A couple of months ago Madeleine was corresponding with a person who claimed he could prove that God does not exist. Madeleine challenged the person and in the ensuing dialogue it became evident that a theological misunderstanding under lied his opposition to the gospel. This man’s family were Christians; his father had suffered an accident resulting in one of his legs being amputated. The family and father had, apparently, earnestly prayed that the leg would grow back and it did not. Madeleine’s correspondent went on to claim that there are no documented cases of a person’s leg re-growing after amputation, as such he considered this to be conclusive proof that God does not exist.
Now neither of us took this line or argument seriously for a moment; our interlocutor was assuming that if God did not grow limbs back on request then it followed that God did not exist. We saw no basis for accepting this rather dubious premise and Madeleine stated that God was not some kind of Genie you could ask for your wishes to come true from. In response our correspondent referred us to a verse in Matthew; chapter 7:7-11,
"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.9 "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?11 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 good gifts to those who ask him!
Having never heard this line of argument before I figured this incident was an isolated one and wrote it off as one of those things that people say online. So I was surprised when a month later I heard the very same objection raised in conversation. Madeleine and I attend the monthly Auckland Bloggers Bash and have a couple of drinks with various Auckland bloggers. Two of the regulars edit widely circulated atheist or free-thought non-net publications so the conversation is often interesting.
One evening I ran into someone who was clearly very interested in meeting me. He had read several things I had written and wanted to know more about Christianity and why someone like me would believe in God. In conversation I discovered that he had been brought up as a believer. However, later in life he had seen sick people die despite the fact that his family had prayed for them and this had rocked his faith. On conversation with him it was apparent that he believed that if a Godly person, like the local pastor, asked God for something then one should expect God to do it. This, to him, was something Christianity taught and as his experience had showed this claim was false he had rejected Christianity. Let me note that this person was not being argumentative for the sake of it; he was interested in the issues and wanted to talk about them.
I realised that I had seen a similar understanding of Christianity in many churches in New Zealand. When I was at university I attended a church for some years where many people taught that a believer can “claim things” in the name of God, that God had given them authority and if they simply and sincerely claimed something then, provided they believed it strongly enough, God would give it to them. Others used to pray for convenient car parks when going to the supermarket under the belief that God would, if they asked, give them the correct place to park. Many believed that they could write a checklist of traits they wanted in a future spouse and then pray regularly to God about the list and “believe in God for it.” These were usually justified on the basis of passages like the one I cited above. Don’t passages like this make it clear that if a believer asks for something then God will give it to them?
To answer this question I will to look at three things. First is I will examine briefly what the passage says. Next I will look at the context in which the passage in Matthew occurs and finally I will examine how the same passage is interpreted and explained by Jesus in a parallel passage in the gospel of Luke.
In Matthew 7:7-11 Jesus asserts three imperatives and three promises which correspond to each command. He then follows this up with an argument or analogy to illustrate the point.
The three imperatives are a repetition of a single command to pray. Jesus uses three common rabbinic metaphors for prayer, “asking,” “seeking” and “knocking.” Moreover, the three imperatives are in the present tense which the original Greek indicates as continuous, persistent prayer. Hence, Jesus is commanding that we consistently, persistently and continuously pray for something. The promise that is annexed to this command is that if we do persistently pray in this fashion then we will receive the thing we are asking for.
Jesus reiterates the point. He tells us that even though we are evil, none of us would give our children a stone if they asked for bread or a snake if they asked for fish. (Bread and fish were the common forms of food around Lake Galilee, as is evident from the feeding of the 5000 in Matt 14.) Moreover, a round loaf would look like a stone and the eel-like catfish commonly found in Lake Galilee looks a bit like a snake (it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that snakes are dangerous animals capable of killing children).
Jesus’ point, then, is fairly vivid; when our children need food (something which nourishes them and is good for them) we don’t offer them something that looks like food but, in fact, is either inedible or dangerous and likely to kill them. He draws from this the conclusion that similarly, God would not, when we ask for something good, give us something evil.
Nothing in the passage itself tells what the thing we are to “seek,” “ask” or “knock” for is, nor does the analogy make it clear what Jesus is asking his disciples to petition God for is either except that, like food, it is “a good thing.” In the examples I began this post with the interpretation that was provided was that it referred to “anything” one asks for. I suggest, however, that the context and a parallel passage in Luke, suggests otherwise.
Turning first to the context, the passage occurs in the midst of a series of instructions Jesus gives about judging others. In v 1 Jesus stated that a person who judges the conduct of others will be judged by the same standard that they apply to others. From this he draws two important qualifications that need to be followed whenever a person attempts to criticise or correct the behaviour of other people. The first of these is that one should not attempt to “take the speck out of [another’s eye,] when there is a plank in their own eye?” instead you should “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.” Jesus’ point is fairly evident; before we criticise the minor character flaws of others we should make sure that we have dealt with the serious character flaws in our own life. Only when this is done will we have the requisite discernment to make informed and correct moral judgements about others. (Far from the prohibition on judging that is usually ascribed to this passage.)
The second qualification Jesus makes is that one should “not give dogs what is sacred” nor should one, “throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” Dogs and pigs to Jews were unclean animals and the term was frequently used to designate people considered to be of low moral character and hence “unclean” before God. Jesus simply repeated the Old Testament teaching found in Proverbs 9:8, which states, “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you: rebuke a wise man and he will love you.”
What both these passages emphasis, then, is discernment; the ability to see one’s own moral failings, to be able to correct them, to have the wisdom to be able to correct others as well as the discernment to be an effective judge of others character.
This does not just occur immediately before the passage in question, similar things can be said about the texts that immediately follow. Immediately after telling us to ask, seek and knock, Christ states,
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
The same basic point can be seen when we examine how Jesus presents the same teaching in Luke 11:9-11,
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples." 2 He said to them, "When you pray, say: "'Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.3 Give us each day our daily bread.4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.'"5 Then he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread,6 because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.'7 "Then the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.'8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.9 "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.10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.11 "Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?13 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!"
First, we can see again the context; in this passage we know precisely what Jesus is referring to when he asks us to seek, ask, knock because he has just instructed his disciples on how to pray and what to pray for. He has asked them to hallow his name, to proclaim that his character and reputation are sacred and holy, worthy of respect and adoration. Moreover, he has commanded them to pray that his kingdom come and will be done. In other words, to ask that their lives would be lives lived under his lordship and in obedience to him. This is emphasised by the fact that Jesus has told them to sincerely seek forgiveness for their sins and also for assistance in temptation and trials to help them to do the right thing and to not stumble into wrong doing. It is just after this that Jesus uses common rabbinic metaphors (ask, seek, knock) for regular, continuous and persistent prayer.
Further, in this passage we see Jesus illustrate the teaching further with a parable. The scene is of a Palestinian home where a family are all asleep in one room. Walter Leifield notes that this would probably mean they were all asleep on the same mat. He notes that “The father could not get over to the door and slide back the heavy bolt that bars it without waking his family. In such a situation no one would be happy to respond especially in the middle of the night.” Leifield interesting notes, however, that the friend who approaches him is actually duty bound to do so even with a midnight arrival,
A host in that first century society would be expected to provide a welcome. Rather than insult his guest with too little bread … the host would seek out a person with a good supply, knowing who in his small town had recently done baking. The visitor would have been the guest, not only of the individual and his family but of the whole community. This placed a great responsibility both on the traveller’s host and on the friend he approached at midnight.
When Jesus then says “ask and you receive” in the next verse, it seems fair to say that he is referring to asking for assistance in fulfilling one’s duties, leading a godly life where one confess one’s sins, avoids temptation, lives according to Gods laws, etc. This is further reinforced in v 13 where Luke identifies the good thing God can be relied upon to give that Matthew mentions (7:11) as the holy spirit, the advisor or counsellor, who assists believers in living a sanctified life.
When Jesus tells us then to ask, seek and knock and promises that we will receive, he is not promising that whatever we want God will give us. Rather he is commanding us to continually and persistently pray for God to help us to glorify him, to obey his commands, avoid temptation, do the right thing, etc. He is promising that a person who sincerely, continually and persistently seeks to live such a life will receive God’s spirit and assistance in living such a life. The text has nothing to do with amputated limbs, car parks, future spouses or any other thing that we may want or desire. And it’s mistaken to think that God ever claimed in scripture that he will give people whatever they ask for.
 Walter Leifield “Luke” The Expositors Bible Commentary ed Frank Gaebelein (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan Publishing Company) Vol 8 948.