SynopsisThis passage continues the sermon Jesus has been delivering since the beginning of Chapter 5, and is a further passage on the topic of prayer. Jesus tell us to simply ask the Father for “good gifts,” and He will give them to us. It’s a short enough passage that I won’t do a synopsis this time, I’ll just quote it:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (verses 7–11 (ESV) )
ThoughtsThis passage can be misinterpreted to mean that God will give you anything you ask Him for, but that is not what Jesus is saying. The whole passage is about the Father giving good gifts to His children. If you ask your Father for good gifts, then He will give them to you. Obviously people—even Christians—have prayed for things and not received them. So the key to when God will give you what you ask for, and when He won’t, must be in whether what you’re asking for is a “good gift.” Which raises the obvious question, what is a good gift?
The cop-out answer is to say that anything which is according to His will is a good gift. If God plans to do something, and you ask Him to do it, then he’ll answer that prayer. Which may not be as much of a cop-out answer as it seems; if we were always praying perfectly according to the Holy Spirit, all of our prayers would be for things that He has already planned to do; because of the fallen world we live in, and our own sinful hearts, that’s not always the case, and we’re not always 100% in tune with Him.
(I don’t think our being out of tune with Him is always a direct result of our own sins; I think there’s also an aspect that because the world is generally sinful, we are not able to be in tune with Him. But, then again, since we are sinful, that’s a pretty fine distinction to make. Along the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin,” or “what the nature of ‘is’ is,” kind of an argument.)
So one prayer that it is always good to pray would be to pray that the Holy Spirit would guide us. Is that a prayer that the Father would ever turn down? I don’t think so. (Again with the caveats: That doesn’t mean that He will simply strike you with immediate insight, every time you ask Him for the Holy Spirit. (“Please help me understand this passage of the Bible.” ZAP! You understand the passage!) You may still have to work at things, and you may still have to puzzle through things, and a decision may still be hard. But that doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit isn’t there with you. Even with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, there is still an element of faith involved in the Christian life.) (Which reminds me: faith would be another good gift that we could ask Him for that, I doubt He would ever turn down.)
There is one aspect of this passage that I’ve always wondered about, though. Jesus says that if your children ask you for good gifts, you will not give them bad gifts in response; if your children ask for a fish, you won’t give them a serpent. The obvious implication is that if you ask God for good things, He will not answer by giving you bad things. He may not answer the way you want Him to, in some cases, but if you ask for good things, He won’t give you bad things. But what if you ask for bad things? To use Jesus’ illustration, what if your children come to you and ask for a serpent?
“I won’t give you a serpent,” you reply, “because that wouldn’t be good for you. I’ll give you a fish instead, because that would be good for you.”
“No!” they continue, “we don’t want a fish! We want a serpent!”
The only reason I wonder about this are passages which show God getting tired of people not wanting to follow His ways, and simply giving up on them, and letting them do whatever they want. For example, in Psalm 81, it says this:
But my people did not listen to my voice;
Israel would not submit to me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.
Or in Romans, where Paul says:
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:28 (ESV) )
I’ve heard my pastor say from the pulpit a few times that passages like this scare him; they scare me too. People refuse and refuse and refuse to submit to God, so He finally says to them, “fine, do whatever you want.”
So what if your children do keep coming to you and asking for “bad gifts;” will you finally just give up, and say, “fine, take the serpent—but you’ll be sorry!” Would God ever do that to us? If I were to keep going to Him, and say, “I don’t care about the Holy Spirit or about your wisdom—I want to be rich in this lifetime!” might He ever say to me, “fine, I’ll make you rich, but you’ll be sorry…”
Frankly, in the context of this passage, in terms of good gifts and bad gifts—gifts according to His will and gifts that are not—I don’t know that this question applies. But it is all the more important to ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit in knowing what to pray for.