What Is the It in Your Life?
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Our series on the Sermon on the Mount continues with one of the best known sayings of Jesus:
“Ask, and it will be given you.
Seek, and you will find.
Knock, and it will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7)
To cut to the chase, I’d like to ask two questions concerning this text: One, what does the word, it, refer to? In other words, when Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you,” what might you expect to receive? And two, what is the it in your life? In other words, if you were to ask God for something, what would it be?
My hunch is this verse is misunderstood and misused because, on the surface, it sounds carte blanche: You can have whatever your heart desires; all you have to do is ask.
There are two problems with this way of thinking: First, it piques our materialistic nature and plays on the fantasy that, if we had unlimited resources, we could have anything we wanted … as if, in having it—there’s that word again!—we’d be happy.
When the Texas Lottery first came out our boys were young—middle elementary and junior high school age. We’d driven down to Southeast Texas to visit grandma and, to break the monotony of the long drive back, Donna created a little game in the car. The sweepstakes prize had gone up to something like ten million dollars, so she took a yellow pad and wrote each of the boys’ names on it and asked them what they would buy if they won all that money.
They wasted no time putting in their orders. “I’d buy a new car,” one said. That led to deciding what kind of car, which quickly escalated from a Ford to a Lexus to a Lamborghini. Well, if the sky’s the limit, why not? Another said he’d buy a new house with a swimming pool and a game room and a home theater—the works. They got whatever they wanted—at least on paper—no holds barred. She dutifully wrote it all down, along with an estimated dollar amount.
Well, ten million dollars is a lot of money and, as you might imagine, the game went on, mile after mile, as they tried to spend up all of their imaginary Lottery winnings; and the more they spent, the greedier they got.
“Ask, and it will be given you.” If this sounds to you like a blank check, where all you have to do is fill in the amount, watch out. When it comes to making a wish list, it’s easy to go overboard. No one expressed this more poignantly than Janis Joplin, who sang,
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
Thinking of Jesus’ words as carte blanche brings out the worst in us and leads us to think of life in terms of material wealth and of God as the ultimate Sugar Daddy.
That’s the first problem. The second is that it leads to a boatload of disappointment.
We’ve all asked for things that we didn’t get. Whether it’s asking Santa for a pony for Christmas; or asking the boss for a promotion or a raise; or applying for a scholarship to go to college, we all know what it’s like not to get what we asked for and be disappointed.
But, hey, that’s life. And as long as it has to do with other people, you can deal with it – they’re only human. But when God lets you down, it’s a different matter—especially after you’ve been led to believe that you can ask for anything and expect to receive it. When you ask God for something really important, and you ask sincerely, believing that God will come through, and he doesn’t—well, that’s a bitter pill to swallow: But, Lord, you promised!
This falls into the category of unanswered prayer—you ask God for something and, either God doesn’t hear you or God chooses not to give you what you asked for— or, a third possibility, the answer is, “Not now,” which, for the moment, is the same as, “No.”
Unanswered prayer is one of those ambiguities of faith that’s hard to explain, especially in light of our scripture lesson this morning. And it even gets worse when you pair it with what Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel of John. He said,
“If you remain in me, and my words remain in you,
you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you.
…Most certainly I tell you, whatever you may ask of the Father in my name,
he will give it to you.
Until now, you have asked nothing in my name.
Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.”
(John 15:7; 16:23-24)
So, we prayerfully ask for all sorts of things. For example, we pray for rain … or, for those of us connected with the outdoor concert last Saturday night, we pray that it won’t rain.
If only it were that simple, perhaps we wouldn’t be terribly concerned if our prayer weren’t answered, but it’s not. Prayer is serious business, especially when it comes to praying for those matters near and dear to our hearts. For example,
• We pray for the safety of our troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• We pray for the health and well-being of our loved ones.
• We pray for the future of our country.
• We pray for peace and prosperity of our community.
• We pray for our church, that we’ll be able to maintain a strong witness of faith.
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of explanations for unanswered prayer. I suspect you have, too. Frankly, all of them fall short.
We had a child in my former church who was diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer. She was as bright and precocious as any child you’ve ever met. She came from a deeply committed Christian family. Both her mother and father were elders in the church. When their daughter was diagnosed, they asked God for a healing miracle. And they asked others to pray with them, and we did. They set up a website and invited family and friends from all over the world to pray for their daughter’s health and vitality. There’s no telling how many people prayed for this child. Yet, in spite of all their prayers and the very best medical care to be found anywhere, she died.
We had a message left on the answering machine here at church this week asking us to pray for a little girl in Patmos who was airlifted to Children’s Hospital on Wednesday. From the tone of the father’s voice, it was obvious that this family was just as desperate as you and I would be in a similar situation. Now, I want you to know that I began praying for this child as soon as I got the message, and I’ll pray for her until I hear otherwise, and I encourage you to join me. I sincerely hope and pray that she’ll live, but I know in my heart it could go either way.
If you thumb through the pages of the Bible, you’ll find that people of faith don’t always get what they ask for. For example,
• Moses asked to see God face-to-face, but God said no. He said, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20)
• Jonah asked God to destroy the city of Ninevah because of its great wickedness, but God refused. He said, “Shouldn’t I be concerned for Nineveh…?” (Jonah 4:11)
• More than once, the psalmist cried to the Lord for help, but God did not answer. For example, in Psalm 13, we read, “How long, Yahweh? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalms 13:1)
• The Apostle Paul asked God for healing, but he got turned down. Paul told the Corinthians, “Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it (this thorn in the flesh) might depart from me. He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9)
• In another letter, Paul asked the Christians in Rome to “…strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea…” (Romans 15:30-31) Well, you know what happened: The unbelievers almost killed him.
• Finally, there’s Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane,
“Abba, Father, all things are possible to you.
Please remove this cup from me.
However, not what I desire, but what you desire.” (Mark 14:36)
So, here’s the question: Given all we know about the reality of unanswered prayer, how can we take Jesus at his word when he says to us, “Ask, and it will be given you.”?
I suggest that the answer lies in the pronoun, it … that it does not refer to whatever you might ask for; rather, it goes back to the previous passage where Jesus said,
“But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness;
and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
In this way, the passage then reads:
“Ask, and it (the kingdom) will be given you.
Seek, and you will find (the kingdom).
Knock, and it (the door of the kingdom) will be opened for you.”
So, what is the kingdom of God? First, let me tell you what it’s not. The kingdom of God is not a panacea of human desire—it’s not a recreation of the Garden of Eden, where all you have to do is pick the fruit of your choice and eat to your heart’s content.
The kingdom is being at one with God and the whole of God’s creation; for when you’re at one with God and the whole of God’s creation, you’re able to experience life in all its abundance, even in the face of sickness and death and prayers that seem to go unheard. Make no mistake about it,
• In the Kingdom of God—at least on this side of heaven—loved ones die; not only older people, but babies and children and young adults in the prime of life;
• Tragedies strike, accidents happen, storms wreak havoc on innocent victims and people get hurt;
• Businesses fold, friends move away, life is just as uncertain and, at times, as disappointing as ever.
The difference between living in the world and living in the Kingdom of God is this: No matter what, God will be with you and will help you overcome every adversity. As Paul told the Romans,
“…(nothing) will be able to separate us from the love of God,
which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)
What’s more, living as part of the kingdom, you have the strength of a whole community of support; you’re part of a great family of faith that stands with you when the chips are down. This is the nature of the church. In Paul’s words,
“When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.
Or when one member is honored,
all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
You know as well as I, when the rug is pulled out from under you and you need strength and help and support, as likely as not, it’s your church family that will be there for you.
Here’s the upshot of it all: I don’t believe Jesus ever intended for us to think that, if we believe in him, we can call the shots and order life to our own specifications. I do believe he invites us to be part of God’s kingdom on earth, and all we have to do is ask, seek and knock.
That said, what’s the it in your life? When Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you.” what’s the it—what do you most hope God will give you or do for you?
If it’s money or power or prestige or popularity or privileges or perks—even if it’s the promise of good health and a long life—you’re likely to be in for a bitter disappointment.
There’s a scene in the Wilderness Journey where the people of Israel complain to Moses that need meat to eat, that they’re tired of this flaky manna from heaven.
So Moses turned to God and God sent a whole bevy of quail to encircle the camp. When the people woke up the next morning, quail were everywhere pecking, I suppose, on the manna on the ground. They gathered them up like children at an Easter Egg hunt and ate quail meat for a whole month, until they were sick of it. (Numbers 10:4-34)
Years later, the Psalmist spoke of the Wilderness Journey in poetry and song and, when it came to this scene, he said,
“They soon forgot his works.
They didn’t wait for his counsel,
but gave in to craving in the desert,
and tested God in the wasteland.
He gave them their request,
but sent leanness into their soul.” (Psalms 106:13-15)
Here’s what I’d like you to take this home with you this morning: As long as the it in your life has to do with the things of this world, you’ll fall short. It’ll never be enough. Only as you seek to live in harmony with God and the whole of God’s creation will you be truly happy, for this is the promise: If you’re willing to seek God’s kingdom above all else, God will give you all you need for a full and abundant life. So, go ahead: Ask, and it will be given unto you …
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.