This past Christmas, I watched with sadness as my children opened some of their gifts and responded not with gleeful joy but rather a degree of disappointment. As a parent, one always wants to give your child a gift that evokes delight. However, not every gift will deliver, and this year I noticed a number of occasions when my children were disappointed with the gift they received.
I’m also aware that the gift they most desired may not be good for them. Some of my kids longed for Robux (digital currency used in the Roblox metaverse) and hours on end to spend them playing the games in these Roblox worlds. I don’t believe that’s good for them, so my wife and I limit their time on video games and their access to money to spend. Despite their pleading for video games, I recognize this isn’t a good gift. The same could be said for cheap plastic toys that garner 15 minutes of attention and then head to the trash heap. Hence, the disappointment when their parents don’t give them what they want.
One of the things Jesus teaches us about prayer is that there is a parallel between our prayer life with God and the dynamics of gift-giving between a parent and child. What I noticed unfolding around the Christmas tree mirrors a phenomenon we all experience when we turn towards God in prayer. We often wonder if God wants to give us a good gift when we make a request that seems unanswered. Jesus address our wondering this way:
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” ~Luke 11:11-13, NIV
Jesus is making an argument from lesser to greater. He is telling us to notice the way parents love to give good gifts to their children. Then he says, God is like that. God is our Heavenly Father and that inclination to give good gifts is within him as well.
What’s more, he faces the same dilemma parents face. You and I are often disappointed with the “gifts” that God gives and in this passage Jesus is inviting us to believe that God loves to give us the best possible gift…even when we can’t see it. This passage is meant for those times when we feel like our prayers are going unanswered. I’ve heard people ask for God to fix their marriage, heal some limitation they face, or provide in a miraculous way. And then, I’ve watched as these things fail to come to fruition in the way the person wants. In these moments of disappointment, Jesus is inviting us to believe that God, our Father, is giving us the best possible gift.
This can be hard to do. After we feel frustrated in prayer, it can be hard to keep believing and asking God for what we want. It feels vulnerable to name our desires when we think God won’t respond. For some of us, this can create a hesitancy to ask God for anything. We might doubt God loves us and wants to give us good gifts, so we think “why bother praying about our desires at all?” But when we can’t ask for what we want, we withhold the most important part of us from God’s transforming presence.
Jesus’s teaching here is challenging us to be honest about what we want. He wants us to bring our deepest desires into conversation with God. He tells us to believe that God wants to give us the best possible gift. So, he says, “ask for what you want.”
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. ~Luke 11:9-10
I don’t think Jesus promises that we will get whatever we ask for, but rather he points to the transformational process that unfolds as we pray with our desires. The act of asking God for what we want is in itself a clarifying experience that leads to a discovery.
I often find that the thing I think I want shifts as I pray. The thing I want that brings me into prayer isn’t the thing I really want. I’m aware of this as soon as I turn towards God. It’s not that it’s wrong to ask for it. Instead, as I pray, I realize that the truth of my desire is different. I don’t really want that thing; I want something else. The more I pray, the greater my awareness becomes that the real desire I have is ultimately for God’s presence with me. I want God to lead me. I want God to comfort me with his love. I want God to see me and hear me in my grief. So, I begin by asking for something concrete that I want and I often end my prayer in gratitude for the way God has given his very self to me.
As we ask for what we want, our desires are transformed such that we begin to long for God’s presence – which is the gift of the Holy Spirit – as the greatest gift God can give. But this process always begins with us asking for our honest desires. Jesus tells us to start by asking for what we really want. He doesn’t tell us to only ask for the Holy Spirit. He says begin by asking for what you want. When you pray:
“Ask, seek, and knock.”
Do you know what you want? Jesus teaches you and me to ask our Father for it. Seek God’s response to you. Knock on the door of Heaven for as long as you continue to desire it.