Prayer: Just A.S.K.

Thank you for the feedback last week. I asked you to complete the sentence “When it comes to prayer I…” Some of you wrote about your love of prayer or your belief in prayer. I am really grateful that there are strong pray-ers in this church because the life of the church depends on prayer and I depend on it. Others wrote about prayer needs. I have prayed for those, although I don’t know who wrote them.

Other people wrote about their difficulty with prayer or their doubts: I struggle; my mind wanders; my prayers don’t seem to get heard; I feel spiritually tired and thus my prayers are tired. That’s reality that we can probably all relate to at times.

Do you think we need to learn to pray? Or is it something that happens without effort? We have to learn to play a music instrument. We have to learn life skills. We have to learn how to communicate with our friends and our spouse. Do we have to learn to communicate with God? Or are we instantly good at it when we become Christians, and remain good at it?

Undoubtedly, we have to learn to pray. We need to discover how prayer works. We need to move from childish prayers to the prayers of the mature Christian. The disciples watched Jesus pray and then

said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Even with their Jewish upbringing, which would have included lots of prayer, they still knew that there was much they didn’t know.

How much effort are we putting into learning to pray? Are we focused and disciplined like a concert pianist or an athlete? Do we desire to be effective pray-ers? Or do we dabble and quickly get disappointed?

I had a conversation with our daughter this week about prayer. We both questioned why we weren’t better pray-ers because we say we believe in prayer and we have heard so many stories of wonderful answers to prayer. We both pray (I hasten to assure you) but why aren’t we better pray-ers?

Kirsten leads teams from her church on mission trips to Indonesia and the Philippines. She talked about one pastor. You can see him on the left of this picture.

church

Behind him is his “church”. To fix his church, one night before he went to sleep, he asked God for a tarpaulin. The next morning there was a neatly folded tarpaulin and ropes! No one could have brought it to such a remote village. None of the villagers could have afforded it, but there it was.

tarpaulin

Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you.”

In fact, Jesus said it six times: Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, the one who seeks finds and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Six times!

What do you think Jesus wants us to know? Surely, the lesson here is: God answers prayer. If you ask, God will answer.

We tend to want to complicate it or make excuses for God. But what is Jesus clearly saying? God answers prayers. If you ask, He will answer. Jesus said that six times!

Just out of interest, is there any difference between asking, seeking and knocking? Maybe not. Maybe Jesus was simply using different images all meaning the same thing.

On the other hand, some people have suggested that they represent different types of prayer. Some say that asking is a simple act that is completed very quickly. Seeking is a process that takes longer and requires more focus. Knocking is about repeatedly battling against some obstacle – keeping on knocking until the door is opened. Maybe Jesus is talking about different levels of battle in prayer.

Someone else says that asking is about having needs met. Seeking is about finding God. Knocking is about entering closer fellowship with God. Maybe Jesus is indicating greater depths of prayer.

Last week I emphasised persevering in prayer. Two people asked if that is always necessary. Can we not sometimes just leave it with God? Might it even indicate lack of faith that we have to keep reminding God? That’s a fair question. Maybe Jesus is indicating here that there are some prayers that require only a simple request. God has heard it; He will answer. End of story. But there are other prayers where perseverance is the key. Knowing the difference is part of our learning more about prayer.

I don’t think though that persevering necessarily indicates lack of faith. It might indicate strong faith because you are saying to God, “Even though You have not yet answered, I am not giving up because I still believe that You are my only hope.”

Anyway, Jesus’ main point in this passage is simply that if you ask, God will answer. We can be slow to believe such things? Do you believe that if you ask, God will answer?

Then Jesus explained why God answers prayer. It is because He is our Father. Even earthly fathers love to give good things to their children. Even earthly fathers, with all the mixed motives and sinful tendencies that we have, delight in responding to the requests of their children and delight to give good things; delight to see their children blessed. Even human fathers don’t respond with mocking useless things (like  a stone instead of bread) or dangerous gifts (like a serpent instead of a fish.) Even earthly fathers…

How much more… How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him. God is infinitely more loving and more generous than any human father. Therefore he is infinitely more trustworthy and infinitely more eager to bless His children. Jesus is really laying it on thick that God will answer the requests of His children. The primary reason for believing that is the very nature of God. He is a Father who responds to His children. He hears our prayers and He promises to answer our prayers.

But isn’t it our experience that God does not always answer our prayers?

Jesus said God would give good things to those who ask. Sometimes what we ask for is not good. What if I was to ask for wealth? Wealth often leads people away from God. Maybe it would be far better for me to be poor and to be constantly reminded that I need God. If I pray for wealth, is God going to give me that? I hope that God loves me too much to give me wealth. Wealth might actually be the serpent not the fish. I might think wealth is the fish but God knows the potential corruption of wealth. God knows it’s a serpent. Jesus said God won’t give me the serpent.

I hope that God loves me so much that He will sometimes not give me what I ask for. Sometimes His love is demonstrated by not answering – just as a good parent will sometimes say no.

Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane to escape the cross and God didn’t answer that prayer. On one level, Jesus didn’t want to do God’s will but, on a deeper level, doing God’s will was exactly what Jesus wanted. So He prayed “Your will be done.” He trusted that His Father’s will would be best even if it wasn’t what seemed best to Jesus at the time.

And God answered Jesus in another way. After Jesus had wrestled in prayer He had peace. He would still have to face the cross but He had worked it through with His Father and He was willing to do it. God proved to be the loving Father who gives good things to His children. In this instance it was peace.

Look at the context for Jesus saying, “Ask, seek, knock.” Jesus had just taught about not trying to improve other people before you have sorted yourself out (Don’t try to take the splinter out of someone else’s eye when you have a log in your own) and about the importance of being discerning and wise. Then He said God will give us good things if we ask Him. The really good things that God loves to give are those things that help us grow so that we become more mature and wise and discerning.

Are we praying for those things? Are we praying, “Lord, change my heart. Prune from my life those things that displease you. Grow me. Give me godly wisdom.”? Are we praying “I want an easy life” or “I want to be like Jesus”? God will answer one of those prayers but not the other.

Solomon was commended for asking for wisdom rather than wealth.

James 1:5            If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

Like Jesus, James emphasises God’s generosity and willingness to give. Clearly God likes to give those sorts of gifts – the gifts that are about our own personal growth in faith and godliness.

But don’t we sometimes ask for things that you would have thought were undeniably good and God still doesn’t seem to answer?

Sometimes it is a question of timing. God will answer but not yet. Our loving Father knows what is best.

Jesus very clearly says, “You ask, God will answer.” Was He wrong? Is God actually unfaithful or fickle or does He play cruel games with us? That is exactly what Jesus said God would not do.

In this passage it doesn’t appear that Jesus puts any limitations on the asking and the receiving but other passages make it pretty clear that we cannot ask any-old-how with God being obligated to jump at our command. Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive.” James, in his letter, said, “You do not receive because you do not ask.” Essentially he was saying the same thing as Jesus, “Ask and you will receive.”

But James also says,

James 4:3            When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

James 1:7-8         7 For that person [the person who doubts] must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

The person who doubts won’t receive. One of the first lessons in prayer is to pray in faith in the God who promises to give good things to those who ask.

If our prayers are not being answered, it is not God’s fault. Jesus emphasised God’s faithfulness and goodness. Let’s not blame God when maybe we have to learn more about prayer. If our prayers are not being answered, let’s look at our own prayer life. It may be part of our learning to pray.

It is about growing in our relationship with God. God is incredibly loving and generous and faithful in answering prayer. The problem does not lie with God but do we have the desire to get closer to God? Are we serious about prayer? Are we learning to pray?

Bill Hybels writes, ‘If the request is wrong God says “No”.  If the timing is wrong God says “Slow”.  If you are wrong God says “Grow”.  But if the request is right and the timing is right and you are right, God says “Go”.’

Jesus repeatedly says, “Pray. Pray. Pray. Ask, Seek. Knock. God loves you. He will answer.” Jesus urges us to pray – to draw on the power of the Almighty God who knows exactly what is best for us and is keen to give it to us. Jesus states a prayer certainty: God will answer your prayers. Maybe part of our growth in prayer is simply to believe that truth and to ask in faith.

Can I suggest that, this week, we pray every day, “Father, You give good things to those who ask. Please help me believe that and to experience it.” Let’s just see how God answers that prayer.

For Reflection

  1. From your experience, would you say that God does or doesn’t answer prayer? Or only sometimes?
  2. Was Jesus right or wrong in saying that if we ask, God will answer?
  3. Do we need to qualify what Jesus said? And if so, do we qualify it so much that it becomes something different?
  4. If God says “no” does that mean He has or hasn’t answered that prayer?
  5. Does this passage identify an area of growth for your prayer life? If so, what is it and what will you do about it?
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