Rosie was one of the more memorable students I had early on in my teaching career. A teenage girl more blessed with a quick tongue than with a reliable sense of when and how to use it. What Rosie was thinking was very rarely a secret to anyone nearby. From the point of view of a teacher, you could say that it made Rosie hard to ignore or to forget.
One particular outburst of frankness from Rosie sticks in my memory. We were studying the subject of wealth and poverty from a Christian perspective, and were looking at biblical teaching related to it. And one of the passages we studied was the Lord’s Prayer and what Jesus had to say about asking God to supply our needs in Luke 11. Having got to the end of the reading, her voice rang loud and clear from the back of the room: “That’s just stupid! ” “What do you mean stupid? ” “Well it is, isn’t it, sir! Completely stupid.”
It turned out that her objection was this: If you look around the world, there are lots of Christians praying for good things, even things they really need, and not getting them. It’s not like the Christians of a particular region are immune to natural disasters, famines or wars in those places. The Boxing Day tsunami didn’t leave Christians unscathed. Many Christians must have prayed fervently for their loved ones to be rescued, to no avail. Many weren’t even fortunate enough to have a body to bury at the end of it. They asked for a fish, and were given a serpent, for an egg and received a scorpion.
“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.”
Try telling that to someone watching a loved one die of a terminal disease, in spite of endless prayers for healing. Try telling that to the man or woman, desperately pleading for the joy of human warmth and companionship, seeing their life slip by in unrelenting loneliness. Try telling that to the long-term unemployed, reduced to enforced idleness and hardship, who receive the dreaded note—“I’m afraid we are unable to make you an offer”—not only from every potential employer but also from the heavenly Father. I could go on.
If you feel that your prayers are not being heard, that the words of Jesus in the Gospel don’t ring true in the hard school of human experience, you are hardly alone. This is a dilemma that has plagued the saints of God at all times. Just hear the anguished cries of the Psalmist:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
Or most famously of all:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
And met by this barrage of silence, of prayers unanswered despite Jesus’ clear words, we are quickly given to despair. Some despair of God’s goodness, and turn away from Him, in anger or despondency, taking the advice of Job’s wife: Curse God and die.
Other’s despair of themselves, certain that it is some defect in themselves—faith that is too weak, the lack of some necessary ingredient in the prayer, a hidden sin—that is preventing God from answering their prayer.
Either way, God’s apparent silence drives us to doubt Jesus’ clear promise: “Everyone who asks receives and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” Everyone, that is, except I, and the dozens of others I know who are in the same boat with me, who hasn’t received, who hasn’t found, to whom the door appears forever shut. And so, we are left with that terrifying question of another another Psalm: “Has God forgotten to be gracious? ”
But as is so often the case, when we doubt God’s word, it is not because of a defect in God’s word but because of our defective attention to it, together with our mistaken notions of how things ought to be.
Jesus’ teaching in Luke 11 is in response to a request from His disciples: Lord, teach us to pray. And so He taught them, not so much how to pray but what to pray. In other words, Jesus didn’t give us some general rules and suggestions for godly, or effective, or successful prayer. He didn’t say: “When you pray, do it in this sort of way.” Rather, He gave us the very words to pray, the prayer itself: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, etc.”
And it is to this prayer He attaches the promise:“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” It is this prayer that He likens to a friend asking for help in the night. It is a prayer for good things, which a loving father would never refuse a son—the ultimate good gift from God being the Holy Spirit. It is the Lord’s Prayer: the prayer given by the Lord, the prayer addressed to the Lord, the prayer accompanied with the promises of the Lord.
This takes us back to where we left off last week with Martha and Mary: with the question of what is necessary and truly good, the difference between Jesus’ priorities and what are ours. In worship, as we learnt from the experience of Martha and Mary, what is necessary and truly good is what God gives us in Christ. And so it is in prayer as well.
What Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer is what we truly need from God: spiritual gifts. That His name is kept holy among us, that His kingdom come, that we receive bread from Him, that our sins are forgiven, that we are preserved from temptation. And as a friend wouldn’t dream of ignoring the urgent request of his neighbour, much less will God ignore our petition for our needs.
But notice the word “needs”. Not desires, wants or wishes but needs. Jesus promises to us that our heavenly Father will give to us what we need, and He will do so with delight. We run into difficulties when we define our own needs from our perspective and then measure God’s goodness and faithfulness against whether He gives us what we think we need.
This is not to say that our requests are frivolous, or that we should not ask for things in our times of need. Of course we should. Elsewhere, in John’s Gospel, Jesus encourages the disciples to ask for “anything” in His name. However, as Jesus reminded Martha when she was distracted by her serving from the word of Christ, there is only one thing that is necessary. Because there is only one thing that lasts beyond the grave.
Everything else, all the other good gifts of God: health, family, friendships, mortal life itself, will all come to an end. They may come to an end peacefully, at the end of a long and contented life; or they may come to an end suddenly and violently, or unexpectedly, or at the end of a life of hardship and suffering. We may enjoy God’s temporal blessings abundantly or sparingly. But the end of all of them is the same. And so is the end of them who put their trust in them as their only good.
By contrast, God’s kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom. The word of the Lord endures forever. The heavenly bread, together with those who eat it in faith, is imperishable. When Jesus fed the 5,000, the crowd went wild and wanted to crown Jesus as their king, and He had to remind them:
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)
Now, I am sure that my erstwhile pupil Rosie would greet this saying of Jesus with the same exclamation: “That’s just stupid! ” Because it’s not difficult to demonstrate that there are plenty of Christians among the hungry and thirsty of the world. And plenty of Christians who go short on the temporal gifts of God, gifts of clothing, housing, family, income, health.
But it is not stupid. Because the true daily bread, which Jesus invites us to pray for, is the bread of life, the imperishable and life-giving bread. What would be stupid would be to place our hope in things that have no hope of lasting, and to judge God’s goodness by them. To decide whether God loves us by whether we survive this particular illness, whether we overcome this particular pain, or whether we live in wealth or poverty, is to miss the point. Jesus Himself knew this: on the eve of His own great anguish—an anguish greater than that of any human before or since—He too prayed for relief: “Father, take this cup away from me. But not my will but Your will be done.” For He knew that the Father’s will is the best—and we are the beneficiaries both of the Father’s good will and the Son’s obedient submission to it, God’s ultimate gift to us.
And now, we live in the happy world where we can both have our cake and eat it. All the good gifts we receive come as tokens of our Heavenly Father’s love for us, to be received and enjoyed with gratitude. But even when He withholds the earthly gifts, either for a time or for good, we are nevertheless blessed beyond all measure: children of the heavenly Father, heirs to His kingdom, raised to life in His Son, eating here the bread of heaven as a foretaste of the Kingdom to come, sanctified by His Holy Spirit and kept from the Evil One until sin, death and the devil are destroyed and we will live forever in pure enjoyment of His love for us.
Now that doesn’t sound so stupid, does it?