By John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you.
For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds,
and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?
Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?
If you then know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
--Matthew 7: 7-10
In the intentional faith community household where Pat and I live, residents and visitors engage in a daily early morning practice of reading and listening to scripture together. In the course of about thirty minutes we read a scripture passage aloud three times pausing to reflect on what we hear and see as we read.
As we read we are often amazed at what we discover that we have missed before, even if we have read the same familiar passage many times before. We are also surprised to detect what we have misread or misunderstood in previous readings!
Case in point: the above words from Matthew 7 that we shared in our morning exercise this past Saturday, and that we agreed may speak in important ways to persons who are grieving the loss of a loved one. I have highlighted the sentences that speak specifically about asking (i.e. praying to God).
Several of us agreed that in the past we assumed the passage implied that if we petitioned God for some specific outcome we could expect to receive that outcome, assuming perhaps that we had enough faith that our request would be granted. Yet one person spoke about praying that a dying child would live but then watching the child dies anyway, thus raising questions about the truth of the scriptural claim, or perhaps about the lack of faith of the bereaved parent.
But another person reminded us that the verse says nothing about the degree of our faith as a prerequisite for receiving anything, and nothing that directly implies that what we ask for in our prayer will be the actual gift that we receive from God. The only promise is that if we ask for something, we will receive something (unspecified!) from God—some good thing and not a harmful thing!
In addition there is nothing in these verses from Matthew’s Gospel to suggest that any bad thing that we “receive” in life Is ever God’s answer to our prayer for something else! In other words, to reverse the image in Jesus’ words, even if we were to ask for a snake, God would give us fish!
The point seems to be that we are free to ask God for anything—even things that God cannot guarantee—knowing that whatever our circumstances, even a situation involving profound loss and deep grief, God will give us something good, something to serve us well in our time of loss.
I have come to the conclusion, as perhaps you have too, that God is not “all powerful” if that means being able to protect us from all harm and/or all grief. But the God who loves us unconditionally can and will give us the good gifts we will need to survive even the most profound grief and loss!