Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and everyone who knocks has the door opened for them.” And the people of God said, “Um, Jesus, we asked that our sick would get better, and some of them died, and others are still in pain; and we went seeking for new jobs for those who are jobless, and some of them are still unemployed; and we knocked on the door of opportunity, and it’s still bolted shut.” And the preachers of the prosperity gospel rose and said, “Ahh, but you weren’t really asking, seeking, and knocking, because you didn’t have enough faith. If you didn’t get what you asked for, don’t blame God—it’s your fault.” And the people of God hung their heads and went away, depressed.
So goes much of the discussion about this passage, and so all too often the preaching of it is not good news but a stumbling block; many have fallen here, and some have never gotten up again. I don’t believe the problem is with Jesus, however, or with the actual meaning of the text; I think we misread it because of a couple assumptions we make that don’t actually fit with Jesus’ intent.
First, this passage is not about faith. It’s a subtle distinction, but important: this passage is not about faith, it’s about trust. These concepts are closely related, but think about the way we use them. When we talk about faith, we tend to be thinking about what God is going to do, or what another person is going to do; I have faith that so-and-so will do what I tell them, or that God will give me what I ask. It’s outcome-based. That’s why, when we pray for something and God doesn’t give us what we ask for, we call it an unanswered prayer. It’s also why our focus shifts so easily from God to our faith—we come to see faith as a power we exercise to make our desired outcome happen.
Trust, by contrast, is more oriented to the character of the person. I don’t trust my wife because she does what I want her to do; sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t. You know her, she’s not exactly a pushover, and she definitely knows her own mind about things. But while I have faith that she will do what she needs to do and what God has gifted her to do, I trust her because of who she is in Jesus Christ: a woman of integrity, honor, and wisdom who does not play people false. If I ask her for something, it isn’t in faith that she has to say yes, or that she’ll say yes if I just want it badly enough; rather, I ask in trust that she wants what’s best for both of us, and that her judgment in such matters is sound. So it is with God, only far more so, for his judgment is infallible, his wisdom is infinite, and his love for us is limitless and perfect.
Praying in trust, then, means setting aside the second assumption we typically make: that Jesus means, “Ask, and you will be given exactly what you ask for,” and so on. He doesn’t actually say that. He says “it will be given to you,” but he doesn’t say what it is—there’s not even a subject there in the Greek, just the verb. He says those who seek will find, but not what they’ll find; for those who knock, something will be opened, but he doesn’t even say it will be a door, let alone the same door.
As I say this, you might think I’m just splitting hairs for no good reason, but look at verses 9-10, because there’s more going on than we see at first. There are two pairs here—bread/stone, fish/snake—and the parallel passage in Luke 11 adds a third one, egg/scorpion. These look like random pairings, but they aren’t. One, bread, eggs, and fish are staple foods in the Near East. Two, as the Arabic Christian commentator Ibrahim Sa‘id points out, the round loaves of bread villagers would bake in their ovens look very like common round stones, and what looks like an egg on the table might very well be one of the scorpions of the region curled up to sleep. As for the fish, there’s a type of catfish in the Sea of Galilee called the barbut which grows to about five feet long and looks very like a snake; by the Old Testament law, it’s an unclean fish and not to be eaten because it doesn’t have scales.
Jesus’ point here is not simply that if your child asks for something good, you won’t give them something bad instead. When my son asks for candy and points at one of my pill bottles, am I going to give him a pill? No way. (I might not give him candy either, but that’s another matter.) If he asks for food and points to something that isn’t food, am I going to give that to him? No, I won’t, because for all my faults, I know how to give good gifts to my children. He asks wrongly, not because it’s wrong for him to ask or because I don’t want to give him what he wants, but because he doesn’t understand what he’s looking at. I’m not going to give in to his misunderstanding; instead, I’m going to tell him no, and then give him something else that will actually meet his need.
Again, so it is with God, only far more so, because he knows far better than we do what’s good for his children, and how to give us good gifts. Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and you will see something open up. It may not be what you wanted, or what you thought you needed, but it will be what you actually needed. Seven years ago, I was praying hard that things would work out in Colorado; I pointed to that, over and over, and said, “Father, that’s bread—I want it.” God knew it was really a stone, and said no. I hammered on that door as hard and as long as I could, and it didn’t even dent, let alone budge; instead, God opened up a trap door, and I landed here. I only realized after we’d been here a while how badly we had needed God not to give me what I was asking; if I could go back and change the ending to that story, I never would.
Jesus’ purpose here isn’t to promise us that God will give us whatever we ask for if we do it “right”; it’s to free us from the idea that prayer is about us doing it “right.” The prosperity-gospel types teach you to ask for anything and everything so that God can give you anything and everything, because he wants to say yes to whatever we ask. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the folks who say that we really shouldn’t ask God for anything much, and they’re making the same basic assumption. As they see it, asking God for things is dangerous because we’re liable to ask wrongly—for something that isn’t good for us, or out of selfish motives—and so he’s only going to say no. Either way, our prayers are really about us and how we’re praying.
Jesus wants us to see that prayer is really about God, and he invites us to ask freely. He doesn’t set any limits at all, he just says, “Ask—seek—knock.” Ask for whatever, and trust the Lord for what he gives. Seek, and let the Father lead us. Knock, and be confident that God will open up our way. If we’re asking, seeking, and knocking, we might have the wrong idea, but at least we’re moving, and moving toward him. God can always fix our steering problem. We don’t have to figure out in advance what we ought to ask for, because he doesn’t only answer prayers that are in accordance with his will, and he doesn’t punish us if we ask unwisely. If we ask him for bread, he intends to give us bread—if the particular loaf we want is actually a boulder in disguise, he won’t give us the boulder, but he will still give us bread. His answer might come in a different way than we expect, from a different direction, but it will come.
The key, again, is trust. Jesus is teaching us to depend on God and God alone—not our resumé, not our income, not our family and friends, not our skills, not our investments, but only our Father in heaven. If things are going well and we have more money than we need, still we put our trust in God to meet our needs—money is fickle. If things are going badly and our income is dropping, still we put our trust in God to meet our needs—he has more than enough money, even if we can’t see it at the moment, and he will never leave us in the lurch. We should strive to live our lives in such a way, and to live as a church in such a way, that if the Father ever failed to come through for us, we would be ruined; because everything else will fail us in the end, but he never will.
This is why Jesus tells us to ask freely, for anything and everything, because it teaches us to depend on God for anything and everything. It sounds very spiritual to say that we shouldn’t ask God for stuff because that’s selfish and materialistic—but the fact is, we still want stuff even if we don’t ask him for it. That just means we put our trust in ourselves to get ourselves the stuff we want, and the stuff we think we need. Asking God for all of it teaches us to put our trust in him instead of ourselves. The more we trust him, and the more we see him answer our prayers—and the more we see him do things that are better than what we asked him to do—the less we think of God simply saying yes or no to our requests, and the more we trust him to answer our prayers however it may be best for us. The more all of this happens, the stronger our relationship with him grows.