Matthew 7:7. Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
8. For every one who asks, receives, and he who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.
9. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for a loaf, will give him a stone?
10. Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?
11. 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?
After teaching His disciples and instituting the office of the ministry, telling them what they are expected to preach and how they are to live, Christ, the Lord, now adds an admonition to prayer. By this He intends to teach them that, second only to the office of preaching, prayer is the chief work of a Christian and an inseparable part of the sermon. He also wants to indicate that because of all the temptations and hindrances we face, nothing is more necessary in Christendom than continual and unceasing prayer that God would give His grace and His Spirit to make the doctrine powerful and efficacious among us and among others. That is why, in the words we quoted from the prophet Zechariah (Zech. 12:10),13 God promised that He would pour out upon the Christians a Spirit of grace and of supplication. In these two items He summarizes all Christian existence.
Now, what He intends to say is this: “I have given you instructions about how you ought to live and what you ought to watch out for. In addition, it is necessary that you ask and that you have the confidence to go right on seeking and knocking without becoming lazy or lax in it. You will have need of asking, seeking, and knocking. Though doctrine and life may both have begun all right, we shall have to suffer14 from all sorts of transgressions and offenses that hinder us daily and keep us from progressing. We battle against these continually with all our might, but the strongest shield we have is prayer. If we do not use that, it is impossible for us to hold our own and to go on being Christians. We can plainly see now not only the sort of obstacles that oppose the Gospel every day, but also our own neglect of prayer and our attitude, as though this warning and admonition did not refer to us and we did not need prayer any more, now that the useless chattering and muttering of the rosaries and the other idolatrous prayers have stopped. All this is not a good sign, and it makes me afraid that some great misfortune which we could have prevented will overtake us.
Therefore every Christian should pay attention to this admonition. It is, in the first place, a commandment, as much as the previous statement, “Judge not” is a commandment. He should know that he is obliged to practice this Christian work. He should not be like that peasant who said: “I give grain to my minister, and he prays for me”; or like the people who think: “What is the use of my praying? If I do not pray, others do.” We must not suppose that it is no concern of ours or that it is left up to our free choice; but I have given more detailed admonition on this elsewhere.15 In the second place, you have here the comforting promise and rich assurance that He attaches to prayer, to make it evident that He cares about it and to teach us to think about prayer as something dear and precious before God, because His admonition is so serious and His invitation so friendly, and He promises that we shall not ask in vain. Even if we had no other reason or attraction than this rich and friendly word, it should be enough to prompt us to pray. I shall not even talk about how dear His exhortation is or how sublime His command or how desperate our need.
Our own desperate need should be enough to make us pray. But in addition, as though that were not enough, He seeks to draw us to it by means of the beautiful analogy of every father’s relation to his son. Though the son may be a good-for-nothing scamp, still he will not give him a serpent when he asks him for a fish. From that he draws these consoling words: “If you can do this, though you do not have a good nature or a single good trait in comparison with God, will not God, your heavenly Father, whose nature is completely good, give you good things if you ask Him for them?” This is the most sublime attraction by which anyone can be persuaded to pray, if we just looked at these words and took them to heart.
We have already spoken of the need that prompts Him to give this admonition and should prompt us to ask. Once you have the Word of God right and have made a good start in both doctrine and life, then inevitably temptation and opposition arise, not one kind but thousands of kinds. In the first place, there is our own flesh, that rotten old bag. It quickly becomes bored, inattentive, and indifferent to the Word of God and the good life. Thus we always have less of wisdom and of the Word of God, of faith and love and patience, than we should. This is the first enemy hanging around our neck so heavily every day that he keeps dragging us that way. Next comes the second enemy, the world. It begrudges us the dear Word and faith and refuses to put up with anything in us, no matter how weak we may be. It goes ahead and condemns us, it tries to take away what we have, and it gives us no peace.
Those are two great temptations that hinder us inwardly in our prayer, and outwardly try to chase us away from it. Therefore all we can do is to go on crying to God, asking Him to strengthen and advance His Word in us and to restrain the persecutors and the sects so that it is not extinguished. Now, the third enemy is the strongest of all, the devil himself. He has us at a great disadvantage for two reasons: by nature we are not good; and in addition we are weak in faith and in spirit. Thus he invades my own castle and baffles against me. He also has the world on his side, and he incites all the sects against me. Through them he shoots his flaming, poisonous darts (Eph. 6:16) at me, to wear me down, to extinguish the Word in me again and to smother it, and to establish his control as he once had it, without any danger of being expelled. There, you see, are three troubles that press us down hard and will not get off our neck as long as we have life and breath. Hence we have continual reason for prayer and invocation. This is why He adds the words “ask,” “seek,” and “knock,” to indicate that we do not have everything yet but that our situation is one of shortcomings and needs everywhere. If we had everything, we would not need to ask or seek; if we were already in heaven, we would not need to knock.
Thus the highest temptations involve the service of God and the Word of God. We also have the common and temporal need of this life on earth. We should pray God to grant us the blessing of peace and a good government and to protect us from all kinds of trouble, from sickness and pestilence, from famine and bloodshed and bad weather. You are not beyond the reach of death yet, nor have you eaten up all your daily bread; hence you dare not stop praying for Him to give it to you daily. Similarly, because daily you have to watch so much shameful behavior everywhere, you have to go on praying in support of the government and in opposition to vices of every sort and the tendency of people to rob and steal from one another. Over and above all this you have your wife and children and servants to control at home. Thus you have your hands full; for whoever intends to keep and observe both Christian and imperial righteousness throughout his life has taken on more than one man’s task and assignment.
What shall we do? We face so many great needs and obstacles that we could not escape them even by slamming the door in their face. I am so lazy and lax in my attention to the Word of God and to everything good. How can I prevent my own death, or the riots and rumpus that the world causes, or the raging of the devil, or the trouble and misfortune everywhere? Now, because Christ, our Lord, knows this well, He wants to be a good and faithful physician and to show us a precious and powerful medicine. He wants to teach us what to do, as though He were saying: “The world is insane. It tries to get rid of its insanity by the use of wisdom and reason; and it looks for many ways and means, for all sorts of help and advice on how to escape this distress. But the shortest and surest way is to go into a little room (Matt. 6:6) or a corner and there to open up your heart and to pour it out before God, filled with complaints and sighs, but also with confidence and trust that as your faithful heavenly Father He wants to give you His help and advice in this distress.” In Isaiah 37 we read the story of King Hezekiah. The enemy was besieging the city with a great army and was so oppressing him and overwhelming him that, by human standards, the situation was utterly hopeless. Then the enemy ridiculed him mercilessly and made fun of his misfortune by writing him a letter full of blasphemy. The pious king might well have despaired; but all he did was to go up into the temple, spread the letter before God on the altar, and fall down and pray from his heart. Soon he was heard and helped.
But getting ourselves to the point of praying causes us distress and anguish, and this requires the greatest skill. With our own concerns and thoughts we torture ourselves and stew over trying to pull this off our neck and to get rid of it. There is an evil and clever devil riding me and other people and frequently playing these tricks on me in my temptation or anxiety, whether it has to do with spiritual or with secular affairs. He immediately butts in and makes you start stewing over it. In this way he snatches us from our prayer and makes us so dizzy that we do not even think of praying. By the time you begin praying you have already tortured yourself half to death. He is well aware of what prayer achieves and can do. That is why he creates so many obstacles and disturbances, to keep you from getting around to it at all. Hence we ought to learn to take these words to heart. We should develop the habit, whenever we see anguish or need, to fall on our knees immediately and to spread the need before God, on the basis of this admonition and promise. Then we would find help and would not have to torture ourselves with our own ideas about looking for help. This is a very precious medicine, one that certainly helps and never fails, if you will only use it.
The right way of praying has been adequately discussed above, and also elsewhere. Here we are discussing only the power of prayer and the motivation for it. The principal thing to do is, first of all, to look at the Word of God. It will teach you what you should believe from your heart, to make you certain that your faith, Gospel, and Christ are correct and that your station in life is pleasing to God. Soon you will see the devil opposing you, and you will sense all sorts of inadequacies, inwardly in your faith and outwardly in your station. The whole world will seem to be turning topsy-turvy and swarming with temptations. When you feel this way, be wise enough to force your heart to start praying immediately and to say: “Dear Lord, I have Thy Word, and I am in the station that pleases Thee. This much I know. Thou seest all my inadequacies, and I know no help except in Thee. Help Thou, therefore, because Thou hast commanded that we should ask, seek, and knock, and hast said that then we shall surely receive, find, and have what we want.” If you form this resolution and habit of confident prayer and you do not receive, come around and accuse me of lying to you. Though He may not give it to you that very instant, still He will give you enough so that your heart will receive comfort and strength until the time when He gives more abundantly (Eph. 3:20) than you could have hoped. This is another good thing about prayer. If you use it and practice it and thus ponder the Word of His promise, your heart keeps getting stronger and firmer in its confidence, and finally gets much more than it would have otherwise.
I could prove this easily from my own example and from that of other pious people. I have tried it, and so have many people with me. Thus at the Diet of Augsburg the devil was trying to devour us. The situation was so desperate and intense that the whole world expected violence to break out, as some spiteful people had been threatening. The swords were already drawn, and the guns loaded. But through our prayers God came to our aid and made it possible for those screamers, with their scratching and threatening, to get what was coming to them. He gave us a good peace and a year of grace, the likes of which there have not been for a long time, better than we could have hoped for. Now if danger and distress arise again, we will ask Him again, and He will help and deliver us again. Of course, He may let us suffer oppression for a little while in order to strengthen us and to drive us to pray that much harder. What sort of prayer would there be if there were no distress oppressing us until we felt it? Feeling your distress helps to make your prayer stronger. Let everyone, therefore, learn not to despise his prayer, nor to doubt that it will surely be heard and that in God’s good time he will receive what he wants.
Why does Christ use so many words? He lists three items: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” One would have been enough. It is evident, as has been said, that by this He intends to admonish us even more strongly to pray. He knows that we are timid and shy, that we feel unworthy and unfit to present our needs to God. We feel the needs, but we cannot express them. We think that God is so great and we are so tiny that we do not dare to pray. This, too, is a great hindrance from the devil, and it does great damage to prayer. That is why Christ wants to lure us away from such timid thoughts, to remove our doubts, and to have us go ahead confidently and boldly. Though I am unworthy, I am still His creature; and since He has made me worthy of being His creature, I am also worthy of receiving what He has promised and so generously offered to me. In other words, if I am unworthy, He and His promise are not unworthy. You can venture on this vigorously and trustfully, you can put it in His lap joyfully and confidently. But above all, be sure that you really believe in Christ and that you have a proper occupation, one that pleases God, so that you are not like the world, which does not care about its occupation but only about the vices and the villainy that it goes right on planning day and night.
It would be possible to interpret the three statements to mean that He is repeating the same thing in different words to point to that constancy in prayer about which St. Paul admonishes in Romans 12:12: “Constant in prayer.” Then it would be equivalent to His saying: “It is not enough just to begin and to sigh once, to recite a prayer and then to go away. As your need is, so should your prayer be. Your need does not attack you once and then let you go. It hangs on, it falls around your neck again, and it refuses to let go. You act the same way! Pray continually, and seek and knock, too, and do not let go.” This is the lesson of the parable in Luke 18:1–8 about the widow. She was so persistent and importunate in her refusal to let go of the judge that he was overpowered and had to help her in spite of himself. How much more, Christ argues there (Luke 18:7), will God give us if He sees that we do not stop praying but go right on knocking so that He has to hear it? This is all the more so because He has promised to do so and shows that such persistence is pleasing to Him. Since your need goes right on knocking, therefore, you go right on knocking, too, and do not relent. For you have His Word, and He will have to say: “All right, then, you may have what you want.” St. James speaks of this in his Epistle when he says (James 5:16): “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” if it is serious and persistent; and in support of this he cites the example from the Scriptures of the prophet Elijah (James 5:16, 17). By urging you not only to ask but also to knock, God intends to test you to see whether you can hold on tight, and to teach you that your prayer is not displeasing to Him or unheard, simply because His answer is delayed and you are permitted to go on seeking and knocking.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:228). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.