So last week, I wrote about what it means to pray in Jesus’ name, how that isn’t a magic formula that somehow turns God into a wish-granting genie.
That’s usually what we hope for when we approach God in prayer. Yes, we may try to dress up our requests in pious language, and we may pay lip service to the concept of God being sovereign and in control, but in reality, we want to be the ones calling the shots when it comes to prayer. We want to say, “Jump” and have God respond, “How high?” And I think we get frustrated when God doesn’t do what we want, especially since God seems to promise that He’ll do just that.
For example, in Luke 11, Jesus has this to say about prayer:
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Sounds pretty good, right? All we have to do is ask and God will give it to us. If we seek, we will find. If we knock, God will open the door for us.
Except I’m sure we can all think of times when we’ve done just that and God hasn’t responded the way He should. We ask, and it wasn’t given to us. We’ve sought and haven’t found. We’ve knocked, and the door remained stubbornly shut.
So what’s the deal? Was Jesus lying when He spoke these words?
Well, no. Not really. Here’s the thing we need to remember: God always answers our prayers. Always. Sometimes, though, He doesn’t answer them the way we want Him to. The way that I like to put it, God will always answer our prayers in one of three ways. Sometimes He says, “Yes.” Sometimes He says, “No.” And sometimes He says, “Not yet.” The problem is, we get bent out of shape when He responds in the latter two ways.
And really, that’s what Jesus is promising us in that statement. He says, “Ask, and it will be given to you.” I don’t think that “it” in this case means “exactly what you asked for.” He says, “Seek and you will find.” But He doesn’t promise what we’ll find. It might be something different. He says, “Knock, and the door will be opened.” Only He doesn’t offer us any guarantees about what we’ll find on the other side of the door.
That’s harsh for us to hear. But Jesus goes on to assure us of one other thing:
Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
Let’s unpack what Jesus is saying here. Back in Jesus’ day, there was a lot of fishing activity on the Sea of Galilee. One of the species of fish that would occasionally be caught was a type of eel, or a “snake.” Jesus wonders aloud how many fathers, when their son is hungry and asking for a fish, would give them an eel instead?
Or consider scorpions. When curled up in a ball, a scorpion kind of looks like an egg. How many fathers would give their kid a curled-up scorpion instead of an egg?
Nobody in their right mind would do that, right? No father would give their children something worse or dangerous when they ask for something. And that’s Jesus’ point. If that’s what human fathers will do when they’re “evil,” God, our Heavenly Father, isn’t about to do that to us either.
That’s the thing: while God may say “No” or “Not Yet” to our prayers from time to time, it’s not done out of meanness or spite. It’s done with fatherly love. And that may be hard for us to remember, especially when God’s No or Not Yet is painful.
But God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.
And that is why He encourages us to ask, seek, knock. Because He will answer our prayers according to His love and grace.
I like C.S. Lewis’s take on prayer in Miracles — that outside of time, God considers all prayers and answers them in the total pattern of reality.
God gave free will, so He wanted us to have a say in the way that reality unfolds. Maybe that’s an angle to consider when thinking about the verses that imply that good prayers will definitely be answered, or that with faith we can do anything. Everything we do affects everything else in the universe, and prayer is an action like all other actions, so it has an affect even if we don’t get what we want.
I like what Lewis has to say. That’s a really good, timey-wimey sort of way to look at things. 🙂
Often we pray in times of crisis, because we simply want God to intervene and get us out of the mess we got ourselves into. Actions always have consequences. Sometimes He calms the storm, sometimes He calms the child. Remember, He asked Job, “Where were YOU when I laid the earth’s foundation?”