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Will God Give Me Whatever I Want?

"Everyone who asks receives," Scripture says. So why doesn't God give us whatever we want from him, as long as we ask for it?

Jimmy Akin

The Gospels contain some remarkable statements about prayer. They’re found particularly in the Gospel of Matthew, though there are parallels in Mark and Luke.

These statements sound very positive—as if you can ask God for anything you want, and he’ll give it to you so long as you believe.

When people take these passages in isolation—apart from other things the New Testament says—they can develop a false theology of prayer.

In Protestant circles, there is a movement known as prosperity theology (also known as the prosperity gospel or the health and wealth gospel), according to which God wants all his people to be healthy, wealthy, and highly successful. If a Christian does not have these blessings, then either he hasn’t asked for them or he hasn’t asked for them in faith. Either way, he is at fault.

But a careful reading of the New Testament indicates that this view is distorted.

One encouraging prayer text is found in the Sermon on the Mount:

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 (Matt. 7:7-8).

Jesus doesn’t mention limits on what you may ask for, and you might suppose you could ask for absolutely anything and receive it.

But he also doesn’t give examples. He doesn’t say, “Ask for fabulous wealth, health, and success, and it will be yours.”

He thus may have something more modest in mind, and he may mean this primarily as asking for spiritual rather than material blessings.

In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus immediately gives an analogy based on fathers giving their children things to eat. In Matthew, Jesus concludes that God will give “good things” to his children (7:11), and in Luke, he says that God will give them “the Holy Spirit” (11:13)—suggesting that the passage may be primarily about spiritual “good things.”

When we look at the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, we do not find Jesus encouraging dreams of a lavish lifestyle.

In the Lord’s Prayer, he teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11), suggesting a daily, hand-to-mouth reliance on God—not fabulous riches.

Jesus goes on to explicitly state,

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (6:19-21).

He thus indicates that earthly riches can be a spiritual distraction from God, and we shouldn’t set our hearts on them. He also says,

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (6:24).

He also tells us,

Do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well (6:31-33).

Jesus thus wants us to focus “first” on spiritual values and treat material needs as secondary. Rather than encouraging people to “dream big” about what God could give them, he encourages humble, ongoing dependence—asking God for what we need, not what we dream.

He certainly does not encourage us to imagine a success-filled life with no troubles, saying, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (6:34). Again, the goal is living a trusting, spiritual life—not one of runaway success.

Another encouraging prayer text occurs when the disciples ask why they failed to cast a demon out of a boy, Jesus says it was

because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you (17:20).

This seems paradoxical. Jesus says the disciples have “little faith” but then says that if they had “faith as a grain of mustard seed,” they’d be able to accomplish amazing miracles. If so, shouldn’t their little faith have been enough?

The solution is found by considering who really performs miracles—God—and remembering that God’s power is unlimited. Therefore, it ultimately doesn’t matter how big your faith is, because God is the one who performs the miracle.

The reason the disciples failed is that they had inadequate faith and weren’t properly trusting God. Perhaps they thought they had been endowed with magical exorcistic abilities and had lost sight of God when using them.

Another text ripe for abuse occurs in the next chapter:

Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven (18:19).

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Agree on anything, ask God for it, and it will be done.

But not so fast. This statement is introduced by the word “again,” telling us that we need to examine the context, because Jesus is restating a thought he has already been exploring.

When we check the context, we find that it isn’t accumulating property for ourselves, but Church discipline. Jesus has been telling the disciples how to deal with a fellow Christian who sins. He says that if the offender won’t listen to others, take him to the church, and if he won’t listen to the church, excommunicate him. He then says,

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (18:18).

The statement about agreeing “on earth” is in the context of exercising the power of binding and loosing, which deals with matters of spiritual discipline—not material prosperity.

When Jesus assures the disciples “again” of what will happen when they agree, he’s assuring them of the ability to bind and loose.

The final passage we should consider occurs when the disciples ask how the fig tree withered so quickly. Jesus replies,

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 (Matt. 21:21-21; cf. Mark 11:22-24, Luke 17:6).

This is essentially the same point we saw with the failed exorcism: it doesn’t matter the size of what you’re asking for, because God has the power to do anything. And Jesus puts the matter positively, saying that “whatever you ask” will be received.

But there is an unstated assumption that Jesus expects us to understand—that what we ask is in accordance with God’s will.

First-century Jews knew that not every prayer request is something God wills, and God’s will is the controlling factor.

Jesus himself bore witness to this in the garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (26:39).

If the Son of God himself recognized that God does not will to grant every request, we’d better recognize it, too!

Jesus wants to encourage us to pray, and he may not mention this exception every time, but he expects us to recognize it.

It’s certainly found elsewhere in the New Testament. St. James warns those who boast of their business plans that they need to take God’s will into account, saying, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that’” (4:15).

He also identifies one of the causes of unanswered prayer: “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:3).

Asking for unlimited wealth and success would be precisely the kind of prayer that won’t be answered.

And that may be a good thing, for Jesus also says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24).

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