"Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father Who is in Heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" (Matthew 7:7–11).
People have asked me many times why they should bother praying when God never answers their prayers. They often use the above quote from Jesus to imply that His promise of answered prayers is a lie.
Grieving parents and others grieving over loved ones are angry after begging God to save the life of the one for whom they're grieving. A prisoner once asked why he should pray for parole after more than 20 years of praying. (This particular man injured someone in a traffic accident and received a life sentence because the injured woman's husband was the former state attorney general.) Others were facing financial ruin through no fault of their own and begged God for help, only to be ruined anyway.
The list of complaints could go on and on, and I'm certain you can think of many who feel the same way. Perhaps you yourself have even wondered why God seems to ignore your prayers.
I can empathize with people who feel that way. I used to feel the same way. The typical answer given by well-meaning Christians when people wonder aloud why they should bother to pray is not a bad answer. Indeed, it's a good answer — just not a complete answer.
The typical answer given is this: God always answers prayers, but sometimes His answer is "no" or "not right now." Then people go on to explain that God says no the way your earthly father would if you asked for something that could harm you. They further explain that He says "Yes, but later" so you can gain the greatest spiritual and temporal benefit from His gift to you.
While this explanation is absolutely true, it simply isn't complete. Nor is it fully honest. I'm not saying that folks who give such an answer are intentionally being dishonest. I'm convinced they're being as honest as they can. I tend to think they really don't know the full, honest answer.
It is true that Jesus told us to ask for whatever we want. He told us over and over again to ask for what we want and that the Father will give it to us. Perhaps the strongest promise Jesus made about asking for what we want in prayer is found in Matthew 21:19–22:
And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, He went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And He said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?" And Jesus answered them, "Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' it will be done. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith."
People love to point to promises such as these and complain about their "falsity." Many folks who try to explain how God answers prayer, when faced with this passage, focus on Jesus' words "and never doubt," implying the person praying did indeed doubt. There could be some truth to that, but I can think of times when I believed without doubt and still didn't get what I asked for.
So what's the answer? Did Jesus lie to us? Did He make a promise He wouldn't keep?
The answer to those questions is an imperative no! He most certainly made a promise, and Jesus always keeps those promises. The unfortunate reality is that people only pay attention to what they like in Scripture. In other words, we all have selective hearing and use selective reading comprehension.
The passage at the beginning of this article comes from the Sermon on the Mount narrative. Matthew's version of that sermon takes nearly all of chapters 5, 6 and 7. It's the longest example of Christ's preaching in the Gospels.
People isolate the promises in the Sermon on the Mount and fail to pay attention to the rest. Jesus tells us a lot of other things besides His promises. He gives us the Beatitudes, tells us to make our faith shine to others, preaches of the evil of anger, demands we be chaste in mind and body, condemns divorce and remarriage, warns us about taking rash oaths, insists we love our enemies, teaches us how to pray and insists we do so earnestly, tells us to fast and do penance for our sins, tells us to trust in God for even the smallest things, demands that we not judge others harshly and tells us to treat everyone else how we want to be treated.
Whew, that's a long list.
Yes, Our Lord made a great promise about getting anything we want in prayer, but He also gave us all these conditions ahead of that promise that must be met as well. God doesn't run some sort of heavenly lottery. He doesn't just hand out whatever we want the way a parent spoils a child. Would you slap your parent in the face then ask for a favor? Of course not, and if you did, you'd be a fool to expect that parent to grant the favor — but that is exactly what we do to God if we haphazardly live our Faith or remain in our vincible ignorance of it. Jesus so hates our complacency in Faith that He said, "I know your works: You are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:15–16).
He places conditions on getting what we ask for. God demands that we follow, wholly and unreservedly, the Faith established by Jesus Christ — the Faith taught and jealously guarded by His Holy Catholic Church — if we are to expect Him to fulfill the promises made to us.
So, if you want Jesus to keep His promises — especially His promises of answered prayers—then you need to learn the Catholic faith as best you can, live the faith as best you can, then do your best to fulfill another of Jesus' commands from the Sermon on the Mount: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). In other words, you are commanded by Christ to become a saint. For most of the saints in our 2,000-year history, that perfection was a lifelong effort that was only finally consummated at death.