I find this text to be… difficult. I mean, the Lord’s Prayer, I’m fine with. Who can argue with that? The part I find difficult is at the end. “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…” We’ve all heard it. And I think it is safe to assume we have all asked and not had it given unto us. It’s hard, and it hurts.
When I worked at Northwest Memorial in Chicago, during my seminary chaplaincy, I was called to the room of a woman who had, for lack of a better phrase, full body cancer. It had metastasized everywhere. While we were talking, she asked me about prayer. She was a lapsed Catholic and wondered if I might bring her a rosary and help her learn the Hail Mary. I went to the office and grabbed her a rosary and a Catholic prayer book, recited the Hail Mary with her (as my Swedish Lutheran grandmother’s head spun somewhere in Ohio), and said goodbye. Weeks later, she was back in and asked to see me. She wanted to tell me that she had been cured through prayer. After her last time in the hospital, she started going to church and attending a women’s prayer circle. The women prayed for her and laid hands on her every week. Now, no cancer. They were just running some final tests.
I wanted to be happy for her, I really did. I tried. But as she prayed for a cure, so did I. I prayed and prayed for my father’s brain to somehow be rid of the malignant tumor that was killing him. There was no cure. He would die. God is so fair that God is unfair, a friend once told me. Some prayers are answered in the way and time we want and, well, some just aren’t. And it sucks.
Sometimes, I watch televangelists when I can’t sleep.
I was watching a particular evangelist known for preaching what is called the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is the idea that God wants you to have everything you want, and you will get it if only you pray hard enough and work hard enough (and, often, donate a lot to the church or preacher who is telling you this). This preacher was on a prosperity gospel roll when he remarked that people who have financial troubles have them because their faith is not strong enough. Then he went on to say that people who are ill, people who have cancer, people who are dying, are in that state because they weren’t praying hard enough.
Wait, what the what?
But there it is in the scripture, right? Ask and it shall be given unto you! Seek and you shall find! Knock and the door will be opened! Jesus said it, it’s right there. So if it’s not happening for you, there must be something wrong with you. That’s what this preacher was telling the people in his congregation and the people he reaches across the world through the glowing screen.
Few things get my hackles up as much as placing the brokenness of the world on people’s shoulders and telling then that it would go away if only they worked hard enough. I guess that is the Lutheran in me.
This kind of thinking is dangerous. It can kill faith. When we walk around with the idea that God is a cosmic butler who will respond to our desires (as long as they are Godly desires, naturally. Or maybe desires for a new car), with a resounding yes!, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.
But still, we have this section of the Bible (and in Mark and Matthew as well) that tells us that if we ask we will receive, if we seek we will find, and if we knock, a door will open. So what do we do when that doesn’t happen? What do we do when we have been unemployed for months and we are knocking and asking and seeking, but no doors seem to be opening, no answers coming, no jobs to be found? What about when a loved one is ill and we pray and pray and pray and yet there is no cure, no remission, no end to the pain?
If we have hung our faith on a God who will do exactly what we want, when we want, it may not sustain us through hard times – because that’s not how God works.
We have ways we explain God’s apparent lack of response to our prayers. God answers all prayers, sometimes the answer is no. It wasn’t the right time, be patient. But these answers are wholly unsatisfying. I want what I want and I want it now.
It’s one thing when I don’t get something I want like a parking space (yes, I have prayed for those before), or a shiny new car. Then it’s pretty sensible that God’s answer was either no or silence (because I don’t doubt God has better things to do than help me get a parking space). But when we pray for a cure, for an end to pain, for a job that will help us feed our families – then the silence on God’s end seems uncaring and distant. It is this silence that leads people to disbelief, to observe that a good God just wouldn’t let these horrible things happen, so either there is no God, or God is not good.
This misunderstands who God is, what God is, and God’s role in our lives and the universe.
God is not a genie, or a celestial butler or a vending machine. God is so much bigger and more than this. God is a mystery we have only seen in pieces and parts. But all of those pieces and parts add up to one thing: God is love. God is the creator, the ground of being, beyond our comprehension, And sometimes, this is really hard to deal with. We want a God who is like us. We want a God whose primary job it is to respond to our demands in the time we want the way we want. When we do this to God, we make God small, and relegate the source of our being to our servant.
But what so we do with the fact that something that Jesus said doesn’t jive with our experience of God and our stories of God in Jesus Christ that tell us God is a God of love? What do we do when something that Jesus said doesn’t appear to be the way the world works?
We put it back in context. We look at the verses around it, we use the rest of the Bible and our tradition to help us out. When we do this, we discover that maybe because we aren’t making the connections Christ wants us to make, we’re making the connections we want to make, the connections that give us butler God.
To make sense of ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you, let’s look at the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. What are we to ask for? What are we to seek? Where shall we knock?
For Jesus, it is all about the kingdom. Start with thanksgiving, with a heart of gratitude. Ask for our basic needs to be met. Ask for forgiveness. Seek the ability to forgive others. Seek God’s will. Knock on the door of the kingdom.
I can tell you from personal experience that when things are falling apart, starting the day or your prayer with gratitude feels impossible. It is really hard. It can feel forced. But it can also switch your frame entirely and change the way you are looking at your life and change how you approach your day. A little thanksgiving to the creator can refocus not only your day, but your life.
It’s about God and the kingdom. God wants us to seek the Kingdom, God wants us to knock on the door of the kingdom. This is the gift we are to ask for – and it is already here. The kingdom, Christ said, is here. It is in prayer that we encounter God and it is in seeking God’s will, seeking to forgive and be forgiven, to praise, to ask for salvation and to ask for our basic needs to be filled that we knock on the door of the kingdom. When we live in a Christ centered way, when we live in prayer and love, we seek the kingdom and we will find the kingdom. For most of us, the discovery will be fleeting. We will have kingdom moments, moments when we are filled with God’s love that everything feels perfect. Then the moment will fade. The world will get in our way. We will start thinking about ourselves and our needs and what we don’t have, we will compare what we have to what those around us have. Or our illness will break through, despair will grab a hold of us and we will become blind to the kingdom again. Sometimes we may pray and pray and pray and it will seem like the door isn’t opening and there is nothing to find. Then a friend will appear at the perfect moment with words of encouragement and the kingdom breaks through into our world again. And again. And again.
I don’t want to sound like I’m saying God doesn’t want us to pray for cures or love or hope or for the pain to go away or for whatever else we may be praying for. God does. God wants to know what we want, God wants us to be in relationship together and one of the paths to relationship is by being honest about what you want and need. But it’s not always going to work out the way we want it to. Sometimes it will. Cures happen, jobs appear out of the blue and sometimes love falls out of trees. But it also might not. Because the world is a broken place, and as much as God may love us as individuals and as a people, we aren’t always going to get what we want. But we will get what we need: love. Forgiveness. Community. Small glimpses of the kingdom.
The kingdom is the best gift God can give us. It is the opposite of giving a child a scorpion. The receiving, finding, and opening to God’s kingdom is the gift of eternal life. It’s not about what I want or what you want, which is hard. But it is about God’s kingdom, which, even in glimpses, is more than anything we could possibly ask for.