To say that prayer was a priority in the mind and ministry of Jesus is to state the obvious. There are more verses in the Sermon on the Mount on prayer than on any other theme (6:5-15; 7:7-11). Notwithstanding this inescapable fact it comes as something of a surprise to many people to discover that “Jesus never taught His disciples how to preach, only how to pray. He did not speak much of what was needed to preach well,” wrote Andrew Murray, “but much of praying well. To know how to speak to God is more than knowing how to speak to man. Not power with man, but power with God is the first thing. Jesus loves to teach us how to pray” (With Christ in the School of Prayer, 19).
Our Lord’s instruction on prayer in this passage is brief, yet pointed. He first issues a command in v. 7, and then reinforces the command in v. 8 by rephrasing it in the form of a promise. Finally, in vv. 9-11 he confirms both the command and the promise with an illustration.
A. The Command – 7:7
The first thing which stands out in v. 7 is the emphasis put on persistence or perseverance in prayer, as seen in two facts.
· The present tense imperatives – “keep on asking . . .” or, “be asking, be seeking.”
· The progression in the verbs used – “asking” is obviously the first step; “seeking” is asking plus acting; it implies earnestness; “knocking” is asking plus acting plus persevering.
The importance of persistence in prayer is witnessed elsewhere in Scripture.
2 Cor. 12:8 – According to Carson, “these were not casual prayers carelessly offered at the spur of the moment, but three separate and sustained periods of intercession directed to Jesus himself” (From Triumphalism to Maturity, 147). Paul did not pray once only to conclude that if God really loved him and intended to answer his prayer that he need not ask again. Paul gives no indication that he believes his repeating the request is a defect in his faith. He makes no confession of sins interspersed between the three prayer vigils, as if to preface the second and third requests with something like: “Here I am again Lord, asking for the same thing. Please forgive my lack of faith for not believing that once was enough, but the torment of this thorn is more than I can bear.”
Indeed, perhaps it was because of Paul’s robust faith that he asked three times. I.e., believing that God does hearken to our cries, believing that his delay in responding is for our edification in that we are compelled to depend ever more humbly on God alone, Paul persists in his petition.
Paul Barnett points out that “'three times' was a conventional symbol for repeated prayer. . . . Threefold actions appear to have been customary in matters relating to piety (cf. John 21:17; Acts 10:16); prayer was offered three times a day (Ps. 55:16-17; Dan. 6:10,13)" (2 Corinthians, 571).
Mt. 26:44 – Was Jesus guilty of faithlessness for praying the same thing three times in the Garden of Gethsemane? Granted, Jesus ultimately resigned himself to the will of the Father, but only after he had agonized in prayer concerning the matter at hand.
See also Luke 11:5-10; Eph. 6:18
This raises the question of the difference between persistency in prayer and vain repetition. We have already encountered the latter in Mt. 6:7-8 (see notes). So what is the difference between perseverance and nagging?
Do we repeat a request because we think that we will be heard on account of the quantity of words (cf. 6:7)? Do we repeat a request because we think God is ignorant and needs to be informed (cf. 6:8)? Do we repeat a request because we think God is unwilling and needs to be persuaded? Do we envision ourselves transforming a hard-hearted God into a compassionate and loving one? Do we repeat a request because we think that God will be swayed in his decision by our putting on a show of zeal and piety, as if he were incapable of seeing through the thin veil of our hypocrisy? Do we repeat a request because, to be blunt, we are selfish and want to exploit God’s blessings to our own glory and gain (cf. Js. 4:2). If these are our reasons for persistence then we may well be nagging!
Perhaps the primary reason we must persevere in prayer is that the answer of God is often neither “yes” nor “no” but “wait”! But why would God tell us to wait?
· God often says “wait” and wants us to persist when we pray in order that we may be compelled to depend wholly upon him. If all we had to do was ask the Father for something once and then sit back and wait until the request was granted, our fallen nature, prone to prideful independence, would inevitably lead us in the direction of self-sufficiency. But God’s suspending our prayer success on persistent asking makes us ever more aware of our utter dependence on him. James Denney explains:
"It is natural . . . for us to trust in ourselves. It is so natural, and so confirmed by the habits of a lifetime, that no ordinary difficulties or perplexities avail to break us of it. It takes all God can do to root up our self-confidence. He must reduce us to despair; He must bring us to such an extremity that the one voice we have in our hearts, the one voice that cries to us wherever we look round for help, is death, death, death. It is out of this despair that the superhuman hope is born. It is out of this abject helplessness that the soul learns to look up with new trust to God. . . . How do most of us attain to any faith in Providence? Is it not by proving, through numberless experiments, that it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps? Is it not by coming, again and again, to the limit of our resources, and being compelled to feel that unless there is a wisdom and a love at work on our behalf, immeasurably wiser and more benign than our own, life is a moral chaos? . . . Only desperation opens our eyes to God's love.”
· Having to persist in prayer also serves to put us in that frame of mind and spirit in which we may properly receive what it is God desires to give. God may well be willing to give but we may not be ready to receive. Persistence cultivates a serenity in our spirit and a clarity of thought that are so essential to hear what God is saying.
· When we pray persistently about some specific matter, we are enabled to differentiate between impetuous, ill-conceived desires and sincere, deep-seated ones. Rarely will someone pursue something which, after a time, is seen to be less than worthwhile, if not downright harmful. Thus, by insisting that we pray with persistence God will prevent us from praying for things that would ultimately prove unedifying. Perseverance helps weed out improper petitions. Says Palmer:
“The prayer may be insolent, dictating to the Almighty rather than supplicating his favor. It may be arrogant, claiming as a right what can only be accorded as a privilege. It may be presumptuous, disregarding, like that of Cain, the appointed way of approach to the mercy-seat. It may be intensely selfish, having regard only to the creature’s advantage rather than to the honor of him who is supreme. It may be impertinent, robbing God of all discretion in the time and mode of the answer. In these and other conceivable ways, the spirit of true prayer may be wanting” (102-03).
· Related to the above is that persistence purifies our petitions. By repeating our prayer, by bearing it again and again before the throne of grace, we force ourselves to think and rethink the nature of our request and the purpose for which we desire to see it fulfilled. In doing so, we begin to discern any error or sin in it that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Thus, persistence in prayer is life proof-reading a manuscript for a book. A good author will proof-read his/her manuscript a dozen times (if not more). And no matter how carefully or how thoroughly it is read and re-read, each time another error or misspelled word or grammatical mistake is found, another idea that needs re-phrasing is discovered. It is the same way with prayer. Repetition perfects petitions.
· God will often seem deaf to our pleas, not because he is unwilling to grant them, but because it is not in his timing to grant them now, that is, when we want them. Perhaps he intends to secure some good end, to achieve some great goal by means of the answer he will give to our request, and can do so only when the answer comes at the opportune time, in the appropriate circumstances, and possibly only when our hearts are properly prepared. Thus the apparent silence of heaven may be due more to the designs of providence than to an unwilling God.
Does Jesus have anything specifically in mind for which we are to ask? Perhaps he is thinking of the wisdom and grace necessary to exercise judgment in a sensible and loving way, as described in 7:1-6. Perhaps the larger context of the entire Sermon is in view:
“the kingdom of heaven requires poverty of spirit, purity of heart, truth, compassion, a non-retaliatory spirit, a life of integrity; and we lack all of these things. Then let us ask for them! Are you as holy, as meek, as truthful, as loving, as pure, as obedient to God as you would like to be? Then ask him for grace that these virtues may multiply in your life! Such asking, when sincere and humble, is already a step of repentance and faith, for it is an acknowledgment that the virtues the kingdom requires you do not possess, and that these same virtues only God can give. Moreover, I suspect that this asking, seeking, and knocking has a total package as its proper object. It does not seek holiness but spurn obedience; it does not seek obedience but hedge when it comes to purity. It is a whole-hearted pursuit of the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Carson, 109).
B. The Promise – 7:8
Note three things.
1. The force of this promise is heightened if we state it in the negative: No one finds unless he seeks, no one is given anything unless she asks, no one receives from God unless they knock! Prayer is God’s ordained means for dispensing blessings. Remember: We must not allow ourselves to believe that God will do for us apart from prayer what he has promised do for us only through prayer.
2. The assurance of being answered is a valid motivation for praying, “for nothing is better adapted to excite us to prayer than a full conviction that we shall be heard” (Calvin, 351). Thus, our prayerlessness is in part due to our disbelief in God’s goodness and willingness to answer. Indeed, I would suggest that virtually every error in prayer is ultimately traceable to misconceptions about the character of God.
3. This is not an unconditional promise. Stott explains:
“It is absurd to suppose that the promise ‘Ask, and it shall be given you’ is an absolute pledge with no strings attached; that ‘Knock, and it will be opened to you’ is an ‘Open, Sesame’ to every closed door without exception; and that by the waving of a prayer wand any wish will be granted and every dream will come true. The idea is ridiculous. It would turn prayer into magic, the person who prays into a magician like Aladdin, and God into our servant who appears instantly to do our bidding like Aladdin’s genie every time we rub our little prayer lamp” (188).
We must remember that God is not only good in that he willingly gives marvelous blessings to his children, he is also wise, knowing what gifts to give and when they are best granted. I thank God that he is wise and loving enough not to have granted me some of the things I’ve asked for!
C. The Illustration – 7:9-11
Does God answer our prayers grudgingly or gladly? This is a crucial question, for we frame our prayers in accordance with how we conceive the character of the one we are addressing. A child with a gentle, kind, but firm father will rarely hesitate to ask for things. This child knows his father will not give him things that might prove harmful. He also knows his father will not withhold what is crucial for life. The child with an extravagant and careless father arrogantly asks for everything, knowing that he will never be refused. The child with a cruel and stingy father will unlikely ask for anything, fearing another meaningless beating. What image of God as Father is given in vv. 9-11? Says Carson,
“Sadly, many of God’s children labor under the delusion that their heavenly Father extracts some malicious glee out of watching his children squirm now and then. Of course, they are not quite blasphemous enough to put it in such terms; but their prayer life reveals they are not thoroughly convinced of God’s goodness and the love he has for them. Jesus’ argument is a fortiori: If human fathers, who by God’s standards of perfect righteousness can only be described as evil, know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will God give good gifts to them who ask him? We are dealing with the God who once said to his people, ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!’” (Isa. 49:15).
Again, Jesus’ point is that in spite of man’s evil nature, it is inconceivable that a father would turn a deaf ear to his son’s request for food. If a hungry boy were inclined to ask his otherwise abusive and wicked father for food, surely he would not refuse his child the request, far less taunt and torture him by substituting something similar in appearance but altogether different and even dangerous. If a child requests a loaf of bread, his father will not deceive him by giving instead a stone of like size and color, will he? If the child hungers for a fish or an egg, surely his father will not try to pass off a snake or a scorpion in its place, will he? Although this man is evil, he will certainly come to the aid of his earthly child. How much more, then, shall our heavenly Father, who not only is not evil but is infinitely good, wise, and powerful, give us those things we most desperately need. By just so much as the goodness of one’s heavenly Father exceeds that of his earthly father, so does his willingness to give in response to our prayers. “God must not be thought of,” says Carson, “as a reluctant stranger who can be cajoled or bullied into bestowing his gifts . . . [or] as a malicious tyrant who takes vicious glee in the tricks he plays . . . [or] even as an indulgent grandfather who provides everything requested of him” (Matthew, 187). Rather, he is our loving Father, all-wise, overflowing with goodness, whose chief concern is the welfare of those who have his heart.
We should also note the difference between Matthew’s version and that of Luke (11:13). 1) Where Luke says the Father will give the "Holy Spirit" to us Matthew says he will give "good things". Why the difference? John Nolland suggests that "it will be best to see that, since from a post-Pentecost early church perspective, the greatest gift that God can bestow is the Spirit, Luke wants it to be seen that God's parental bounty applies not just to everyday needs (already well represented in the text in [the] Lord's Prayer) but even reaches so far as to this his greatest possible gift" (Luke, 632).
Could it be that this exhortation in Luke’s gospel to pray for the Holy Spirit flows from Jesus' own experience of the Spirit? Could it be that he himself prayed for continued, repeated anointings, infillings or fresh waves of the Spirit's presence and power to sustain him for ministry, and here encourages his followers to do the same? Two observations:
· Since this exhortation is addressed to believers, the "children" of the "Father", the giving of the Spirit in response to prayer cannot refer to one's initial experience of salvation. The prayer is not by a lost person needing a first-time indwelling of the Spirit but by people who already have the Spirit but stand in need of a greater fulness, a more powerful anointing to equip and empower them for ministry.
· The petition of Luke 11:13 is part of the instruction on persistence and perseverance in prayer that began in 11:1. Thus we are repeatedly and persistently and on every needful occasion to keep on asking, seeking and knocking for fresh impartations of the Spirit's power