One of the frequent misused teachings of Jesus involves his instruction to ask, seek, and knock (Luke 11:9–13). There are Christians who treat this as something magical like a genie in a bottle or mechanistic like putting money in a vending machine. They think that if they say the right words, or use the right formula, or if they believe with all their hearts then the answer will be granted.
The section on prayer in Luke’s Gospel where this teaching is found begins with the disciples asking Jesus how to pray. Jesus starts with the model prayer: When you pray, say . . . (11:1–4). This model prayer orients and frames the rest of his teaching on prayer. This is a prayer that teaches us how to be in relationship with God, how to be God’s friends and partners in doing God’s will.
When we pray this prayer we are learning how to work with God for the common good. We are learning how to participate in the realization of God’s rule of peace — justice for the poor, liberation for the oppressed, and the redemption of all creation. We are learning how to trust God’s provision to sustain us on our spiritual journey and empower us in our struggle against the powers that be. We are learning how to give and receive forgiveness and work for the reconciliation of all that is estranged and at odds. We are learning how to bring healing and hope to others and to enhance life on this planet in whatever ways we can.
At the end of this section on prayer Jesus draws an analogy with a loving parent. If a loving father or mother with all their imperfections knows how to give good things to their children, how much more does our Father/Mother in heaven. It’s important to note that Luke changes Matthew’s version in a particularly important way. Instead of saying that our Father in heaven will give “good things” to those who ask, Luke’s version says that our Father in heaven will give “the Holy Spirit” to those who ask. What God gives is God’s self.
It’s all about a growing, dynamic relationship with God through which we participate with God in the redemption and transformation of our world. In Luke’s sequel, the book of Acts, the filling of the Spirit is always connected to empowerment for mission, witness, and service.
So to be in relationship with God means that our circles of interest, compassion, and engagement will always be expanding. Ten or fifteen years ago I would not have been engaged in issues of social justice as I am now, but my concern and involvement has expanded as I have grown in my relationship with God.
C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock points out that there are two kinds of causation. One is entirely under our control. The other, which is not, works through the medium of request.
For example, if I have weeds in my garden I need not ask God to remove them for me. If I want them out of my garden, then I best go pull the weeds or find someone to do it for me. All of this is within my power and authority to do. On the other hand, let’s suppose I have a friend who is an alcoholic and his alcoholism is ravaging his family. I hurt for them and because I love them I want desperately to “fix” the problem and make life better for them, but it is not within my power to fix. If I try to demand or force a “fix” upon them or if I resort to conniving and manipulating, I will end up making things worse.
So what can I do? I can ask my friend to get help. If he doesn’t listen the first time, I can keep asking. I can ask his wife and children to not enable his behavior and to get the help they need. Asking is the way to genuinely help them. I can also ask God to give me wisdom and create within my friend and his family a desire to seek help. So asking is a very crucial aspect of any relationship, and this is certainly true in our relationship with God.
In a dynamic relationship with God not only do we ask, seek, and knock, God does too. Sometimes our minds are closed and our hearts are hard, but the Spirit is persistent. The Spirit is “the hound from heaven” who constantly pursues us.
We can only start where we are and that’s exactly where God wants us to start. We can decide right now to cultivate a spiritual life—a life of listening, asking, and partnering with God in God’s healing, restoring, reconciling work.
The invitation to prayer is an invitation to a life of intimacy and partnership with the Creator and Sustainer of all things, who indwells us all and is active in bringing healing and harmony to our relationships, communities, and our global village.