Can we really ask God for anything?

Does God put any limits on our prayer requests? Well duh.

Matthew 7.7-11 • Luke 11.9-13 • John 14.13-14, 15.7, 16.24

These passages are found in the middle of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, in a teaching on prayer requests in Luke, and as part of the Last Supper lesson in John. Obviously the Matthew and Luke bits line up neatly, but the John ideas match their idea.

I tend to summarize this idea as “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” If you want something from Jesus, ask. It’s okay for us to do that. He does take prayer requests.

Matthew 7.7-11 KWL
7 “Ask!—it’ll be given you. Look!—you’ll find it. Knock!—it’ll be unlocked for you.
8 For all who ask receive, who seek find, who knock God’ll unlock for.
9 Same as any of you people. Your child will ask you for bread; you won’t give them a cobblestone.
10 Or they’ll ask you for fish; you won’t give them a snake.
11 So if you’re evil, yet knew to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?”
Luke 11.9-13 KWL
9 “And I tell you all: Ask!—it’ll be given you. Look!—you’ll find it. Knock!—it’ll be unlocked for you.
10 For all who ask receive, who seek find, who knock God’ll unlock for.
11 Any parent from among you: Your child will ask for fish,
and instead of fish do you give them a snake?
12 Or they’ll ask for an egg; do you give them a scorpion?
13 So if you evildoers knew to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
John 14.13-14 KWL
13 “You can ask whatever in my name. I’ll do it so, in the Son, the Father can be thought well of.
14 When what you ask me is in my name, I’ll do it.”
John 15.7 KWL
“When you stay in me and my words stay in you,
whenever you want, ask! It’ll happen for you.”
John 16.24 KWL
“Till now you’ve never asked anything in my name.
Ask!—and you’ll receive, so your joy can be fulfilled.”

It needs to be said, because some folks really don’t believe it is okay to ask God for stuff.

When I was a kid, I’d ask my parents for stuff, sorta like the kids in Jesus’s examples. They asked for bread, fish, and eggs; I’d ask for a Commodore 64. Sometimes my parents would give me what I asked for. Other times, not so much.

When I got persistent—when I wouldn’t take no for an answer, and kept right on asking, seeking, knocking—they’d respond, “Would you stop asking?” Not just because they said no, and their answer was final. Sometimes it wasn’t no, but they wanted me to get these things myself. Or earn it myself. Or otherwise learn to be independent, and grow up.

And sometimes they’d pull this sort of evil stunt: Say yes, just so I’d suffer the consequences.

Calvin and Hobbes, 25 May 1986. Calvin’s mom teaches him an unnecessary “little lesson.” GoComics

The punchline—“Trusting parents can be hazardous to your health”—is exactly right. Calvin’s mom thought she was teaching him a valuable lesson. She was, but she didn’t do it in a kind way. She did it in a cruel way: She didn’t show him the consequences, and warn him away. She let him suffer them. Hence we sometimes wonder whether asking God for stuff isn’t gonna have the same results: God says yes, and we ironically find out we didn’t want this at all. Meanwhile, up in heaven, he chuckles at our hubris. Ps 2.4

No. God is not a dick. He’s not secretly evil, plotting our downfall for his amusement or entertainment. Read the Prophets: He warns his people away from the consequences. Why suffer when you don’t have to? Ek 33.11 Turn to God and live!

God wants to give good things to his children, Mt 7.11 and for us to experience the joy of getting what we ask for. Jn 16.24 He wants to give us his kingdom. Lk 12.32 Starting with answered prayer requests.

But seriously, anything we ask?

There are a number of “name it and claim it” Christians who take these and similar verses, and teach, “That’s how prayer works. Name the things you want, claim ’em in the name of Jesus, believe you will have them, and God’ll give ’em to you. If you don’t get ’em, it’s only because you didn’t have enough faith. You gotta believe. Believe harder.”

Any of that true? Nope. Because it’s based on imaginary faith, not the real stuff. It’s based on wishing things into existence. True, these folks don’t think they’re doing it under their own power, but God’s; still, that’s the only difference between what they teach, and what the Christian Science church teaches: Wishing stuff into existence. Magic.

In real life, experience has demonstrated we don’t always get what we request. Sometimes God tells us no. We’re asking for selfish reasons, fleshly reasons, fearful reasons, dark reasons. Not godly ones. Jm 4.3

We’ve got lots of examples in the bible. The apostles James and John wanted to call down fire on a city full of innocent Samaritans. Lk 9.54 Paul wanted an ailment taken away. 1Co 12.7-9 Even Jesus wanted to not be crucified. Mk 14.36 That’s right, Jesus asked for something, in his own name, and of all the people in the cosmos to get a “yes” answer, you’d think it’d be him! But he acknowledged that in his mission to earth, the Father’s will took priority over his own. Mk 14.36 And in our missions in his kingdom, God’s will must take priority over ours.

It will sometimes appear God’s granting wrong-headed requests. And wrong-headed Christians may claim it’s because God grants their requests no matter what. Really it’s because God wants to do those things regardless of our warped motives. A selfish evangelist may want a roomful of people saved so he can brag about how many he led to Jesus; God wants ’em saved because he loves them. Jn 3.16

Hence getting what we ask is only guaranteed to those of us who truly follow Jesus. Jn 15.7 It’s only guaranteed to those who trust God with the results—not those who wanna second-guess him, or nitpick whatever we get, as James warned his readers when it comes to asking for wisdom. Jm 1.6-7 God’s looking for the right attitude in his petitioners: Obedience and repentance, not pride, stubbornness, rebellion, and greed. Not that he can’t be gracious and patient with people who are trying to overcome those bad attitudes, Ro 9.18 but remember, we don’t tend to get favors from people when we’re doing what we know annoys them.

Motive’s important. Attitude’s important. Humility’s important. Don’t pray without ’em.

God wants to give good gifts.

Matthew 7.11 KWL
“So if you’re evil, yet knew to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?”

The Greek word in question is aghathá/“good.” (Nice to know bible translators are on their game, huh?)

In other words not bad gifts. Not gifts which, though we consider ’em the most awesome things ever, and solve our problems perfectly, turn out to backfire and wreck us, like a Twilight Zone episode. God doesn’t fulfill our requests so, like Calvin’s mom, he can teach us an ironic lesson. He’s a good God, not a passive-aggressive one.

I chiding parents for pulling this little stunt tends to rub ’em the wrong way. Some of ’em think of this as the best way to teach their kids. It’s the “school of hard knocks.” Toughens ’em up. Teaches ’em life’s lessons the hard way. Burn your hand, and you’ll never touch a hot stove again. Get scratched, and you’ll never pull the cat’s tail again. Puke heavily, then suffer a raging hangover, and you’ll never get drunk again. As if that ever stopped teenagers.

Frankly, that’s careless, reckless, evil parenting. Fr’instance, imagine Calvin asked his mom if he could play with Grandpa’s handgun, and she answered just as cavalierly: “Sure; just do it outside.” Crank up the volume, and now we can recognize the evil in it.

Whereas God’s parenting style is not to teach us the hard way. It may appear that way to people who superficially read the Old Testament. They read Judges and assume every time the Hebrews sinned, the LORD sicced their enemies on them. Nuh-uh. Read those passages again. The people sinned for years, even decades, with plenty of warnings from angels, prophets, priests, judges, and the bible, to repent and turn away. They wouldn’t listen, and that’s when God let the next step in the cycle happen. He’s patient, y’know. We’re not, and claiming God’s as impatient as we are, is simply projecting our evil values upon our loving Father.

God’s a good Father. He doesn’t parent us by tossing us into the woods, Spartan-style, with nothing but a pointed stick and a compass, demanding we claw our way into his kingdom despite the horrors of the forest. He warns us away from such things. Explicitly. Read your bible.

So if your 5-year-old daughter is hungry, you don’t figure, “Time to teach her to fend for herself,” and make her hunt pigeons in the backyard. You might tell her to go get some breakfast cereal from the pantry, but you stocked the pantry. Nor will you surprise her with poisonous food: Bread full of grit, Mt 7.9 or scorpion eggs. Lk 11.12 Unless you’re a sick, abusive parent, you’re gonna feed your kids. Why not give ’em bread or eggs, if you have ’em?

Pride and prayer requests.

From time to time, I come across Christians who look at prayer requests as a major hurdle. Y’see, they were raised to be independent. They’re quite proud of their independence and resourcefulness. To them, asking God for stuff—begging God for stuff—bugs them greatly. They don’t like the idea of being dependent on anyone. Not even their heavenly Father.

I know a lot of libertarians who hate the very idea of dependence. It offends them. They’re outraged when people get something without working for it. (You know, grace.) They don’t want charity or aid or freebies; if they fail, they’re okay with suffering the deprivation, and if others fail, they’re okay with them starving to death or dying. Survival of the fittest is nature’s way, after all.

Yep, it’s a pride thing. Precisely the sort of pride God opposes. Jm 4.6 The reason God tends to answer few of their prayers, is because they don’t ask for stuff when they pray. They only praise him, or acknowledge him, but they never ask for stuff. Some of ’em were even raised to think it’s wrong to; that “God helps those who help themselves.” They put their trust their own ability. Not God. And once they’re unable to do for themselves, strangely enough, they begin to lose faith in God—as if the only way he provides is through their own ability. But the sad thing is he never did provide for them; they never called on him!

It’s not a new attitude. Jesus instructed his own students:

John 16.24 KWL
“Till now you’ve never asked anything in my name.
Ask!—and you’ll receive, so your joy can be fulfilled.”

The kids didn’t really know they could ask and receive. They’d seen Jesus ask and receive, but they assumed he was successful ’cause he was extra-special, ’cause he’s Jesus. A lot of us Christians think the very same way: Jesus could do it, but we can’t. Well, Jesus wanted it made clear we can so. Ask in Jesus’s name, and you’ll get as Jesus got. You’ll get answered like Jesus was answered. Because you know Jesus—and because you’re asking for stuff with the very same attitude, motive, and faith.

God wants to help. It’s “so your joy can be fulfilled,” Jn 16.24 —so God can make us happy! So our prayer requests produce prayer results, and we can rejoice in our generous God, and share those stories with people who wonder whether God’s even out there. It’s so “the Father can be thought well of.” Jn 14.13 People definitely aren’t gonna be impressed by a Father who blesses selfish jerks, so we’d better correct our attitudes before we ask him for stuff.

So let’s work on that. Get rid of that pride. Remember he only wants our best. And ask.