Soundings

Ask, seek and knock

Jan 2002    

God assures us that He will answer our prayers according to His will

Matthew 7: 7-12

IN THIS passage in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assures His disciples that their prayers will be heard and answered according to God’s love and faithfulness.

Some scholars have tried to demonstrate the connection between this passage and the preceding verses (7:1-6) by extrapolating that Jesus is here teaching that rather than judging it is better to ask God to remove the speck in the other person’s eye. This interpretation has engendered an attitude that wrongly elevates prayer over criticism, even if the latter is made prayerfully and lovingly. It is hoped that the discussion of the preceding verses would help us to understand why this interpretation is untenable.

The statements in this passage are of a piece with Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon. The Sermon began with the acknowledgement of the disciple’s bankruptcy before God (5:3). It then provides the model for prayer (6:9-13), and now it provides the assurance that the prayers of the disciples will be heard by God, who will answer them according to His will.

This passage begins with three imperatives: Ask, seek and knock. They refer to the same activity, namely prayer. The imperatives encourage the disciples of Christ to pray, and with each imperative, success is assured. Hence “Ask and it shall be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be opened to you”. In verse 8 they are symmetrically repeated. The object is not specified: the disciples were not told what to ask, what to seek or that for which they knock.

Verse 11 suggests that the object of prayer is “good gifts”, although it does not describe what they are. Verses 9-11 seem to indicate that the requests have to do with food – that is, with daily sustenance. The present tense in these verses conveys the idea of persistence – the disciples are to continue asking, seeking and knocking. The passive verbs in verses 7 and 8 point to the faithfulness of God – God is the one who will answer and open the door. The emphasis here is not the content of the petitions – the “good gifts” – but the faithfulness of God.

The assurance that this passage offers that those who ask will be given has sometimes resulted in misconceptions about prayer. A superficial reading of this passage may give the impression that by this promise God must answer all our prayers, according to our requests. When reality presents a very different picture, disillusionment will no doubt result. Explanatory strategies are then devised to provide the reason why petitions are not answered. The usual reason given is that the person who made them did not have sufficient faith. Bad theology is often the result of wrong exegesis!

The rhetorical questions in verses 9-11 will help clarify the meaning of this passage. “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, will give him a snake?” The answer to these questions is that none of them would. The point is made in verse 11: “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 good gifts to those who ask him!”

The logic here is impeccable. The sinfulness of human parents – and Scripture presupposes the moral degradation of the human family – is compared to righteousness and goodness of the Father who is in heaven. People are evil. They are self-centred and their desires are perverted. Yet, they are able to give good gifts to their children – they will not give their children a stone when they ask for bread. How much more will the heavenly Father, who is pure goodness, give good gifts to those who ask?

Again the emphasis here is not the content of the petition, but the wisdom and goodness of the Father. The Father alone knows what is good for us; and He will always give us good gifts. We, on the other hand, may not know what is good for us. We are short-sighted and self-centred, and our perspective of reality is distorted by our personal prejudices and biases. As a result what we think is good for us and for our families may not be good. The disciples of Christ, it is true, are commanded to ask, seek, and knock. But they are to do so with the knowledge that their Father in heaven knows what is good for them, and trusting that He will give them good gifts.

These statements therefore speak of prayer in the context of relationship. Prayer is not magic, or a technique. There is no formula for effective prayer, no steps to take or special exercises to do. It is amazing that much of the literature on prayer actually has no sound theology of prayer! Scripture does not give us a formula for effective prayer. As we have already seen, even the Lord’s Prayer provides no formula, only a model.

In Scripture, prayer is always placed within the context of a relationship. Outside that context prayer becomes “occultic”, and has to do with the harnessing and manipulation of spiritual powers. In this passage, the context of prayer is the covenantal relationship between God and man. The confidence of prayer is the wisdom and love of the heavenly Father. And the attitude of prayer is that of trusting surrender to the One who is faithful and who gives good gifts.

Verse 12 articulates what is often called the “Golden Rule”. The Golden Rule was not invented by Jesus, but was found in various ways in different contexts. Some readers may know the story of Rabbi Hillel. In AD 20, he was challenged by a Gentile to summarise the Law in the short time that the Gentile could stand on one leg. Hillel responded by saying: “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. This is the whole law; all the rest is commentary.” The Golden Rule can be said to be the exegesis of Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew (22:35-40), Jesus articulated the two greatest commandments on the basis of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. To “love your neighbour as yourself” is equivalent to doing to others what you would have them do to you. The emphasis here is to be found in the emphatic “in everything”. This rule applies to every aspect of the life of the disciple, and touches all relationships. It summarises the “Law and the Prophets”, and its scope is unlimited.

But the Golden Rule also encapsulates the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. It is the essence of all of Jesus’ ethical teaching in the Sermon, whether that has to do with judging others or loving one’s enemies.

It brings to expression the teaching of “the Law and the Prophets”, and therefore is the expression of the will of God. The disciples of Christ abide by this rule not because they expect others to do the same to them, but unconditionally, because it is the command of God.

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.

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