Our Gracious Father
Our Gracious Father
St. Matthew 7:7-11
by William Klock
One of my good friends in University was there to follow in his father’s footsteps as an engineer. In fact, his dad had told him that as long as he pursued a degree in engineering, he’d pay for his education. Well, my friend ran into a problem – he was failing Calculus. (In that he and I had one thing in common!) He tried and tried, but knew by the end of the first semester that he could never pass, so he dropped the class – and in doing so, dropped out of the engineering programme. He knew how disappointed – maybe even angry – his father would be, so when he got home for Christmas he greeted his parents something like this: “Mom and Dad, I have something very important to tell you. I went away to University this fall. It was my first time out on my own. I’ve always wanted to do what I know would be pleasing to you. And I thought I always liked what you expected me to like. Well, you know how sometimes you discover that what you thought you always liked, but then you try it and you find out you don’t really like it the way you thought you would. You always thought you were attracted to one sort of thing, and…well…then you find out you’re actually attracted to something different. Well Mom and Dad, I’ve reached a major decision in my life and I need to tell you there’s just no way I’m every going to fall in love with engineering. Well, by the time he got to the end of his spiel, it was with enormous relief that his parents heard him say it was engineering he didn’t like.
You see, when we have something to tell or ask of our earthly fathers, we couch our request in a way that we think they’ll be more likely to receive. My friend knew his father would be angry, so he couched his big news in a way that made his father fear something much worse. By the time he got to the real point, his father was relieved.
Today I want to look at Matthew 7:7-11. Jesus has already talked about the “how-to” of prayer in the last chapter, but here he talks about the graciousness of God when we come to him in prayer, and he confronts the things that get in the way of our coming before God in prayer. Consider that the Jews of Jesus’ time had a tendency to see God not as a loving father, but in a more pagan light. They saw him as detached and unconcerned with the daily lives of his people. And so Jesus says:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give hima 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!
Martin Luther commented on these verses saying, Jesus “knows that we are timid and shy, that we feel unworthy and unfit to present our needs to God…We think that God is so great and we are so tiny that we do not dare to pray…That is why Christ wants to lure us away from such timid thoughts, to remove our doubts, and to have us go ahead confidently and boldly.”
And look at how he calls us to come boldly: ask…seek…knock. Think of your little kids. If you’re right there it’s, “Mommy, can I…” If you’re in the next room, you hear “Mooooooommmmmmyyyyy” as he wanders around looking for you. And if when you’re in the bathroom, you hear “THUNK…THUNK…THUNK…MOOOOMMMMYYY…Are you in there???” Jesus talks about asking, seeking, and knocking in an increasing order of urgency. In additional to that, all three of those verbs are given to us by St. Matthew using a specific Greek verb tense that stresses that prayer isn’t about asking, seeking, or knocking once. It stresses that we ask, seek, and knock persistently and continually.
Jesus drives home this idea about God as our heavenly father with a parable – something that we’d all identify with. He asks us to picture this situation in which a hungry child comes to his father asking for something to eat. If he asks for bread, will he be given a stone that he can’t eat? If he asks for a fish, will he be given a dangerous snake? Of course he won’t. Parents, even though they are evil (we’re all selfish and sinful by nature), still love their children and give them good gifts. Notice that Jesus assumes – even stresses – the inherent sinfulness of human nature. And yet at the same time he doesn’t deny that sinful people are capable of doing good. On the contrary, in fact, evil parents still give good gifts to their children
The force of the parable is in the contrast between God as our heavenly Father and our sinful earthly fathers. Jesus asks us, “If human parents, who are sinful and evil, know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more, will our heavenly Father, who is perfectly righteous and good, give good things to those who ask him?” Think about the fact that we come to God as his children, and that it is by his grace and mercy that we are his children in the first place! He called us, he redeemed us, he made us his children. It’s not like we’re imposing on him in being his children. Remember that he called us. And so our prayers ought to be transformed when we remember that the God we come to is “Abba, Father,” and infinitely good and kind – that he wants us.
That idea of God as Abba – as Papa – was revolutionary for the people who heard Jesus. Jews didn’t talk about God that way. And yet that was how Jesus addressed God most of the time – in the same way a child would address his father. More importantly he encourages his disciples to follow his example. Think of that. And as you think of that, ask yourself with that in mind what could be simpler than the concept of prayer? If we belong to Christ, God is our Father, we are his children, and prayer is coming to him with our requests. It’s the same thing that children do with their parents. They don’t think about it. They don’t make it complicated. They just do it, because they know that their parents are there to care for them. Just so with us and God.
Jesus tells us, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” It’s childishly simple. And yet, surveys show that at most only about ten percent of Christians spend any meaningful amount of time in real prayer with God. My own observations back that up. Jesus’ promise about prayer is simple, so why don’t we pray?
In most cases I think the bottom line is a combination of spiritual laziness or apathy and our having our priorities out of whack. When I people come to me to talk about their problems, one of the first things I ask is about their prayer life and their time in the Word. And in most cases they don’t spend any significant time in either prayer or Scripture. Current surveys indicate that less them 10% of Christians do either. People say they don’t have time. Yes, you do, its just a matter of priorities. Remember that Jesus tells us to lay up treasures in heaven, not on earth. But we’re always ready with some other excuse and there are three I typically hear – and I want to talk about those.
First, people get the wrong idea that prayer is somehow unseemly. I’ve heard people actually say that because God is all-knowing and because he is sovereign over all things, that this sort of advice to ask, seek, and knock is suggesting that God somehow needs to be told what to do or has to be pestered into doing it. One person pointed out that human parents don’t wait for their children to ask before meeting their needs.
There is an element of truth behind those objections. It is true that God knows our needs before we ever think to ask. And it’s also true that God never makes a “Plan B,” as if after hearing our prayers he discovers that we have better ideas than he does. He is sovereign and he works out his purposes regardless of our input. And it’s not that he somehow needs to be persuaded to answer our prayers. The reason has to do with us, not with him. The question isn’t whether he’s ready to give, but whether we’re ready to receive. In prayer we don’t “prevail” on God. No, we prevail on ourselves to submit to God. We need to understand those passages that use the language of “prevailing on God” as accommodations to our human weakness. Think back to Genesis and to Jacob. Even when he “prevailed on God,” what really happened if you pay attention to the story is that God prevailed on him, bringing him to the point of surrender when he was able to receive the blessings God been longing to give him all along.
You see, our heavenly Father never spoils his children. He doesn’t shower us with gifts whether we want them or not or whether we’re ready for them or not. No, he waits until we see our need and turn to him in humility. This is why he says, “Ask, and it will be given to you,” and this is why St. James tells us, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). There’s nothing unseemly about prayer. In fact, prayer is the way God himself has chosen for us to express our conscious need of him and our humble dependence on him.
Second, I’ve heard other people object to prayer saying that it isn’t necessary. That’s just plain contrary to Scripture, but people say it anyway. They look at the world around them see from their experience that lots of people – even unbelievers – get along just fine and have their needs met without every praying. It’s a theology of experience – which is always a dangerous thing, no matter how pious it might be. But people look at their friends who seem to have everything they need without prayer. They get what they want by working for it, not by praying for it. The farmer’s crops grow because he works hard, not because he prays. The cancer patient is cured because he went to the doctor and took the necessary treatments, not because he prayed. The family balances its budget because dad works and earns a paycheque, not because they pray. And so I’ve heard some people say that this proves prayer isn’t necessary – and even that it’s a waste of time. It seems more productive to them to spend that time working to meet their own needs than praying.
At this point we need to backup a little, because you see, we have to make a distinction between God’s gifts as Creator and his gifts as Father – between what I’ll call his “creation-gifts” and his “redemption-gifts.” There are some gifts that he gives whether we pray or not. God will give a fruitful harvest, a hefty paycheque, or good health to a praying and faithful Christian and to an atheist who denies his very existence. He gives life and breath to everyone. He sends rain from heaven and fruitful seasons to all. He makes the sun rise on the evil and the good alike. But you see, none of those gifts is dependent on whether people acknowledge their Creator or pray to him.
But God’s “redemption-gifts” are different. God does not give salvation to all alike, but “bestows his riches on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12). And the same goes for the blessings that follow our redemption. Those are the “good things” that Jesus is talking about here in the Sermon on the Mount. He’s not talking so much about material blessings, but spiritual blessings – things like daily forgiveness, deliverance from evil, peace, increase of faith, hope and love, and in fact the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit as the fullness of God’s blessing.
We can see this if we look at St. Luke’s Gospel. Jesus gave this sermon more than once and we know from Luke’s account, he changed bits and pieces of it as he preached it to different people. St. Luke gives a parallel passage where Jesus talks about these “good things,” but there it’s clear that Jesus is talking about these “redemption-gifts” – the spiritual blessings of the Christian life.
In his model prayer, which we looked at before Christmas, Jesus combines both of these kids of gifts. There we’re told to pray for “daily bread” (a creation-gift), but we also ask for “forgiveness” and “deliverance” (both redemption-gifts). I think the answer as to why the two kinds of gifts are combined there is that we pray for our daily bread not because we’re afraid we’ll starve if we don’t (after all, billions of people get their daily bread without ever praying for it), but we ask for it as a way of acknowledging that ultimately it comes from God and because as his children it’s appropriate to regularly acknowledge our physical dependence on him. When it comes to forgiveness and deliverance – redemption gifts – we pray because these gifts are given only in answer to prayer, and because without them we would be lost.
The third and final reason I hear people say they don’t pray is because they think it’s a waste of time. This excuse follows from the last one. They say prayer isn’t necessary because God gives to people anyway, even when they don’t pray. People will say it’s a waste of time to pray, because God didn’t give what they asked for. “I prayed that I would pass the test, but I failed.” “I prayed that God would heal my mother (or father or husband or wife), but she died anyway.” “I prayed to be healed, and my sickness only got worse.” “I prayed for peace, but the world is still full of war.” “Prayer doesn’t work!” I hear this one all the time.
Here’s the thing, though: the promises that Jesus gives here in the Sermon on the Mount are not unconditional promises. Just think about that for a minute. Imagine what would happen if Jesus’ promise “Ask, and it shall be given to you” were absolute, with no conditions and no strings attached. Think about the consequences if “Knock, and it will be opened to you” were an “Open Sesame” to any and every closed door without any exception. Think about prayer if it were just a magic wand you could wave and have any wish granted. I don’t think we stop and think about that often enough. Those are pretty ridiculous ideas about prayer. But I know that this is often how we expect prayer to work – or at least how we want it to work. But if prayer worked that way, God would be nothing more than Aladdin’s genie – all we’d have to do is rub the lamp. We’d be turning God into a divine vending machine!
To the natural man that might sound pretty good, but think about the spiritual implications for us. Think about the strain that would place on a real Christian if he knew that everything he asked for, he’d get. If that were truly the case – that whatever we ask God is pledged to give – I’ll tell you right now, I’d probably never pray again, because I don’t have the confidence in my own limited and sin-tainted wisdom to ask God for anything that he’s obligated to give me. Can you imagine the burden that would put on our limited human knowledge and abilities if God was required by his own promise to give whatever we ask, whenever we ask it, and in exactly the terms we ask?
What we need to remember is that our heavenly Father is good and he gives only good gifts to his children. Our heavenly Father is also wise, and so he knows which gifts are good and which aren’t. Jesus said that human parents don’t give stones or snakes to their children who ask for bread or fish. But what if that child, not knowing better, actually did ask for a stone or a snake for food. What then? Granted there might be some truly irresponsible parent who might actually give him a stone or snake, but most parents are too wise and loving to do that.
When I was about ten I decided to make a snowball melter. I got the idea of cutting the end off of an extension cord so that I could plug one end into an electrical outlet and then stick the bare wires into a snowball. I thought it sounded pretty good, so I ran into the house and asked my mom if she would give me an old extension cord that I could cut the end off of. Needless to say, she was wise and loving enough to tell me “No.”
But there are lots of time we fervently pray for something, not knowing that we’re asking for a stone, a serpent, or a dangerous extension cord to hack up. God isn’t going to give us those “gifts” no matter how much we ask, seek, or knock, because he only gives “good gifts” to his children. When we ask for bad gifts, he denies them. The problem from our end is that those things often look good to us – just like the snowball melter looked pretty good to me as a stupid ten-year-old. We don’t have God’s perfect wisdom, his knowledge, or his perfect goodness and so we can’t know that some things that look good now, may actually be harmful to us or others, even if that harm were to come many years from now. Only God knows the difference between good and bad gifts.
For that reason we can thank God that his granting our requests is conditional – not on our asking, seeking, and knocking, but also on whether or not what we ask for is good. Thank God he answers prayer, but thank God that sometimes he tells us “No.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “I thank God that he is not prepared to do anything that I may chance to ask him…I am profoundly grateful to God that he did not grant me certain things for which I asked, and that he shut certain doors in my face.”
This is why Jesus tells to always pray, “Thy will be done.” The better we know his Word and the stronger our fellowship with God, the better we will know his will, but that knowledge will never be infallible. I get awfully nervous when I hear people in their prayers making demands of God and telling God what he has to or what he is going to do for them. It doesn’t work that way. Imagine your children coming to you that way and making demands for what they might think is good, but in your greater knowledge, you know is bad. We need to come to God in great humility, ready for him to teach us, not arrogantly making demands.
Let me conclude by stressing three things. First, that prayer presupposes knowledge. Because God only gives gifts that are in accordance with his divine will, it means that we have to make the effort to discover and know his will. And the way we know God will is by knowing Scripture, by committing it to memory and meditating on Scripture, and by training our minds with Scripture. Second, prayer presupposes faith. It’s one thing to know God’s will; it’s something else entirely to humble ourselves before him and express our confidence that he is able to cause his will to be done. Third, prayer presupposes desire. We may know God’s will and believe he will bring it to pass, and yet still not desire it. This is the reason why Jesus’ “ask…seek…knock” commands are in this continuing imperative form and why they have this scale of ascending urgency to challenge our perseverance.
And so before we ask, we have to know what to ask for and whether it’s in accordance with God’s will. We have to believe God can grant it. And we have to genuinely want to receive it. It’s only then that we’ll see the gracious promise of Jesus come to pass.
Please pray with me: Almighty God, we give you thanks that we can come to you as our loving heavenly Father, confident in the knowledge that you desire to give us good gifts. Grow in each of us a desire to spend time with you each day in prayer. But Father, we ask also that you would remind us that to come with confidence we also need to spend time in your Word, growing in our knowledge of your ways and your will. Give us the humility to submit to your will and to be ready to receive your good answers, even when they aren’t what we want to hear – and then let us receive your gifts as the good gifts they are. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.