Bible knowledge quiz: Where does Jesus say, “You have not because you ask not”? Answer: Nowhere. This is not a quote from Jesus but part of a commentary and interpretation written somewhat later by the Apostle James (James 4:2-3).

Jesus’ major teaching about prayer — asking God for what we feel we need – is part of his wonderful Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5 through 7. In this Sermon, there are two comments about asking in prayer that, on the surface, seem somewhat contradictory. First, in Matthew 6:8, Jesus says, “Do not be like them [hypocritical Jews who pray loudly  in synagogues and street corners ‘so that they may be seen by others’ (vs.5), as well as pagan Gentiles who ‘heap up empty phrases’ in praying (vs. 7)] for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” This seems to imply that we don’t need to actually ask him for specific prayer requests, since he already knows our needs.

On the other hand, later in the Sermon, Jesus strongly encourages his followers to develop a pattern of asking in prayer and expecting God’s gifts in response: “Ask, and it will be given you.”  This exhortation is backed up by the example of a human father who gives in response to his child’s asking. Would he give a stone if his child asked for bread? A serpent if his child asked for a fish? From these rhetorical questions, Jesus draws the conclusion, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (vs. 11)  The “how much more” makes me think that if we ask for bread, God is likely to give us chocolate cake, and if we ask for a sardine, God may give us a salmon steak.

We don’t need to ask (6:8), and We should ask (7:7). There is an important element that helps bring together these two ideas: it’s the fact that The Lord’s Prayer comes right after the first of these passages, in Matthew 6:8-13. Jesus seems to be saying that the best prayer is to remind yourself of who God is (“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name; your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”), of your dependence on him (“Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors; and do not bring us into trials, but deliver us from evil”) and of the fact that you are related to God, not just as an individual, but as part of a family of believers (repeated plurals: “Our Father,” “Give us our daily bread,” etc.). If The Lord’s Prayer picture dominates your life, you’ll have confidence that God always has your best interest in mind and will give you what you need, whether or not you ask.

And yet, Jesus encourages us to ask. We need this exercise through prayer to remind us of our continual dependence on him. In asking, seeking, knocking, we’re going on record as agreeing with God’s will for us and believing that his answer will be for our good. He says we should ask, not so that God may know our needs, but so that we will know them by putting them into words. Sometimes, the moment I hear myself praying, I realize how selfish and unworthy my request is, and I withdraw it. On the other hand, when I hear my request and mean it sincerely, I realize I’m also going on record as being willing to do my part in making the answer come about.

James wrote a few decades after Jesus taught his Sermon on the Mount. He had heard some people in the church grumbling that God did not answer their prayers as Jesus had promised. James’ cryptic explanation was:

“You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”  (James 4:2-3)

These people were not asking from the platform of The Lord’s Prayer, recognizing God for who he is, acknowledging their complete dependence on him, seeing themselves as part of a family of faith with other believers. Their prayers were all about them. They were asking not just for needs, but for self-indulgent wants as well. Their prayers were not a way of getting in tune with God’s will, but of trying to get him in tune with their will. Many prayers we hear in the modern church sound a lot like this.

True prayer should come from calm assurance, not from compulsive anxiety. If you begin your asking from the platform of The Lord’s Prayer, understanding who God is, who you are and how your life interrelates with other believers’, you’ll realize that he knows all your needs before you ask and has already promised to meet them. But ask anyway, as Jesus encouraged you to. You may order a sardine and find him serving you a salmon steak.

— Pastor George Van Alstine