A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 7:7-11. A Christian’s relationships: Our attitude to our heavenly Father.

3. Prayer is unproductive.
The third problem is the obvious corollary to the second. People argue that prayer in *unnecessary* because God gives to many who do not ask, and that it is *unproductive* because he fails to give to many who do. ‘I prayed to pass an exam, but failed it. I prayed to be healed of an illness, and it got worse. I prayed for peace, but the world is filled with the noise of war. Prayer doesn’t work!’ – This is the familiar problem of unanswered prayer.

The best way to approach this problem is to remember that the promises of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are not unconditional. A moment’s thought will convince us of this. It is absurd to suppose that the promise ‘Ask, and it shall be given you’ is an absolute pledge with no strings attached; that ‘Knock, and it will be opened to you’ is an ‘Open Sesame’ to every closed door without exception; and that by the waving of a prayer wand any wish will be granted and every dream will come true. The idea is ridiculous. It would turn prayer into magic, the person who prays into a magician like Aladdin, and God into our servant who appears instantly to do our bidding like Aladdin’s genie every time we rub our little prayer lamp. In addition, this concept of prayer would place an impossible strain on every sensitive Christian if he knew that he was certain to get everything he asked. ‘If it were the case’, writes Alec Motyer, ‘that whatever we ask, God was pledged to give, then I for one would never pray again, because I would not have sufficient confidence in my own wisdom to ask God for anything; and I think that if you consider it you will agree. it would impose an intolerable burden on frail human wisdom if by his prayer-promises God was pledged to give whatever we ask, when we ask it, and in exactly the terms we ask. How could we bear the burden?’.

Perhaps we could put the matter in this way: being *good*, our heavenly Father gives only good gifts to his children; being *wise* as well, he knows which gifts are good are which are not. We have already heard Jesus say that human parents would never give a stone or a snake to their children who ask for bread or fish. But what if the children (through ignorance or folly) were actually to ask for a stone or a snake? What then? Doubtless an extreme irresponsible parent might grant the child’s request, but the great majority of parents would be too wise and loving. Certainly our heavenly Father would never give us something harmful, even if we asked for it urgently and repeatedly, for the simple reason that he gives his children only ‘good gifts’. So then if we ask for good things, he grants them; if we ask for things that are not good (either not good in themselves, or not good for us or for others, directly or indirectly, immediately or ultimately) he denies them; and only he knows the difference. We can thank God that the granting of our needs in conditional – not only on our asking, seeking and knocking, but also on whether what we desire by asking, seeking and knocking is good. Thank God he answers prayer. Thank God he also sometimes denies our requests. ‘I thank God’, writes Dr. LLoyd Jones ‘that He is not prepared to do anything that I may chance to ask Him … I am profoundly grateful to God that He did not grant me certain things for which I asked, and that He shut certain doors in my face.’.

c. The lessons we learn.

Prayer sounds very simple when Jesus teaches about it. Just *Ask …, seek …, knock …*, and in each case you will be answered. This is a deceptive simplicity, however; much lies behind it. First prayer presupposes knowledge. Since God gives gifts only if they accord with his will, we have to take pains to discover his will – by Scripture meditation and by the exercise of a Christian mind schooled by Scripture meditation. Secondly, prayer presupposes faith. It is one thing to know God’s will; it is another to humble ourselves before him and express our confidence that he is able to cause his will to be done. Thirdly, prayer presupposes desire. We may know God’s will and believe he can perform it, and still not desire it. Prayer is the chief means God has ordained by which to express our deepest desires. (cf.Rom. 10:1). This is the reason why the ‘ask – seek – knock’ commands are in the present imperative and in an ascending scale to challenge our perseverance.

Thus, before we ask, we must know what to ask for and whether it accords with God’s will; we must believe God can grant it; and we must genuinely want to receive. Then the gracious promises of Jesus will come true.
Tomorrow: 4. Our attitude to all men (12).

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.