“Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 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!” Matthew 7:7-11 ESV
Let me state the obvious. Prayer was a priority in the mind and ministry of Jesus. There are more verses in the Sermon on the Mount on prayer than on any other theme (6:5-15; 7:7-11). Notwithstanding this inescapable fact, it comes as something of a surprise to many people to discover that: “Jesus never taught His disciples how to preach, only how to pray. He did not speak much of what was needed to preach well,” wrote Andrew Murray, “but much of praying well. To know how to speak to God is more than knowing how to speak to man. Not power with man, but power with God is the first thing. Jesus loves to teach us how to pray” (With Christ in the School of Prayer, 19).
The first thing that stands out in v.7, is the emphasis put on persistence or perseverance in prayer. This raises the question of the difference between persistency in prayer and vain repetition. What is the difference between perseverance and nagging? Do we repeat a request because we think that we will be heard on account of the quantity of words (cf. 6:7)? Do we repeat a request because we think God is ignorant and needs to be informed (cf. 6:8)? Do we repeat a request because we think God is unwilling and needs to be persuaded? Do we envision ourselves transforming a hard-hearted God into a compassionate and loving one? Do we repeat a request because we think that God will be swayed in His decision by our putting on a show of zeal and piety, as if he were incapable of seeing through the thin veil of our hypocrisy? Do we repeat a request because, to be blunt, we are selfish and want to exploit God’s blessings to our own glory and gain (cf. Js. 4:2). If these are our reasons for persistence then we may well be nagging! Perhaps the primary reason we must persevere in prayer is that the answer of God is often neither “yes” nor “no” but “wait”! But why would God tell us to wait?
God often says, “wait” and wants us to persist when we pray in order that we may be compelled to depend wholly upon Him. If all we had to do was ask the Father for something once and then sit back and wait until the request was granted, our fallen nature, prone to prideful independence, would inevitably lead us in the direction of self-sufficiency. But God’s suspending our prayer success on persistent asking makes us ever more aware of our utter dependence on Him.
Having to persist in prayer also serves to put us in that frame of mind and spirit in which we may properly receive what it is God desires to give. God may well be willing to give but we may not be ready to receive. Persistence cultivates serenity in our spirit and a clarity of thought that are so essential to hear what God is saying. When we pray persistently about some specific matter, we are enabled to differentiate between impetuous, ill-conceived desires and sincere, deep-seated ones. Rarely will someone pursue something, which after a time, is seen to be less than worthwhile, if not downright harmful. Thus, by insisting that we pray with persistence God will prevent us from praying for things that would ultimately prove unedifying.
Perseverance helps weed out improper petitions and persistence purifies our petitions. By repeating our prayer, by bearing it again and again before the throne of grace, we force ourselves to think and rethink the nature of our request and the purpose for which we desire to see it fulfilled. In doing so, we begin to discern any error or sin in it that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Thus, persistence in prayer is life proof-reading a manuscript for a book. A good author will proof-read his/her manuscript a dozen times (if not more). And no matter how carefully or how thoroughly it is read and re-read, each time another error or misspelled word or grammatical mistake is found, another idea that needs re-phrasing is discovered. It is the same way with prayer. Repetition perfects petitions.
God will often seem deaf to our pleas, not because He is unwilling to grant them, but because it is not in His timing to grant them now, that is, when we want them. Perhaps He intends to secure some good end, to achieve some great goal by means of the answer hH will give to our request, and can do so only when the answer comes at the opportune time, in the appropriate circumstances, and possibly only when our hearts are properly prepared. Thus the apparent silence of heaven may be due more to the designs of providence than to an unwilling God.
The force of this promise is heightened if we state it in the negative: No one finds unless he seeks, no one is given anything unless she asks, no one receives from God unless they knock! Prayer is God’s ordained means for dispensing blessings. Remember: We must not allow ourselves to believe that God will do for us apart from prayer what he has promised do for us only through prayer.
The assurance of being answered is a valid motivation for praying, “for nothing is better adapted to excite us to prayer than a full conviction that we shall be heard” (Calvin). Thus, our prayerlessness is in part due to our disbelief in God’s goodness and willingness to answer. Indeed, I would venture to suggest that virtually every error in prayer is ultimately traceable to misconceptions about the character of God.
This verse is not an unconditional promise. Stott explains: “It is absurd to suppose that the promise ‘Ask, and it shall be given you’ is an absolute pledge with no strings attached; that ‘Knock, and it will be opened to you’ is an ‘Open, Sesame’ to every closed door without exception; and that by the waving of a prayer wand any wish will be granted and every dream will come true. The idea is ridiculous. It would turn prayer into magic, the person who prays into a magician like Aladdin, and God into our servant who appears instantly to do our bidding like Aladdin’s genie every time we rub our little prayer lamp.”
We must remember that God is not only good in that He willingly gives marvellous blessings to His children, He is also wise, knowing what gifts to give and when they are best granted. I thank God that He is wise and loving enough not to have granted me some of the things I’ve asked for!
Does God answer our prayers grudgingly or gladly? This is a crucial question, for we frame our prayers in accordance with how we conceive the character of the one we are addressing. A child with a gentle, kind, but firm father will rarely hesitate to ask for things. This child knows his father will not give him things that might prove harmful. He also knows his father will not withhold what is crucial for life. The child with an extravagant and careless father arrogantly asks for everything, knowing that he will never be refused. The child with a cruel and stingy father will unlikely ask for anything, fearing another meaningless beating. What image of God as Father is given in vv.9-11? What image do you have of God when you come to Him in prayer?
Sadly, many of God’s children labour under the delusion that their heavenly Father extracts some malicious glee out of watching His children squirm now and then. Of course, they are not quite blasphemous enough to put it in such terms; but their prayer life reveals they are not thoroughly convinced of God’s goodness and the love He has for them. We are dealing with the God who once said to his people, ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!’” (Isaiah 49:15). How much more, then, shall our heavenly Father, who not only is not evil but is infinitely good, wise, and powerful, give us those things we most desperately need.
So consistently and persistently keep on praying – as it truly is the air that we breathe!