Three Levels of Prayer
Last Thursday night my wife and I ate supper with our longtime friends, Tom and Fay Phillips, at the Outback Steak House in New Port Richey, Florida. Tom is the director of Word of Life Florida where I was speaking in a Bible conference Monday through Friday. During our conversation Tom mentioned that he felt that prayer was the one area of the spiritual life where he struggles the most. He said that even though he gets up before 5:30 AM every day to pray and read his Bible, he still feels this is an area where he needs more growth. As I reflected on his words, it occurred to me that Tom is one of the most godly men I know. He has a walk with God that is obvious to all who know him and his integrity is beyond reproach. Yet he said what I would say and what most Christian leaders would say. We all wish we were stronger in the area of prayer.
There are at least three things that hinder us from going deeper in prayer. The first is the sneaking suspicion that prayer doesn’t matter. It’s easy to fall into a kind of fatalism that says “God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do.” So we stop praying because we think nothing will change. Then there is the fear that we won’t pray in the “right” way, that we won’t use the correct words or we won’t use the right formula and that God therefore won’t even bother to hear what we say. Finally most of us struggle with the little voice inside that tells us we’ve got more important things to do. Prayer is good but we need to get on with the “real business” of the day. So we don’t pray as we ought or as we would like.
Keep on Asking!
Rather than deal with those hindrances, let me simply share some very good news: God welcomes prayer. He wants us to pray, he begs us to pray, he exhorts us to pray, and he pleads with us to pray. Prayer is God’s appointed means for us to receive what we need from him.
In the familiar words of our text, Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock. Those words are in the present tense in the Greek language. You could legitimately translate them this way: Keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking at the door. This means that prayer requires persistence. Few prayers are answered the first time we pray them. But God’s delays do not mean he doesn’t care. We are to ask, ask, and keep on asking. We are to seek, seek, and keep on seeking. We are to knock, knock, and keep on knocking. If we do, we will receive, find, and the door will be opened to us.
What this passage teaches can be summarized in three statements:
God wants to answer our prayers.
Our prayers will be answered but not immediately.
We should lay aside our doubts and continue to pray because of who God is.
The words of Walt Gerber are a great encouragement at this point: “Remember, when praying for others, we are not overcoming God’s reluctance, but laying hold of his highest willingness."
I. Three Levels of Prayer 7-8
These famous words of Jesus describe three levels of prayer. Not all prayer is alike in its basic nature. Sometimes we are asking, sometimes we are seeking, and sometimes our prayers are like knocking at the door of heaven.
Level 1: Asking
Ask and it will be given to you … for everyone who asks receives (Matthew 7:7, 8).
Go to Africa or India and you will understand what this means. Asking is what beggars do. In poor countries beggars unashamedly stand by the road with their hands held out, asking alms for the poor. Sometimes they can be quite bold about it and even irritating to passers by. In those moments it helps to remember that you would be bold too if you were in their position.
Jesus tells us that prayer begins with the posture of a beggar coming before a benevolent Heavenly Father. We are to ask God for what we need, knowing that he is able to help us. The promise is very simple: Ask and you shall have. Level one praying involves the basic needs of life. If you need food, ask God for it. If you need money to pay the bills, ask God for it. If you need wisdom, if you need guidance, if you are confused, if you are in need of physical healing, do not be ashamed or embarrassed to bring your needs to the Lord in your prayers. This is what it means to ask God for “daily bread.” Asking involves laying all of life before the Lord in order that you might receive from him whatever you need.
Notice how broad the promise is. It extends to “everyone who asks.” And see how definite the promise is. Everyone who asks “receives.” Not “shall receive” or “might receive” or “may receive” but simply “receives.”
Prayer begins with asking God for what we need, knowing that when we ask, we will receive an answer from heaven.
Level 2: Seeking
Seek and you will find … he who seeks finds (Matthew 7:7, 8).
Seeking implies a desire for something of great value. It reminds us of Jesus’ story of the woman searching for a lost coin or the shepherd with 100 sheep who, having lost one, left the 99 and went searching for the one sheep that had gone astray. It is like a man seeking a pearl of great price, who having found it, gives all that he has in order to purchase it.
When you seek something, you rearrange your priorities so that you can search for what you desire until you find it This kind of prayer is usually tied up with the search for deeper understanding, particularly as it applies to the trials of life. In 2 Corinthians 12 we learn about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know what it was because Paul doesn’t tell us. Three times he asked the Lord to remove it and three times the Lord said no. That’s the first level of prayer—Asking. But he kept on praying for insight and God eventually said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” This is level two praying—Seeking wisdom from the Lord. While the thorn was not removed (and evidently was never removed), Paul gained important spiritual insight that helps us see why his first prayers were not answered. This kind of answer comes only as we repeatedly seek the Lord.
Level 3: Knocking
Knock and the door will be opened to you … and to him who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7, 8).
The word “knock” means to stand at a door and repeatedly rap it with your knuckles. You knock and wait, then you knock again, then you say, “I know you’re in there,” then you knock again and say, “I can hear your voice. Come on, open the door.” Then you knock again. If you’re on the other side, you know how annoying it can be to listen as someone knocks and knocks and keeps on knocking. But that’s precisely the picture behind these words. They imply praying in the face of difficulty and even resistance. If you knock like this, your desire for entrance must be very great indeed. In the New Testament, the picture of “open doors” often deals with seeking God’s will and praying for new opportunities to spread the gospel. It also applies to praying when the object desired involves changing the heart of another person.
Not long ago a fine young couple came to see me with the good news that they plan to be missionaries. They are eminently qualified and will do a wonderful job and there is only one small problem. After months of prayer they have no idea where they would like to go. And they can’t start raising support until they at least know what country they are going to. As we talked I said something like this: “The reason you don’t know now is because you don’t need to know now. If you needed to know now, God would have shown you. Since you don’t know now, it must be true that you don’t need to know because when you do need to know, you’ll know, and not one minute sooner.” I more or less made that up on the spot, but looking back I decided that it was good advice because it is based on the truth that God gives us guidance when we need it and generally that guidance comes just in the nick of time.
A few days later I happened to talk with a friend whose job is ending soon. My friend had been praying for guidance but no direction was coming from heaven. So I shared what I had said to the young couple. The next week I got an e-mail telling me that my friend had chatted with another friend who asked, “Have you ever thought about serving overseas?” No, but my friend was open to the idea. Then came a “chance” meeting with a missionary representative who spoke about all the open doors in other countries. Then my friend found what seemed to be a perfect opportunity in Africa. That led to an e-mail application, references by e-mail, a phone interview, and on Friday of this week I received a message telling me that my friend is moving to Kenya in July to start a new job at a school for the children of missionaries. It’s a perfect fit and all the pieces came together at just the right time. That’s how God works. We do the knocking and in due season the door opens up for us.
Several weeks ago I was standing in the lobby between services when a couple came up to me with their arms around each other and tears in their eyes. Would I please pray for them because God had worked a miracle in their relationship and right now they were going through a fiery trial. I didn’t know the details but I put my arms around them and committed their marriage to God. The next Sunday the wife came up with wonderful news about how God had answered that prayer in a most remarkable way. Later I reflected on the fact that nearly eight years ago the wife had come to see me several times, asking prayer for a marriage that seemed beyond hopeless. And now the answer has finally come from heaven. Why do some prayers take years to be answered and others are answered immediately? I do not know the answer and find it useless to speculate. But this much is clear. If we keep on knocking at heaven’s door, sooner or later the door will be opened to us.
“It has happened”
My final illustration comes from the “The Upper Room” devotional for December 21, 1998. It is written by Stanislaw Grzybek of Ostróda, Poland.
Many years ago, when I was young boy, a friend invited my father to a chapel worship service. That was the day my father found Jesus Christ. He was forever changed from that day forward. Often my father would pray aloud for our entire family. He placed us into God’s hands. Many years later, my younger brother and I decided to give our hearts to Christ. Our father gave each of us a New Testament to commemorate the day. Inside the cover he wrote in red pencil, “It has happened.”
Now I am 70 years old. I know that our family came to Jesus because of my father’s prayers; he put us into God’s hands. I am grateful to God for a father who never stopped praying for us. Through my father’s love, prayers, and concern, we found Christ. In the same way, I also gave my family to Christ, and today all of us are believers. Truly God answers our prayers.
As I look at these three levels of prayer, it strikes me that there are no limits. Anyone may pray to God about anything. And the emphasis falls not on our prayers but on the certainty of answers from God. Three times Jesus mentions our part. We are to ask, seek, and knock. But six times he tells us that we will receive, will find, and the door will be opened to us. It is as if God is pleading and begging with us to dare to come to him in prayer. I am reminded of Billy Graham’s remark that there are rooms in heaven filled with answers to prayer for which no one has thought to ask.
II. God’s Character & Our Prayers
How can we be so sure that when we ask, seek, and knock that we will receive, find, and the door will be opened to us? Jesus says that our hope in prayer rests not with ourselves or in the power of positive thinking, but in the very character of God who is our great Father in heaven.
A. A Good Earthly Father 9-10 Top of page
Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?(Matthew 7:9-10).
Good fathers are eager to help their children. This is what fathers do. They give “good” gifts to their children. If your child asks for a stone or a snake, will you give it to him? No. What if he begs? No. What if he pleads? No. What if he says, “I can’t live without that snake?” You still say no. Children often ask for foolish things, which are withheld. The same is true with God. Often we plead for things that to us seem like bread but to God are like a poisonous snake. Our Heavenly Father says no, not because he hates us but because he loves us. Sometimes God’s no is the surest sign of his love for us. Suppose your five-year-old asks to play with a sharp knife. What will you do? You say no and let him cry and even pout. His tears show his immaturity. If you give him the knife, you don’t love him at all.
We often ask for things that would harm us. It might be a new job or a bigger salary or a new husband or a new wife. But God sees through to the end and knows that what we have asked for would harm us more than help us. So in love he says no.
B. A Much-Greater Heavenly Father 11 Top of page
If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:11).
The argument is from the lesser to the greater, from the human to the divine. My father was not a perfect man but I never doubted his love for me. I am not a perfect father but I hope my boys never doubt my love for them. There is One who is much greater than I am whose heart is pure and good and whose love knows no limits. He is my Heavenly Father and he bids me come to him in prayer. That is the real meaning of the phrase “how much more.”
God knows much more than we do
God cares much more than we do.
He is richer than we are and he is far more willing to answer our prayers than we are to have them answered. But how can we be sure that God cares for us so deeply? Go with me to a hill outside Jerusalem, not far from the Damascus Gate. Look closely at the three men who are dying on bloody Roman crosses. Study that awful scene closely. Listen to the jeering crowd. Ponder the meaning of the words spoken by the man hanging on the middle cross. There you will have your answer.
We know that God loves us because he gave his own Son to die for us. And he did it unasked. He sent his Son to the earth while we were in rebellion against him, knowing that we would put him to death. Will he now refuse us any good thing we ask of him? The cross proves that the heart of God is good. And we come to that same good heart every time we pray.
Note the final phrase of our text. All the blessings of heaven are promised “to those who ask him.” We should expect God to answer our prayers and we can expect nothing without prayer. In the deepest, most profound sense God’s blessings are “limited” to those who ask for them. He will not give if we do not ask. The gates of heaven open to those who pray. Those same gates are closed to everyone else.
Steve Meyer’s Testimony
I can wrap up my message in three simple statements:
The invitation to pray comes from God’s heart.
Our doubts come from our hearts.
Will we believe God or ourselves?
We doubt God’s goodness so we don’t pray. When hard times come we give in to worry and despair because we have forgotten how good God has been to us. A good memory of God’s blessings will fortify us in the time of trouble and give us the courage to pray with thanksgiving.
Many of you know Steve Meyer. He and his wife Robin serve as our Deacon and Deaconess of Hospitality. If you’ve attended Calvary for any length of time, you’ve been greeted by them on Sunday morning even if you didn’t know who they were. God has given them a gracious spirit that makes new people feel right at home.
Last summer at the age of 44, Steve was diagnosed with Stage 4 Mantle Cell Lymphoma. That’s a form of cancer that eventually takes the life of almost everyone who has it. Not many people live more than five or six years after their diagnosis. All during the fall months Steve was given heavy-duty chemotherapy in a desperate attempt to beat back the cancer and save his life. All of us watched as his hair fell out and week after week he faithfully came to church, sometimes battling great pain. The initial results from the chemotherapy were encouraging. Many of the tumors disappeared and others shrank dramatically. The next step in the treatment cycle calls for Steve to undergo a very difficult bone marrow transplant in which the doctors harvest his stem cells, then radiate his whole body to destroy all his bone marrow, then reinsert the stem cells, all the while hoping his body can fight off infection while his immune system is temporarily disabled. Steve knows the risks and knows that he can undergo this kind of treatment only once because his body cannot endure it twice. He will be in the hospital for four or five weeks at least. And the doctors make no guarantees. The cancer could come back even after the bone marrow transplant but this is the best chance for a cure.
Yesterday I spoke with Steve on the phone and found him to be incredibly cheerful and filled with optimism about the future. He has committed his life into God’s hands and is content to leave everything with the Lord. He has also joined an e-mail listserv of 600 patients around the world who have his kind of cancer. Earlier this week someone wrote him saying they had just been diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma and they wondered what to expect. He wrote an answer back that is an eloquent statement of faith. With his permission I am reproducing it here:
I am not happy to have this disease, nor is anyone who has it. Chemotherapy is not a refreshment, bone marrow transplants are less fun than going to the lake in the summer. And having one’s life ripped apart by a disease that has historically killed all its victims is not my first choice.
On the other hand when you are surrounded by people who love you, people who pray for you, people who bring you meals, send you cards, rake your leaves, cry with you, laugh with you, do your chores for you, shovel your snow all winter, cut your grass all summer, come over on Sunday to watch football with you, call you on the phone, pick up your medicine for you, drive you places when you can’t, offer you their homes, offer support to your husband or wife, offer support to your kids, offer support to your healthy parents, offer support to your brothers and sisters, come over to keep you company, take you out to dinner, bring you books, CDs, tapes, loan you their laptop computer, offer their friendship and love …
When your kids tell you they love you again and again and again and cry at the thought of losing you, when your wife or husband tells you they love you even when you act like an idiot and they cry themselves to sleep at the thought of losing you, when you see tears in your parents’ eyes at the thought of losing a child to this disease and they say “I wish it were me” and they mean it …
When people you’ve never met pray for you, send you mail, encourage you, meet you for dinner, when the doctor weeps for you because he wishes he could do more, when the pain gets so bad it takes away your breath, or you get so sick you think you’re gonna die …
I’ll tell you what I do. I thank God for my life just the way it is! I have had a good life, and I intend to live for many years to come. I plan on seeing my Becky grow up. Today she was the happiest little girl in the third grade, and so proud to read her grades one by one to her dad, who she has no doubt loves her with all of his heart. I plan to see my 12-year-old son’s penmanship improve even if it takes forever and someday he will beat me in chess. I plan to see my sophomore-in-college daughter someday grow up the rest of the way and get married and give me grandkids. I plan to see my parents finish their lives with their son alive, and I’ll bury them when they die. I plan to see my beautiful wife grow old, get gray hair, and sag, so I can love her more then than I do now, and we can retire to Florida.
Did we all get a bad break? Yes
Do we have a right to complain? A little
>Would I change my life if I could? Never
I’m glad you asked the question, and I pray that you and everyone else with this disease gets cured, and those who have died from this disease I plan to see them again. The quality of my life has never been better!!!
May God bless all those with mantle cell lymphoma and the loving caregivers and families.
Oak Park, Illinois”
“If you know the Lord”
When I spoke with Steve yesterday, he told me the secret of his strong faith. It consists of a simple statement that goes right to the heart of the Christian faith: “If you know the Lord, you don’t need to fear dying, because if you know the Lord, you’re never really dead.” What an amazing statement that is. It’s exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26).
What can you do with a man like that? You can’t stop him. His faith is indestructible. The devil can’t touch a man like that because the devil’s ultimate weapon is the fear of death. If you aren’t afraid to die, then the devil has no power over you.
Herein lies a powerful secret for a dynamic prayer life. Count your blessings instead of your problems. Focus on what God has done for you instead of on how you wished things had turned out. Think of all the good things that have come into your life in the midst of your difficulties. When you remember the goodness of God, you will have no trouble asking, seeking, and knocking.
So keep on praying, brothers and sisters. Do not be dismayed by delay or defeated by your circumstances. Let the words of Jesus fill your heart. Ask, ask, and keep on asking and you will receive. Seek, seek, and keep on seeking, and you will find. Knock, knock, and keep on knocking, and by God’s grace the door will be opened to you. This is the promise of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us prove that we believe it as we pray to God this week. Amen.
- Listen to this sermon (28:28)
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Adventures in Prayer
» SEE SERMONS IN THIS SERIES
Three Levels of Prayer Matthew 7:7-11
Mountain-Moving Prayer Mark 11:22-24
"In Jesus' Name, Amen" John 14:13-14
A Friend in High Places Hebrews 4:14-16
Praying For the Sick James 5:13-16
Praying for the Lost I Timothy 2:1-6
When God Prays for You Romans 8:26-27
Praying for Your Prodigal Ephesians 1:18
Strength for the Journey 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17» Index for this sermon series