Since childhood, verses like these have caused me to scratch my head. They make such bold promises about receiving what we pray for, promises that almost seem to describe a different world than the one in which I live. Consider:
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
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. Or which one 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!
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
-1 John 3:21-22
There you have it, from the Psalms, Jesus’ lips, an early epistle, a late epistle: “He will give you the desires of your heart,” “Everyone who asks receives,” “You do not have, because you do not ask,” “whatever we ask we receive from him.” This might cause you to ask (as it has caused me to ask), Did I miss a step? How can I get what I pray for?
To start, let’s go back to these same verses. Note the guidance that each of them gives: “Delight yourself in the Lord,” “Seek [Him?],” “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions,” “keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”
Now, we could read these and conclude: “Aha! So these are the membership fees for this special prayer-answering club. Like Costco. ‘Keeping God’s commandments and doing what pleases him’ is costly, after all.” However, this reading misses the point. The offer is not that if we give God A (e.g., lip service), He will give us B (e.g., cash money).
Rather, one could say that if we learn to live for A (i.e., God’s desires), we will learn to pray for A (i.e., God’s desires), and God will delight to give us A (i.e., God’s desires), and we will delight to receive it. The directions in these verses, taken together, understood in light of the character of God, seem to suggest that we will learn about answered prayer when we learn to pray for different things.
If we’ve misunderstood from the beginning, that can seem like a bit of a bait-and-switch. However, if we’re willing to listen and understand this other offer, we’ll see that it’s a better one. The Matthew 7 passage expresses this better offer: “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 of him!” This God is like a Father, who wants to give us what’s best, and it must frustrate Him when we continually pray for something else.
Yet, as James says, “He gives more grace,” God works in us, in Paul’s words, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” That is, God Himself can help us to “keep his commandments and do what pleases him,” by renewing our hearts to be pleased by what’s precious and not worthless, not fickle but enduring. As God gives us new and better desires like His, we will ask for less and less “to spend on our own passions”; we will ask more and more for what’s already addressed to us (God’s desires for us), seeking for Him who delights to be found (God Himself).
“Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” It’s not that if we do our part and like God, He’ll do His part and give us stuff. Rather, God does His part: He gives us new and better desires (His desires), and when we ask Him for our new desires, He delights to fulfill our new longings, not only for His provision but also for His abiding and all-transforming presence in our midst.