Matthew 7:7-11: The Power of Prayer
Matthew 7:7-11: The Power of Prayer
Our Scripture reading this morning comes from Matthew 7:7-11. It says,
7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
May God bless the reading of his Word.
Let’s pray: Father, we’re told that the one who delights in your Word is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season and that has leaves that do not wither. We want to be that tree. So please, open up your Word to us this morning so that we can be rooted in your Word, nourished in your Word, and sustained by your Word. Holy Spirit, use the things taught in this passage to change us from within. It’s in Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
If you’re a Christian and you struggle to pray, then I have some good news for you: you’re not alone. From what I’ve observed, the vast majority of Christians struggle to pray. For many of them, the struggle begins with simply setting aside the time that’s necessary to engage in focused prayer. Our lives often feel like a swirling vortex of busy-ness. And in that swirling vortex, focused prayer only happens if we’re very deliberate about setting aside time for it. And that can be a struggle. If we’re honest, many of us would have to admit that we lack the sustained motivation to do that for more than a few days or a few weeks. Sure, we might have a few spurts here and there where we’re sufficiently motivated to set aside time to pray, but we find it difficult to keep doing that until it becomes a habit.
And whenever we do finally manage to block out some time for prayer, that’s usually not the end of our struggle to pray. In fact, I don’t think ever met any Christian who’s told me that prayer comes automatically for them. Instead, most Christians I’ve met, including myself, sit down to pray but then struggle to actually pray. One author named Paul Miller describes it this way, “We last for about fifteen seconds, and then out of nowhere the day’s to-do list pops up and our minds are off on a tangent. We catch ourselves and, by sheer force of the will, go back to praying. Before we know it, it has happened again. Instead of praying, we are doing a confused mix of wandering and worrying. Then the guilt sets in. Something must be wrong with me. Other Christians don’t seem to have this trouble praying. After five minutes we give up, saying, ‘I am no good at this. I might as well get some work done.’”
If that’s ever been your experience of prayer, you’re not alone. Praying consistently and in a focused manner can be one of the most difficult things for us to learn to do as Christians. That’s why, beginning today, we’re going to take a break from our journey through the book of Genesis and instead spend this Sunday and the next two Sundays learning about prayer as we begin this New Year. This morning’s message is titled “The Power of Prayer.” Then, next Sunday we’ll learn about “The Posture of Prayer.” And then the Sunday after that, we’ll learn about “The Practice of Prayer.” So, “The Power of Prayer,” “The Posture of Prayer,” and “The Practice of Prayer.”
And let me say, right here at the outset, that my approach in all these messages isn’t going to be to heap a bunch of guilt on you for, potentially, not praying as much as you should. Instead, I’m simply going to try to encourage you and equip you for praying. My hope is that, by the time this little miniseries of messages is over, you’ll feel both motivated and ready to venture out in prayer on your own.
Also, please understand that I speak to you not as one who’s mastered prayer or who has even come close to mastering prayer but rather as one who’s still very much on the journey. Yet, I can tell you this: I’m fighting tooth and nail for a better prayer life and have been doing so for a number of years, and I’m excited to share with you a few of the things I’ve learned on my journey so far.
Because I’m convinced that prayer is as essential for our spiritual lives as breathing is for our physical lives. Just as we can’t live a healthy physical life without breathing, we can’t live a healthy spiritual life without praying. Our souls need prayer just as much as our bodies need oxygen. Not only that, prayer should be just as natural for us as breathing is. When you breathe, you don’t usually have to think about breathing. I’m quite confident, for example, that all of us in this room have been breathing ever since we arrived in this building. Yet, I doubt any of us has had to remind ourselves to breathe. We just do it without even thinking about it. And that’s how natural prayer should be for us as well. Yet, for the vast majority of us, it’s not. That’s why we’re talking about it—with the hope that prayer can become as natural for us as God intends it to be. That should be our goal: for prayer to go from an item on our checklist to a way of life that’s as natural for us as breathing—and regarded as every bit as essential as well.
So, let me begin by asking, why do you think it is that many of us don’t pray more than we do? That’s not a very easy question to ask, yet it’s probably a necessary one. Why don’t we pray more than we do? Now, of course, we could say that we’re just so busy with various things in our lives. Yet, that kind of seems like a cop-out. Because, I don’t know about you, but I seldom find that I’m too busy for things like eating and sleeping and working. Somehow, I just make the time to do those things. And I believe that’s because I regard them as important. The simple fact is that we make the time for things that are important to us. So I think we need to toss out the idea of being too busy as a legitimate explanation for why we don’t pray more. It might be part of the reason, but surely there are other reasons much more fundamental than mere busy-ness. So, what are those reasons?
Well, there are several things I could mention, but I believe perhaps the biggest reason why many of us struggle to consistently devote ourselves to prayer is that, deep down, we don’t really believe that our prayers are actually going to accomplish all that much. We don’t really believe in the power of prayer. So that’s the subject I’d like to discuss this morning.
One important passage that reminds us of the power of prayer is Matthew 7:7-11, where Jesus says, 7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
So, these verses teach us a very simple and yet remarkable truth—that God promises to answer the prayers of his people. That’s the main idea of this passage and also of the entire sermon. God promises to answer the prayers of his people. The text here is incredibly straightforward. Jesus tells us that if we ask God for something, he’ll give it to us, that if we seek, we’ll find, and that if we knock, the door will be opened to us. He then describes God as a Father who delights in giving good gifts to his children. What a simple yet astounding teaching about God answering prayer!
And there are plenty of other similar teachings in the New Testament as well—astounding statements about the power of prayer. Matthew 21:22: “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” Mark 11:24: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” John 14:13-14: 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
John 16:23-24: 23 …Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. James 4:2: “You do not have because you do not ask. James 5:16: “…The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” And, finally,
1 John 5:14-15: 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.
So, as you can see, the New Testament’s filled with astounding statements and extravagant promises about prayer. So, why, then, don’t we pray? Why don’t we devote hours and hours each week to prayer? Could it be that we don’t really believe what the Bible teaches about the power of prayer? It’s hard to escape that conclusion, isn’t it?
Perhaps, for some of us, the Bible’s teaching about prayer just sounds too good to be true. Surely, there must be something about these statements that we’re not understanding, right? Surely, God can’t actually be promising what it sounds like he’s promising. And, many times, that suspicion seems to be confirmed when we pray for certain things and don’t see any apparent answers to those prayers. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prayed for certain people in my life to put their trust in Jesus, and yet, even after close to 20 years, they still seem just as spiritually hardened today as they’ve ever been. Or maybe you’ve had a loved one who was terminally ill and you prayed desperately for God to heal them, but he didn’t and they died. Or maybe you wanted a certain job and prayed that God would help you get that job, but he didn’t, and the job went to someone else. I’m sure just about all of us have stories like these of what would appear to be unanswered prayers.
And, sometimes, these experiences can cause us to develop a spirit of quiet cynicism. Of course, we usually don’t verbalize our doubts about the power of prayer because we don’t want to sound like bad Christians, but we nevertheless end up functioning with a rather cynical mentality regarding prayer.
And that mentality doesn’t just come from experiences we’ve had in our prayers for certain things. In many ways, cynicism is the air we breathe in this secular society. The fact is that our secular society has had more of an effect on us than we often realize. Among other things, it’s made us skeptical of the supernatural—skeptical of the idea that there’s something above the laws of nature working in and interacting with our world. And so, society might say, praying on a regular basis might have some therapeutic value and might make you feel better emotionally and reduce your stress and make you better able to function, but it doesn’t actually do anything beyond that.
And, if we’re not careful, we can start thinking that way. For example, how many times has God done something you’ve asked of him in prayer, and yet you’re still tempted to think, “Yeah, but that might have happened anyway. That might have just been a coincidence.” You know, I once heard someone observe that the funny thing about coincidences is that they seem to happen a lot more often when you pray. Yet, we’re still tempted to think that prayer doesn’t do that much beyond making us feel better. We struggle with cynicism.
So, where do we go from here? How can we rise above the cynical spirit that seeks to drag us down? Well, I’d like to suggest six questions that I believe can help us overcome a cynical spirit. And let me be clear: these aren’t the kind questions that you can answer in the few brief moments it takes me to go through them. Rather, these are the kind of questions that’ll likely require a significant amount of reflection, perhaps when you get home this afternoon. So, six questions that can help us overcome a cynical spirit.
First, how deliberate have you been about keeping track of answered prayers? For some reason, we tend to focus on the few prayers that appear to be unanswered and forget about the many prayers that have been answered. It’s like we have this selective memory. For example, if God answers three prayers but then doesn’t appear to answer one prayer, what is it that we so often can’t seem to stop thinking about? That one prayer God didn’t appear to answer, right? Don’t you think that’s a little disingenuous? So, I’d suggest the rather simple solution of keeping track of answered prayers. Personally, I have running list of brief, bullet-point style journal entries recording answered prayers going back several years. And, I’ll tell you what: there are few things that bolster my faith in the power of prayer as much as reviewing those journal entries and being reminded of all the times God’s been faithful to do what I’ve asked of him in prayer.
Then, a second question is, how willing have you been to persevere in prayer? In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable of a certain widow. Luke 18:1-7: 1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? So, Jesus is arguing here from the lesser to the greater. If even this unjust judge gives the persistent widow what she asks for, how much more will our loving Father give his own children what they ask for—if they persevere in their asking? So, it would seem that one key reason why we don’t see more of our prayers answered is that we basically lose heart and quit too soon in our prayers for certain things.
Then, third, what have been your motives in prayer? James 4:3 states that “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions”—that is, on your sinful or self-centered desires. And we have to be careful here, because there are plenty of indications in the Bible that it’s not wrong to pray for our personal needs. Jesus himself teaches us to pray for our “daily bread.” However, there’s a difference between praying for personal needs in a self-centered way and praying for personal needs in a God-centered way. Our ultimate desire in all of our prayers should be that God’s name be glorified. So, has an all-consuming passion for the glory of God been the driving force behind your prayers?
And, closely related to that is a fourth question that will hopefully help us overcome cynicism: what kinds of things have you been praying for? Although we shouldn’t hesitate to pray for “daily bread,” that’s not the only kind of thing we should be praying for. As we’ve already seen, 1 John 5:14 tells us, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” So, we should be striving to pray prayers that are in accord with what we know of God’s will. We should be asking ourselves, “What really matters to God? What does he desire to do anyway?” And then we should pray for those things.
Also, don’t forget what Jesus says in John 14:13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” You see, prayer isn’t about us approaching God like some sort of magical genie who just exists to serve our whims and wishes and give us any old thing we want. Prayer isn’t as much about us getting what we want as it is about God leading us to pray for the things he wants. In the words of Jesus, it’s about the Father being “glorified in the Son.”
I love the way John Piper describes prayer. He calls it a “wartime walkie-talkie.” Listen to what he says: “Isn’t it plain that the purpose of prayer is to accomplish a mission? …It is as though the field commander (Jesus) called in the troops, gave them a crucial mission (go and bear fruit), handed each of them a personal transmitter coded to the frequency of the general’s headquarters, and said, ‘Comrades, the General has a mission for you. He aims to see it accomplished. And to that end He has authorized Me to give each of you personal access to Him through these transmitters. If you stay true to His mission and seek His victory first, He will always be as close as your transmitter, to give tactical advice and to send in air cover when you need it.’” Then Piper asks, “Could it be that many of our problems with prayer and much of our weakness in prayer come from the fact that we are not all on active duty, and yet we still try to use the transmitter? We have taken a wartime walkie-talkie and tried to turn it into a civilian intercom to call the servants for another cushion in the den.”
So the reason God’s given us prayer is so that we can use it as an instrument for accomplishing his purposes, advancing his Kingdom, and bringing glory to his name. That’s why God gives us such extravagant promises in the New Testament about prayer. And I think Piper’s right when he says that the reason we’re so often frustrated in our prayers is because we’re approaching prayer the wrong way. We’re trying to use it as a domestic intercom rather than a wartime walkie-talkie.
Then, moving on to a fifth question, is there any unrepentant sin that’s been hindering your prayers? In Isaiah 59:2, the prophet says to the people of Judah, “[Y]our iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” Similarly, in 1 Peter 3:7, Peter tells husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way and to honor them “so that your prayers may not be hindered.” And let’s not forget that James 5:16 says that it’s the prayers of a “righteous person” that are powerful. So maybe that’s why you haven’t seen God answer more of your prayers.
Then, finally, a sixth question that I believe can help us overcome cynicism about the power of prayer is, how open have you been to the variety of ways in which God might answer your prayers? In his infinite wisdom and goodness, God will sometimes answer our prayers in ways we aren’t expecting and give us not what we ask for but something even better than what we ask for. And that still counts as an answer to prayer.
For example, if my kids ask me to go to the playground and I instead take them to Kennywood, I don’t think they’re going to be disappointed. Considering the cost of Kennywood, I certainly hope not. So even though a trip to Kennywood isn’t what they asked for, it’s something even better. And I believe that’s the sense in which God answers our prayers. He either gives us what we ask for or something even better—perhaps, we might say, what we would have asked for if we knew everything God knows and possessed the wisdom he possesses.
Think back to Matthew 7:9-11. Jesus says, 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! So God is a loving Father who always looks after the welfare of his children. Yet, he doesn’t always give us exactly what we ask for in the way we often think he will. If we ask him for bread, he’s not going to give us a stone, but he may not necessarily give us bread either. If we ask him for a fish, he won’t give us a serpent, but he may not necessarily give us a fish either. Yet, regardless of how he chooses to answer our prayers, we know that our loving Father will always act according to his infinite goodness and wisdom and love for us.
So, hopefully, these questions are helpful for you in addressing any experiences you’ve had where it’s seemed as though God hasn’t answered your prayers and thereby overcoming any cynical spirit you may have developed that’s been hindering you from the life of prayer God has for you. And I’d encourage you to consider these questions carefully and ask God to remove any spiritual callouses from your heart that may have developed and start devoting yourself to prayer like never before. Because I truly believe, as the nineteenth-century pastor F. B. Meyer once said, that “The greatest tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” The biggest reason we don’t see more answered prayers is because we simply don’t pray all that much. As James 4:2 says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”
So, will you start asking? Will you strive to enter into a life where prayer really is as natural for you as breathing? And, of course, you have to start somewhere, so I’d recommend starting by setting aside a certain amount of time each day for prayer, even if it’s just 15 minutes. I’d also recommend attending our church’s Prayer Gatherings whenever possible.
And, friends, I’d just like to say that faithful and focused prayer is the only way I believe we’ll see God at work in and through our church. You know, if you’re a Christian, I hope you yearn to see people come to faith in Jesus as much as I do. I hope you have an undying burden for people who are far from God to discover the hope and rescue found in Jesus. Yet, even if we long to see that happen, I don’t believe it will apart from prayer. Because we can’t bring that about in our own power. Natural battlefield strategies can’t win a supernatural war. We need God to be at work in and through our feeble efforts. God can do more in a single moment than we can in an entire lifetime. That’s why, in the words of Samuel Chadwick, “Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray.”
Yet, in order to pray with power, one additional thing is necessary—something which happens to be the most fundamental requirement of all. In order to see our prayers answered, we have to pray in Jesus’ name. In John 14:14, Jesus says, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Now, praying in Jesus’ name doesn’t just mean tacking on the phrase “in Jesus’ name” to the end of our prayers. Rather, it means praying according to his merit. We don’t come before God’s throne on the basis of our goodness or achievements. No, we come recognizing that the only reason we’re able to come is because Jesus has made us worthy. To pray in his name is to claim his status as our own. It’s like we’re entering a building that has restricted access, and the only reason we’re able to enter is because Jesus has given us his keycard. His status before the Father is the only thing that makes it possible for us to talk to the Father and have him hear our requests.
So, the question for you to answer this morning is, are you in a position right now where you can do that? Have you ever cried out to Jesus to rescue you from your sins and to give you his righteousness as your own? That’s what Christianity is all about. As we’ve already seen in Isaiah 59:2, our sins have made a separation between us and God. We’re alienated from him and actually under his condemnation. But Jesus bore our sins on the cross. He acted as our substitute on the cross and suffered the condemnation we deserved. Then, three days later, he rose from the dead, so that he now stands ready to save everyone who will renounce their sinful way of living and put their total trust in him for rescue. And it’s only when we’ve experienced that rescue that we can come to God in prayer in the name of his Son Jesus.
Another way to think of it is that all of the promises about prayer in the New Testament had to be purchased. And they were purchased by Jesus on the cross. So, the only reason we’re able to have any confidence that God hears and will answer our prayers is because of what Jesus has accomplished on our behalf. It’s his death that gives power to our prayers.
other sermons in this series