How Prayer Works (Matthew 7; Luke 11, 18; James 4)
Three simple one-syllable words – all commands – tell us not to give in to discouragement when facing something difficult or unknown: “ASK… SEEK… KNOCK…” The original language paints a picture we might miss in our Eng. translations; it says “Keep on asking… keep on seeking… keep on knocking…”
All three commands say we mustn’t quit. With the innocence of a child we’re to find our heavenly Father and ask Him to do what we cannot… and keep on asking.
Paul chimed in teaching, “Pray without stopping” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). He didn’t mean an endless prayer; he meant that we should keep on and not stop.
Think of our children… If we’re nearby and they want something, they ask, and keep on asking. If we’re out of their sight and want something, they seek us and keep on seeking. And if we lock a door between us and them and they want something, they knock and keep on knocking.
One woman, needing just a tiny break from her two toddlers, went to her bedroom and locked the door. Within minutes they were knocking, and asking, “Mommy, are you in there?” She decided to ignore them, but they keep on asking and kept on knocking. When she finally gave in and opened the door, they smiled at her and said in unison, “Hi.” They wanted nothing… other than to be where she was.
God, our Father, and Jesus, our Lord, invited us to persist for Their presence and assistance.
Jesus told a parable of “The Persistent Widow and the Crooked Judge” in Luke 18:1ff. She had a need and asked the judge for help, who normally helped only the highest bidder. Truth is, he didn’t care one whit about her and what she wants. But she kept on asking him again, then again, and convinced him that she’d keep it up. So, “lest she weary me,” he granted her petition.
His parable makes a contrast technique called “minor/major” or “less/greater.” If a crooked judge (minor, less) will give in to persistence from someone he has no concern for, how much more readily will God, a perfect, righteous judge and “our Father” (major, greater), respond favorably to us when we come asking, seeking, and knocking, and keep on? So if we wish to receive something we need, we ask. If we wish to find something important, we seek. If we wish for something closed off from us to open, we knock. We act in simple faith and trust the loving nature of our Father.
This concept is amazingly hard for western minds. We’re doers… in control ourselves (or so we think)… independent (or so we think). So humbling ourselves to simply trust and ask is a difficult thing for us. Really, our Western mindset isn’t very tuned in to prayer. It’s true of many Christians who have conformed to the environment about them. Treasuring self-reliance… standing on our own feet… winning by the strength of our own hand. So our approach to prayer is often pagan in nature. And guess what? Our faint spiritual pulse is directly traceable to the feebleness of our trust in God in prayer. James put it bluntly: “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Listen to how he led in to that:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)
Really, James is addressing us coming upon the basic question of our life: will our approach to life be to submit to God and His will or will it be to gratify all our wants and wishes with chasing every pleasure of the world?
If pleasure is the priority of our life, nothing but strife, hatred, and division follows. Jesus made it clear that a dominating desire for the world is a deadly threat to our spiritual welfare; He said “cares, riches, and pleasures of this life combine to choke out the good seed (of God’s Word)” (Luke 8:14).
And the door for prayer shuts – if our prayers are simply for the things that will gratify our desires, they are selfish and it will be impossible for God to answer them.
So we choose God’s will or our own desires. If we chose the latter, we have separated ourselves both from God and our fellowman.
Looking at Matthew 7 again… it’s the “major/minor” comparison again. Jesus contrasts God’s goodness to us with the goodness a human father has for his children. What father hates his son; what mother hates her child? A hungry child asks for some bread; no loving father would go to the back yard and dig up a stone and put it on a plate for his hungry child. Same for a fish… what child gets a snake? And in Luke 11, Jesus expanded His illustration to add asking for an egg and getting a scorpion. Not going to happen! Fact is, good parents usually give more than children ask… perhaps a burger instead of bread, perhaps Red Lobster instead of a few fish sticks at home.
That’s the way God is… He gives us what we ask, provided He doesn’t judge it to be bad for us, or better! Jesus makes that very point: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him” (Matthew 7:11). Our perfect Father in heaven out-gives all imperfect earth fathers… always!
Jesus tells another parable about God’s posture of eagerness to answer and bless us. We call it “The Friend at Midnight”:
“Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet be-cause of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. “So I say to you: 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; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:5-13)
Most Jewish houses in Jesus’ day were one-room houses with one end raised. There the family slept together on mats for warmth. If one roused, all roused.
This parable also uses the minor/major comparison: if a disgruntled neighbor will respond to a persistent request, how much more readily and beautifully will a God who loves us respond to our request.
We are not trying to wrestle gifts from an unwilling God, we’re going to One whose heart is generous and kindly inclined toward us, seeks our blessing, and knows our needs before we ever can put them in words.
If we don’t get what we pray for, it is not because God grudgingly refuses, it’s because He plans something better for us.
So if we trust and persist, we can count on Him to give what is best in His own way at His own time.He is faithful, good, generous, and just.