David Instone-Brewer says we’ve misunderstood Jesus’ teaching on prayer
One evening, my wife was reading out the recycling rules and said: “Why not do it right now?” Feeling somewhat aggrieved, I asserted (rather too loudly) that I had already been doing it right, but she cut me off. “No,” she said. “Why not do it right now – the bin lorry is coming early tomorrow morning.” They were the same words, but I’d heard them wrongly the first time. With the correct emphasis, they had a very different meaning. A similar misunderstanding happens when we hear Jesus’ words on prayer: “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.” (Matthew 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-10).
The emphasis we hear is that if we pray we’ll receive what we want, find what we seek and the doors to our goals will open. But this isn’t actually what Jesus is saying. And anyway, it isn’t true in anyone’s prayer life; we don’t always get what we want, however persistently we pray for it.
In the same way that I misunderstood what my wife was saying, we have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching in these verses and his apparent promise that God will give us whatever we want. In English when we read these verses we stress the words “receives, finds, opened”; however, the emphasis in Greek was different. To understand their meaning in English, we have to turn them around: “To receive something, ask! To find something, seek! To get the door open, knock! For everyone who receives has been asking; those who find have been seeking; and those for whom the door is opened have been knocking.”
The three verbs – “will receive… will find…will open” – are confusing because in English, “will” implies that they are promises. But in the original text the conditions (whether or not you ask, seek and knock) mean that they do not convey certainty. Older translations, such as the King James Version, got this meaning exactly right because they used the English subjunctive mood, “shall find” etc. However, it’s difficult for us to understand this distinction today because modern English rarely uses subjunctives and most English speakers don’t understand them. Understandably, our modern translations are reluctant to change the beautiful King James English, especially for well-known passages like this, and so the emphasis has not been corrected (see here).
A more obvious indicator of the correct emphasis is that the Greek clearly points to the verbs “ask”, “seek” and “knock” rather than “receives”, “finds” and “be opened”. In the first sentence, “ask”, “seek” and “knock” are imperatives – commands, injunctions or pleas – which means they are something you should listen to carefully and act upon. And in the second sentence they are participles, which emphasises present or immediate actions.
Changing the emphasis changes the meaning, like the “now” in my wife’s sentence. It directs our thinking to the urgency of the prayer itself, rather than any reward for ourselves.
Just do it!
Imagine the following: someone who wants a cup of water simply standing and waiting for it, without asking the person nearby who can give it to them; someone who has lost a ring simply waiting for it to reappear, without looking for it; and someone who goes to visit a friend simply standing at their closed front door without knocking, hoping they might happen to open it. It’s almost as if Jesus was telling his version of the joke about praying for a lottery win. You know the punchline: God says: “Meet me halfway. Buy a ticket!” God wants to help us, but first we need to do something; the person who wants their prayers answered has to pray them.
The actual images that Jesus chose are also interesting. He could have said: “Pay, and you’ll own it”, or “Look, and you’ll see it”, or “Push, and the gate will open.” But these verbs imply that the outcome is more of a certainty – they will definitely happen. They also lack the sense of a request – which is, of course, the point of prayer. Prayer lacks the certainty of direct action, because it depends on a request to God. In the Bible, prayer is not a direct action, as in the teaching of ‘Name it and claim it’ preachers. The words Jesus chose to use imply things that don’t always succeed: people don’t always give you want you ask for; you don’t always find what you look for, and some doors remain shut however much you knock.
The same is true of prayer – sometimes we don’t get what we want. If God always gave us what we wanted, we’d soon get into trouble. This is implied in the next verses, which tell us that he is a good father who doesn’t give a child a snake instead of a fish (Matthew 7:9-10). What if the toddler asked for the pretty, but poisonous, snake? What if we pray for a sunny picnic while farmers pray for much-needed rain, or we pray that we’ll get the job instead of all the others who are competing and praying for the same thing? We can’t always know what’s best, but fortunately we can trust God to be wise in his answers.
God is, above all, a good father, and as Jesus pointed out earlier: “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6.8). This might have led us to conclude that there isn’t any need to pray, but Jesus reminded us not to make that mistake: “In order to receive, you should ask, seek, knock!” We can’t be sure of God’s will, and we don’t always know what is best for us in the long run, but we do know for certain that he wants us to pray. After all, he can’t answer a prayer that we never get around to praying!