Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Ask and ye shall receive–it really is just that simple

Posted by Matthew on August 11, 2014

A good friend who respects you comes to you and says “I don’t understand why we have to fast. I’ve prayed about this sincerely for a while and I still don’t get it. But, Jesus says ‘knock and it shall be opened unto you’ and I feel like I’ve knocked really sincerely here. Why hasn’t it been opened to me?” What do you say to them?
Their question could be instead:

  • I followed Moroni’s promise with faith and sincerity and I still haven’t received a witness that the Book of Mormon is true. How come?
  • Or, the D&C promises “he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven.” I’ve repented but I don’t feel any forgiveness.
  • Or, Jesus says “Ask and ye shall receive.” But I’ve asked to have a child and I don’t have one.

And there are a million other question like this in a similar vein. The answer to these questions is usually something like:

  • God’s timing is not our timing (aka be patient and wait)
  • Maybe we aren’t ready for the blessing we asked for
  • God knows what is best for us. Our job is to ask and if it is the right thing for us we’ll get it and if it isn’t we won’t

And when we ask ourselves why we don’t receive something we ask for we might add these answers

  • Maybe I am not asking sincerely
  • Maybe I don’t have sufficient faith

And if the circumstances were just right we might suggest these last two options to someone else as well. But generally we’d focus on something like the first 3 answers.

To me, the way we approach answering these questions seems right. It also matches my own personal experiences. BUT …

The gospels don’t really line up well with that. In fact they seem to come from a very different world-view. If you answer any of the above questions consistent with what the gospels say you would get the single, simple answer “you don’t have sufficient faith.” Consider the example of the disciples who try to cast out the devil. They don’t succeed. This could be a great opportunity to explain that some things take a lot of time. But when Jesus hears about it he says they are faithless and perverse. Ouch. They must be sort of okay people though because instead of leaving offended they come up to Jesus and asks him why they couldn’t cast out the devil. Jesus says that it’s because of their unbelief and adds:

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (Matt 17:20)

Seriously? Nothing shall be impossible?

Of course, if we approach things from a slightly different angle we see that in fact Jesus himself is not completely unconstrained to do whatever whenever it is most convenient for him. Jesus recognizes that it would be wrong to ask to turn stones into bread (Matt 4:4). And there is no better example of asking for something and not getting what you ask for than Jesus asking not to have to atone for the sins of the word (Matt 26:39). So whatever Jesus means by “nothing is impossible” it turns out not to mean that you should ask for whatever is most convenient for you and you’ll get it every time if you have faith. But even though you uncover this reality when you look in the gospels, the preaching and exhortation of  the gospels  tell us  “ask in faith and receive.” They don’t caveat that message with why you might not receive. [A discussion of count-examples would be fun. Consider providing some in a comment.]

Remember the story of…

the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years who thinks that if she can just touch Jesus’s clothing she’ll be cured. And there’s a big crowd, and she just manages to squeeze in somehow and touch his clothing, but she isn’t cured. So she goes home puzzled about why she wasn’t cured. She meets Jesus the next day in the street and he tells her that, for her, not being cured is actually the best thing and that is why she wasn’t cured.

No. You don’t remember this story in the gospels because there isn’t any story like this in the gospels.In the gospels, she’s cured. And Jarius’s daughter is raised from the dead, and the blind are healed and the lame walk, etc., etc.

Nor are miracles reserved for some set of critical must-have items. Jesus turns water into wine when they run out of wine (John 2). He walks out to the boat across the water when he needs to get there in the middle of the night. And he even allows Peter to walk on the water for no real purpose at all other than the miracle of being able to do it (Matt 14).

So what do we make of this contrast between the way we explain how are prayers are answered today and what the gospels emphasize about prayer?

Here is my possible answer. I’d love your thoughts and alternatives.

The first lesson (both in terms of time and importance) is to have faith and believe. If we understand that message then when we think we know what is best, we ask for that it in faith, and we assume we’ll get it. And do we get what we ask for? Of course, we do and we thank God for that. Unless we don’t. And that comes as a shock.

And the only sense I can make of it is that this is supposed to be a shock. And we aren’t supposed to have an easy time of it.

When I think about it this way, the line of thinking “thy will be done” is a little dangerous.  We should say it, especially when we know already what God’s will is and it doesn’t match with our own, but we should also be afraid of saying it. Accepting “God’s will” may be easier than having faith.

Now to tie this back to Brian’s recent post on forgiveness. When we knock in faith sincerely, we do get an answer…we know that. We have faith in that. It’s a miracle and we see them all the time. Unless we don’t get an answer. Then what do we do? Should we wait patiently (Psalms 37:7)? The gospels would not have us wait patiently. Though we have been put off, we are told that God will quickly answer our prayer as we continue to pray day and night. (See the parable of the nagging widow (Luke 18)).

Is this some sort of grand bait and switch? Under this interpretation, the answer is yes–it is a bait and switch. But unlike the classic bait and switch, in this case you get switched to something better not something worse than the bait. But then why do we have to fall for the bait in the first place? Can’t we just focus on the better switch from the beginning?

I don’t think so. Or maybe some can. But those for whom the gospels were written, including me, we need the bait. Maybe because for who we are now, we need to understand fasting, we need the witness of the Book of Mormon, we need the comfort of forgiveness, we need the child.

I am afraid of the shortcut of saying “well I guess I don’t really need it” when right now, right here I actually do. For myself I have to be on the watch against trying to gain peace through a lack of faith. Faith makes miracles possible but it also means that sometimes I face big disappointments, followed by self-evaluation, and faith again. If that sounds hard, don’t worry, the burden is light. I must keep asking in faith, not just waiting that I’ll receive at some distant point in the future, but soon, even right now.

So it really is this simple: when we need something we ask for it and we’ll get it. Of course we’ll get it:

If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? (Luke 11:11)

10 Responses to “Ask and ye shall receive–it really is just that simple”

  1. BrianJ said

    Matthew, this is a very welcome post. Thanks. A few thoughts:

    1) Perhaps one reason that “nothing will be impossible” is that anyone who has faith—“real” faith, whatever that means—won’t ask for that which they should not. For example, Nephi in Helaman 10:5

    yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.

    Maybe Jesus’ prayer that the cup could pass from him isn’t quite the same because he didn’t explicitly demand it—he really qualified his request as though he didn’t know the range of possibilities for the atonement. Implicit in his request is the idea that he still wants the atonement to happen, just not in that way. Since there was no other way and no other person to do it, he asked for that which was impossible and so he didn’t get it. That’s not quit the same as someone asking to be blessed with a child, because pregnancy and childbirth obviously happen all the time.

    2) I appreciate you using the Gospels to reject all the other explanations for unrequited prayers. Even if those explanation are sometimes right. If we’re going to evaluate the Gospels’ “ask and receive” promise, we should do it with the Gospels’ doctrines and not some other.

    3) Should the promise be reworded as, “Ask [repeatedly] and ye shall receive”? That seems to be what Luke 18 teaches: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (followed by the parable of the nagging widow).

    But isn’t there some point when we should give up? For example, it seems that Joseph and Martin had plenty of warning signs that the Lord didn’t want them showing off the early manuscript, but they just kept nagging. Request granted. Big mistake.

    How can we know when we’re nagging for something we shouldn’t? Oh, I know: God could indicate that we should stop asking for it. That’s easy enough! Except when he doesn’t indicate any such thing. Then what? If God ignores my request, it seems very reasonable to take that as a sign that he doesn’t think it’s in my best interest.

    (I’m not going to quote Matthew 6:7 here, “use not vain repetitions,” because I don’t think that a correct translation of the Greek says anything about repeating prayers or phrases.)

    4) You used the example of someone who follows Moroni’s promise but receives no witness. Okay, so they keep on praying, nagging. And while they await the answer—any answer—how should they carry on? They can’t act upon the witness of their faith, as Alma taught, because they have no witness. They can’t, for example, be baptized. Should they act like they would if they had gotten an answer? “Act and ye shall receive”?

    5) “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone?” No, but he might not give him anything.

    6) Great thoughts about faith, miracles, and disappointment all being packaged together.

    • Matthew said

      Brian, I hope to respond to your other thoughtful comments later, but I just have time to respond to your #1 for now.

      I completely agree with your interpretation of Jesus and asking not to have to atone for the sins of the world.

      Also, I do think that if you ask in “real” faith you wouldn’t ask for something you shouldn’t. Thanks for making that point. As I understand it, that means, for example, that no one can ask in faith for God to prevent someone else from getting the gospel–such a request would not be faithful to the gospel itself. So you couldn’t ask in faith for that.

      But I don’t think that would make the following statement true by definition: anything you ask for in faith you will receive. What you “should” and “shouldn’t” ask for has to be understood in relation to what you know. This is not “should” in relation to what God knows. In other words, the woman bleeding in the story from my post (the one not in the gospels) was just as faithful as the woman in the gospels. It wasn’t unfaithful of them to want to be healed, to believe they could be and to touch Jesus’s garment.

      Or in other words, I don’t see the point of defining the “should” in your sentence to be “should from God’s perspective.” To me that interpretation just wouldn’t be faithful to what the word “faith” means, then or now.

      • BrianJ said

        “What you “should” and “shouldn’t” ask for has to be understood in relation to what you know.”

        Hmm, now you have me wondering about the relationship between faith and ignorance. Is it possible to ask for something in faith if I am sorely ignorant about that thing? I want to answer yes and no. When a child prays for snow on her birthday, is that something that she “shouldn’t” pray for? I don’t think so, even if we could agree that her request reveals some ignorance about (among other things) the relative importance of snow and her birthday party. On the other hand, I feel (for reasons I can’t quite articulate right now) that there must be some input knowledge for faith to be truly viable.

        I think this “nothing is impossible” thing is really hard. See, the promise is that if you have real faith, then nothing will be impossible to you. Great, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get everything that you ask for in faith. (Is this totally contradictory to your point?) That’s the trick: you ask in faith, but don’t get it, so you have to exercise still more faith that God is really listening and that it is still worth asking for other blessings (or repeating your previous request). It’s almost like: the less your prayers are answered, the more faith you must/will have.

      • Matthew said

        I agree that the less your prayers are answered, the harder it is to be faithful, or, to put it as you did, the more faith you must have (if you are to continue to be faithful at all).

        This is of course related to your post “A Failure to Communicate.”

        >It’s not that he didn’t want to pray, it’s that he didn’t want to keep praying for the same thing over and over if the Lord had no intention of responding (let alone granting his prayer!).

        According to the way of thinking I outlined above, that attitude (“the Lord had no intention of responding”) is a display of a lack of faith. A more faithful Brother of Jared wakes up every day and says “I’m sure he’ll respond today.”

      • BrianJ said

        I agree that ultimately the brother of Jared demonstrated a lack of/lapse in faith: he stopped praying. QED.

        But why should a more faithful brother of Jared (one who never ceased praying) wake up each day and say “I’m sure he’ll respond today”? What evidence does he have to be “sure” that the Lord will respond today? Is looking for and considering evidence contrary to faith?

        What about waking up each day and saying, “I really don’t know if he’ll respond, but I’m going to pray anyway”? Is that still faithful? More or less faithful? (Reminds me a little of Daniel’s buddies who said, “…but if not…”)

      • Matthew said

        Brian, I have been thinking about your question. I think your question brings us back again to a question about the relationship between faith and knowledge. If the Brother of Jared needs to know what to do next and he can’t imagine the possibility that what is good for him is to not get an answer from God, then the more faith he has the more certain he will be that God will answer his request. However, if he realizes that he might not know what is good for him (which I assume is true a lot of the time for all of us) then though his faith might be perfect, his confidence in receiving what he asked for might be low–if his confidence that he knows what is good for him is low.

        That’s great but then it seems we take away the possibility for any real demonstration of faith (which seems so important to the gospels). I need to think about this more. any help along the way is appreciated.

      • BrianJ said

        Matthew, you may not have meant it this way, but I read your comment as raising the question: If we truly have faith, then why wouldn’t we cease asking for anything? I know that God knows better than I know so I should trust him and not question my circumstances.

        On a related note, I wrote about how the Book of Job teaches us to stop being grateful.

  2. larryco_ said

    Yet…it is interesting that the D&C offers a way that we receive blessings that does not directly mention faith. In fact, it almost has an empirical feel to it, a bit like “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Certainly it has contract/covenant language. It’s stated as follows:

    20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

    21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (D&C 130)

    Blessings follow obedience to specific laws, like night follows day. I think this is why some of the reasoning given to very righteous members for why they are not being blessed rings hollow. There’s nothing about God’s own time or a person’s sincerity: you obey – you get paid (in blessings). Unfortunately, there’s nothing in life’s experience that seems to support this, since it often appears that the most righteous among us sometimes seem to face the most difficulty in life. And there is, of course, the ambiguity in defining “blessings”; as in “I bless you with overwhelming challenges in this life so that you might be stronger in the next”.

    My point is simply this: one can go nuts – or apostatize – in trying to wrap themselves around figuring out the nature of blessings, who gets them, and why things are so amazingly tough for certain wonderful people. I don’t disagree with your assessment concerning faith/receiving/mustard seeds. But it can also be approached by saying, like Nephi said when asked about the condescension of God “I know that He loves His children…nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things.”

    • BrianJ said

      How did Nephi know that God loves his children?

      • larryco_ said

        Good question. Your fellow poster BrianJ points out “If Jehovah is the only God, then he is the only hope. The only relief . The only escape. The only guide. The only protection. And if he, for whatever reason, chooses not to provide relief or protection or guidance (or rain; see 1 Kings 17), then where or to whom else can one turn? Nowhere and to none other.” One could say that, as a prophet, Nephi could have received this information from God itself. I could say that I received assurance that this is true by the Holy Ghost. I suppose as “the only hope” – and tsunamis and cancer not withstanding – we need to see God as benevolent, loving, and looking out for our best interests. I doubt that Greeks necessarily saw Zeus in this light, but as you so aptly put, ” the first lesson (both in terms of time and importance) is to have faith and believe.”

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