The reasons for not receiving what we have asked for in prayer are real and legitimate. Sometimes we become discouraged because we aren’t able to see the entire picture, just as our children are sometimes disappointed with our answers to their requests, even when our answer is good for them. But Jesus does promise a good response from our heavenly Father, and we can rely on that!
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Matthew #22 . Chapter 7:7-11
There are many parts of the Sermon on the Mount that are challenging in many ways. Jesus’ standards for morality are challenging. Words like “Blessed are you when men cast insults at you and persecute you,” are not easy to digest. But the words of Matthew 7:7-11 are difficult in another way. They are wonderful words, gracious words. The difficulty is they seem almost too good to be true. Let’s take a look.
“Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What man among you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 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! (Matt 7:7-11, HCSB)
The truth is, brothers and sisters, this is just plain good news. We have a Father in heaven who loves us. He is the Creator of the universe, the one true Supreme Being, and he cares about you. He loves you more perfectly than you love your own children. And he wants to give you good gifts. He wants to answer your prayers.
There isn’t much that this particular passage needs by way of explanation. It says exactly what it seems to say – that God loves you, and he will answer your prayers in accordance with his love for you.
But I (and I assume others) sometimes have a difficult time with this passage, because so often it appears that God is not answering our prayers. Sometimes the gift doesn’t seem to come, that which is sought is never found and the door is not opened. Why does this happen at times? Can we really rely on Jesus’ words?
The answer is yes. The reasons for our experience of what we call “unanswered prayer” are several, but I believe is starts with God’s desire to answer us by giving us “good gifts” (NIV), or “that which is good” (NAS).
Jesus makes the comparison to earthly parents, so let’s start there. Sometimes my children ask me for things that are not good, or things that are good only in small measure. Candy is a great example. It sure feels good going down, and a little bit of it is fine, but too much of it is bad. When my kids were young, and they asked for candy when they had already had as much as was good for them, I said no. Now, even though my answer to their request is negative, that “no” is a good gift to my children – it protects them, and keep them healthy. I am giving them something good in response to their request, even though it wasn’t what they wanted. God deals with us the same way. So we need to understand that sometimes the good gift God gives is the answer of “no” to our prayers.
Sometimes the problem with candy is the timing. Maybe my kids haven’t had any sweets all day, and they ask for candy right before supper. Even though they haven’t had any candy yet, I will say no, because to give it to them now would prevent them from receiving the healthy nutrients I’m going to give them for supper in just a few minutes. Again, it is this way with the Lord. At times we may not see that he is withholding one request in order to grant another, after which he can also give us the first request.
Another issue that sometimes comes up is capacity. When they were little, and we lived in the city with a yard about the size of a pickup truck, the kids wanted a Saint Bernard dog. I knew, however, that neither they nor our yard had the capacity to deal with that gift at that time. There was simply not enough space for dog like that and our kids were not yet responsible enough to take care of it by themselves; I also had serious questions about how much it would cost to feed a Saint Bernard. So the answer was “no” for that time. I felt that as their capacity to handle the gift increased, hopefully the answer could become “yes.” In the same way, we often pray for good things that are beyond our capacity to handle. Perhaps we want fame or fortune when our character is not yet equipped to deal with it. Fame and fortune have destroyed many a soul. Maybe we want to be married, but we aren’t emotionally or spiritually ready for it; perhaps we want to own a business or get a promotion that would end up sucking up so much time and energy that we would drift away from God. Maybe we want a job that we would only end up losing because we aren’t really capable yet of doing it.
Think of God as an all-wise bartender. One person asks for a drink, and the Bartender gladly serves her. Another asks, and the Bartender won’t serve him, because even one drink would make him drunk. Another can handle one drink, but once she starts, she won’t quit until she’s feeling the buzz, and she has no one to give her a ride home; the Bartender refuses her also. Another has already had a drink or two, and Bartender won’t serve him, because he’s had enough already. People drinking in a bar are rarely good judges of their own capacity for alcohol. Sometimes we are also poor judges of what we really need from God, and whether we can really handle what we are asking for.
Not even Jesus’ first disciples always knew what they were asking for:
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Him and said, “Teacher, we want You to do something for us if we ask You.” “What do you want Me to do for you? ” He asked them. They answered Him, “Allow us to sit at Your right and at Your left in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink the cup I drink or to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with? ” (Mark 10:35-38, HCSB)
They thought they were asking for glory; Jesus knew that what they were asking for meant incredible suffering for them. Sometimes the greatest good God can give us is to answer us with a “no” or a “not yet.”
Another possibility with unanswered prayer is that what you are asking God for is not good at all. Believe it or not, there are people who ask God to aid or support their sinful lifestyles, and then become bitter when he doesn’t. A classic example of this is the Indigo Girls song Hey Jesus. In the song, a woman is praying to Jesus that her unmarried live-in lover doesn’t leave her. She becomes bitter toward God when the prayer is not answered the way she wants it to be. But you might as well not pray if you are asking God to help you sin. This goes along with what James says in James 4:3
“When you ask you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Also, the apostle John writes:
“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.” (I John 5:14-15)
Obviously, if we want God to help us sin, that is not according his will. On the other side, John is saying, “If your prayer falls within Biblical guidelines of what God desires, you can be sure that he pays attention to it.” Prayers which are within God’s general will, as revealed in the Bible, will be answered with something good (remember, “no” or “not now” can be as much of a good answer as “yes.”)
One more reason we may not receive the good thing we have asked for is because it involves another person’s choice to reject God. When our prayers involve the decisions of other people (for example, suppose you are praying for someone to come to know Jesus) we ought to remember that the Lord still gives people the option to say “no” to him. God chooses not to force people to do what he wants; he wants our love to be real, and so we all have the freedom to choose. In other words, sometimes you cannot find what you seek because someone else has chosen to ignore God.
There is a final issue that is part of the difficulty of Matthew 7:7-11. James identifies it when he writes:
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” (James 1:5-8)
The truth is, “ask and you shall receive” is very simple, direct and gracious. But often we have a hard time believing it. The very fact that we don’t believe it prevents us from taking advantage of this promise. We don’t believe it, so we don’t really ask in faith or expectation, if we even ask at all. And since we don’t ask in faith and expectation, we don’t receive what we ask for. And since we don’t receive what we ask for, we feel that our lack of faith has been justified, so we have even less faith next time we ask. It is a vicious cycle of unbelief. Often we enter into this cycle because our starting point is skepticism. We read Matthew 7:7-11 and our first response is: “I’m not so sure about that. Prove it God!” And because that is our starting point, we don’t give God a chance to really prove it, because we aren’t really praying with the faith that he is good and that he answers prayers to our benefit. It comes down simply to faith. God said it, do we believe it?
These reasons for not receiving what we have asked for in prayer are real and legitimate. Sometimes we become discouraged because we aren’t able to see the entire picture, just as our children are sometimes disappointed with our answers to their requests, even when our answer is good for them. But I think that the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) captures an important part of what Jesus says. The Greek verbs “ask, seek and knock” are each in the present tense, active voice and imperative mood. That’s why I think the HCSB has it best, because it translates it: “keep asking, keep searching, keep knocking.” To capture the imperative mood, we might even put an exclamation point after each phrase: Keep on asking! Keep on searching! Keep on knocking!
Yes, there are times, when because God is a good Father, his answer will be “no” or “wait.” But clearly, Jesus wants us to understand that many times God will answer “Yes!” or “Of course! I’d love to!” God really does want us to come to Him with our requests. And He delights to respond to them with good things even more than we delight to give our children good things. The Father wants us to keep on coming to Him, keep on searching, keeping on knocking.
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