Matthew 7.7-11 does not seem to be directly tied to what comes immediately before or after it (judging and the golden rule, respectively), but it is tied to other portions of the SOTM. Earlier, in Matthew 6.5-15, Jesus taught His disciples about prayer, and now, He provides some further teaching on that same subject.
The three commands that Jesus gives—ask, seek, knock—all refer to the same practice: we are to ask God in prayer for the things we need, and seeking and knocking are metaphorical illustrations of the same idea. These are not just commands, but are present tense commands, which indicates that Jesus is telling His disciples to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking. Jesus taught on the importance of persistence in prayer elsewhere (Luke 18.1-8), and here He gives a helpful reminder to us: if we really want God to act on our behalf, then we should care enough to pray more than once or twice. We should pray with persistence, refusing to give up.
Jesus then offers a promise that those who ask receive, those who seek find, and those who knock have the door opened for them. In other words, God grants the prayers of those who ask. Jesus explains God’s willingness to grant our prayers by comparing Him to an earthly parent. If a son asks his father for bread, will the father give him a stone instead? If he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead?
Jesus’ point is that earthly parents are not cruel like this: they give good things to their children; they don’t give them useless or even dangerous things instead of what they need. And earthly parents, despite their best efforts and love for their children, are imperfect and sinful—how much more will a good, loving, and perfect God give good gifts to those who ask Him?
This is a wonderful promise, and yet, we must be careful to not abuse what Jesus is saying and make it mean something it doesn’t. This is not intended to be some sort of magical formula where we can force God to give us what we ask for by being incredibly persistent. God is not a genie who pops out of a lamp, calls us “master”, and grants us three wishes.
It is implied that when we pray, we should ask with humility, sincerity, perseverance, and for things that God will actually give—things which He has promised to give (see the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6), things that would be best for us, and things which would bring Him honor.
Still, there are times when we pray consistently and with all humility and sincerity for things that seem best to us, and also seem like they would bring great glory to God, and yet those things do not occur. My daughter Kinsley was born with a rare genetic condition that causes her to have significant physical and mental disabilities. I pray to God all the time for Him to heal her so that she may have a “normal” life and so that God may be glorified: wouldn’t it be amazing to everyone if they could witness her healing? And yet, so far, that prayer has not been answered, or at least, not the way I want it to.
We can see from Scripture, however, that there are actually many ways that God answers prayers (1):
- Literally: Sometimes, God answers our prayers quickly and just in the way we ask. In Jonah 2, Jonah prayed to God from the belly of the big fish, and God caused the fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land. We like this answer (because it means we get what we ask for!), but we need to remember it isn’t the only answer God gives.
- Gradually: Sometimes we pray for things that don’t happen immediately, but do gradually come about. In Luke 22.32, Jesus told Peter that He had prayed that his faith would not fail and that he would later strengthen the other disciples. Well, Peter’s faith did fail on the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, but over time Peter was strengthened and was able to be a leader among the apostles. There are some things we pray for (development of character, the healing of someone, etc.) that are part of a process that simply takes time.
- Eventually: Sometimes, God grants our requests, but after a delay. In Mark 5.21-43 we read the story of Jairus’ daughter. Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue, came to Jesus to ask Him to heal his daughter. Jesus agreed, but healed another person on the way to Jairus’ house, and during the delay, the little girl died. Jesus went to the house, and raised the girl from the dead. She wasn’t healed immediately, but in God’s time, she was. This is another reason we should be persistent in our praying and never give up.
- Alternatively: Sometimes God does not give us what we ask for, but He gives us something else instead. In the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26.39, Jesus prayed that if it be possible, God would “let this cup pass” from Him. In other words, “If there’s another way where I don’t have to be crucified, let’s go with that!” That wasn’t possible, though, and God did not answer Jesus’ prayer in that way, but He did provide Him with the strength to drink the cup and go through the crucifixion. Sometimes we ask for things that God doesn’t give us, but He gives us better things instead.
- Negatively: Sometimes, God denies our requests. In 2 Corinthians 12.6-10, Paul talks about how he had a “thorn in the flesh” that he asked God three times to take away. God denied that request, telling Paul that His grace was sufficient for Paul, and that His power would shine through Paul’s weakness.
We tend to think that we know best about what we need in life, but the reality is that we see things from a much narrower perspective than God does, and sometimes, we ask for things that really aren’t good for us. We may want to have a relationship with a certain person, or for us to get a certain job, but it may be that God knows that a relationship with that person would be damaging to us, or that He has a better job in mind for us. To go back to Jesus’ analogy, a parent doesn’t always give a child what they want; the parent gives what they, the parent, thinks is best for the child. And God is the same way: He gives us what He knows is best. God gives us what we would ask for if we knew what He knows.
- James Burton Coffman, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, (Austin, TX: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1968), 92.