I was emailing with a friend recently who had just gotten some very disappointing news. Something he had really hoped would come about did not. Those moments can be disappointing and confusing. I will tell you what I often say in a situation like this in just a moment, but first, let’s think about prayer together.
Jesus told us clearly to ask, seek and knock expecting positive answers in each case. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) Yet, not infrequently when we ask, the answer is no, or we do not find, or the door gets slammed in our face.
What is going on here? Is God not true to his Word? Why does he bid us to ask expecting positive answers only to get no’s instead?
In part the answer to those questions is found a few verses later when Jesus says:
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! (Matt. 7:9-11)
In the context, we learn two things about how God views and answers our prayers. 1) He is eager to give us good things. So whenever we ask for something good, he will not give us something bad instead, rather, he will give us something good. 2) He will only give good gifts to his children.
Now, this is where it gets tricky. Because he will only give good gifts to his children, were we to ask for a stone in the place of bread, or a snake in place of fish (eel eaters will understand what I mean!) he would not give us the rocks or snakes we request.
The problem is that we do not always know what is a good gift and what is a bad gift. We might think it is really good, but God, who sees the end from the beginning, knows it is stone or a snake disguised as bread or fish. We must just accept this about ourselves, we do not know, we are not all-knowing neither are we all wise. What we really want and really think is good may actually be just the worst thing for us or our loved ones.
For example, we might ask for a new job. It looks absolutely perfect, it is, in fact, our dream job. We ask God, plead with him even. But then he closes rather than opens the door. Why? We do not know all the reasons but we may speculate about the kinds of things he sees were we to walk through that door.
Perhaps in that city our child would fall into the wrong crowd, or we would be filled with pride, or the job would fail financially, or we would develop cancer from a carcinogen in the water there, or God has someone right where we are that he wants us to help, or if we stay put he plans huge financial blessings for us, or…you get the idea.
Here is the problem, we are not God, and he is. He actually knows, as our loving Father, what is good that we are asking for and what is bad. We simply cannot know what the future holds behind that door that we so badly want to open, only God can. Please understand that. Only God can, and we are wise, as his children, to recognize that as the All-Knowing One, he has a distinct advantage in calling those shots. We must come to understand this and to submit to this and even rejoice in it, confident that his “no” comes as an invitation to far better yeses.
For example, when I was in college I had a girlfriend my freshman year whom I really wanted to marry. I thought she was the best possible woman for me and for a while she agreed. That is until the summer of freshman year when she decided to marry a friend of mine. I was mad at God and told him how he had ruined my life and really understood nothing. Years later that ex-girlfriend, then a wife and mother called me to try and get back together! I could not help but thank the Lord that I was not her husband, who shortly thereafter divorced her. See, I was sure before that she was bread, God knew better, she was, dare I say it, a snake. He was not destroying my life as I thought, he was doing what all fathers do, giving me a good gift instead of the one I wanted. When I think of the faithful wife God gave me instead, I am humbled each time, and grateful that he does indeed know how to give us good gifts.
What do I say to friends like this one after sympathizing with them? I try to encourage them with this very thought, “If God said ‘no’ it is because he has something even better for you that you do not now see.” He has a better job, a better spouse, a better city, a better house. It may not be an easier one, mind you, but it will be better.
In the end that is why we pray “if it be your will,” not as an out for God in our prayer but as an out for ourselves. We pray it as a recognition of our limited wisdom and knowledge, as a recognition that our Father in heaven really does know how to give good gifts to his children. Or as one friend put it to me years ago, “He will give you whatever you ask, or something even better.” That is why Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive,” because we will. We will receive what the all-knowing, all-loving Father knows is best for us. Therefore let us ask with full confidence in our Father, that he truly knows how to give good gifts to his children.
Author: Dr. Thomas Hawkes