Question: "What did Jesus mean when He said 'Ask and you shall receive'?"
Answer: Jesus’ statement “Ask and you shall receive” occurs several times in the Gospel accounts in various forms. It is a saying that has often been misinterpreted by those who do not understand the verse in its context, but rather assume that Jesus’ meaning was “ask for anything you want and I’ll give it to you,” a basic tenet of the prosperity gospel and word of faith teaching. Sadly, the faith of many has been shipwrecked on the rocks of unanswered prayers that were prayed because of a belief in the faulty assumption that “ask and you shall receive” is a blanket promise with no conditions.
Perhaps the most famous instance of “ask and you shall receive” is found in Matthew 7:7-8 where Jesus tells His disciples during the Sermon on the Mount that whoever asks receives, whoever seeks finds, and to whomever knocks, the door will be opened. We cannot gain a full understanding of Jesus’ meaning without reading the entire passage. Jesus goes on to say that God will not fail to give His children good things. Luke 11:9-13 repeats this message, but replaces the words “good things” with “the Holy Spirit.” This means that God will give good gifts to His children, and the best example of a good gift is the Holy Spirit. When combined with John 14:14, where Jesus tells His disciples that whatever they ask for “in His name” will be done for them, we begin to see the two-fold purpose of prayer—to give us deeper understanding of what God calls “good” and to cultivate a desire in us for that which God calls good.
Our prayers to God are not unlike our requests of men. They are based in a relationship, just as Jesus points out in Matthew 7:8. When we ask our earthly fathers for something they know will hurt us, those things are denied. A child may be frustrated and unhappy when his father denies his request for something bad, but he still trusts his father. And when a request is for something that the father knows is good for his child, he will provide it willingly and eagerly because he loves his child. This relationship is further alluded to when Jesus follows His promise in John 14:14 with verse 15: “If you love me, keep My commandments.” Loving Jesus, obeying Him, and praying according to His will are all part asking in His name.
Many new believers have experienced a disappointment about this reality, thinking, “But what if what I want / need is not in God’s will?” But when we think about it, this promise can never disappoint us. First, if what we want is not in God’s will, we really don’t want to receive it, because, though it might seem to be what we want, God knows it isn’t good for us and is faithful and loving to say “no” to that prayer. Second, inherent in the promise is the guarantee that the things we truly need will always be given to us when we ask for them. 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 does not understand this, but, according to Romans 12:1-2, renewing our minds, which can only be done through His Word, will help us understand what God’s will is. Then, asking in faith, we will have all we need for life and godliness and fullness of joy (John 16:24). This is not intuitive for us, but it teaches us humility, and it draws us near to God, who is the Source of our joy.
All other verses about prayer must be interpreted through this lens. Matthew 21:22 tells us that we will receive whatever we ask for in prayer, if we have faith. The question is faith in what? Again, it is faith in His Word to tell us what is best and faith that He will give us what is best. If we ask for healing, and that is the best thing for us, we should not doubt that He will do it. But if He does not heal, we must assume that not being healed is a necessary part of a larger plan that is ultimately for our good.
Consider Psalm 37:4, which says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” We know that this verse doesn’t mean “if you pursue God you will get what you want” because of what we already know about asking according to His will. This verse does not give us a way to manipulate God, nor does it mean that, if we obey, He will see it and be pleased and then give us whatever we are craving. Rather, it means that when we delight ourselves in God, truly loving Him and pursuing Him for His sake, then everything we want and need will necessarily be in Him. The issue here is a change of heart—when the heart seeks the Lord, it is satisfied with what it finds there, and its true desires are realized in Him. But loving and desiring God is far from natural for us.
Therefore, the first and most important prayers in the life of a Christian are “Make me love You above all else” and “Make me want what You want” because when we truly desire God and long to see the Kingdom of God realized in our lives and in the lives of others, when we are passionate to see His will and His work in this world, and we ask for the things that bring Him glory and increase our closeness to Him, He is eager and willing to give us anything we ask for. Sometimes the things that glorify God are pleasant things, like a marriage or a child. Sometimes they are difficult things, like a failure that humbles us or a physical weakness that makes us dependent upon Him. But we must never doubt that, when we pray for what is in His will, we will receive it, and that what we receive from Him will always be that which is best.