February 19, 2017

‘Ask, Seek, and Knock’

Genesis 18: 20-33

Luke 11: 1-13


A man, one day, challenges his Christian friend with a hypothetical story. “In a soccer match between a team of a country that is predominantly Catholic against another team of a country that is predominantly Protestant, the supporters of both teams pray to Jesus. Which team do you think Jesus will side with?” Well,” answers his Christian friend, “I don’t think Jesus will side with any of the teams. I think he will be amongst the crowds, enjoying the game.”

Friends, many people may think that they can make God do whatever they want through prayer. If only they pray harder, God in the end would give in to them and do whatever they please.

Indeed, some people still have the idea that God is like an ancient deity who could be controlled or manipulated by saying certain mantras or doing certain rituals. Since, nowadays, these rituals and mantras are seen as archaic, people resort to prayer instead.

So, the means may have changed, but the idea behind it is still the same. If only we ask harder, search harder, and knock harder, somehow we will receive what we want, find what we’re looking for, and the door will finally be opened for us. If only we are as persistent as Abraham when he pleaded to God to save the city of Sodom, God would in the end yield to our request and do whatever we ask God to do.

But, is prayer as simple as that? Indeed, is a good parent not supposed to always give in to his/her children’s desire? If God is a good parent, as God should be, then God should not give whatever we want only because we throw one request after another in our prayers.

Things can get even more complex in a situation like the hypothetical scenario raised by the man to his Christian friend at the beginning of this reflection. In a match between two teams who both pray to God to hand over them the victory, whom will God give God’s favour to?

Also, what about the time when we pray and pray, but we seem to get no answer from God?

A number of years ago, letters that were written by Mother Theresa to her supervisor were disclosed to the public. It was a surprising revelation. In the letters, Mother Theresa shared with her supervisor her struggle in her prayers. She told him that, for the last half century of her life, she felt no presence of God whatsoever whenever she prayed. For her, God was like the “Absent One”.  In a stark contrast to Jesus’ words in Luke, she told her supervisor that, “... I look and do not see, - Listen and do not hear.” Yet, she never ceased praying.

Who would have thought that such a spiritual giant like Mother Theresa had admitted that she had trouble in her spiritual life? Many people may find her admission disturbing. Yet, I believe many of us, who often experience the same feeling, would find in her a spiritual strength that we need.

The social and cultural environment of Jesus was not much different from today’s regarding prayer. Many people in his time were also struggling with their faith. They had been waiting for the promise of God’s deliverance from the oppression they were in, yet generations had passed and nothing happened. So, many people had stopped hoping and praying. 

It was in the face of this kind of disappointment that Jesus told his audience that God was like a person who would show compassion to his friend who ‘nagged’ at him. I wonder whether or not Jesus actually intended the parable to be humorous. Instead of using a less ‘controversial’ example, he used an example where the man helps his friend not out of compassion, but because he is annoyed!

Jesus, of course, did not want his audience to come to the conclusion that God would help people only if they ‘annoyed’ God enough. Or, that God helped people not out of God’s love or compassion, but because God did not want to be disturbed any longer. No, Jesus did not want people to think like that. He simply said that if people, whose love and compassion were limited, would finally give in to constant requests, how much more God, whose love and compassion were unlimited, would be moved to listen to their prayers. If we, broken people, know how to meet the need of our children, how much more God, who is unblemished, knows about fulfilling people’s needs!

“So do not stop praying,” Jesus must have said to his audience. “God is our Dad.” We should not approach God like Abraham approached God, full of fear and choosing his words carefully as if he had been a slave who was conversing with his easily offended and quick to punish master. No, God is nothing like that kind of person. God is like our Mom or Dad, a person whom, for many of us, we can approach freely without any fear. God is a person who understands our needs and would listen to us. “So remember!” Jesus must have said, “God will not give us a snake when we ask for a fish.”

So, we need to have the right balance in our prayers. We should not pray to ‘nag’ at God to do what we want. But, we should also not stop praying. We need to be open to the mystery of prayer, which connects us to the mystery of God. Not all answers in prayer are as direct and simple as we hope because no one can predict God completely.

In our reading in the book of Genesis, Abraham stopped at ten people and thought that he had nailed God down. So, he left God, believing that he had won the argument. But, in the next part of the story in Genesis, Sodom was still destroyed because the only people who were righteous in the city were Lot’s family: Lot, his wife, and two of his daughters (less than ten people).

Now, many will find it hard to comprehend the destruction of Sodom. How come a merciful God brought such destruction to the city? I have no answer to the question and I will not attempt to answer it now. The story reminds us, however, that God saw what Abraham did not see; God knew what Abraham did not know. Abraham may make his case for Sodom, yet it was God who finally made the decision concerning Sodom’s fate.

So, prayer is a mystery. Always. Again, the answer to our prayer is often not as direct and simple as we hope. That’s why, in our reading in Luke, Jesus used the image of asking, searching, and knocking. There is still a process, a journey that we need to take before we arrive.

Prayer is indeed like a journey. When we pray, we expect for an answer, but we must not stop there. We must also search for the answer we’ve been asking for. As we do this, we will be transformed by the journey of searching for the answer.

On the journey, our perspective is often cleared, our greed is often diminished, and our need is often pronounced. In the end, we may finish at a different place from where we started. But, there, I believe, we will finally find the answer. Then, I believe, we will finally realise that the answer may not be the same with the one we wanted before, but it is the one that we need.

So, keep on asking because we will be given; keep on searching because we will find; keep on knocking because the door will be opened to us. I believe this is a timeless guidance for us all in prayer.