As I was reading Luke 11 today, the section in Luke where Jesus gives his disciples “The Lord’s Prayer,” I came across the very familiar verse:
“So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
Here, in v. 13, Jesus is concluding his teaching on persistent prayer. This is one of those passages where we see STRONG promises for God hearing and answering our prayers. I’m really familiar with this text. But I’m also very curious (it slows down my Bible reading a lot)!
So this time, when I read, “how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him,” I’m like, wow, that’s a non sequitur! Why “the Holy Spirit?” They weren’t asking for the Holy Spirit! They were asking for fish and bread. In the parallel story in Matthew (7:11), Jesus says “good things,” not “the Holy Spirit.”
And this raises the question of answered prayer, a question my kids have definitely struggled with. A question, if I am honest, I have struggled with too. (Oh, if you were an atheist, you’d struggle too over the ways I can point to circumstances that I see as answered prayer. The problem is not statistics here, it’s faith.)
So I found this excellent sermon text by J. Ligon Duncan called “Don’t Stop Praying.” You need to read it, at least the last half or so I quoted below, especially if you struggle with prayer. It really gets down to the heart-issues we experience when our prayers seem to go unanswered.
And because it’s a good expository sermon, it also answers the question of why Luke put “the Holy Spirit” in the direct object slot.
I know this is a LONG quote, but it’s about half a sermon, so it should take about half a sermon-length’s dedication to read. Here’s a link to the whole sermon, if you want, and there is an audio version on the site as well: http://bit.ly/pi48bB
(from the Sermon text)
That is not what Jesus is saying here. He’s saying something infinitely greater, so listen to what He says. He tells you not only to be importunate, to beg, to plead, to appeal in prayer, He tells you not only to be persistent, that is to be regular, to be continual, to be constant in prayer, He tells you to expect God to answer your prayers and to know that none of your prayers will be unanswered.
Now here’s the trick – not as you pray them, but according to the Father’s goodness He answers all your prayer. Not as you pray them, but according to the Father’s goodness He answers all your prayers. That’s the basis of the story. Look at the story in verses 11 and 12. “What father among you?” – ah, here’s the Father’s Day tie in – the illustration is a fatherly illustration – “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”
Here’s the story. The little kid says, “Daddy, I want a fish.” He doesn’t give him a snake that will bite him and hurt him. “Daddy, I’d like an egg for breakfast.” “Here’s a scorpion son!” And he’s stung by the scorpion. What’s the point? A father doesn’t give bad gifts to his children. He loves his children. Fathers, that’s something to think about. Sometimes the greatest gift that you can give your child is, “No, I’m not going to give you what you want because it’s not what you need.” Moms, whenever you’re in a store I know that you by principle are committed to giving our children anything they ask for, aren’t you? At the checkout line, “Mommy, I’d like fourteen Reese peanut butter cups!” You love them so you give it to them, right? No! You give them the answer they need because you love them and it’s not the answer they want.
And you know this illustration works the other way around too. You notice if a child asks his father for a serpent the father doesn’t give him something that’s going to hurt him. If the child asks his father for a scorpion the father doesn’t give him what’s going to hurt him because the father’s gifts are good. So Jesus is saying God’s answers are always good, even when you can’t see it. He is always answering your prayers, “Yes,” but for your good. I love the way that Calvin says this – “God does not answer our prayers as we pray them, but as we would pray them if we were wiser.”
Just a few illustrations of this. Genesis 37. Genesis 37:4 tells us the story of Joseph and his brothers, right? And it tells us in Genesis 37 verse 4 that they could not even talk to one another kindly. There was so much tension in that family the brothers could not have a cordial conversation. Now, let’s just suppose that Joseph one day had knelt down on his knees beside his mat and prayed, “Lord, would You somehow bring harmony into our family so that we love one another?” I don’t know whether Joseph ever prayed that prayer or not, but I do know this, God did that. But do you know how God did that? Well, He had his brothers first attempt to kill him and then throw him into a pit, and then sell him into slavery. And then he went into Egypt and he was false accused by his employer and thrown into prison. And then a famine came into the ancient Near East that killed thousands of people. Now that’s pretty rough, but in Genesis 50 – it’s either verse 18 or 19 – we’re told that Joseph and his brothers spoke to one another and cried on one another’s shoulders and embraced one another. And what God had done in that family, He had brought a family, where there was a wall a mile wide and a mile high between the people in that family, and He brought that family together, but boy, did He do it in a way that Joseph never would have thought. Look, here’s – “Lord, I’ve been thinking of a strategy whereby You could bring about unity in our family. Why don’t you have my brothers attempt to kill me, sell me into slavery, then me get thrown into prison in a foreign country and then send famine to the ancient Near East.” But that’s what God did. But you see, God’s answer to Joseph’s prayers we do know were in accordance to His promises to Abraham that He was going to bless Joseph and He was going to keep Joseph and He was going to be gracious to Joseph and He was going to give him peace and He was going to give Joseph the enjoyment of communion with Him.
Think of Job’s prayers. He prayed that his children would be kept from sin. They were all killed. Think of Elijah’s prayers. He prayed that he would see God’s glory in Israel and God’s temporal answer was “No, you’re not going to see God’s glory in Israel the way you are praying it, Elijah.” And then you get to Luke 9 and Elijah is looking into the face of Jesus in Israel. He answers his prayer, not as he prays it, but as if he would have prayed it if he were wiser. Jesus is telling us, and Luke is recording this fact that for the believer in Jesus Christ, God always answers our prayer. That does not mean that our lives are easy. It does not mean that we immediately have domestic tranquility and material prosperity. But it means whenever we pray for whatever we pray, God on high is saying, “Yes child, I will pour out My Holy Spirit on you. I will fulfill the promise of Abraham to you.”
If I could just direct you again very briefly to verse 13 so you can see this. “If you then who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” Now, Luke constantly talks about the Holy Spirit and he’s already talked about the Holy Spirit in Luke 1, Luke chapter 1, as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. In Acts chapter 2, Luke will talk about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as a fulfillment of God’s promises through Jesus in Acts chapter 1, but also as Paul elaborates in Galatians 3, the coming of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. So when Luke tells us that whenever we pray God will give us the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him, he is saying that whenever we pray God always honors His promise to Abraham, and that promise entails the giving of the Holy Spirit so that we are blessed, we are protected, that we experience God’s grace and peace and communion with Him.
So that when there is a believer crying out, “Lord, I want to marry him. Lord, I want to marry her.” And the Lord is thinking, “Child, you have no idea what you’re asking for and I’m not going to answer that prayer the way that you want Me to answer that prayer, but here’s My answer, child, you will have the Holy Spirit. You will be blessed. You will be kept. You will be given grace. You will be given peace. You will be given communion. And I’ll give you something better than what you’re asking for.”
Or you may be praying, “Lord, could I just get along with my wife? Could we just get along? Could we just have peace here and just sort of like one another?” And the answer, it may be, “Child, I’m going to give you something better than you’re asking for.”
You know, it may just be something as simple as, “Lord, I’d like to pay the mortgage next month. I’d just like to pay the mortgage. Could we do that?” And again the answer may be, “Child yes, I’m going to give you something better than that.”
The answer is always “yes” — it’s just not always the “yes” that we were wanting. It’s the “yes” that we need but the answer is always “yes.” This is what Jesus is wanting you to see. Be expectant. God is going to answer this prayer. He’s going to answer it as if you would have prayed it knowing what He knows and being as good as He is. He is going to answer that prayer.
Now, why in the world would Jesus say this? Because He knows that you pray and you stop, and sometimes you stop because you don’t think it’s working, because you’re not getting what you’ve prayed for, because it’s not turning out like you’d expected or hoped. And Jesus is saying, “Don’t stop praying, and if you have, start again because blessed is he and she who starts to pray over and over and over again.”