Praying Like Puppies
By David Feddes
“True, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15:27 NKJV)
Picture yourself in a situation where you’ve got a huge problem, and it’s tearing you apart. You’ve tried all sorts of things to make it better, but nothing works. You’re getting sadder and more desperate all the time. Then one day you hear about someone who can make things better—you’re sure of it. So you go to him. When you find him, he’s relaxing with his friends. As soon as you see him, you blurt out your problem and ask him to help. And what does he do? He does nothing. He says nothing. He just ignores you and acts like you’re not there.
At that point, it might seem best to leave, but you decide to keep after him till you get his attention. Still he doesn’t respond. Before long his friends get sick of you, and they urge him to get rid of you. The man finally opens his mouth and speaks, but what he says isn’t at all encouraging. He says that it’s his job to help only a certain kind of people—and you’re not one of them. Time to give up and go home, right? But you’re desperate and you’re sure he can help if he wants to, so you plead even more urgently.
And what’s his response? He says it’s not right to take food away from children and feed it to their puppies. In other words, lots of people have a better claim to his help than you do; you’re just a puppy who won’t stop begging.
Now, how would you feel if somebody treated you that way? Wouldn’t you feel humiliated and hopeless? And wouldn’t you feel even worse if you’d heard beforehand that this person was supposedly kind and loving, but then he gave you a cold shoulder? What a letdown! Worst of all, just suppose the person who treats you this way goes by the name of Jesus.
In Matthew 15 the Bible tells the story of a desperate woman who came to Jesus begging for help, but Jesus kept putting her off. According to the Bible, Jesus decided to leave his home territory in Israel for some time away in another region where mostly non-Jewish people lived. “A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.’”
But, says the Bible, “Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Lord, send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matthew 15:22-24). Jesus came into the world as a Jew, and his years on earth were to be spent ministering among his fellow Jews in the land of Israel. In light of that, why help a Canaanite, a descendant of the ancient enemies of God and his people?
The woman didn’t challenge the point, but she wasn’t about to take no for an answer. “She came and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’”
“But he answered, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.’”
Here’s where the story really gets interesting. It’s not very flattering to be compared to a little dog, and some people would be so offended that they’d stomp away in anger. But not this woman. She figured that sometimes even a puppy has a prayer. If Jesus wanted to call her a little dog, fine. She’d accept his words and find something good in them. “True, Lord,” she said, “yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She’d pray like a puppy if she had to.
Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour (Matthew 15:25-28 NKJV).
This woman may have had puppy faith, but according to Jesus, it was great faith. Her story proves that even if you face the most discouraging circumstances, even if the Lord doesn’t seem to care about you, even if you seem to have no place among God’s people, you shouldn’t give up. Jesus never drives away those who come to him in faith.
This story shows at least five important things about the kind of faith involved in praying like puppies. First, faith is drawn by the greatness of Jesus and driven by the greatness of our need. Second, faith keeps after Jesus, no matter what the obstacles. Third, faith agrees with Jesus, no matter what he says. Fourth, faith reasons with Jesus, using his own words. And fifth, faith gets Jesus’ approval and blessing. Let’s look at each of these.
Drawn and Driven
First, faith is drawn by the greatness of Jesus and driven by the greatness of our need. There was a lot this woman didn’t know about Jesus, but she knew enough to recognize his greatness and be drawn to him. She called Jesus “Lord,” recognizing him as Master and Ruler of all creation. She called him “Son of David,” recognizing him as the King and Savior God had promised Israel.
The greatness of Jesus drew her to him, and at the same time the greatness of her need drove her to him. She knew she couldn’t overcome the demon that was destroying her daughter and her. She knew the evil power was too much for her to handle on her own. To make the situation even more desperate, she knew she didn’t have any merit of her own. Jesus didn’t owe her anything. She couldn’t go to Jesus claiming she had earned the right to his help. She simply had to plead for mercy: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.”
That’s where all true faith begins: with recognizing who Jesus is and how much you need him. At that point, you’re both drawn and driven. The greatness of Jesus draws you to him, and the greatness of your own need drives you to him.
As long as you ignore Jesus’ true greatness, you won’t come to him in faith. If you see Jesus only as a good man or a wise teacher, it won’t do you much good. You need to recognize his divine greatness. Believe that he is God with us, the ruler of the universe and the rescuer of God’s people.
And even as you come to see who Jesus is, you must also see how much you need him. Take your cue from the Canaanite woman. Give up on yourself. Don’t think you can overcome evil on your own. Don’t think you can earn God’s favor on your own. Throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus and beg for his help. Trust that even though your need is great, Jesus is far greater. Trust that although you can’t do anything to earn his favor or pay him back for his help, Jesus will have mercy on you because he is love.
When you pray like a puppy, your prayers combine adoration and desperation. As a puppy adores its master, you adore Jesus. As a puppy desperately begs for what it can’t get on its own, you beg for Jesus’ help. You are drawn by the greatness of Jesus and driven by the greatness of your need.
Keeping After Jesus
That brings us to a second thing about praying like puppies: faith keeps after Jesus, no matter what the obstacles. Once you’ve been drawn to Jesus by his greatness and driven to him by your own great need, once your heart is filled with that mysterious mix of adoration and desperation, nothing can make you give up. Puppy faith is persistent.
Have you ever seen a puppy take hold of a bone or toy that you’re holding out? That puppy clamps down his jaws and tugs. If you try to get the bone away, does the puppy meekly give up and let go? No, the little dog clamps its teeth even more firmly, digs in its paws even deeper, pulls harder than ever, and keeps pulling till you let it have the bone. The puppy refuses to be shaken loose or driven away.
Prayer is like that. When Jesus has in his hand the great gift of help and salvation, lay hold of it, hang on tight, and don’t let go no matter what. Faith keeps after Jesus no matter what the obstacles and never gives up.
If ever someone ran into enough problems to make her give up on Jesus, it was the Canaanite woman. Look at all the obstacles she encountered. First she ran into silence from Jesus, but she wouldn’t give up. Then she ran into the negative attitude of Jesus’ followers, but she wouldn’t give up. Then she ran into a discouraging doctrine, but she wouldn’t give up. She ran into all these obstacles, but she kept after Jesus anyway.
How about you? Maybe you’ve run into similar obstacles. Maybe you know what it’s like to cry out to Jesus and get no answer. You pray for his help, but all you get is silence. You beg to be free of a terrible burden, you plead for peace and joy, but the Lord doesn’t do anything or say anything. Your prayer seems like a complete failure. What an awful feeling! It’s hard to keep praying when your prayers don’t seem to be getting through. It’s hard to keep believing when the Lord doesn’t seem to notice you. But don’t give up. Keep trusting. Keep praying. Even if there is no answer, no peace, no joy, no assurance of salvation, don’t give up. That Canaanite woman didn’t give up when the Lord seemed to be ignoring her, and neither should you.
Another obstacle you may run up against is a negative attitude from followers of Jesus. A church leader or some Christian people deal with you in a cold, hard way. They make you feel like you’re a nuisance or something even worse. They don’t really care what happens to you. You’re a loser, not worth bothering with. It hurts terribly to be treated that way.
But listen: don’t let any negative behavior of Christian people make you give up on Jesus. I’m sure the Canaanite woman felt hurt when Jesus’ disciples asked him to get rid of her, but did she give up? No, she kept after Jesus until she got a response from him. She wasn’t about to let some rude, unsympathetic people drive her away from the only one who could help her and her daughter. If Christian people have mistreated you and made it seem like you should forget about Jesus, there’s no excuse for what they’ve done. But there’s also no excuse for letting them keep you away from Jesus. Do what that woman did. Keep after Jesus. Even if some followers of Jesus hurt you, don’t lose your focus. Keep looking to Jesus. Ignore the blunders of his followers and keep after Jesus.
Another obstacle that may seem to stand between you and Jesus is a difficult doctrine, a teaching that sounds like it excludes you from a place among God’s people. For example, the doctrine of election has this effect on some people. The Bible’s teaching of election is that from all eternity God has chosen certain people for himself. You may hear that doctrine and think you’re not one of those chosen people and lose all hope.
But you’re not the first person to run up against a doctrine that seemed to be against you. Look at the Canaanite woman. Imagine how she must have felt when Jesus told her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” This woman wasn’t part of Israel. Her ancestors were ancient enemies of Israel and were so evil that they had brought God’s curse on themselves. If Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of the chosen people of Israel, what hope could there be for someone of her accursed race? But the woman wouldn’t give up just because it sounded as if God’s decree was against her and she wasn’t among God’s chosen people. Whatever the decree might be, whatever the doctrine might mean, she knew one thing for sure: Jesus was her only hope. So she fell before him in reverence and cried out the simplest of all prayers: “Lord, help me!”
Perhaps you are troubled by this or that doctrine, by this or that puzzling secret of God. But whatever confuses or troubles you, be sure of one thing: all hope and salvation is found in Jesus. Go to him. Look to his sacrifice on the cross. Put your hope in him, even when there doesn’t seem to be any hope, even when every logical deduction seems to be against you. Fall before Jesus and plead, “Lord, help me.” You might not be an expert in theology or be good at saying fancy prayers, but that three-word prayer packs enormous power: “Lord, help me!”
When you pray that prayer, you will find, as the Canaanite woman did, that a doctrine which at first seemed to shut you out has just drawn you in to the embrace of God’s eternal love. Jesus told the woman he was sent only to Israel, but as it turns out, Jesus’ idea of Israel includes a lot more lost sheep from a lot more nations than anyone would have guessed. God saves only the elect, the chosen, true enough; but in God’s design, the blessings of his chosen keep spilling over to others, who suddenly find themselves among the chosen as well. Anyone who looks to Jesus for salvation finds out that he or she is among God’s chosen. The Lord has chosen and saved a lot of other unlikely people. Why not you? Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).
If you feel too weak and unworthy to qualify for Jesus’ help, congratulations! You’re in touch with reality: you are too weak and unworthy. But you can still pray, “Lord, help me,” and you can still trust Jesus’ promise, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” Even if he seems to be driving you away, keep after him anyway, and you will be welcomed at last.
No obstacle can keep God-given faith from coming to Jesus, whether the obstacle is unanswered prayer or bad treatment from others or a difficult doctrine or a feeling of unworthiness or something entirely different. Faith keeps after Jesus no matter what the obstacles.
Agreeing With Jesus
Now for the next point: Faith agrees with Jesus, no matter what he says. Faith doesn’t contradict Jesus; faith worships. The Canaanite woman was kneeling at Jesus’ feet, begging, “Lord, help me!” When Jesus responded, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs,” did the woman contradict him? Not for a moment. She simply said, “True, Lord.” Think of it! Jesus compares her to a little dog, and she simply says, “True, Lord. If you say that I’m like a little dog and that others have more right to your help than I, I won’t disagree or contradict you. Any help you give will be your choice, not my right, not something I deserve. I can beg, but I have no right to demand. I accept your words as truth. You know better than I.”
British preacher Charles Spurgeon once preached a great sermon on this story that I found very helpful in preparing this article. Spurgeon says, “Faith pleads, but never disputes, not even against the hardest thing Jesus says… Genuine faith believes anything and everything the Lord says, whether discouraging or encouraging.” Faith never disagrees with Jesus, no matter what he says. Instead, faith accepts what Jesus says and then finds hope in it.
Reasoning With Jesus
That brings us to our next point: Faith reasons with Jesus, using his own words. Where unbelief might see only an obstacle or an insult, faith sees an opportunity. Faith knows how to argue with Jesus, not in the sense of disagreeing or disputing with him, but in the sense of believing what he says and then building a case on his words.
When Jesus compared the Canaanite woman to a little dog, she didn’t take it as an insult. She accepted Jesus’ statement as truth and found in that truth a basis to reason with Jesus and obtain his blessing. In the original language, the word Jesus used for dog referred to little household dogs that the children played with, not to the stray mongrels that roamed the streets of that time. Some people—including Jesus’ disciples—may have seen this woman as a filthy mutt, but Jesus compared her to a puppy. Being called a puppy may not seem very flattering, but the woman found hope in it. When Jesus said it’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths to feed their pets, the woman saw her chance. “Yes, Lord,” she agreed, “I agree—and even puppies eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.”
See how puppy prayer reasons with Jesus? “I don’t want you to deprive others in order to help me, Lord, and I don’t claim to be the most deserving of your kindness. I may only be a puppy, as you say, but I’m your puppy. You are my Master, and you’re going to take care of me. After all, it’s not like you’re a poor master with limited resources. You don’t have to deprive others in order to help me. You can easily afford to meet their needs and still have plenty left. They can eat their fill from your banquet of blessing, and you’ll have plenty left for a puppy like me.”
If you have faith in Jesus, don’t talk about your own qualifications or about how much you deserve his help. Take his words and his greatness as the basis for claiming his help and salvation. When you come in faith to Jesus, you’re not coming to the table of a poor man who has to scrimp and scrounge just to feed a few hungry souls. You’re not coming to someone who can’t afford to lose a crumb anywhere. You’re coming to the banquet of a king. Jesus has such a great supply of mercy and love and healing that he can satisfy everyone who enters his banquet hall—even those who are only under the table begging. So go ahead and pray like a puppy. Say to Jesus, “Lord, your help and salvation would mean the world to me, and it would only be a crumb to you, so infinite is your power and goodness. I’d rather be a puppy under your table than a prince anywhere else. The smallest tidbits of your power and goodness are more than enough to nourish and fill me.”
Jesus delights in that. He enjoys it when you take his own words and use them to his glory and your own benefit.
Receiving Jesus’ Blessing
That brings us to our final point about praying like puppies: faith gets Jesus’ approval and blessing. When the Canaanite woman came to Jesus, he first delayed helping her and tested her faith. But, as Charles Spurgeon puts it, “he was all the while delighting in it, and secretly sustaining it, and when he had sufficiently tried it, he brought it forth as gold, and set his own royal mark upon it.”
Through the various delays and difficulties, Jesus moved the woman to develop and display a faith that was very humble and yet very bold and clever. Jesus pushed her to the point where her faith appeared in full strength, and then he did what he had been intending to do all along: he praised her faith and gave her the desire of her heart. “‘Woman, you have great faith!’” he exclaimed. ‘Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed from that very hour.” The evil power that was wrecking that home was driven out. Mother and daughter began a new life that day through the power of Jesus.
There is hope here for anyone, no matter who you are, no matter how grim your situation. Maybe some evil power is destroying you or someone you love. If so, start praying like a puppy. You may feel as helpless as a tiny puppy facing a vicious bear, as dirty as a little dog that’s been digging in all the wrong places, as mistreated as a mutt nobody cares about, as unimportant as a pet under the table hoping for some scraps. None of that matters. Go to Jesus as you are, and beg the way a puppy begs for food. Don’t be afraid or ashamed. Just go.
No matter how unworthy you might feel, no matter how grim your background might be, no matter how great the sin and evil that is wrecking your life, go to Jesus. Kneel before him in prayer. Keep after him, no matter what the obstacles. Agree with him, no matter what he says. Reason with him on the basis of his words. He will not turn you away. Jesus delights in puppy faith. He saves all who come to him this way. You may start out begging as a puppy, but you will find that he transforms you and adopts you as his child. Jesus can do that for anyone—even you, even me. If you feel like an outsider to Christianity and yet are drawn to Jesus, then be encouraged. He won’t fail you.
If you’re already a Christian, be encouraged as well. Be encouraged to pray, humbly and yet boldly. In particular, be encouraged as you pray for Jesus to help or save someone who is dear to you. You may be a parent praying for a child, like the mother in the story. You may be praying for a spouse, a friend, a neighbor. Whoever you are, whoever you might be praying for, keep on praying like a puppy. Keep pouring out your heart to Jesus on behalf of that needy person. The Lord who saved that woman’s daughter from the power of a demon can answer your prayers too.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.