What would you wish for if you had three wishes that would be granted, a billion dollars, fame, health or long life? Or maybe something simpler like a new car or all your debts paid off? Or maybe you would wish for something broader like world peace or an end to world hunger?
Those things might be fun to think about, but I also think the idea of a genie in the bottle is sometimes the expectation we have with God. We ask for things as if he is a genie and we are the masters telling him what we want. On the flip side, sometimes we approach God more with skepticism, as if we are not expecting him to answer us, or like he is just whimsical, randomly granting some requests and rejecting others. And so we pray with no idea whether or not we will be given what we ask for. Prayer can be confusing and it can be a struggle figuring out what to expect from God as we seek him in prayer. Well, today we are going to dig into that a little bit.
Please turn with me in your Bibles to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, beginning with verses 7 and 8: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
Jesus is not literally talking about seeking, knocking, and asking each other for stuff. He is talking about prayer. He is talking about asking and seeking God. So this is pretty awesome, Jesus is saying that we will receive what we ask for. But, have you ever asked God for something and not received it? I have. I have asked God to heal my injuries and take away my anxiety and other stuff I struggle with and those have continued to be issues in my life. Now I also have received many things from God and even with the things I mentioned I have seen God work in my life in awesome ways in the midst of those things, so that while he may not have taken those issues from me, he has used them in my life or given me grace or strength in dealing with them.
But the fact remains that this verse says ask and it will be given and yet there are things we have asked for and not received. Jesus is not saying that prayer is like a blank check where we can just figure out what we want, write in the amount and expect God to sign it. God is not like a genie in the lamp, who must grant us our wishes. So does that just mean that we throw our prayers up to God like we are standing at a wishing well, hoping that God might whimsically choose to grant us a wish? No, that’s not right either.
I think the next half of the passage sheds some light on this for us. Take a look at verses 9-11: “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!”
These verses add context for our asking seeking and knocking. Yes God responds to our requests, but he does so from the position of a good father giving to his children, not from the position of a genie in a lamp. He doesn’t just give us what we ask for as if we are the masters and he is beholden to give us what we request. But he is also not just some whimsical wish fulfiller, who just randomly chooses which of our prayers to answer and which ones to ignore. I believe this illustration of a good father really informs our perspective for prayer. Consider what Jesus is saying. First of all, bread and fish would have been basic key foods in Jesus’ culture. Here Jesus gives us the illustration of a father pulling some awful practical joke on his child where the child asks for bread, and the father gives him something like maybe a bread shaped stone that the kid will break his tooth on it if he bites it. Or even worse, instead of a fish to bite, he winds up getting bitten by a snake. Even though man is sinful and imperfect, even we know how to care for our children better than that. We know that would not be a good father. Even if we did not experience a good father we recognize what a good father is and is not. And if that is true of us, then how much more is it true of God.
Prayer is like the asking of a child to a loving father. If an earthly father always gave a child everything they asked for, would we consider that father a good father? No, because kids ask for all kinds of things that are not in their best interests. Or maybe just the timing is not right. Or maybe the father has a better plan for the child and that request will just get in the way. As a parent I see this in my parenting. My kids make requests that I choose not to fulfill because it is not going to be best for them. They don’t see the full picture that I see and so all they know is that I chose not to give them what they asked for, but if they could see things from my perspective they might understand better.
We would characterize a good father as that father who hears his children’s requests and understands them, but also sees more clearly the bigger picture and chooses wisely what to give and not give that child. Ultimately the child can ask for whatever they want, but a good and loving father is not just going to give them what they ask for, but rather what is best for them. How much more is that true of God, who is able to see even more clearly what is in the best interests of his children. He sees clearly the things we would never understand as well as all the ramifications of what each choice means. And so rather than give us what we ask for, he gives us what is in line with his better plan. Our Father truly is a good father.
This passage gives us a good perspective for prayer and seeking God. We are not talking to a genie in a lamp, or someone who just randomly fulfills or ignores requests. We are coming to our good Father. This puts a totally different look on prayer. Like we are children coming to our loving father grabbing hold of his hand, climbing into his lap, and expressing our desires, our needs, but with a trust in him and an understanding that he will do what is best for us.
Now, I believe this includes growth on our part. Much like growing up as kids in our relationship with our parents. Early on as children we have a tendency to ask selfishly for things from our parents. Like asking for a candy bar in a grocery store or to stop at Dairy queen on the way home from church. When we don’t get our way, maybe we throw a fit or pout. As we grow in maturity, those requests begin to change, and our relationship with our parents is different. We sometimes still might throw a fit or pout when we don’t get our way, but we at least begin to understand that there are reasons why our parents don’t just give in to our every request.
Hopefully as we experience our Father and his care for us, we develop a relationship of faith and prayer that becomes more about us walking with him and knowing him and seeking him and drawing closer to him and his ways for our lives rather than just getting stuff and pouting when we don’t get our way. Prayer is about coming to our loving Father.
Us coming to God in prayer, not to ask for stuff that we want, but asking for the stuff that he wants for us. Seeking more of him, more of his will, more of his kingdom, in us. In this sermon Jesus has been proclaiming the kingdom of God, which ultimately is a better life than we could ever imagine and so rather than seeking what we want or think we need, we should be seeking him and his kingdom. You know, the verbs, for ask, seek and knock are actually in the present tense. So it would be like keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. It is the idea of persistent prayer developing an intimacy with God, being connected with him and letting him have his way in us.
We are to live a life of seeking God. And in Jeremiah 29:13 we are promised, you will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. Sometimes it is hard to know how to approach God in prayer. But we don’t need to approach him like a genie in a lamp who must grant our wishes, or like a whimsical wish giver who just randomly grants requests and we never know whether or not our prayer will be granted. We can approach him as our Good Heavenly Father. There is a certainty in Jesus’ words in this passage, that as we ask, seek, and knock, we can be assured that God will answer, and open doors, and help us find him and know him and his kingdom. He may not always give us what we want, but we can trust him to give us what is best.