By Peter Amsterdam
October 5, 2016
Matthew chapter 7, the last chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, contains a number of succinct statements which don’t necessarily flow from one to the next, but which make important points for those who have entered the kingdom of God. Following the section about not being judgmental (the topic of the previous article), the focus shifts back to prayer, connecting with points about prayer made earlier in the Sermon: not praying like the hypocrites who want to be seen by others1 or like the pagans who babble on, thinking their prayers will be answered if they repeat them over and over;2 but rather praying to God with the understanding that He is our Father in heaven who loves and cares for us.3
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! 4
In order to understand what’s being taught here, it helps to look at the second part of what Jesus said first. Jesus asked what those present would do if their child asked for bread or fish, staple foods in Palestine at the time. Of course they would not substitute a stone or serpent for the food their child was asking for. As He often did, Jesus used the “lesser to greater” argument to make His point. If earthly parents give their children good things when they ask for them, how much more will God give to His children when they ask Him? If human parents, though we are sinners (evil), love our children and respond to their requests with good things, then we should expect that when we ask our Father in heaven for help, He will answer.
The understanding is that parents are (or at least are meant to be) good and loving and give good things to their children, including their basic needs and more when they can. If that is the case, then God as the supreme good is infinitely more good, and what He gives to His children must be even more truly “good.” Using the parent-child relationship, Jesus points to God’s goodness and brings out that since God is better than earthly parents, is altogether good, and is our Father, we can freely ask Him for our petitions in prayer, in the same way a child can ask her parents for something she needs or desires.
Jesus is encouraging believers to bring our needs before our Father by giving some wonderful promises of God answering our prayers. By asking, seeking, and knocking, we recognize and acknowledge our need and we turn to Him in humility. Prayer is the means our Father has chosen for us to express our need for Him and our dependence upon Him. It’s part of our relationship with Him.
Some might say that prayer isn’t necessary, because there are plenty of people who don’t believe in God and don’t pray, yet they seem to do fine. They work and get paid, so are able to acquire what they need without any prayers. Author John Stott addressed this point when he wrote about the difference between the gifts of God as the Creator and His gifts as our Father:
We need to distinguish between his creation-gifts and his redemption-gifts. It is perfectly true that he gives gifts (harvests, babies, food, life) whether people pray or not, whether they believe or not. He gives to all life and breath.5 He sends rain from heaven and fruitful seasons to all. He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good alike. He ‘visits’ a mother when she conceives and later gives birth. None of these gifts is dependent on whether people acknowledge their Creator or pray to him.
But God’s redemption-gifts are different. God does not bestow salvation on all alike, but bestows his riches upon all who call on him. For, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”’6 The same applies to post-salvation blessings, the ‘good things’ which Jesus says the Father gives his children. It is not material blessings that he is referring to here, but spiritual blessings—daily forgiveness, deliverance from evil, peace, the increase of faith, hope and love, in fact the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit as comprehensive blessing of God.7
Stott added that in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray for both kinds of gifts. Our daily bread is a creation-gift, whereas forgiveness and deliverance are redemption-gifts. We pray for forgiveness and deliverance, because these gifts are given only in answer to prayer.8 We also are told to pray for material needs, because it is appropriate to acknowledge our physical dependence on our Father:
Give us this day our daily bread.9
With this in mind, we look at the first part of what Jesus said in this chapter:
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.
A question that arises is: Was Jesus categorically stating that every prayer will be answered in a positive manner, and that we will always get what we pray for?
One of the basic principles of understanding Scripture is to compare what is taught in one particular verse with the teaching of Scripture in general. It is clear from reading the Bible that prayers are not always answered in the manner that the one praying requests. This can be seen in the following verses:
To keep me [the apostle Paul] from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”10
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.11
Going a little farther he [Jesus] fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”12
From these and other verses, and factoring in our own experience, it’s clear that God doesn’t always answer our petitions in the manner we would like Him to. These are not unconditional promises of receiving anything we pray for. Our heavenly Father isn’t our “cosmic bellhop” who is there to do our every bidding. Jesus’ words shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that God will grant our every wish. It’s wise to remember that the purpose of prayer is to be a means of fellowship with God, entering into His presence, and submitting to Him. Even if some of our prayers aren’t answered in the way we would like, we can have peace that we have presented our petition to our Father, and we can trust that in His love and wisdom He knows what’s best.
We should be thankful that God doesn’t answer our every prayer by giving us exactly what we ask for. If He did, we would likely pray less, because we would quickly see that the effects of having every prayer answered would have unforeseen and unwanted consequences. These and other promises about answering our prayers are not pledges on God’s part to give us whatever we ask, whenever we ask it, and in exactly the terms we ask. If that were the case, prayer would be an unbearable burden for us to carry.13 Only our all-knowing, all-good, all-wise, and all-loving Father can know how prayers should be answered, when it is best to answer them, and if they should be answered at all.
Going back to the example of children asking their parents for things: if the child was asking for a serpent instead of a fish, then the parent, out of love and concern, would not grant the request. The parents’ greater knowledge and wisdom, as well as their love for their child, would keep them from responding to the child’s specific request. Instead, they might look beyond the specific request to the need the child is expressing and realize, for example, that the child is hungry, and offer something more suitable to eat. Parents wisely sometimes refuse or delay granting their children’s request; or they give them something which, while different from what they asked for, supplies their need. Our heavenly Father often does the same thing when responding to our prayers. God is all-good, and as such gives only good gifts to His children. He denies some requests because they are not good in themselves; others He denies because they are not good for us or others, either at the time or ever. While we are sometimes disappointed that our prayers don’t result in the response we desired, we must recognize our Father’s greater understanding and wisdom, and trust Him in these matters.
We are encouraged to pray—to ask, to seek, to knock—for in doing so we receive and find, and opportunities open to us. At the same time we must recognize that our Father, who is all-good and all-wise, may not give us exactly what we are asking for; yet we pray with expectation and faith that He will answer. Throughout Scripture, there are numerous promises that God will answer our requests. Though it’s not stated each time, the underlying foundation of these promises is an understanding that God is good, has our best interests at heart, deeply loves us, desires for us to present our requests; and that as our loving Father, He will answer our prayers according to what He knows is ultimately best.
We pray in faith, knowing that God will answer in a manner which is best for us or others overall, because of His deep love for us. We come to Him asking for our needs and desires; trusting that in His complete understanding, wisdom, and goodness He will respond with a yes, no, or wait. We can trust that He knows best how to respond to each of our prayers. We can pray as Jesus did;
Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.14
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 6:5–6.
2 Matthew 6:7–8.
3 Matthew 6:9–13.
4 Matthew 7:7–11.
5 Matthew 5:45.
6 Romans 10:12–13.
7 John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 187.
9 Matthew 6:11.
10 2 Corinthians 12:7–9.
11 Psalm 22:1–2.
12 Matthew 26:39.
13 John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 187.
14 Luke 22:42.