Matthew chapter 7, the last chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, contains a number of succinct statements, which make important points for believers. The focus is on prayer, continued from 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 with the understanding that our Father 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
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 wouldn’t 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? Since God is our Father and altogether good, we can freely petition Him in prayer, in the same way a child can ask her parents for something she needs or desires.
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
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. We’re also told to pray for material needs, because it is appropriate to acknowledge our physical dependence on our Father.
With this in mind, let’s look at the first part of the passage: “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.” 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’s 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 from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh … Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”8
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.9
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. Our heavenly Father isn’t our “cosmic bellhop” who is there to do our every bidding, and Jesus’ words shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that God will grant our every wish. But even if some of our prayers aren’t answered in the way we would like, we can trust that 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’d 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.10 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 asked for a serpent instead of a fish, then the parent, out of love and concern, would notgrant 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 fact that the child is hungry, and offer something more suitable to eat. Parents sometimes refuse or delay granting their children’s requests or give them something that, while different from what they asked for, supplies their need. Our heavenly Father often does the same thing when responding to our prayers.
We’re encouraged to pray—to ask, to seek, to knock—for in doing so we receive and find, and opportunities open to us. 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, and desires for us to present our requests; and 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 the manner that is best for us and others overall, because of His deep love for us. We ask for our needs and desires, trusting that in His complete understanding, wisdom, and goodness, He will respond with a yes, no, or wait. Trusting that He knows best how to respond to each of our prayers, we can pray as Jesus did:“Not my will, but yours, be done.”11