This week, Faith in Real Life discussed Matthew 7:7-12, a familiar text. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” These words offer hope for many, but as Vernon writes, if we are not careful, our interpretation can create expectations that hinder our relationship with God. As it turns out, how we come before God when we pray matters as much or more than the content of our petitions.
7 “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 12 In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
I don’t think we can read this passage without talking briefly about what it isn’t. It is easy to read this passage as “Ask and you shall be given what you ask for” and “Seek and you will find what you are looking for”. That reading is largely the basis of the prosperity gospel. God wants us to have a good life and if we have enough faith and turn to him, the good life is proof of his blessing. It is a circular argument that puts us as the center and God as an extension of our wishes. It completely omits the reality that God is autonomous and his answers to prayer may well be different than our most heartfelt desires. Many years ago, my high school sunday school teacher called this the ‘blue plate special’ view of prayer. We figure out what we want and call God over to give him our order. This thinking also has the unfortunate implication that when we do not receive our desired blessing, it is a sign our weak faith, inadequate prayer life or an indication of God’s disfavor. This system is neat and binary. Good people are blessed, hardship is a sign that you are not good enough.
But common sense and real life tells us that is not how God operates. If God’s answer is based on the outcomes we desire, many, many prayers go unanswered—or the answer is all too often an inexplicable, “NO.” Even if we limit ourselves to ‘unselfish’ prayers—prayers for the health and well being of others, loved ones suffer and die. It raises very important questions about the nature of prayer and our relationship to God.
This passage is about how we come before God more than it is about getting our particular desires met by God. The first four verses direct us to the spiritual life that requires radical dependence upon God and the last links our relationship with God to service and mindfulness to others. They are inseparable.
It turns out that in real life, most of us have rules about what constitutes acceptable prayer. And even if we don’t know how to pray, we have some idea of what NOT to pray. We probably should pray for the welfare of others and our good days include our enemies. We probably should not pray for revenge and the death of innocents. Sounds good but it is not biblical. Read Psalm 137:8-9 O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! 9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! It is all too human for people who are in pain to wish pain on others. And while this is a particularly egregious wish for vindication, a very common ‘secret’ thought—somewhere in the history of most marriages—is imagining the convenient disappearance of a spouse. The marriage gets hard and people imagine escape. A tragic accident (as long as there is good insurance) would serve very nicely. If you can admit to such thoughts, could you ever pray them? (It’s a good thing God doesn’t answer prayer on our terms. Many of us have been on the wrong side of such desires.)
What about our desires for creature comforts, for employment, for health, for relief from suffering? What about praying for rain? And what is the purpose of such prayers if they are so often denied? Even Jesus asked, “If it be your will, take this cup from me.”
In real life it is hard to ask for what we really want. But asking does not mean getting—with each other or with God. But asking, in itself, places us in a new relationship with God. We are not in charge, we are dependent upon God and we are trusting God. Prayer is an important way that we honor the first half of the great commandment—Love the Lord your God with you heart, mind and strength. It will transform you. It will lead to gratitude and it will make it possible to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In our FIRL group, we wrestled with the parental imagery and what does it mean to have a good gift. There are bad parents out there who neglect and harm children so we must be careful with literal comparisons of parents and God. The emotional sense of the passage, however, is a sense of regard, protection and care. God’s regard, protection and care continues no matter where we are, how we feel, or what pain we encounter. We may be literally suffering and bereft, the very place Jesus found himself, but God is with us.
Praying creates a space for our whole and deepest self. The promise is that God is with us no matter how embarrassing that whole and deepest self is. It is hard to imagine that God is serious when he promises to love us—as we are—as we really are. Prayer provides an opportunity for that relationship to grow. It is not measured by outcomes, it is rooted in our willingness to ‘own’ who we really are and trust God with our hearts. When Jesus says: ‘ask, seek and knock’, it is not conditional. There are no rules about what God will listen to. He remains present and for us. Prayer can and will change us but we have to offer ourselves up and wait—trusting in God’s care. In that space, new things can and will happen —but we must wait. That is not an easy discipline to maintain but it is the direction towards grace. It is a grace that once received, you would want for others. You want to treat others with the same grace that you have received. It is the sign that you received it in the first place.
I often say about the therapy room that my job is to be a ‘steward of the space’—to create a safe place to be whole. Then I wait for the Holy Spirit.
May you come before God with your whole heart—trusting that he will hold you. May you receive the hearts of others with the same grace. Let it be so.