Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 7: 7-12
Reflection – If it is not impious to say so, it seems to me that this passage from the Sermon on the Mount has led more people to question their faith or even into serious doubts about faith than any other. Even if we struggle to accept it or do it, we can all see the merits of turning the other cheek, not hoarding possessions, or not judging our neighbor.
But this one is hard for us. And of course it is hard for the obvious reason: who among us has not had the experience of praying very hard for something, of really and most sincerely asking God for some good thing (or what definitely seems to us to be a good thing)… and not receiving, not finding, not having the door opened to us? Everyone who has been brought up in a praying environment has had this experience, usually at a fairly young age.
Someone we love gets sick; we pray for their healing; they die. Someone we love battles personal demons of mental illness or addiction; we pray; they go on battling. Someone we love has left the faith or embarked on a life of immorality; we pray; they are not converted. And so on it goes.
We have to face squarely that this is a deep problem, if not for us, then for many people, and it can damage a weak faith and even shake a strong one. And there’s no point ducking out of the challenge. God didn’t, after all. God knows all about all of this, and yet His Spirit chose that Jesus’ words would be recorded precisely as they are, with all this strength and absolute assurance. Ask, and receive. Seek, and find. Knock, and it is opened.
So, it’s true. That’s my answer to the problem. It is true. It is not the case, as some say, that we can ask but sometimes the answer is ‘no’. That’s not what Jesus said. Jesus said if we ask, we receive. The answer is always ‘yes’.
So you pray for a sick person to get well, and they die. God said yes to your prayer. That sick person needed to get well in the most radical way a person can get well, which is to be restored to the full communion of the blessed life, through crossing the threshold of death into the kingdom. You pray for the addict to get clean, the mentally ill person to be made whole. God says yes to you, and His whole gracious presence is upon that person through that prayer to bring them along. The sinner goes their way sinning, and you pray for their conversion. God says yes to that prayer. Repentance and conversion are slow, life long processes for all of us, and free will makes the whole thing most complex and difficult, but your prayer is raining down graces upon that person precisely to bring them towards that conversion.
We don’t understand much about all this. How our prayer affects God’s dispositions, and what the whole economy of grace is. What this Gospel tells us is that prayer works, that it always and every time does something, and that God has mysteriously ordained that our little human efforts to ask His help and seek His grace and knock on His door for ourselves and for others is never fruitless, never ignored, never unanswered.
But the answers and the action of grace we unleash with our prayer is so far beyond our understanding, so far beyond our puny human ideas of ‘the good’ which means for us generally the immediate alleviation of suffering and want. God knows that it cannot work that way… but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
It works. Prayer works – that is the fundamental message of this part of the sermon, and so it calls us to a very deep faith indeed, a very deep commitment to persevere in intercession for the world and those in it who we love and carry. And to trust in the goodness of the living God who hears our prayers, and His radical and total commitment to make our lives good, to bring joy and wholeness, healing and beauty, into the lives and hearts of every human being He has made and whom He loves, the great work of God in the world into which He invites us through our prayer and through our works of mercy done in and with Him.