Anyone who has brought up children and anyone who has been brought up, if they’re honest, will know that parents are a big problem to their adolescent offspring. Most teenagers wish their parents gone, perhaps permanently, intensely and often, and many of them say so in clear and hurtful terms. “I hate you, I wish you were dead!” are words thought and perhaps said by confused and angry young people to those who love them the most and whom, we all know, they themselves love deeply, as part of the ordinary drama growing up.
Typically this will be in the context of the refusal of some unreasonably, impossible, or dangerous demand. “Buy me this!” “Take me here!” “Allow me to do that!”
Remembering this kind of intense and passionate but also everyday and even banal confrontation will help us in making sense of what we might think is a puzzling and hard to accept teaching of Jesus. Talking about prayer he says to his disciples: “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened”. He seems to guarantee that if we pray, if we make requests to God, we will receive, we will get what we ask for.
That sounds like an easy promise to test. Is what Jesus says true? Are our prayers answered in this way? The question answers itself. No they are not. The Church has prayed for peace and the world is beset by war. Many many millions have prayed that they and those whom they love might be spared from disease, pain and death and seen terrible suffering continue and premature death come. Uncounted and untold prayers have been made and the things prayed for not come, the things prayed against go on. People have asked and not received, have sought and not found, have knocked and seen no door open.
Should we conclude that Jesus was either wrong or dishonest, that prayer is futile, that asking, seeking, knocking are a waste of time? Should we conclude that this passage gives us the opportunity and the permission to test God in our prayers and that this test has been failed, again and again?
This very familiar promise sits between two other, more difficult to interpret sections of a single passage Jesus’ teaching that follows and supplements his teaching of the great exemplary prayer that we know as the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer. He first gives the peculiar parable about the man who knocks on his friend’s door at night demanding bread to share with a visitor and whose very shamelessness, his going beyond what is reasonable will mean that his demand will be met, even when friendship itself will not. Then he compares our requests to those made to a father by his child, requests that the father will meet with fish and eggs, not with scorpions and snakes.
How does this help us with the problem that Jesus’ guarantee about prayer seems not to hold good?
The first word of the Lord’s Prayer, in Luke’s version, is “Father”. This is not a prayer addressed to some impersonal force, or to an alien or totally mysterious being. Our prayer is an address to a person, a member of our family, to our Father. This profoundly intimate and familiar character of our prayer is what defines it, what makes all ideas of testing and experiment beside the point.
When we pray to our Father in heaven he already knows us, knows us well, knows us better than we can know ourselves. A parent can accept and forgive the hurtful words of their child because he or she knows that child as well as anyone can know another, can love another, he or she hears the words as coming from a place of hurt and confusion, knows that the very fact that they’re said to them is a sign of how completely the child trusts and relies on them.
When our children ask for or demand things we don’t refuse them because we don’t want to make them happy, so long as our relationship hasn’t gone wrong. When we refuse them things we do for all sorts of reasons: because we can’t get them; because we think they’re things they shouldn’t have, because we don’t want to spoil them. We have our reasons, sometimes good and sometimes in retrospect less good but we always have our reasons, reasons that we can’t always make understood.
Is it like that with God? Jesus tells the disciples: “If you then, who are evil know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
If God is good and if God is present in the world then when we ask God for what is good he will give us what is good when he can. That’s what Jesus tells us. In the same way that a parent doesn’t wait to be asked to give their child what is needed, so God doesn’t wait to be asked. In the same way that a parent doesn’t give what is asked for if giving it isn’t good, so God doesn’t give what is harmful. And, we must conclude, the bad things that happen, the disasters that befall us, do so not by the will of God.
One might conclude from this that we shouldn’t, or needn’t, pray. Some Christians and some Christian thinkers do reach this conclusion, at least in regard to prayers of request. I don’t think they’re right. Among the requests in the Lord’s Prayer are “thy kingdom come”, “give us each day our daily bread”, and “forgive us our sins”. In these three are summarised a lot of what we pray for day by day, week by week. God’s kingdom is one where absolute peace and absolute justice hold sway. Being given our daily bread is a basic statement of the plea that our needs are met. Forgiveness of sins is a precondition of salvation, of being made right with God.
Our faith teaches us that we are dependent on God’s grace for eternal life. It teaches that we are to trust God’s love to grant us that grace. If we are dependent on somebody who loves us for everything then wanting something must lead directly to asking for it, even if we trust that person to know and to do what’s best for us.
If we don’t pray then it seems to me that we’re saying either that we don’t really trust God and accept our dependence on him or we’re saying that there’s nothing we really want, that we’ve given up on any possibility of happiness and well being. Either way we’re not living as Christians.
Prayer is the great expression of our faith. Pray, pray, and pray some more, and God will grant you the very greatest gift of them all, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit which gives tranquillity, goodness and holiness, strength to endure and love to illumine our lives.