A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 7:7-11. A Christian’s relationships: Our attitude to our heavenly Father (continued).
b. The problems men raise.
Confronted by the straightforward promises of Jesus, *Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find,* people raise several objections which we need now to consider.
1. Prayer is unseemly.
‘This encouragement to pray presents a false picture of God. It implies that he needs either to be told what we lack or to be bulled into giving it, whereas Jesus himself said earlier that our heavenly Father knows it and cares for us anyway. Besides, he surely cannot be bothered with our petty affairs. Why should we suppose that his gifts are dependent on our asking? Do human parents wait before supplying their children’s needs until they ask for them?’
To this we reply that the reason why God’s giving depends on our asking is neither because he is ignorant until we inform him nor because he is reluctant until we persuade him. The reason has to do with us, not with him; The question is not whether he is ready to give, but whether we are ready to receive. So in prayer we do not ‘prevail on’ God, but rather prevail on ourselves to submit to God. True, the language of ‘prevailing on God’ is often used in regard to prayer, but it is an accommodation to human weakness. Even when Jacob ‘prevailed on God’, what really happened is that God prevailed over him, bringing him to the point of surrender when he was able to receive the blessing which God had all the time been longing to give him.
The truth is that the heavenly Father never spoils his children. He does not shower us with gifts whether we want them or not, whether we are ready for them or not. Instead he waits until we recognize our need and turn to him in humility. This is why he says *Ask, and it will be given you*, and why James added, ‘You do not have because you do not ask’ (Jas. 4:2). Prayer then is not unseemly’; it is the very way God himself has chosen for us to express our conscious need of him and our humble dependence on him.
2. Prayer is unnecessary.
This second objection arises more from experience that from theology. Thoughtful Christians look round them and see lots of people getting on fine without prayer. Indeed they seem to receive without prayer the very same things that we receive with it. They get what they need by working for it, not by praying for it. The farmer gets a good crop by labour, not prayer. The mother gets her baby by medical skill, not prayer. The family balances its budget by the wage-earning of dad and perhaps others, not by prayer. ‘Surely,’ we may be tempted to say, ‘this proves that prayer does not make an ounce of difference; it’s so much wasted breath.’
But wait a minute! In thinking about this question, we need to distinguish between the gifts of God as Creator and his gifts as Father, or between his creation-gifts and his redemptive-gifts. It is perfectly true that he gives certain gifts (harvest, babies, food, life) whether people pray or not, whether they believe or not. He gives to all life and breath. He sends rain from heaven and fruitful seasons to all. He makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good alike (Mt. 5:45). He ‘visits’ a mother when she conceives and later gives birth. None of these gifts is dependent on whether people acknowledge their Creator or pray to him.
But God’s redemption-gifts are different. God does not bestow salvation on all alike, but ‘bestows his riches upon all who call on him. For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”’ (Rom.10:12,13). The same applies to post-salvation blessings, the ‘good things’ which Jesus says the Father gives his children. It is not material blessings that he is referring to here, but spiritual blessings – daily forgiveness, deliverance from evil, peace, the increase of faith, hope and love, in fact the indwelling work of ‘the Holy Spirit’ as the comprehensive blessing of God, which is how Luke renders ‘good things’ (Mt.7:11 = Lk.11:13). For these gifts we must certainly pray.
The Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught earlier in the Sermon, brings together both kinds of gift, for ‘daily bread’ is a creation gift, whereas ‘forgiveness’ and ‘deliverance’ are redemption-gifts. How is it then that they can be combined in the same prayer? Probably the answer is this. We pray for daily bread not because we fear we will starve otherwise (since millions get their daily bread without ever praying for it or saying grace before meals) but because we know that ultimately it comes from God and because as his children it is appropriate regularly to acknowledge our physical dependence on him. We pray for forgiveness and deliverance, however, because these gifts are given only in answer to prayer and because without them we would be lost. So prayer is not unnecessary.
Tomorrow: Matthew 7:7-11. A Christian’s relationships: Our attitude to our heavenly Father (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.