And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:5-13)
Jesus says: “Ask and you will receive.” Why doesn’t this always work? Sometimes we pray for something, pray for it in Jesus’ name, and our request isn’t granted. Sometimes we literally storm heaven with our prayers and heaven seems shut against them. Did Jesus make an idle promise when he assured us that God would give us anything we ask for, if we ask in his name?
Spiritual writers and apologists have offered a number of answers to this question: Maybe our prayer wasn’t answered because we asked for the wrong thing. A loving mother wouldn’t give her unknowing child a knife to play with, would she? Or perhaps our prayer was answered, but at a deeper level and only in time will we understand that answer. C.S. Lewis once quipped that we will spend most of eternity thanking God for those prayers of ours that he didn’t answer!
There’s merit in all these answers, though they are not the answers that Jesus used. Indeed, when he promised us that our prayers would be answered, he didn’t add that it is on the condition that we ask for the right thing. He invited us to ask for anything in his name. He didn’t specify that it be the right thing. So why aren’t our prayers always answered? Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a renowned scripture scholar, suggests that in Matthew’s gospel, as well as in much of the rest of the New Testament, prayer of petition is linked to concrete charitable action within the community. Hence to pray truly for someone involves also reaching out concretely to help that person. To pray truly for justice and peace involves working actively for justice and peace. When we pray “through Christ” we pray not just through the resurrected Christ in heaven but also through the “body of Christ” on earth, ourselves. We need to be involved in helping answer our own prayers. Thus, when our prayer doesn’t seem to be answered it might mean that we, Christ’s body on earth, have not been enough involved in trying to answer our own prayer, that we haven’t in fact prayed “through Christ”.
Fr Michael Smith SJ