7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
The following article appeared in the June 4, 1899 edition of The New York Journal.
The lack of rain on Long Island has worried the farmers all month. On Saturday, those living at Northport formed a committee, and calling on the pastors of all the churches, asked them to pray for showers.
The clergymen did as they were requested, and in a few hours a thunderstorm came. There was a magnificent display of lightning and a heavy fall of thunderbolts.
The lightning did great damage. The house and barn of George P. Lewis (who was a member of the committee who asked the pastors to pray for a storm) was struck; the barn and its contents were wholly destroyed.
At Bay Shore, where prayers were also said for rain, William Gunther’s carriage house was struck and burned. George Tilley’s barn, at Jericho, was destroyed.
The same storm was felt at Spring Valley. Farmer Benjamin Baker was burned out of house and home. Lightning knocked him and his wife senseless.
Grace Episcopal church, at Nyack, was struck by lightning during Sunday Night’s services.
A house at Orangeburg, near Nyack, was destroyed. Several houses, barns and trees in the vicinity also suffered.
This prayer thing is apparently dangerous business! In all honesty, though this story strikes us as shocking and, in parts, perhaps even humorous, there is a powerful truth here, is there not? Prayer is powerful. Prayer can also be, from our perspective, frustrating. Sometimes we pray and God answers in ways that we find pleasant and wonderful and, to our minds, timely. Other times we pray and He does not appear to answer at all. At yet other times, His answer is in forms that we could not foresee, like in the article mentioned above.
If you are like me, you struggle with prayer. Sometimes I pray easily. Sometimes it is work. Usually I simply do not pray enough to put an adjective on it.
To be confessional for a moment, I often feel real frustration over my own prayer life. I know it is valuable. I know it should be the natural habit of the believer’s heart. Yet I take comfort in the fact that Jesus had to teach His own disciples how to pray. They, too, had to learn, and they walked with Jesus!
And then there are those times when I pray and become aware of the fact that my prayers sound so very consumeristic. Try as I might to pray for others or, even better, simply to rejoice in the glory and sovereignty of God in prayer, I find that I keep asking for things…not material things, usually, but things nonetheless.
Of course, in our text this morning, Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock. But for what? If the entire Sermon on the Mount is a depiction of life in the Kingdom, it must mean that I am asking, seeking, and knocking for those things that advance the Kingdom. Calvin Miller was right when he said, “the best of saints have seldom prayed to get stuff from God. Instead, they are after union with Christ.”
That is true, but then Jesus did instruct us to ask for “daily bread,” a material need. So surely not all asking is selfish. And, of course, asking for another’s good is an act of selflessness and care, indeed of Christlikeness. So it would seem that there are things for which we should not ask and things for which we should ask. It would also seem that God’s answers often come dressed in unexpected garb.
But what of our asking? What of our praying? I believe our text offers us the fundamental, theological truths to help us make sense of the great gift of prayer.
I. Prayer is to be active, diligent, and persistent (v.7-8)
To begin, there is much in this text about the quality of our prayers, the marks of biblical prayer. Verses 7 and 8 are filled with verbs. Let us listen.
7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
Ask. Seek. Knock. Here is a charge to active, diligent, persistent prayer, the kind of prayer that never quits, that never stops, that never gives up. This is the prayer of intensity, the prayer of utter abandonment to God, the prayer of principled devotion and trust. These verbs are all present imperatives. What they really say is this: “Keep on asking…keep on seeking…keep on knocking.” Don’t stop! Don’t give up! Don’t quit!
There is a purpose and a meaning to prayer. Prayer matters. There are people who do not think prayer matters. They believe the universe operates by chance. They would see any alleged answer to prayer as mere coincidence. For my part, I rather like Bishop William Temple’s response to the charge of coincidence. He once said, “When I pray, coincidences happen. When I don’t pray, coincidences don’t happen.” Tongue planted firmly in cheek, what Bishop Temple was saying was this: prayer matters. We must continue to pray!
Jesus commends unceasing, unquitting, unreleting prayer. In Luke 11, we find an interesting preface to our text this morning.
5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
How fascinating! We might almost call this impudent prayer, though, of course, we should not be impudent with God. The friend keeps banging on the door until it is opened! Jesus told a similar parable in Luke 18:
1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Be like the friend who will not stop knocking! Be like the lady who will not stop coming before the judge! The point of the latter parable is not that God is an unjust judge. No, this is what’s called an a fortiori argument. He is arguing from something lesser to something great. His point is this: if an unjust judge will relent before a persistent widow, how much more will a good God do so?
Oftentimes Christians struggle with the questions of why their persistent prayers are not answered. As we will see, even these words are not a blank check for a selfish people’s consumer desires. Even so, they do promise the answer of God. Sometimes it does happen that Christians pour out their hearts in prayer and do not perceive that God has answered, and do not see the answer He has given. That does not mean He has not answered, by the way. We do, after all, see “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But sometimes we must wait for His answer.
That is true, but is it not more often the case that we are unable to perceive His answer, not because He has answered enigmatically, but because we have not prayed persistently? Be truthful with yourself: are you persistent and unyielding in prayer? Do you storm the gates of Heaven in prayer? Do you cry out, day after day, in prayer? Or are you like Granny in William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished?
“And the mules,” Ringo said; “don’t forget them. And dont yawl worry about Granny. She cide what she want and then she kneel down about ten seconds and tell God what she aim to do and the she git up and do hit. And them that dont like hit can git outen the way or git trompled.”
Are you like that? You get down for ten seconds and tell God what you aim to do? The great heroes of the faith were heroes because they persisted in prayer. They did…not…stop.
For instance, Daniel 6 records Daniel’s reaction when he heard that King Darius signed a proclamation decreeing that nobody could pray to any god other than himself:
10 When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.
Daniel would not stop, even to save his own life.
Even children can learn to pray like this. When Ludwig von Zinzendorf was six-years-old, he was sitting in his room in the Gross-Hennersdorf castle in Saxony reading his Bible and praying. All of a sudden, the door burst open and a detachment of Swiss soldiers stormed into the room. When they did so, young Zinzendorf glanced up at them for a moment and then returned to praying. The soldiers stared at him for a moment then left. When his grandmother, Baronness von Gersdorf, ran into the room a moment later with his Aunt Henriette in tow, they wanted to know what Zinzendorf had said to the soldiers. They reported that the soldiers had left, saying that they could not ransack a castle that was so protected by God. Zinzendorf replied, “Nothing. I just kept praying.”
Do you pray persistently? Do you pray with passion? Do you pray unrelenting prayers? It was said of Arsenius the Desert Father that he prayed so intensely that he appeared to be on fire. How do we appear when we pray?
II. Our Confidence in Prayer Rests in the Goodness of God (v.9-10)
It must be understood that persistence in prayer is not a mere act of mental or spiritual exertion. On the contrary, it is grounded in the rock-solid verities of the character of God. Specifically, we persist in prayer because God is good. It is telling that Jesus follows His words about persistence with a theology of the goodness of God.
9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?
There is a reason we keep praying: the goodness of God. There is a reason we persist: the goodness of God. There is a reason we go to the Lord time after time after time: He is good!
If we persist in prayer because God is good, does that mean the opposite is true: we are weak in prayer because we suspect He might not be? Perhaps, at times, to our shame, that is the case.
Have you prayed for something that you believe is in His will? Have you called out for a movement of His Spirit? Does it seem that He is not listening, that He is not responding? I assure you He is. Listen: do not stop! Persist! Ask! Seek! Knock! The God to whom you are praying loves you more than you can know. He seeks your good, not your ill. He is your heavenly Father, the One who gave His Son for you. Do not let doubts cripple your prayers!
Bill Hybels tells a fascinating story about a lady who learned this very lesson.
Some years ago we had a baptism Sunday where many people publicly affirmed their decision to follow Christ. I thought my heart would explode for joy. Afterward, in the stairwell, I bumped into a woman who was crying. I couldn’t understand how anyone could weep after such a celebration, so I stopped and asked her if she was alright.
“No,” she said, “I’m struggling. My mother was baptized today.”
This is a problem? I thought.
“I prayed for her every day for twenty years,” the woman said, and then she started to cry again.
“You’re going to have to help me understand this,” I said.
“I’m crying,” the woman replied, “because I came so close – so close – to giving up on her. I mean, after five years I said, Who needs this? God isn’t listening. After ten years I said, Why am I wasting my breath? After fifteen years I said, This is absurd. After nineteen years I said, I’m just a fool. But I guess I just kept praying, even though my faith was weak. I kept praying, and she gave her life to Christ, and she was baptized today.
The woman paused and looked me in the eye. “I will never doubt the power of prayer again,” she said.
Ah, friends! Don’t give up! Those twenty, thirty, forty years of prayer are not wasted years. God is not toying with you. He is doing something within you as you pray for that other person, even as you pray for yourself. He is at work in you. He is building faith in you. He is building trust in you.
III. However, the Goodness of God Includes Both His “Yes!” and His “No!” (v.11)
Divorced from its wider context, we might conclude that Jesus is teaching a kind of “name-it-claim-it” theology whereby we ask and God must therefore give us what we want. But that is not the case at all. We just read verses in which the example of loving, earthly fathers was appealed to in an effort to demonstrate a larger truth about prayer. Listen to those verses again, this time with Jesus’ conclusion in verse 11.
9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Ah! So God promises to give us what is good. However, it is often the case that what we think is good in a moment of prayer really is not good. Have you ever, like Garth Brooks, thanked God for unanswered prayers? Have you ever seen a request as a great good in the moment, only to see it months or years later as shortsighted and foolish? I certainly have.
No, Jesus is not teaching a kind of divine blackmail whereby we pray, trap God, and He must do as He’s told or He’s broken His Word. Instead, He is teaching that a good God gives good things to His children. But do you know what those good things are? Do I? Paul answered that question beautifully and poignantly in Romans 8.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
We always complain about God’s answer without ever thinking carefully about our request. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought!” That is telling, and it puts certain qualifications on Jesus’ ask, seek, and knock. It now means, in light of the full teaching of Christ, that we should ask, seek, and knock for God’s good will in our lives, knowing that He will give it. We may, as faithful children, bring our specific requests in light of this, but we do so now humbly, carefully, understanding that we do not even know what those good things are much or even most of the time.
I do not know about you, but the fact of my ignorance does not break my spirit in prayer, it strengthens it. It means that I can now view God not as a genie in a lamp who is enslaved to my own selfish caprice but as an all-knowing, all-loving Father who invites me to bring my feeble requests before Him but will do what is best nonetheless. When I understand that, I now understand that prayer is a journey in which, through daily transformation to Christlikeness, I can align my own heart more and more closely to His. Prayer is a recalibration of my own self-centeredness to Christlikeness.
Brothers, sisters: let us pray like God’s children. Let us come fervently, feverishly even, before the throne of grace, asking, seeking, and knocking for the good will of our Father. Let us not be like the haoli.
R. Kent Hughes has noted the fact that visitors to Hawaii from the mainland are called haoli by the islanders. He then passed on Alice Kaholuoluna’s explanation of the meaning of the term.
Before the missionaries came, my people used to sit outside their temples for a long time meditating and preparing themselves before entering. Then they would virtually creep to the altar to offer their petition and afterwards would again sit a long time outside, this time to “breathe life” into their prayers. The Christians, when they came, just got up, uttered a few sentences, said Amen and were done. For that reason my people call them haolis, “without breath,” or those who fail to breathe life into their prayers.
What an indictment! What a tragedy! What a shame!
May our prayers never be “without breath.” May they instead be filled with the breath of the Spirit of God, working in us and through us to seek the Father’s will.
 Calvin Miller, The Path of Celtic Prayer: An Ancient Way to Everyday Joy (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2007), p.58.
 Bob Russell, When God Answers Prayer. (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing, 2003), p.23.
 William Faulkner. The Unvanquished. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p.93.
 Janet and Geoff Benge, Count Zinzendorf. (Seattle, WA: WYAM Publishing, 2006), p.20. Leif E. Vaage, Vincent L. Wimbush, eds. Asceticism and the New Testament. (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), p.351, n.46.
 Bill Hybels, LaVonne Neff, Too Busy Not to Pray. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p.120-121.
 R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p.161.