Ai Ai from the Philippines asks the following question: Can you explain Matthew 7:7?
Ai Ai, since Matthew, chapter 7, verse 7 forms a literary unit along with verses 8 to 11, let’s read from Matthew, chapter 7, verse 7 up to verse 11 (NIV): “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, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 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!”
Now a first reading this passage seems to suggest that all your and my prayers will always be answered. The three verbs – ask, seek, knock – are all metaphors for prayer and these three verbs are in the present imperative tense, thus suggesting a continuous action – “keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking” and then your prayer will be answered. According to this interpretation, as long as you remain steadfast in your prayer request, God will eventually answer you – He will eventually fulfil your request. You simply have to persevere in prayer. Some pastors and evangelists even use this passage – and verse 7 in particular – to argue that you can ask for and get literally anything you desire – a fancy new car, the most expensive jewellery, a house in the most affluent neighbourhood. And if you keep on asking, God will definitely give you what you asked for, no matter what it is, no matter your motivation. However, is this really the meaning of Matthew 7:7? Most of us who have been followers of Christ for some time know that all our prayers are not always answered. In fact, some of us have been praying about something for years, without our prayer being answered. For some of us it feels like God is silent or that He’s simply not interested in our prayers. So again the question is does Matthew 7:7 imply or teach that God will always answer our prayers? Well, the simple answer is yes and no.
Let me start with no. I want to say this, and say this clearly and emphatically: God will not be manipulated into satisfying our selfish, materialistic desires. We can pray as much and as long as we like, but God will not answer prayers that are essentially directed toward satisfying our greediness. God’s not interested in answering such prayer. But in case you were thinking, “Well, my prayer requests are unselfish and sincere, so then surely God should always answer me when my prayers are unselfish”. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but no. You see, even unselfish prayers may sometimes go unanswered. Let me give you an example. The apostle Paul prayed three times that a so-called “thorn in the flesh” will be removed from him, it seems this “thorn in the flesh” was some kind of health issue he was struggling with, although we’re not quite certain exactly what his problem was. Be that as it may – one would expect that God would surely answer Paul’s reasonable, unselfish prayer request, but He didn’t. Instead, the Lord replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9a, NIV). God does not always answer all our prayers, even if those prayer requests are noble and sincere. I can already hear some of you asking, “Well, why not?”
In order to really understand what Jesus is saying in Matthew 7:7, we need to look more closely at the context of the verse. We need to ask ourselves, “Does the location of this verse in the larger context of the Gospel of Matthew reveal something about its true meaning?” Well, what is especially significant about the location of Matthew 7:7-11, when considered as a literary unit, is that it occurs near the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Why is this significant? Well, from the start of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, chapter 5, up to this point in chapter 7 where Jesus’ sermon is drawing to a close, Jesus has been asking his followers to live according to the higher standard of righteousness required of those who belong to the Kingdom of God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus requires a high standard from his followers, calling on them to avoid anger, lust, divorce, taking oaths, retaliation, hypocrisy, and hatred. Jesus calls on his followers to love their enemies! Let’s be honest, it’s difficult to live according to such high standards, isn’t it? Is it possible to live a life characterised by such righteousness? Well, humanly speaking, no, but with God’s help, yes! And that is one of the main points of Matthew 7:7, that by continually asking, seeking, and knocking for God’s help, God will definitely give us the grace to obey the challenging commands that Jesus set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus further explains this truth by way of an illustration taken from family life.
If a son asks his father for bread, such food of course being a basic necessity of life, will that father trick his son by giving him a stone? Or if the son asks for a fish, will the father trick him by giving him a snake? Of course not! The father will give his son that which is best for him. In the same way, our heavenly Father will give us the good gifts that are best for our spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being; in other words, the gifts we need to be faithful disciples of Jesus. Notice what I just said – the Father will give us the good gifts we need to be faithful disciples of Jesus. The Father’s gifts are given to make us better disciples – that’s the purpose of the gifts, not financial self-enrichment or unbridled materialistic gain. Therefore, let me be clear – we should avoid the mistake of thinking of these good gifts primarily in terms of material gifts. This is not what Jesus is saying. Notice that in the parallel verse in Luke 11:13 the text says, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” The “good gifts” that Jesus is referring to are to be understood primarily as “spiritual gifts”, the Holy Spirit being the greatest gift that each follower of Christ receives. Let us continually ask, seek, and knock for God’s help to live as faithful disciples of Jesus. We can know with certainty that, if we ask God to help us live lives that are fully surrendered to Him, He will always give us the wisdom, grace, and strength to do so.