This is perhaps one of the most comprehensive and comforting promises in all the Bible. And yet, no sooner do we read a promise like this than we immediately begin to doubt it. First of all, many people doubt this because it is just not true that God “answers” every prayer (by “answers” we usually mean that God says yes to our request and gives it to us). There are many things that we have prayed for that simply have not been given to us.
I once read a story about a school in Cuba, where the teachers in order to indoctrinate the students to put their faith in the State rather than in God, told the children to pray to God for a piece of candy. The children prayed, and of course they received no candy. Then the teacher instructed the children to pray again, this time to Castro, and as they prayed the teacher went to each child and put a piece of candy on his or her desk. When the children opened their eyes, there was a piece of candy. Of course, the lesson was supposed to be that God doesn’t answer prayer, but Castro does.
Now it’s easy to poke holes in this exercise. For one thing, the exercise did not prove that Castro heard the children’s prayers. For if they had repeated the exercise in the absence of their teacher, there is no doubt they would not have received candy. And who is to say that the first prayer to God for candy wasn’t answered by God when they eventually did receive the piece of candy? However, the fact of the matter is that sometimes we doubt God because we’ve prayed for something and didn’t receive it. So when we come to passages like our text, though we may read it and think how beautiful a promise it is, we don’t really take it to heart because of past disappointments.
However, we need to stop and ask ourselves what we saying about Scripture if we are not willing to really take this promise seriously? If this promise is not worth believing then no part of Scripture is worth believing. If we cannot really be changed by the truth of our Lord’s words here, then how can we logically embrace the truth of the cross? How can we believe the promise that God is going to take us to heaven when we die and yet not believe the promise that if we ask we shall receive?
On the other hand, what if we really could believe this promise? What if we really took hold of the reality that “everyone who asks receives?” Does that not have the potential to radically alter our lives, free us from unbelief, doubt, and discouragement? It was such a belief in the faithfulness of God to hear and answer the prayers of his people that animated George Muller to support orphans only through prayer and faith. He tells us in his own words that the main reason he established the orphanage on this basis was so that “God might be magnified by the fact that the orphans under my care are provided with all they need, only by prayer and faith, without any one being asked by me or my fellow-laborers, whereby it may be seen that God is FAITHFUL STILL, and HEARS PRAYER STILL.” And Muller’s life speaks to us even to this day that God is a prayer-hearing God.
So how can we get like this? How do we become people who really live upon this promise and whose lives are living testimonies to its truthfulness?
First of all, we have to really understand both what our Lord was saying and what he was not saying. In fact, in this case I would say that understanding what he was not saying is as important as understanding what he was saying. So let’s start there. He was not saying that God will give us anything that we ask for, that if we just pray hard enough, ask enough, seek enough, knock loud enough, then we will get it. We can see this in the illustration that our Lord gives in verses 9-11. Here our Lord is contrasting God the Father with earthly fathers. And the contrast is this: God is good, but we are evil. Then our Lord reasons thus (it’s another argument from the lesser to the greater): if fathers who are evil by nature (which we all are) yet naturally have a love for their children that motivates them to give good gifts to their them, “how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (v. 11).
Now a clear implication from these verses is that God is not going to give just anything to his children. After all, no earthly father would do that. God is better than any earthly father and he certainly will not be characterized by those characteristics that we would judge an earthly father for. In fact, we naturally look down on men who pander to their children’s every whim and who do anything that they ask. This is neither wise nor loving because ultimately it does not do good to the children to give them anything they want. Now children will sometimes not understand why you are denying them something that they want. It may even seem to them in their immaturity to be cruel and unusual punishment for you to deny it to them. And yet as their parent you know the best thing for them is to withhold their request. So why should we expect God to just deliver upon request? It is therefore actually dishonoring to God to suggest that he will gratify any desire just because we think we need it and have put it up to him in the form of a prayer.
Also, in verse 11 our Lord specifically says that the Father gives “good things” in answer to prayer. He is not going to give us bad things. In the illustration, Jesus says that if a son asks for a fish a good father would not give a snake. But what if the son asks for a poisonous snake? What if that is what he wants? A good father would deny it. He must protect his children. Even so with God. We sometimes ask for things that seem good to us but which really are bad. We don’t see it, but God who is all wise does, and he refuses to give us something which will ultimately be for our detriment.
Thus, the context does not warrant the idea that any prayer will be answered. It does not warrant the idea that the only reason some prayers are not answered lies in a lack of faith or a lack of earnestness in prayer. It is just the fact that sometimes God will not answer prayer and it is for our good that he doesn’t. Consider our Lord himself – he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from me.” Thank God that he did not grant that request!
Why does God not answer some prayers? We’ve already indicated that God will not grant our request if the request is not for our good. The Scriptures elsewhere fill up what it means that our prayer request is not good.
First of all, consider the words of the apostle James says. He writes to the believers of his day, “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses . . .” (Jm. 4:2-4). In other words, there are two reasons why you don’t receive what you want. One reason is that you don’t ask for it (ver. 2). But the other reason is that what you ask for you ask for it selfishly, to “consume it upon your lusts” (ver. 3). Here the problem is not so much what you are praying for as why you are praying for it. Is the motivation behind your prayer the desire for something that has replaced God in your heart? Or is it discontent with God’s provision that is motivating your prayer?
An example of this is given in Psalm 78, a history of Israel’s disobedience. Part of their disobedience in the wilderness consisted in their discontent. The psalmist reminds his readers how bad this was: “And they tempted God in their heart by asking meat for their lust. Yea, they spake against God; they said, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?” (Ps. 78:18-19). Of course it is not wrong to ask for meat. But their problem was that God had already demonstrated that he would provide for them. They were unwilling to trust God for provision and to be content with his provision for them. And that made their prayer wrong. (Interestingly, in this instance God did answer their prayer, but it was to teach them a lesson, not to bless them: see verses 29-31.)
God will not subsidize the idols of our hearts. And it is for our good that he does not. There are some of us that if God gave us what we asked for, we would have promptly forgotten him in the pursuit of our own lusts. Thank God when he slays our idols rather than judge us by sending leanness into our souls by giving us what we asked for.
Secondly, consider the words of the apostle John. In his letter he writes, “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15). The phrase “according to his will” is crucial, and spells out exactly what it means for the Father to give good things to us. If God is perfectly good and wise, then his will is the best for us. In fact, anything in opposition to his will in our lives is really bad for us. It’s why we should pray (and mean it): “Thy will be done.”
There are two ways in which God’s will is spoken of in Scripture. I think both are meant here. There is God’s will of decree and there is God’s will of command. The latter is known to us in the Bible, whereas the former belongs to the secret things of God (cf Deut. 29:29). Let’s start with God’s will of decree. An example of this is given in James 4:13-17. When James says, “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this or that.” The will of God in this passage is not the same thing as one of the Ten Commandments like, “Thou shalt not kill.” Rather, this is God’s will or purpose concerning our lives. He may or may not will for us to travel to a certain place. We don’t necessarily know it. But we need to acknowledge this in our lives and especially in our prayers, and ask God to bless us and to guide us. We are not the masters of our fate, we are not the captains of our souls, God is.
An example of this in Scripture is the apostle Paul’s request that the Roman Christians pray for him as he travels to Jerusalem, “That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints; that I may come unto you with joy by the will of God, and may with you be refreshed” (Rom. 15:31-32; cf. 1:10). Paul recognized that, at the end of the day, it was God who decided where he went and whether or not he was successful.
The other way God’s will is spoken of in Scripture is his will of command. The difference between God’s will of decree and his will of command is that God’s will of decree cannot be thwarted. God is the one who declares the end from the beginning, “and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isa. 46:10). However, God’s will of command is very often broken. We do this every time we sin. For example, the apostle speaks of God’s will in this sense in 1 Thess. 4:3, “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God.” An example of this kind of prayer is given to us by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews: “Now the God of peace . . . make you perfect in every good work to do his will” (Heb. 13:20-21).
Either way, we are to pray that God’s will be done in our lives. We are to pray that his will be done in guiding the direction of our lives and we are to pray that his will be done in governing the obedience of our lives. We are to pray that we will submit to his providential government of our lives. In so doing, we will not only be praying that which is according to the will of God, but by doing so our hearts are going to be transformed into the kind of person that God can use. It’s not just that we need to pray the right things but that we be the right kind of person that God can bless. If we are sincerely praying like this, we will be the kind of person spoken of in Psalm 37:4-5, “Delight thyself in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.” It is this kind of person that is spoken of Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
This then, is in the background. When our Lord gives us this promise it is assumed that what is being asked for is good and according to the will of the Father. In fact, in the parallel passage in Luke, we are told, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:13). We are not then praying for sport cars and big homes but for the Holy Spirit to bless us, sanctify us, and make us more like our Lord Jesus Christ.
However, this is all implied in the text rather than explicitly stated. Our Lord does three things in this passage. First, he gives us an exhortation to pray in verse 7. Then he grounds this exhortation in a glorious promise in verse 8. Finally, he illustrates it in verses 9-11.
In the exhortation he is encouraging us not only to pray but to be persistent in prayer. Again, if we go back to the parallel passage in Luke, this is the immediate context. There, our Lord has just finished giving us the parable of the importunate friend. With this in mind, he exhorts his disciples to ask, seek, and knock. All three of these words are in the present tense, indicating ongoing action. Be asking, be seeking, be knocking. It is what our Lord was inculcating in Luke 18:1, ff and the parable of the importunate widow. It is what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
Now clearly our Lord is not telling us to badger God. Surely he does not want us to think that we shall be heard for our much speaking (cf. Mt. 6:7). Rather, what he is encouraging is a life of prayer, an attitude of continual dependence upon God. This is the only attitude that glorifies God. We are so easily tempted to self-dependence and thus to self-exaltation.
This kind of persistent prayer not only characterizes a person whose trust is only in the Lord, but also a person who is intentional is his/her pursuit of God. How is God honored by a lazy, half-hearted, prayer of formality? He is not. He is honored by those who hearts are zeroed in on the will of God for their lives and the lives of those around them. He is honored by those who “make mention of the LORD . . . and give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth” (Isa. 62:6-7).
Thus, our prayers are not answered, not only because we are asking for the wrong things, or because we are asking for the right things for the wrong reasons, but because we don’t ask with the persistence, urgency, and intentionality that is consistent with a heart that depends solely upon the Lord.
Then comes this amazing promise in verse 8: “For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” It is only in light of the previous considerations that we can properly appreciate and appropriate this precious promise. And it is a promise from the Lord, which means that it cannot fail to be fulfilled.
Why is it that we do not find our prayers more often fulfilled? Might it not be that we simply are not praying for the right things? Could it be that we are so worldly-minded and earth-bound that our prayers are simply off God’s radar? Could it be that we are living lives whose main purpose is to get as much earthly security as possible? Or are we willing in the light of Matthew 6:33, are we seeking first the kingdom of God?
You see, I think this is why these verses where introduced in the first place. As you read through this sermon and you see the incredibly high standard that is raised for the followers of Christ, it makes you wonder how in the world it is possible to live this way. And of course it is not possible in the strength of our own flesh. We can only do it through Christ. And so he reminds us of our absolute need of God’s grace and strength. We need the Holy Spirit if we are to live a life that seeks first the kingdom of God. And the promise is that if we seek such a heart and a life by praying for it from the Lord, we will receive God’s grace to live such a life and the consequent blessing that comes as a result of this kind of life.
Do you want to see God answer your prayers? Then we must be willing to live the kind of life that is consistent with praying for the kind of blessings that God loves to bestow. First of all, we have to be found in Christ. The prayer of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, and as long as we are without Christ, we are yet in our sins. It is only in Christ that we find forgiveness and acceptance with God and are able to come boldly before the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Then we need to live unto Christ. Christ calls us to follow him, to take our cross. If we would see supernatural answers to prayer we have to be willing to live supernaturally.