Question: "What did Jesus mean when He said 'Ask and you shall receive'?"
Answer: Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” in John 16:24. Similar statements are found in Matthew 7:7; 21:22; Mark 11:24; Luke 11:9; and John 15:7. Is this a blanket promise with no conditions? If we ask for three hundred pounds of chocolate delivered to our door, is God obligated to give it to us? Or are Jesus’ words to be understood in light of other revelation?
If we assume that “ask and you will receive” means “ask for anything you want and I’ll give it to you,” then we have turned the Lord into a cosmic genie who serves our every whim. This is the problem of prosperity gospel and word of faith teachings.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that whoever asks receives, whoever seeks finds, and whoever knocks will find an open door (Matthew 7:7–8). But with this and all other verses we must examine the context. Jesus goes on to say that God will not fail to give His children good things (verse 11). So, this is one condition to the promise of “ask and receive”: what we ask for must be good in God’s estimation. God will give advantageous gifts to His children; He will not give us bad or injurious things, no matter how much we clamor for them. The best example of a good gift is the Holy Spirit, according to Luke 11:13. We begin to see a two-fold purpose of prayer—to increase our understanding of what God calls “good” and to cultivate a desire in us for what is good.
Our prayers to God are not unlike our requests of men. Our prayers are based in a relationship, as Jesus points out in Matthew 7:8. If a child asks his father for something the father knows to be hurtful, the request is denied. The child may be frustrated and unhappy when he doesn’t get what he asked for, but he should trust his father. Conversely, when the child asks for something that the father knows is beneficial, the father will provide it eagerly because he loves his child.
We have another condition to the promise of “ask and receive” in John 14:14, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Here, Jesus does not promise His disciples anything and everything they want; rather, He instructs them to ask “in my name.” To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray on the basis of Jesus’ authority, but it also involves praying according to the will of God, for the will of God is what Jesus always did (John 6:38). This truth is stated explicitly in 1 John 5:14, “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” Our requests must be congruent with the will of God.
The promise of “ask and receive,” even with its conditions, can never disappoint. There is no chance of things we need not being in God’s will. He promises to supply what we need when we “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Of course, what we want is not always what we need. If what we want is not in God’s will, then we really don’t want to receive it. God knows what is good for us and is faithful and loving to say “no” to selfish and foolish prayers, no matter how much we want what we’re asking for.
God will always give us good things. Our job is to understand what is good, so that we know what to ask for. The natural mind cannot understand this. But, when we offer ourselves as “a living sacrifice” and are transformed by the renewing of our minds, then we “will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1–2). Then, asking for what we need in faith, we will have all we need for life and godliness and fullness of joy (John 16:24).
The biblical instruction concerning prayer is that we pray for the good things that we truly need, according to the will of God, in the authority of Jesus Christ, persistently (see Luke 18:1), unselfishly (see James 4:3), and in faith (see James 1:6). In Matthew 21:22 Jesus again emphasizes faith: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Those who truly believe God will witness the amazing, infinite power of God. However, comparing Scripture with Scripture, we know that the asking must be done within the will of God. Part of having faith is acceding to God’s plan as best. If we ask for healing, and that is the best thing for us, we should not doubt that God will heal us. If He does not heal, then not being healed is a necessary part of a larger plan—one that is ultimately for our good.
Consider Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” This verse does not give us a way to manipulate God; nor does it mean that, if we obey, He will reward us with whatever treat we crave. Rather, it means that, when we delight ourselves in God, then we will find everything we want and need in Him. The key here is that the heart of the seeker is changed—when we delight in the Lord, God’s desires begin to become our own. When our desires match God’s, then our prayers are automatically aligned with His will.
Among the most important prayers in the life of a Christian are “Teach me to love you above all else” and “Cause me to want what you want.” When we truly desire God, when we are passionate to see His will accomplished in this world, and when we ask for what brings Him glory, He is eager to give us anything we ask for. Sometimes the things that glorify God are pleasant—a marriage or a child. Sometimes they are difficult for us—a failure that humbles us or a physical weakness that makes us more dependent upon God (see 2 Corinthians 12:7). But, when we pray within His will, in the authority of Jesus, persistently, unselfishly, and in faith, we will receive what we need.