The Gospel reading assigned in most mainline churches this week has always seemed problematic to me. From Luke, it recounts these familiar lines said by Jesus:
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
On one hand, this is one of the most comforting and reassuring short passages in the whole Bible. It seems to promise that anything we ask for will be granted to us (if, at least, we ask with good intentions and in the spirit of spreading God’s love). It seems to say that petitional prayers from a loving heart will always be answered in the way we want — almost to the extent that it makes God’s will subordinate to our own, as long as our own will is not antithetical to God’s ultimate designs.
The problem with this interpretation is that we know, on multiple levels, that it can’t be true. Logically, we know that God’s will can never, even in a minor or short-term way, be subordinate to our own. Experientially, we know darn well that we ask God for all sorts of things — things that we think are good and for which we ask with a loving heart — only to have the requests not granted, the comfort not given, and the door apparently not even opened. We ask God for an end to the sufferings of a loved one, but the loved one still suffers. We ask God for an end to a run of bad luck, but we wake up the next day to find something else has gone wrong. We ask God to save our community from crime, but our neighbors still get robbed or, worse, innocent people get killed.
We know, therefore, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that within the ordinary experience of our temporal lives, this promise by Jesus is often or even usually unfulfilled, or at least unfulfilled in ways we recognize as being fulfilling.
So does this make Jesus a purveyor of false promises? Worse, if He is omnipotent and therefore has the absolute power to carry out His promise but doesn’t do so, does this make Him an outright liar?
Well, if God is good, then He can’t be a liar. We therefore are left with a conundrum: Is God either A) not entirely good? or B) not entirely omnipotent?
Or are we perhaps misunderstanding Jesus’ words?
As options A and B fly in the face of everything we have been taught about God, we therefore are almost bound to believe that we are misunderstanding.
But there’s a fourth option. It’s an option that uses the same answer that applies in numerous other situations in the Bible. It’s the option that says God/Christ means exactly what He said and exactly what the scribes correctly wrote down about what He said — but that His time frame is different from ours, and His way or method of answering our petitional prayers is one we have trouble fathoming. After all, Christ put no time limit on His promise. And He certainly did not define what he meant by the “it” that “will be given you.” Maybe God gives us the blessing for which we ask but in a form we are too dense to recognize. Maybe God gives us what we seek, but only in the long run, perhaps only in our post-Earth life eternal.
And, finally, if we look at the context of Jesus’ words, we see that He is specifically answering a question about how to pray, and He ends by saying that what God gives in answer to our prayers is “the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.” Maybe He has circumscribed the choices of what we may actually ask for in prayer, so that the Holy Spirit — which is the greatest gift of all for us on Earth — is the answer to and fulfillment for whatever we request, even though we in our misunderstanding think we are asking for something more specific and specifically earthbound.
What we know beyond any doubt is that Jesus does tell us to keep praying, and to pray specifically for what we in all good conscience desire — and we are left to trust that, in the long run, we will see that He did indeed fulfill our request even if we did not recognize its fulfillment.
How He does so might appear a mystery to us. But to us, God’s ways are habitually mysterious. Believing amidst the mystery is the essential nature of faith itself. So keep praying and, even if we don’t seem to get the result we desire, keep believing anyway.