One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up. [Luke 18:1 (NLT)]
It is in the Talmud (a compilation of ancient Jewish teachings and history) that we find the legend of Honi ha-Ma’agel (the Circle Maker). After three years of drought in the land, the man prayed for rain. When none came, Honi drew a circle in the dirt and vowed not to leave it until God had pity on his people and sent rain. When God sent a light rain, the circle maker informed God that wasn’t the kind of rain for which he prayed and stated his desire for rain enough to fill the cisterns. When God answered with torrents of rain, Honi again complained that, “Not for such a rain I prayed.” After the circle maker informed God he wanted a “rain of goodwill, blessing, and graciousness,” God provided a rain that satisfied Honi. In fact, it rained so much that the people finally asked Honi to pray the rain away! While Honi’s behavior is a great example of chutzpah (audacity and impudence), I’m not sure it’s a good example of proper prayer.
Every week since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago, the pastor has opened her Saturday evening worship service with a prayer for peace in Ukraine (as well as in our hearts). Regardless of how long it takes, until there is a peaceful settlement or God instructs her to stop praying for Ukraine, she will continue starting every service this way. What she is not doing, however, is drawing a circle in the chancel area, placing a bed and porta-potti in it, arranging for Uber Eats and Grub Hub deliveries, and moving into that circle until God brings peace to the war-torn nation!
While I join in the pastor’s persistent prayers for peace, like her, I don’t draw a circle and refuse to leave it until God answers my prayers on my terms and time line. Rather than an example of perseverance in prayer, the demanding Honi seems a bit like a spoiled child who refuses to leave the store until his parents buy the toy he wants. In fact, the Talmud says the rabbis compared Honi to a son who “importunes” (pesters, annoys, plagues, or harasses) his father to do his will. They even considered excommunicating the circle maker for dishonoring God in such an impertinent way.
No matter how persistently we pray, drawing a circle and challenging God to produce results on demand seems dangerously close to testing the Lord. Requiring something of God to prove Himself is the very thing Satan tempted Jesus to do in the wilderness. By challenging Jesus to jump off the Temple, the enemy wanted to manipulate a situation that would oblige God to intervene. Satan wanted Jesus to prove the truth of God’s word by forcing God’s hand. Honi’s actions weren’t that much different.
Nevertheless, finding Honi’s story similar to Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow and dishonest judge, there are some who think we should follow the circle maker’s example. The widow in the parable tenaciously pestered the corrupt judge for justice against the man who harmed her. Worn down by her persistent pleas to right the wrong, the beleaguered judge eventually granted her request. Jesus, however, wasn’t comparing the unjust judge to God; He was contrasting them! The corrupt judge had no fear of God or concern for people. Since he was more likely to be persuaded by a bribe than compassion or a desire for justice, the widow’s only recourse was to relentlessly hound him until she received what she deserved. In contrast, rather than corrupt, cruel, or hardhearted, God is righteous, merciful, and loving. Jesus explained that God “will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night.”
Presenting ultimatums or harassing, beleaguering, and nagging the Lord is unnecessary because our just and compassionate God always hears and answers our prayers. While Jesus calls for persistence in prayers and perseverance in faith until His return, there is a fine line between boldly praying with perseverance and impertinently praying with cheek, impudence, stipulations, or a sense of entitlement.
The story of Honi is not Biblical and, if praying the way Honi did were important, we’d find such an example in Scripture. After all, Elijah didn’t have to make a circle before God answered his prayers for both drought and rain. The power of our prayers does not come from standing in a circle or making brazen demands—it comes from the God who hears our prayers and answers them according to His will and timing. In the meantime, until peace comes to Ukraine or God tells us to stop, please join the pastor and me as we persevere in our prayers for peace.