ask…seek…knock (Matthew 7:7)
In this week’s installment on prayer I’m addressing the topic of petition. Petitions are appeals to God regarding our needs and wants, but they can also be appeals made on behalf of other people. The apostle, Paul, gives instructions to the Philippians about this kind of prayer. He writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God…” (4:6)
I find Paul’s straightforward advice very helpful, especially the part about “in everything.” He says something similar to the Thessalonians when he writes, “pray continually.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) What he means by both statements is that we should pray about anything and everything that concerns us.
Praying about anything and everything teaches us to depend on God for all our needs and concerns, not just the ones we think we cannot handle. I try to pray this way myself – petitioning God as needs arise – on the spot. I no longer wait until I can fit prayer into my schedule because my schedule has a way of expanding unexpectedly, squeezing out time for prayer. So now I pray in the car, as I’m at my desk working on sermons or articles, while I’m taking a walk, cleaning the house or cooking dinner. As needs arise, I pray.
I am a bit of a perfectionist, however, and sometimes I get stuck trying to articulate my concern in precise detail. When I catch myself doing this, I just laugh and say something like, “Oh well, Lord, I’ve done it again.” There are times when it’s helpful to be specific and exact, because as I seek to find the right words, I discover my feelings about my needs. But the truth is that God doesn’t need me to be exact because he already knows precisely what is on my heart.
But this may lead you to ask, “If God knows what is on my heart, why do I need to ask in the first place?” Well, I ask because Jesus teaches us to ask. In the prayer he taught his disciples, which we refer to as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus instructs us to say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” (Matthew 6:11) even though he says several verses later that God knows we need food, drink and clothing so we shouldn’t worry about them. (Matthew 6:31)
Here’s my point: There is a big difference between worrying about something and praying confidently about something. Worry is NOT prayer. Instead, it is an indication of prayerlessness, a lack of faith in God and in his ability to understand and respond to your needs. God assures us over and over again in Scripture that he is more powerful than anything that threatens us.
So I believe I am to ask for what I perceive I need AND I am to trust God with my needs. By requesting God’s intervention I am not seeking to motivate him to respond to me. Instead, the act of requesting puts me in touch with God, who is all- powerful and all-loving. Another way of thinking about this is to consider our own children. Since I treasure the moments when my son or daughter trusts me enough to tell me about his or her concerns, I’m sure our heavenly Father yearns for all of us to turn to him in the same way. He knows what we need, but he desires the intimacy prayers and petitions create when we take the time to turn to him.
This intimacy is very beneficial for us. It reinforces what Paul is saying about having an attitude of dependence on God. Petitioning God as our needs arise reminds us that he is the only one with the power to answer our prayers and the one to whom we should always turn first. In his teaching on prayer, Jesus instructs us to:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)
In saying this, I don’t think Jesus intends for us to think of prayer as somehow breaking down God’s resistance to granting our requests. That’s because there is no resistance to break down. God wants to answer our prayers and he will, but it may not be as we wish. Instead, the asking, seeking and knocking on our part has the potential to lead us into a deeper relationship with God, one in which we come to trust him more and more and find we need to say less and less. The more we ask, seek and knock the more we come to know God and his heart and will for us.
Jesus models for us how to make our requests of God when he prays to his Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) This is the ultimate expression of trust. If we truly believe God has our bests interests at heart, that he hears and answers our prayers, then we should conclude all our petitions with something like this: “Thy will be done; for your glory and my good.” This is what I say and by saying it I’m teaching my heart to want what God wants more than what I want.
The most important thing about prayers of petition, however, is to just do it. Don’t worry about how it will sound or about your motives. You are loved by a gracious God and you don’t have to worry about intentions or style. Just pour out your heart. You will learn something every time you pray – and you’ll grow more at ease the more you pray.
And don’t forget to give thanks, as Paul instructs when he writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God…” Give thanks for God’s readiness to hear and to give us all good things. Give thanks, also, for his answers that are on the way.
This brings me to the topic of unanswered prayer. I don’t have much to say about this because I don’t think there is such a thing as unanswered prayer. I believe God answers all prayers. The problem is that we aren’t always attuned to his answers. What we’re expecting may not be what God is giving. Also, sometimes circumstances beyond our control must change first before we can receive what we’ve asked for. And, sometimes it is we who must change first.
So, my last piece of advice about petitioning God with needs and wants is to ask God to show you if something is in the way, preventing you from receiving what he wants to give or if your request needs to be altered in any way. This approach is yet another opportunity for greater intimacy with God and for further transformation of your heart and soul.
Next week: interceding in prayer for the concerns of other people.