In my personal devotions I have been reflecting much lately on prayer. Prayer is something that, if I am honest, has not been a consistent practice in my life. Not that I have neglected prayer; rather, as the great prayer warriors of history might say, I have not “prevailed” or “importuned” in prayer. Much of this stems from the fact that I have too much confidence in what I can accomplish in the flesh and far too little faith in what God will do in response to my prayers. At the same time, I confess that I have exercised very little patience even when I given myself to intense praying, disappointed by the apparent ‘lack of results’.
For people like myself (and I’m sure there are many!), passages like Luke 11:9-10 can be perplexing:
And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
After praying for a while and not seeing tangible answers, I am left thinking: “I have asked but have not received! I have sought but not found! I have knocked but nothing was opened! What is wrong?”. Honestly, it is just sometimes easier to neglect prayer than to face this troubling question.
However, I have recently found much help from a sermon in which the great Welsh preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones expounded this very passage. Lloyd-Jones’s insights struck me like a bolt of lightning and have since invigorated by fervency and constancy in prayer. He says:
Now many no doubt have had this perplexity with regard to the whole question of answers to prayer. There are statements in Scripture which seem to suggest that you only have to ask and you will receive. So people say, ‘But I have asked, and I have not received’, and they do not understand this. I am suggesting that the answer is that there is a greater content to this word ‘asking’ than we tend to think, and our Lord suggests that, in varying the expression, ‘Ask; seek; knock.’
True asking, I am suggesting, is the knocking. In other words, asking does not mean a casual request. You suddenly feel like it and you make your request, then you forget all about it by the next morning. That is neither true asking, nor true seeking. In true asking there is a kind of urgency, there is a refusal to be content with anything less than the answer. That is where this knocking comes in. You do not merely shout from a distance, you go on and you approach nearer and nearer, and at last you are, as it were, hammering at the door.
This is clearly the teaching of Scripture itself. Our danger, all of us, is to reduce the great blessings of the Christian faith to some almost automatic process. I have often compared it to the slot machines into which you put your coin and draw out your chocolate or drink—there it is. That is simply not true in the Christian life. It is not true at all. There is this element of real seeking, ‘hunger and thirst’. ‘Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness.’ That does not mean that in a service you wish you were living a better life and you would like to be better, or when you are at a funeral you feel the same thing, and then forget all about it and go back and live the same old life. No, hungering and thirsting after righteousness! ‘Asking; seeking; knocking!’
And as that is the teaching of the Scripture, you will find this abundantly confirmed in the testimonies and the experiences of people who testify to having received this great blessing. Many of them have had to strive sometimes for years before they have had this wonderful experience, and they say, furthermore, that looking back they can see that there difficulty was that their seeking was fitful—they would do it in spasms and then forget all about it. Then they would come back to it, and then forget about it again. But then they reached a point at which they became desperate, and like Jacob of old they, as it were, said, ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me.’ Now that is the thing, typified once and for ever in that great story of Jacob. And it has been repeated so often in the lives and the testimonies of people.
The trouble with us is we are all half-hearted about this. Our Lord is speaking here about importunity…. So that if we just almost casually, as it were, ask God for this blessing and nothing happens, we must not blame God. We have not fulfilled the conditions, and have not really asked. Do not forget—’Ask; seek; knock.’ Importunity! ‘I will not let thee go!’… God is our Father and he does not give us the blessing we want immediately, always. Thank God he doesn’t. We would never grow up if he did, and this is part of our whole process of sanctification. By withholding the blessing God searches us, examines us, makes us examine ourselves, and realize the terms and the conditions, and he deepens the whole of our spiritual life.
This again is something that the generation to which we belong is tending to forget. We are a people who always desire some short cuts, some easy method, some kind of ‘package’ blessing. And that is one of the great differences between the Christian literature of this present century and of the Christian church up to about the middle of the last century. People would seek a blessing for years before they received it. But there was a purpose in it all; God was dealing with them and leading them along a given path. You will never know the heights of the Christian life without effort. You have to strive for these things—there is a seeking, knocking, and an importunity. And it is because so many have missed that element that they get into confusion at this point.
Although I might quibble a bit with some of the things that Lloyd-Jones says here (in good Torrancean fashion I would want to frame the ‘conditionality’ of prayer more in terms of Christ’s vicarious intercession for us), his fundamental point is incisive and illuminating: “there is greater content to this word ‘asking’ than we tend to think”. The problem lies not with God, nor with the promise that he has made us in Christ about responding to to us when we ask. The problem is that we have not truly asked! Asking in prayer is not making “causal” or “fitful” requests every now and again; it is importunate seeking and knocking! It is Jacob refusing to let go of God until he received God’s blessing! It is that relentless zeal to prevail, as Jacob did, even if it means wrestling all through night!
This is, of course, not meant to give hope to our selfish desires. In the context of Luke 11, Jesus is specifically speaking about the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Yet Lloyd-Jones reminds us that truly asking for the Spirit in prayer, and for all of the blessings promised us by God in the name of Christ, does not consist a sporadic or infrequent affair. It is the determined resolution of Jacob wrestling with God, of the woman demanding justice from the unjust judge, of the man requesting bread from his friend in the middle of the night, until God grants what he has promised. It may takes days, weeks, months, or even years, but this is what it means to truly ask of God. We ask by seeking and knocking until the door is opened to us, and by not giving up until it does so.
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984), pp.166-169.