“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” The key to understanding this statement from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the realization that the one who determines the gift is God, and the ones who determine whether or not the gift is received are those to whom the gift is offered.
Recently, I drove our eldest son back to the college he attends. As we were traveling south on Interstate 75 in Ohio, we were passed by a shiny red Chevrolet 4×4 Blazer. Our son looked at the Blazer and then looked at me and said, “Dad, that is what I want.”
The request did not surprise me. Ever since he received his driver’s license, he has been saying, “I want a 4×4 Chevrolet Blazer.” As a father who did not have his first vehicle until he had graduated from college, I am resistant to such requests. Still, due to my desire for my children’s happiness, I feel a tug — love, I suppose — to oblige.
The major roadblock is that we have two other sons who have their requests, as well as the conviction that the resources we have are best given to further their education. As parents in this case, we determine the gift; our sons determine whether or not they will accept the gift.
Jesus, in trying to explain His statement about asking and seeking and knocking, gives the illustration of a parent who receives a request from a son: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or, if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?”
The answer is obvious. A parent who loves his child, even though that parent may not have the resources to give the actual request, will not give in its place something useless (a stone) or something harmful (a snake). The parent will give what she or he determines is best to give. “How much more will your Father in heaven,” says Jesus, “give good gifts to those who ask Him!”
The language of this statement is the language of intimacy. In prayer jargon, it is the language of petition. It is between you and the Father, the Father and you. What is it that you want from the Father for yourself, just for yourself? And is what the Father has to give in line with what you want? Are you receptive to what the Father deems best? Or, would you rather hold out for a 4×4 Chevrolet Blazer?
Do you have the same struggle I have with asking God? With regard to prayer, I am much more likely to ask on behalf of another than to ask for myself. I feel rather like John Killinger when he wrote of the hospitality with which he was received into a friend’s house:
They received me into their lovely house, which the wife had labored all day to clean for my arrival. They ushered me into the most comfortable bedroom, where their own clothes had been removed from the closet to make room for mine. They set before me a sumptuous meal, served on their finest china and with their best silver. They give me an evening of devoted attention before a roaring fire in the sanctity of their family parlor. And then, when it is time to bid good night and retire to our beds, they say, “Now, if you need anything, just ask.”
What could I possibly need? Some toothpaste, perhaps? A paper handkerchief? A call in the morning? Trifles, all. Bagatelles. Mere nothings. Of course I shall have what I need. What is that compared with what they have already given?
John Killinger, Bread for the Wilderness, Wine for the Journey, p. 35.)
Indeed, with so much already, who are we to ask for more? We are God’s children — that is who we are — and children are never bashful to ask for what their parents have to give. What then does our heavenly Parent have to give? Luke, in his rendering of our text tells us: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (
God’s gift to us is not in the realm of things, but in the sphere of the Person. The Holy Spirit, the personal presence and power of God within and between, is first, last and always God’s gift in response to our asking and seeking and knocking. At issue is not the gift which God has to give, but our openness to receive what God has to give.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, who went through the faith-challenging experience of seeing his fifteen-year-old son die of a rare disease which aged him before his years, faced squarely the issue of God and what God has to give in prayer. “There are several ways in which we can answer the person who asks, ‘Why didn’t I get what I prayed for?’,” Kushner writes. “And most of the answers are problematic, leading me to feelings of guilt, or anger or hopelessness.
– You didn’t get what you prayed for because you didn’t deserve it.
– You didn’t get what you prayed for, because you didn’t pray hard enough.
– You didn’t get what you prayed for, because God knows what is best for you better than you do.
– You didn’t get what you prayed for, because someone else’s prayer for the opposite result was more worthy.
– You didn’t get what you prayed for, because prayer is a sham; God doesn’t hear prayers.
– You didn’t get what you prayed for, because there is no God.
If we are not satisfied with any of these answers, but don’t want to give up on the idea of prayer, there is one other possibility. We can change our understanding of what it means to pray, and what it means for our prayers to be answered.” (Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, p. 115.)
Could it be the only answer we have a right to expect is God Himself? How much grief that would save us if we could simply accept that God’s answer is God, and seek after only that which God has to give.
Barbara Brokhoff tells about an article in The Charlotte Observer which recounts the story of a cab driver who over the years had become a fairly reliable judge of people. One night he picked up a fare who appeared to be a desperate man. The man asked to be taken to the corner of Providence and Queen roads and there commanded the cabbie to stop. For a long time they just sat in the cab with the meter running. The man said nothing, just stared.
The next night the incident was repeated. By the third night the cabbie became suspicious. He happened to notice a supermarket and a drug store across the way, and the thought that his fare just might be casing the place for a holdup entered his mind. So he said to the man, “I need some cigarettes; I’ll be right back.” While in the store he called the police. The police arrived shortly after and they asked the man why he came night after night to this particular corner.
The man pointed to a window in the Myers Park United Methodist Church, a gorgeous, beautifully back-lighted stained glass window. He said, “I never had much religion. I didn’t even know how to pray. My wife is very sick, and the doctors tell me she is real bad. But then I found this window. Something about its light gives me strength and peace, and somehow looking at it I have the words to pray.”
What that man prayed I do not know. The words which came to him are really incidental. But that he received his answer in the peace and strength he found I do believe. That strength and peace is the gift of God Himself. And the asking was simply being present to the presence and power of God — the Holy Spirit — of which that man was reminded in the sight of that window.
To pray is not necessarily as we think of prayer — the formulation of words which seek to influence God. Prayer has more to do with our recognition of a Power greater than our own. That is the asking. That is the seeking. That is the knocking.
Which brings us to an issue which we have skirted long enough. Why is such asking and seeking and knocking necessary at all? Why would God limit Himself in giving what God has to give by insisting that we first ask? Why doesn’t God simply just give? The answer is only in what has been revealed to us. God, for God’s own reason, makes Himself dependent upon us to get His work accomplished. In the words of Meister Eckert, “God can as little do without us as we without Him. God invites … we respond.”
That is the thought George Eliot must have had when she placed these words into the mouth of the renowned violin maker, Antonia Stradivarius:
When a master holds twixt chin and hand a violin of mine, he will be glad that Stradivarius lived, made violins, and made them the best …
For while God gives them skill, I give them instruments to play upon, God choosing me to help Him…. If my hand should slack, I should rob God — since He is the fullest goodness — leaving a blank instead of violins. for He could not make Antonia Stradivan violins without Antonia.
(Quoted from a sermon by John Claypool, “Asking the God Who Already Knows”)
And neither does God choose to give what God has to give unless we ask, seek, knock. From the beginning of time it is clear that God never intended a “solo operation.” The joy which God found in giving life is part of what God wanted to share. Thus God resolved that what He offered would only be finished in concert with others.
That is the reason our asking and seeking and knocking is so crucial. It is the opening God needs to get God’s work done through us, and it is the conduit which makes available to us what God has to give. God will never force His will upon us. Our spirits must first be receptive. The asking, you see, is not so much for what we want as it is for what God wills.
And that is where the last verse of our text, which seems strangely out of place, finds meaning. “In everything do unto others what you would have them do to you, for this is the sum of the Law and the Prophets.”
It is also the sum of God’s will. It represents not only the way we are to relate to each other but also the way we would that God would relate to us.
Who of us appreciates another person forcing his or her will upon us? We neither care for persons like that, nor for “gods” like that. God treats us the way He calls us to treat one another. At the center of prayer is what is at the center of any relationship — the willingness to receive what the other has to give.
God has Himself to give. Our asking, seeking and knocking is for nothing other than God.