“Praying to Our Father” on Matthew 7:7-11 by Joe Ellis - March 16, 2023
Prayer is not magic. We do not force God’s hand by praying the right way, getting the right formulation, claiming the right promises, having powerful enough faith, or through rigorous fasting. Some of these practices might help in prayer, but nothing we do forces God into responding the way you or I want. God is always free to say yes or no. Prayer is not magic. Prayer is a way of being in relationship with God. That means, the way we relate to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit has huge implications for how we pray. We pray not like a magician who’s accrued enough power to force the spiritual realm into conforming to his will. Rather, Jesus invites us to pray like a child to their father. That is our posture of prayer when we ask, seek and knock – that’s three ways of saying the same thing.
Now listen closely: our idea of good parenthood comes from the parenthood that we see in God. It’s not the other way around — God does not get his ideas of Fatherhood based on the way He sees humans parent their kids. This is hugely important because many people have had lousy parents — parents who were abusive, distant, overwhelming, overbearing, controlling… the list goes on. For people with rough or traumatic childhoods, hearing that we are supposed to call God “Father” creates this understandable response: “I could never call God ‘Father’ after what my father did to me.” The pain and wounding that gave birth to that statement needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness and cannot be dismissed by saying, “But God shows us what true, good parenthood looks like.” Although, of course, that is true, but something deep is lost if we move too quickly to the right answer. If we too quickly say, “Yes, but God is different,” we may very well close that person off from the healing that the Father wants to bring. How so?
Like it or not, our perception of God likely started out (and perhaps still is) a reflection of our experience with our parents. Jesus says, “Ask, seek knock.” Imagine how you might hear this differently depending on your childhood. Imagine that your mom or dad was emotionally distant and unavailable. You learned not to ask for anything because they’d ignore you. You learned not to go to them with your feelings of sadness, or anger, or joy, because they probably wouldn’t notice or know how to respond. So, you learned to be aloof and self-reliant and maybe avoid emotions yourself. Or say your mom or dad was alcoholic and abusive. Maybe they had an anger problem. You learned not to ask for anything because “asking for it” meant that you were asking for something that you truly did not want. Such a person might not be super eager to ‘ask’ God for anything, they surely would not be too thrilled to knock on his door and disturb him. — if their idea of God resembles their mom or dad, then their idea of God is a vengeful, oppressive, unpredictable tyrant and it's safest to stay out of sight. Or, say your mom or dad was utterly controlling, and you grew up your whole life feeling squeezed into the claustrophobic mould of your parent’s expectations. You’re not going to ask, because you know you’ll probably be told you’re asking for the wrong thing. You aren’t going to knock, because you’d probably only be knocking on the wrong door: “No, you idiot, you need to knock on this door.”
Mercifully, some of us grew up with what psychologists would call a securely attached relationship with their parents. That means that often your parents provided for your physical, emotional and relational needs. Most of the time, they responded appropriately to your emotions. They nurtured you with their physical presence. They provided scaffolding for you to grow and mature into a wise human being most of the time. They often responded appropriately to your needs and wants. For these blessed people, hearing Jesus say “Ask, seek and knock… for it's your Father in heaven’s desire to give good gifts to those who ask him!” Those lucky people will hear Jesus say those words and think, “That makes sense. How wonderful that I’m able to turn to my Father in heaven as I would my parents.” Even those blessed people don’t have perfect parents. Jesus recognizes that even the best parents pale in comparison to our heavenly Father which is why Jesus says, “If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask…” The goodness of God far outstrips even the best parents. We all have room to grow in truly understanding what it means to call God, Father.
So, how does this stuff about our relationship with our parents relate to this passage about prayer? Many Christians feel guilty about a lack of prayer in their life. They might read, “Ask, Seek, Knock”, and say “I know I should pray more, but I don’t…” I think an appropriate first step to this passage is not to say to someone, “Jesus says, ‘Ask, Seek and Knock’… so hurry up and get on with it. Don’t you trust God? What’s your problem?!”
Perhaps a first step is to ask God to heal our image of God the Father. Maybe your image of God as Father is blocking your ability to ask, seek and knock. Perhaps, it might be a helpful thing to take a step back and look at what your relationship with your mom and dad was like growing up and whether that’s your perception of God? How did your mom or dad respond when you felt sad, or joyful, or angry, or scared? What did your mom or dad do when you got in trouble? How did your mom or dad respond to your desires? How did your mom or dad encourage you and build you up? How often did they say “I love you?” How did you see your mom or dad coping with the difficulties of life? As you’re reflecting on these experiences, it might be worth taking some time to consider how these experiences have shaped your view of God. Do you view God the same way you view your parents? The challenge is that a lot of us know the right Christian answers about God (Yes, He’s good, He loves us, He is generous, etc.) Sometimes what we answer with our head doesn’t match what we feel in our heart.
To get at this, it might be more helpful to ask, “Do I relate to God in the same way I related to my parents? Do I feel towards God the same way I feel about my parents? What emotions come up when I think about praying? Anxiety? Guilt? Fear? Eagerness? Do I avoid God the same way I avoided my parents? Do I fear God the same way I feared my dad? Am I angry at God in the same way I’m angry at my mom?” These questions, though they may ask us to face some painful or difficult realities, may also set the table for some deep healing. As we recognize what we’re projecting onto God, we can then be more intentional about setting aside those projections and ask God to show us who He really is. We can begin to walk towards healing our image of God. That may be the first thing we need to ask for and seek. We might start knocking on God’s door, and invite Him to show you and me what it means that He is truly good.
That’s one of the rich gifts of the Wednesday night prayer times — it's an opportunity for God to show himself to you personally, where He might just reveal to you personally how good He is and how much He loves you. A while back, we led a group through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in a book called The Ignatian Adventure. The first couple of months of meditations were simply learning to rest in God’s goodness and love. Maybe that’s something that God is inviting you to seek — to intentionally immerse yourself in transforming experiences, renewing your relationship with God the Father.
Think of some kids that you know who were or are securely attached to their parents. Maybe you were blessed with that sort of relationship yourself. Those kind of kids ask and ask and ask. The answer is probably ‘no’ maybe 80% of the times — their parents are wise enough to navigate their requests for a pony, to go to the pool, have a vacation in Hawaii, to eat at a restaurant every night, or go to a friend’s house, etc. And, their mom and dad sometimes say yes, sometimes no, sometimes it's a hug, sometimes it's “Go to bed!” These parents know how to respond to cries from a hurt knee, a broken heart, or a negative report card. These kids keep coming to their parents with their needs and wants, because they just trust their mom and dad.
Let me pause and say, we don’t know why God answers some prayers as no and not others. We can speculate, but we don’t always know or understand his reasons. Just as kids don’t stop asking, God not answering all our prayers the way we want is not a reason to stop praying — in ask, seek and knock, we are invited to always come to God with what’s on our heart — and then we trust that God will respond in the best way he sees fit.
Nonetheless, as kids grow, they learn the things to ask for that are more likely to be in the will of their mom or dad (growing up I had some requests that I always asked my mom for first). Learning what to ask for is a bit of an art that some kids truly learn to master.
The disciples were trying to master this art when they asked Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” So, Jesus taught them some important things to ask for — he taught them to ask that God’s name be holy, that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. He taught them to ask for their daily bread, forgiveness of their sins as we forgive others, and to deliver us from evil. Jesus was saying, “These are important things for you to ask for in prayer.” The Lord’s Prayer is a short course in how to pray, showing us some very important things to ask for from our Father in heaven. As our Father’s beloved kids, we sometimes need a little help in knowing what to ask for beyond our immediate needs.
We really can ask for anything, God will only give us what is good for us (he’s not going to give us a stone or snake, even if we mistakenly ask for those things)— but we don’t always know what sort of things are good to ask for. That’s the beauty of different prayer books. Often they are written by mature Christians who can help us to pray for things that we might not be aware are good things to pray for. Sometimes they invite us to pray prayers that we might prefer not to pray. That’s one thing that’s happening for those of us who are working through the prayer book 40 Days with the Holy Spirit.
The prayer that we started the congregational prayer with this morning was my morning prayer on March 14th in the Magnificat. Praying blessing on those who have done me wrong was not easy, but it felt like an adventure. Did you notice how the prayer began? “So we dare to pray.” We dare to pray — that’s a recognition that God does answer our prayers and these type of prayers become the start of adventures.
Because Jesus promises that God will respond to our prayers, praying to love our enemies feels daring, because we might be a bit afraid of how God will indeed answer such a prayer. But let’s be adventurous in our prayers.
Of course, we should ask, seek and knock for the needs that are obviously right in front of us. Let’s keep asking for our brother to get healed, for our dad to find a job, for the war to be over… Let’s persist in asking our Father for the obvious things right in front of us with the same trust that a securely attached child has with their parents. But let’s also seek help to grow in our prayer life, and learn to ask, seek and knock for what might not always be obvious, like our need to love our enemy, or to be freed from jealousy, or our need to have our destructive perception of God replaced by Him who is truly our good, good Father.