A few weeks back, I mentioned how I spent a year after school as a volunteer teacher in Kenya and the mission agencythat accepted me did so on the condition that I raised £1,500, but there wasn’t any time to get a job to raise that money, so I had to write to various charities and pray. And with a few weeks to go, £1,400 had come in – on the strength of which, the mission agency gave me the green light to head out to Kenya. But then on the very day I was due to drive to the airport, the postman arrived with a single letter. It was from the last charity that I’d written to and it had a cheque for, you guessed it, £100. That was a remarkable answer to prayer. But answers to prayer like that do not happen every day. That’s what makes them remarkable. And we all have a significant list of apparently unanswered prayers. For example, since that day I left for Kenya I prayed on for another thirty years for my Dad to come to faith Jesus. But as far as I know, he never did.
So what are we to make of this week’s verses in our series on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6 and 7? Listen to Matthew 7. 7-8 again:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it [the door] 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.
So before we go any further, let me lead us in prayer and ask that God would teach us what to make of those verses. Let’s pray:
Thank you for this teaching on prayer, which you gave us through your Son when he was here on earth with us.
Please teach us through it now so that we may understand and trust you more.
In Jesus’ name. Amen
Well I guess we could give these verses the title ‘Pray School’ and whenever you’re trying to make sense of any Bible verses, step one is to see them in context. And the context of these verses is that they round off the main chunk of what is often called Jesus’ ‘sermon on the mount’. So if you have a Bible, would you open it to Matthew chapter 5.1-2 which says this:
Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them…
And what comes next isn’t a word-for-word transcript of everything he said, it’s more like Matthew’s sermon notes. And for the last two weeks we’ve picked up a teaching series on the sermon on the mount which we left off this time last year. So to refresh your memory, here are some edited highlights. Look on to Matthew 5.13, where Jesus says to us if we’re his disciples:
You are the salt of the earth
In other words, you are to be so different because you follow me, that people really notice, just like you really notice the salt on chips, and miss it if it’s missing.So how are you doing on that? Then Matthew 5.14:
You are the light of the world.
In other words, the light of your goodness is to outshine that of others’ – so it points them to God. How are you doing on that? And then in the main chunk of the sermon on the mount, Jesus describes what real disciples will look like. For example, look on to Matthew 5.27-28:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart…”
In other words, ‘I’m not just talking about keeping the wrong people out of your bed. I’m talking about keeping wrong images and wrong desires out of your heart.’ How are you doing on that? Or look on to Matthew 5.43-45:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…”
In other words, because that’s what your Father in heaven is like. After all, what did he do while we were still against him as his spiritual enemies? He loved us enough to send his Son to die for us on the cross for our forgiveness. And by now in the sermon the mount, you start to feel a rising panic and wonder, ‘Does he expect me to be perfect?’ And Matthew 5.48 then says:
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The good news is no, he doesn’t expect us to be perfect this side of heaven– he knows we’re still sinners and incapable of that. But he does expect us to be aiming for nothing less than being perfectly like him. So how are you doing on that? On to Matthew 6.1:
“Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…”
In other words, never try to impress your fellow Christians with your praying or Bible knowledge or whatever, never want a reputation for how godly or spiritual you are. How are you doing at that? Or just think back to the last two week’s sermons. Matthew 6.25:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious…”
Instead, trust all your needs to your heavenly Father. How are you doing on that? Or Matthew 7.1:
“Judge not, that you be not judged.”
In other words, don’t be judgemental, don’t fix on others’ sins, while conveniently forgetting your own. How you doing on that? I wonder how all of that leaves you feeling? Maybe you’re feeling, ‘Must try harder’, maybe you’re feeling in despair, but the first thing today’s verses teach us is that both those reactions are wrong. Because lesson number one here is:
1. Don’t despair or just try harder – pray (Matthew 7.7)
So we’ve seen that the main chunk of the sermon on the mount describes what real disciples will look like and that unless we’re vain enough to think we fit the description nicely it either leaves us feeling, ‘Must try harder’, or leaves us feeling in despair. But Jesus says, ‘No’ to both those reactions. He says, ‘I don’t mean this to drive you either to try harder or to despair. I mean it to drive you to pray.’ Because I think that’s why the main chunk of the sermon ends with Matthew 7.7- 11. Look at Matthew 7.7 again:
“Ask, and it will be given to you…”
And in context, the ‘it’ is everything in the sermon so far. it’s the character of the real disciple that Jesus has been describing. And I think Jesus is saying,‘You’re right. You’re not like this. And left to yourselves, it’s impossible that you ever will be. And so you need to pray that my Father will work the impossible in you.’ “Ask, and it will be given to you...” So for example, if we struggle with lust what should we do?Just try harder to be pure-minded and when that fails despair at never changing? No, Jesus says step one, whenever we’ve seen in the Bible what God wants us to be is to pray that he would work that in us. So, for example, to pray:
Father, forgive me for what I’ve done wrong and for what I am sexually. [And that prayer of David’s in Psalm 51] Create in me a pure heart.
Of course there are other steps to take as well, from setting wise physical boundaries in a relationship, to getting internet accountability software.
But only God can work in our hearts what needs to be there, or needs to be got out of there – whether it’s lust, unforgiveness, spiritual pride, anxiety, judgementalism, whatever. Which means step one in response to the Bible is always: to pray, because whenever we read the Bible, it’ll always remind us of the gulf between what God wants us to be like, and what we actually are like. And you feel that more, not less, as you go on in the Christian life, but the Lord Jesus says to us here: don’t despair, don’t just try harder. Instead, the first thing I want you to do always is to pray that God would work in you to make you what he wants you to be. That’s lesson number one. Then lesson number two is this:
2. Ask what you know is God’s will, and you can be sure he will give it (Matthew 7.7-8)
Look down to Matthew 7.7-8 again:
“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...”
And I take it Jesus is talking there about things we know are definitely God’s will. Things like us being: more free from lust, more loving to people we find it hard to love, less anxious, or less judgemental. And we know those things are definitely God’s will because he’s revealed that they are – both here in the sermon on the mount and elsewhere in the Bible. And the general principle is this: when I know something is definitely God’s will because the Bible says it is, then I can pray for it sure that I’m asking for the right thing and that I will given it. That means we need to get better at thinking, ‘What do we know is definitely God’s will in the situations we’re praying for?’
So for example, many moons ago I was leading a student small group and come the prayer time, one of them Simeon said, ‘can we pray for my exam’ and so I said, ‘what do you want us to pray for it?’ And they all looked at me as if I was stupid and one of them said, ‘well presumably he wants to pass.’ So I said, ‘But do we know that’s definitely God’s will? Do we have a Bible verse telling us that Simeon will pass this particular exam?’ And they had to admit that, no, we didn’t. So I said, ‘Look we’ll come back to whether we should pray for him to pass. First of all, tell me some things that we can pray that we know are definitely God’s will in this situation.’ Long silence, then one of them said, ‘We could pray that he actually works for it.’ Another of them said, ‘that would be a miracle’but I let that pass. Another then said ‘We could pray that he doesn’t get anxious about it.’ Another said, ‘We could pray that he’s not so focussed on himself that he doesn’t look out for his friends and housemates under the same stress’. Another said ‘We could pray that he’s still a good witness in amongst it all.’
And all those were right because the Bible says that all those things they mentioned are God’s will for us if we’re following Jesus. But there are many things we pray about where we don’t know what God’s will is in the same way. For example, whether it’s God’s will that I get the exam result I’m hoping for – or even whether I’ll pass it at all. Or whether it’s God’s will that I get the job I’m applying for; or that I get married; or that if I do get married I’ll be able to have our own children; or whether he wants to heal a health problem or injury; or whether to give me £1,500 for a year’s service in Kenya; or to bring that particular person (like my Dad) to faith; and so on and so on and so on.
There so many things things where we don’t know what’s definitely God’s will – because there’s no Bible verse promising me a particular degree, or a husband or a wife, or job or house or whatever. So what do we do in those situations? Do we just pray, ‘Your will be done’? and leave it at that? It’s a good prayer and sometimes that may be all we can pray, because we just can’t make sense of the situation or see what God might be doing in it. But often it will make sense to us to pray more.
So for example, going back to Simeon and his exam, as that student small group talked more we agreed that we should pray for him to pass, because after all, the Lord had got him to university in the first place, and he’d got him through his first two years’ sets of exams, so it made sense to trust that the Lord did want him to finish his degree and take it with him in to the working world and so we prayed for what makes sense to us – with the caveat, ‘If it’s your will’, which is what we didn’t know for sure.
Or in other situations when we don’t know what’s definitely God’s will, it’s perfectly right to pray for what we naturally desire – for example, the natural desire for marriage or for children or for health or many many other things. But again it’s got to be with the caveat, ‘If it’s your will.’ In those situations that’s what we don’t know for sure and it’s what the Lord Jesus did in Gethsemane when he asked if somehow the ‘cup’ of the cross might pass from him. But that wasn’t his Father’s will. His Father’s will was not for him escape from the cross, but for resurrection after the cross, and through it all our salvation. So that’s lesson number two: Ask what you know is God’s will, and you can be sure he will give it. And lesson number three, finally, is this:
3. Trust God to answer as the perfect Father he is (Matthew 7.9-11)
Look on to Matthew 7.9-11:
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a 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!
So Jesus says: think about human parents. They are thoroughly imperfect – they’re part of this fallen, evil world – and yet at their best they want to give their children good things. For example, a recent UK poll found that at Christmas one in four parents spent between £250 and £500 on presents per child, while one in eight spent between £500 and £1,000 per child. I have to say: our family is not represented in by those figures – but we do still want to give our children good things just on a budget. And Jesus’ point is: how much more does our Father in heaven want to give us good things and he is the perfect parent.
Now I realise we’ve all had very different experiences of human fathers – some good, some bad, some dreadful. All imperfect. And this is where we mustn’t project onto God what our human fathers are like – or were like. We need to take our view of God from the Bible and above all from how he loved us enough to give his Son to die on the cross for our forgiveness. Which is why, elsewhere, the Bible says this:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?[Romans 8.32]
So do you get the logic there? If God gave his own Son to meet our greatest need, does it make any sense to doubt that he’ll take care of our lesser needs? If God was that good to us on Good Friday, does it make any sense to doubt he’s not being equally good to us today? The answer is that it doesn’t, but as we look at our significant list of apparently unanswered prayer, it is easy to doubt that God is being good to us. At that point we need to re-anchor our trust that he is – at the cross. And from there we can try to make sense of how he’s responding to our prayers – in terms of his Fatherly wisdom. For example, we can trust that if he’s making us wait for something as far as we can see, it may be because in his wisdom he knows that we are not yet ready for it, we couldn’t handle it well or that having it too soon or too easily, we’d be unappreciative of it or even spolilt by it. And we can trust that if he actually declines us something as far as we can see, it may be because in his wisdom he knows it wouldn’t be good as we thought it would be. And sometimes those things can become much clearer looking back – for example, when we can see that a job we didn’t get was actually a deliverance, or that the end of a relationship was actually good for both parties,
But things aren’t always clear like that, are they – even looking back. We can’t always see how God is answering our prayers as the perfect Father. Which is why lesson number three is that we need to trust that he is – even when we can’t see how. And we need to anchor that trust at the cross. Because:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? [Romans 8.32]
Not all things we might want or ask. But all things that, in his father wisdom, he knows we really need.