The ability to love those who insult us, to remain pure when our phones offer us a million pathways to pornography, and to refrain from being hyper-critical of that man’s vegan diet does not naturally reside within the Christian soul. To achieve the lifestyle that Jesus prescribes in his famous Sermon on the Mount, Christians must regularly ask God for help. They need it, and God promises to give it. In Matthew 7:7-8, Jesus begins the conclusion of his sermon with a reflection upon prayer, saying,
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.
No soul naturally loves its enemies or places its hope in God as opposed to riches and bank accounts. Were faith our natural condition, Jesus would not have had to recast the vision for the kingdom for us. Even those souls that have entered the narrow gate still cannot achieve the kingdom ethic in their own power. To overcome temptation and to develop a love for God and neighbor, the Christian must regularly and faithfully pray to Jesus who promises to give them what they ask for.
Why We Don’t Pray
I suspect many Christians succumb to temptation and make peace with sin because they fail to grasp their persistent need to pray. Just as some people nominally concerned about their health diet for a day or two and then quit after seeing no meaningful results, many Christians pray for a day or two and then quit. They pray that God would give them a love for their coworker. But then Monday rolls around, their coworker makes another off-colored remark, and the hate of last week boils back up. They assume prayer failed and that God is at peace with their irritable nature. It is just who they are. They will call again if someone gets cancer or if a hurricane is headed their way. Otherwise, they are good.
Essentially, they stop asking, they stop knocking, they stop seeking. Understandably the change they desire never comes. Yet, the fault lies not with little tried tool of prayer but with the practitioner of the prayer. Godly prayer requires perseverance. As the German Reformer Martin Luther noted,
“Since your need goes on knocking, therefore, you go right on knocking, too, and do not relent.”
Jesus clarifies the connection between perseverance and prayer in Luke 11: 5-8. In this passage that heavily resembles Matthew 7, Jesus tells the parable of a man who bangs on his friend’s door at midnight because another friend just popped in to spend the night. At first, the friend in bed tells the man to go away. But the man keeps on knocking. Fearing the man will wake up the entire house (kids and all) the friend gets up and gives the man some food. Jesus says, “Because of his impudence, he will rise and him whatever he needs (8).”
The point of the parable is obvious. The soul that keeps on knocking will never leave empty handed. As Jesus says, “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened (Mt 7:8). The teenager who longs for sexual purity will get it through fervent prayer. The tired wife that bangs on God’s door asking God to give her a love for her in-laws will receive it. The angry child that looks for freedom from her anger through prayer will find peace. Those who pray without ceasing will receive the gifts that they need.
Trust God’s Character
To drive the point home, Jesus compares his care for us to how our earthly father’s care for us. Just as children can trust earthly parents to give them bread and not rocks for dinner, Christians can ask God for their spiritual needs, trusting that he will neither manipulate them nor harm them. Jesus says, “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 (Mt 7:11)!” Jesus does not toss out the analogy to validate human goodness. Rather, he uses it to reveal that if we can trust our earthly fathers who are capable of great evil to do some basic good things, then we should trust God even more. God will not play games with us. Even if we ask God for a stone, he will still give us bread.
Why Didn’t God Heal Susie?
That very promise from God to answer our prayer can also cause us to doubt whether or not God truly is good. Many Christians have prayed for years for a new job, for Johnny’s salvation, and for Susie to recover from cancer. Yet no one calls you for interviews, Johnny still refuses to come to church, and you just learned that Susie died. In light of God’s promise that those who seek will find, many souls cannot help but openly question: “What happened?”
But such questions arise from a profound misunderstanding of the context in which Jesus promises to honor our prayers. As John Stott noted many years earlier, the promises made in Matthew 7 relate to God’s character as Father and not as creator. As creator, God bestows the earthly gifts of family, health, and financial success upon billions of people who never pray. In Matthew 5:45, Jesus credits God with sending rain, “on the just and the unjust.” While Christians should ask God for their daily bread as their heavenly Father is the author of all good gifts, the specify delivery of good gifts cannot be guaranteed through prayer. Moreover, our repeated and earnest asking of God for something does not obligate God to give us the earthly thing asked for. For example, I longed for a red convertible as a teenager and college student. I frequently prayer for such a good gift. To date, I have never owned a red convertible. We should ask him for health and a host of other earthly but should do so with the tagline from James, “if the Lord wills (Jm 4:15).”
But as Father, God answers all the spiritual things we ask of him. Salvation comes not by osmosis nor by splashing water on people’s foreheads. It comes through asking. Paul confirms the foundational role of prayer in the saving process, writing, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom 10:13).” Sanctification occurs in the same manner. Through asking, seeking, and knocking we grow in our ability to love others, to fulfill our marriage vows, and to promote peace. Spiritual gifts always come through prayer. If we will but ask, seek, and knock, God will give us the desires of our heart.
The old hymn correctly states: What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
Are you praying?