosmic rule which says that from the breathing of our first prayer, conditions must automatically improve. God is a very creative God and His answers to our prayers can come in a myriad of ways and forms. Pray on, dear brother, pray on, dear sister. Cling to the Savior as Jacob clung to the angel of the Lord until you hear Him say, "Let it be to you as you desire."

The fact is, we have a resource this brave lady never had. We have the words and promises of Jesus written in His word. Whether our circumstances or signs may encourage us, these words and promises surely do. Jesus has told us, "Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you." He has declared, "If you abide in Me and my words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you." Nobody spoke more about praying and receiving than the Lord Jesus. Unlike the Syrophoenician woman, we do not have to approach the Savior armed only with sheer determination. We can come before Him with His own words, acknowledging them over and over in our times of prayer and praise. We come before God the Father clothed in the righteousness of Jesus His Son, being fully justified and blameless before Him. We approach Jesus, knowing that we are not the house-puppies trying to get a little crumb fallen from the children's table, but we come before Him as children of the most high God, whose place at the table has been purchased for us by Jesus' own death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.

The children's bread is rightfully ours, and we will claim that which Jesus has provided us!

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