Does persistence pay in prayer?

The famous “ask-seek-knock” (ASK) passage — is it teaching persistence or not? And is it saying that persistence will pay off with answered prayer? I doubt it and I doubt it. Instead, I think this passage (Matthew 7:7-11) teaches simplicity: that is, ask God because God is good.
The structure of these verses is clear: the simple commands to ask, seek, and knock, are followed in each case by the promise of being given, of finding, and of doors being opened. And this is followed by a simple set of comparisons that teach that God, in ways that far transcend human attributes, is good. Humans are, to use Jesus’ words, “evil” and know how to give good gifts; God is (implied) “never evil, always good, infinitely good” and therefore God will give good gifts to his children.

The point of the passage is this: God is All-Good. The point is not that if we keep on asking and keep on seeking and keep on knocking that we will eventually wear God down and he’ll give us what we want. This cheapens God. (The present tenses for the “asking,” “seeking,” and “knocking” are used for “characteristic behavior” rather than for a description of how often or how long something will be asked, sought, or knocked on.)
Some today wonder about God. They wonder if God is big enough to know or even care about everything we do. Does God really care that I’m typing this morning? Maybe so, since it is about God’s Word. But, would God care if I were to go outside and shovel some snow? Does God, as a student said to me yesterday in passing, have time to worry about such trivial matters?
Many of you are no doubt aware of what is called “open theism.” That is, that God does not know all things before they happen, and it gets more complex and very controversial. My own view is called “middle knowledge”: I believe that God knows all eventualities as potential. He knows not only what I will type if I continue on this line of thinking, but what I would type if I chose to jettison this post and opted for a less controversial topic to close off this post. And he knows what impact both of those decisions would have on any and all readers who chose to read and how that reading would get their minds going, some of whom will chase down open theism and either change their mind or get apologetic about it. In other words, God knows the potentialities of everything I say or do and everything you say and do and everything everyone in the world says or does, in the past and in the future, and he knows every bit of this — and I don’t think it is even a challenge to his system.
So, the reason we pray to God is because he is All-Good. And he cares because he is All-Good. And he responds to us because he is All-Good. Even when we don’t get what we want, because he is All-Good. And we just have to trust God because God is All-Good.

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  • Scot, this makes better sense to me than my long held belief that persistence in prayer is part of what’s being taught here. Helpful.
    On the open theistic issue: I think I concur with you. I’d add (which I think you’d agree) that certainly God can control what one does if he so chooses. He won’t violate free will, but at times he’ll intervene to stop us in various ways. And in a certain mysterious sense our lives are in his hands, but not at the expense of human free will, which does have good and bad consequence- that free will, that is.

  • I think God knows more than the potential things you would say and their impact. I remember in one passage where Jesus says “Before Abraham was I AM.” Scientists argue that the past and present already exist. I believe that is true. I believe God is outside and creator of past, present and future. God has perfect knowledge of the future, because he already in the future as the I AM. That’s hard for us temporaly challenged and limited people to grasp. That’s why God is the same yesterday-today- and forever. Just my two cents worth.

  • Rob Van Engen

    People have a difficult time believing that God is good all the time. (I won’t break into song) In counseling with people they cannot see that ABBA is far more infinitely PROUD of them and offers his love and encouragement on a daily basis. “If our earthly fathers no how to give good gifts, than how much more our Heavenly.” I like how Paul tells the Corinthian church about how proud he is of them. (2 Corinthians 7) Each time I read it I reflect on an ALL-Good God who is not afraid to tell us His pleasure in us like Paul tells the church.
    It applies personally to my son and daughter. I need to tell them how proud I am of them more then the criticism even though both are needed.

  • Duane Young

    Does not the tense mean “keep on asking?” If so something akin to perseverence must be implied–maybe at least “don’t (ever) flag in your confidence in God and his goodness!” or “keep trusting without fail,” eh? That magnifies God rather than cheapening him. It does impose a certain ambiguity on what might be meant by “ask” though.

  • Duane Young

    Aha! I reread what you wrote. “Characteristic behavior” must mean something like a persevering attitude about the ggodness of God and his concern about what we are praying for, right?

  • I don’t disagree that the ‘ask, seek, knock’ is not about perseverance. But that’s not the first passage I think of when perseverance in prayer is mentioned.
    Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
    “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’ ”
    And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

  • It is typical for “present” imperatives to be translated as “keep on…” but the present tense does not so much indicate time (keep on) but “ongoingness” or “going on in front of me” and I think their use with the imperative indicates “characteristic behavior.” So, followers of Jesus ask, seek, knock. This characterizes them. It is not so much about persistence as it is about characteristic.
    Luke 18 teaches persistence, but the “blacken my eye” part has to do with the judge responding to avoid shame.

  • Hi Scott,
    I like your suggestion of “middle knowledge”. I went to look up some more info about “open theism” on Wikipedia and their definition of “Open Theism” in the introduction seems to match your definition of “Middle Knowledge”–for instance, it includes a discussion of “possibilities”. Here is the relevant passage:

    Open theism asserts that the future exists partly in terms of possibilities rather than certainties. This means that God’s knowledge of the future, being perfect, would also consist largely of possibilities and not certainties. God has knowledge of some future certainties such as those things that He ordains, and He knows all future possibilities such as the free will choices of His created beings. (Link)

    Am I misreading this, or is this remarkably similar to how you defined “middle knowledge”?
    I like the concept of “possibilities”, at least with my finite understanding of time and existence…

  • Marc,
    I’m not specialist on this, but my view of middle knowledge goes back to stuff from Bill Craig, and my understanding is that middle knowledge and open theism are significantly different.
    See this:
    And this:

  • I’m going to do some more reading on the distinction between open theism and middle knowledge.

  • Thanks Scot. I look into those sites.
    Love that William Craig!

  • Hey Scott,
    The Book How to Pray by R.A. Torrey is available free as an audio book three mp3s on
    This has a few good exhortations and reasons for persistant prayer, and the guy reading is pretty easy to listen to.
    The free download is until the end of January 2006, just click on the free download link. Theres a new book every month, but I’ve really enjoyed listening to this classic.

  • Maria

    Dear Scot,
    I also was reminded immediately about the parable of the persistent widow. My experience with prayer is that it is generally more for my benefit than God’s since he knows my thoughts. When I persist in praying about something, God is able to make me more sensitive to the needs of others and possible actions or words I might say. Sort of like ruminating makes my understanding clearer. I don’t know at which point meditation becomes prayer. There are also times when repetitive prayer has a calming effect, similar to what might be associated with self-hypnosis. The psalms probably fall into such a category, where the singer/chanter continually reminds himself that God is good and that everything will work out well in the end as long as he stays following God. At the same time I have found that I can use repetition to worry myself. It’s like I have doubts that God’s heard me or that he is going to take care of me, so I remind him about what I want and think I need. When I find myself Gethsemane I try to change my attitude from my will to thy will, and then go on to something else. I try to stop praying as an attitude of trust. It often takes more than three tries.
    Does God care about the specifics of what I do? Job argues that God cares for us because he made us. I think he must care very deeply about every part of me, including what we consider the very ordinary and insignificant actions, if he has the hairs of our head numbered instead of just counted, if the death of a small insignificant bird matters to him. But we seem to be limited in understanding God’s love without experiencing need. Mary who anointed Jesus feet understood God’s love more fully that Simon the Pharisee, but God love both equally.
    I don’t think what we do messes up his plans, or inconviences him. We have a limited number of choices we can make, he doesn’t. I agree with your view that God has a complete understanding of all possibilities. When talking with my kids about free choice and God’s foreknowledge, I use the analogy of chess books that have pages upon pages of scripted play where each optional move is played out to its successful conclusion. In the analogy God and Satan are playing the chess of life. We are like pawns that have a choice of stay put, advance one, or attack on the adjacent diagonal. God wins in the end because his knowledge is like the chess book and for any move that either Satan makes or we make, God knows the appropriate counter-winning move. Because of his infinite knowledge and power, he always wins no matter what.
    Even though what we do doesn’t affect the final outcome for God, it does for us. He cares (shares in our pain, desires us to follow his path) when we make choices which bring us painful consequences that we could have avoided if we were following him. But following him does not seem to exclude pain. It seems to me the message Jesus brought suggests that God wants us to join him in voluntary endurance of pain that evil brings, and that in so doing we also join him in an eternal existence in a resurrected body which is completely void of previous degenerative qualities. God lives in the forever relationship with us, while we can only experience the present. This takes faith.

  • Maria,
    That opening paragraph is a model of the struggle we all have with prayer, esp intercessory prayer. I’m not sure it is just about helping us (though it does that); too often in the Bible prayers simply work. They change things.
    The problem for open theism for me is that it seems to make God and humans cooperative in the working of God’s plan for history.

  • Ken Litwak

    A good place to see the difference between Open THeism and Middle Knowledge (Molinism) is Terry Tiessen’s Providence and Prayer. An Open Theist wold say that the future is indeterminate, so God does not know it, at least not all of it.
    A Molinist would say that, since GOd, as Scot has said, knows all possible outcomes given a specific set of circumstances, he chooses ahead of time the circumstances that will yield the specific result he wishes.
    Take this with a grain of salt. I’ve done some raeding, but my degrees are in biblical studies not theology, unlike Terry.
    By the way, Scot, I’d love to see you unpack your understanding fromt eh gospels of your paragraph:
    Does God really care that I’m typing this morning? Maybe so, since it is about God’s Word. But, would God care if I were to go outside and shovel some snow? Does God, as a student said to me yesterday in passing, have time to worry about such trivial matters?
    Jesus certainly says taht God knows about every sparrow falling to the grond. He doens’t say what God’s attitude is towards that.

  • Ken,
    By the way, friend, I told the student: “Absolutely, God has time. God is that big; and it is no challenge. God is not like a stressed phone center. Each human, big and small, can be handled easily by God.”
    So, nothing (in my view) is too trivial for God. The question about “isn’t it insignificant?” is the whole point: it is not that some things are significant and others insignificant but that God’s presence is so palpable and caring that everything comes under his scrutiny and care.
    I probably should have cleared that up by saying what I said to the student (who didn’t buy my idea).

  • Ken Litwak

    Dear Scot,
    I wasn’t offering any sort of critique. I simply am very interested. WHen you write “I probably should have cleared that up by saying what I said to the student (who didn’t buy my idea),” I can’t say that I’m entirely convinced either. There seems to me to be a significant lack of exegetical data on the one hand, and a lot of anomalies if this view is correct, on the other. I’ve begun to think that for most believers, as long as we are doing the two great commandments as Jesus presented them, God is not particuarly interested in the details of life (to extend Augustine’s principle that if you are doing those two things, you can do whatever you like). For some people, like a Paul or a Jerome or a Luther or Spurgeon or Wesley, perhaps, but for beleivers who spend their days in dead-end jobs? I’m not convinced exegetically that God actually cares much about the details of their lives, though I’m sure he knows of them.

  • Dang, Ken, you quoted Matt 10 about the sparrows. The intimacy of the prayer life of the Psalms (which aren’t all from David) to the Apocalypse’s heart-rending relief makes me think just the opposite: God cares. But “care” might not mean “intervention” all the time.

  • Ken Litwak

    Hi Rob,
    You wrote “People have a difficult time believing that God is good all the time. (I won’t break into song) In counseling with people they cannot see that ABBA is far more infinitely PROUD of them and offers his love and encouragement on a daily basis.” The Abba-believer relationship I can see in Romans 8. From where do you derive the notin that God is proud of his chldren? You’re right. That’s a tough idea to swallow.

  • Scot, thanks for opening up more to study, on middle knowledge, etc. And for addressing open theism a bit.
    I’ve struggled with worry/anxiety for years and over an issue lately. Picked up “The Jesus Creed” and read the chapter last night on Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. And how we can trust him in his faith for us to strengthen/help our poor faith. And then ask God to do that.
    First time I read that I thought, sounds good. But didn’t put it into practice. I wonder about N.T. Wright’s use in Romans 3, that by the faith of Christ we’re given redemption, though certainly a viable way of translating that, surely. Not quite directly related but close, I think.
    Anyhow, am probably getting off track here, but this post provokes my thinking and challenges me to keep growing, and the chapter read last night challenges me to really work at entering into substantial change by what was being taught there. A great chapter, and a great book.

  • Dan

    Ken, I wonder about what you are saying here. I’m thinking also about the Law that spoke to the issue of finding a bird nest on the gorund and what could and could not be taken for the nest. This law was then completed with the phrase that goes something like, ‘and so your days will be long in the land the same phrase the accompanies the only one of the Ten Commandments with a promise. This looks like a “trivial” concern to have so weighty a promise attached to it! or is it…?

  • How would you see Luke 18:1-8 fitting into this idea about persistence?
    The passage is bookmarked on the front end with “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”
    The back end is bookmarked with “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

  • Ken

    Hi Dan,
    That’s a good question, though I wonder if Scot would say that it is using the Bible as a moral code. My own personal persuasion is to use the Law as illustrative of God’s priorities, which, I think, maintains the integrity of it as God’s revelation to all believers (and helps guide me in how to implement it through neighbor-love) without trying to figure out whether this is cultic or ethical or whatever, a problem since the command to love neighbor is in the same neighborhood as rules about not having a garment made of two kinds of fabric. Most of us break that daily and I know when i’m out cycling, there are at least five kinds of fabric in my garments, from Lycra to Polyester to ….. I say that as a preface for what I would next say.
    It does seem to me that the Mosaic Law and Genesis 1 both reflect the view that animals and plants are God’s creation and should not be abused for at least that reason. Additionally, while it would be reasonable to suppose that the blessing promised says something about the importance of the rule, I would also point out that the commandment with a promise is one of the few commandments that is actually positive. Most of the 10 commandments, to say nothing of most of the apodictic laws in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy are negative. They say what not to do. Therefore, it seems to me that “to do”laws, as opposed to “to do not” laws seem often to have a positive outcome predicted (I’m not sure if it’s a promise, any more than the ideas in Proverbs are promises of what will always be true, but I could be wrong).
    Now to your specific point, I think there are at least two ways to take this. Either the prediction or offer of blessing is made because God cares about animals or because God cares about how we treat the rest of creation. It could be that both are present.
    What if that is the case? If God cares about birds and their nests, what does it mean to say that he cares? Or, to move to 1 Pet 5:7, what does it mean that we should cast our cares upon God because he cares for us? It seems to me that life experience for some of us makes this care look like “concern held in tension with benign indifference” than the sort of care I might express towards my children. If they are sick, I’d try to help them get well. If they are in danger, I would try to rescue them. If they have a problem, I would try to help solve it. I wouldn’t say, “you know, I really care that you have a problem. Good luck fixing it yourself.” I can’t really say what it means to say that God cares, but I have questions about the meaning of the word care without the attendant, expected action. I don’t know how care and sovereignty and providence go together, but it does not seem to me to work out in ways that seem especially “caring.” What do you think?

  • Dan

    good points, Ken

  • Ken

    Hi Dan,
    Sigh. I was hoping you’d have a corrective for my irreverence.

  • “The problem for open theism for me is that it seems to make God and humans cooperative in the working of God’s plan for history.”
    Could you qualify this Scot? Unpack it a little. How does this fit with Isa 1:18 and the invitation to the disciples to help Jesus proclaim and announce the kingdom, here and now?
    thanks, sean D.

  • Sean,
    It is something I don’t agree with, I hope that is clear. The future is contingent for the open theist, and humans cooperate with God in determining it. I don’t think it has to have any relationship to the church’s ministry.

  • Becky

    Jesus says that thing about not giving a rock when you need a fish and if we humans know how to give good gifts (implying a fish when a fish is needed) God does so even more.
    Per open theism/not open theism, I like the idea of looking to what happens in the natural world when we do something. We act, a cause, creates an effect. Schaeffer used to say we walk into a pond and create ripples, vs the zen idea that we are rippleless. If we believe the natural and supernatural are one, not seperated entities then our actions create effect into the supernatural world as well. I’m not sure God ever connects all the dots for us in the Bible about this, but that to say that what we do makes an effect. Schaeffer used to say this thing of us making effect is our “significance.” And used the analogy of our significance and God’s sovereignty being like two trees that grow side by side but interweave at the top. I do know there is lots of scripture, Old and New T that shows over and over that what we do has effect.
    I heard, God said to Jesus “this is my son I am proud of” (my paraphrase), with us in Jesus, Jesus in us, God says that to us as well.

  • Dan

    hi ken, if u r still tracking this discussion… I try not to get to involved on these blogs though I find some stimulating discussion form time to time. More often though I’m worn out by the many words… I only mentioned the whole bird nest thing because of the ‘smallness’ of such a law and yet our interaction with the land and all it’s inhabitants is by all means in the realm of what the God of the Bible cares about… intimately. My capacity to care is so limited and it seems extremely unwise to limit God’s caring by my own capacity. I agree with Scots comment about the Lord having time… He is rather a ‘large’ being, if you catch my meaning… As to open theism etc. discussion here i direct you to Robert Jenson’s comments in his systematic theology, vol 2 concerning ‘spontaneity’ and the Spirit and Creation and the future….
    I’m not to quick sometimes so i didn’t catch the irreverence you speak of…. 🙂

  • Maria

    Dear Scot,
    It seems to me that on some level all covenant relationships have some cooperative element to them. If my understand of Old Testament history is correct the Jews were very surprised that Jerusalem and particularly the temple was destroyed because they understood the covenant as unconditional. While I believe in God’s unconditional love for me, I also believe that I have to choose to follow God in order to experience eternal life with him. In the same vein, I believe that God’s plan for the world and universe is to make the physical realm into his bride. I believe he has offered mankind a special role in making that happen. Mankind rejected that role so God sent the flood, destroying mankind, but saving Noah and his family who chose to follow him. God selected from the decendents of Noah, Abraham, a man who chose to leave his family and homeland and follow God. From Abraham’s decendents he selected David, another great man of faith whose reputation for following God was a basis for comparison for the succeeding rulers of Isreal. From David’s decendents he selected Jesus through whom he saves a select number of Noah’s decendents who choose to follow him. Paul calls these decendents the bride of Christ. In the Old Testament the select few who remain faithful to God are called the remenant. This winnowing process is very much like the evolutionary process called the survival of the fittest.
    So from my perspective, God’s sovereign plan of making a bride will happen and there’s nothing that anyone or any power can do to alter the outcome. Whether we will be apart of that plan though is up to us. The more we are in tune with what God’s doing, the more we can be more apart of his plan. So if we choose to be concerned with only our well being, God cannot use us to show his love towards others. The woundings we cause as a result of our selfishness create a greater need in others, which when God fills, those persons experience a greater sense of Divine compassion. Of course, just because God is God and can fill every void, we are not excused from pursuing and participating in his plan.
    Some person’s are concerned that there are those who spend so much time trying to discern God’s plan for their lives that they don’t use the common sense God gave them. For those persons I think of the discussion God had with Moses when he commissioned him: “What is in your hand?” I am also reminded of the parable of the servants where Jesus concludes “Whoever is faithful in little will be faithful with much.” God made us the rulers of the earth precisely because we are intelligent. He expects us to use our common sense, our current understanding of his principles, and the resources he has given us to follow his plan of loving each other. As we practice the spiritual disciplines we become more sensitive to what God’s plan is for me at this moment. He’s not going to show us our tree if we can’t even see his forest. Yes, let’s have a forest theology, but let’s not forget we each have a tree to bear. And yes, I think God has a specific cross for me. I can endure certain sins much easier than others. So as part of the body of Christ we use our unique gifts to bear each other’s burdens.
    I hope my preaching isn’t disruptive to the discussion because I really enjoy hearing what is being said. Thanks for letting me blog. And if I can do so more constructively, please let me know.

  • Ken

    Hi Maria,
    I appreciate your comments. I’ve been pondering of late the issue of what I have been given and how to be faithful with it. I find myself in conflict over this, however. How do I know what I’ve been “given” to be faithful with? I have a ton of education (which I say not with pride but with remorse because I’ve never gotten to use it as I planned–there aren’t many useful things to do with a Ph.D. in NT). I did that myself. Do I need to be faithful with that? Or, do we only need to be faithful with the two hands we were given but that is not something we developed on our own but are obviously from God? I’ve been pondering lately trashing my personal theological library and trying to find something very practical to do instead.

  • Ken

    Hi Becky,
    You wrote:
    Jesus says that thing about not giving a rock when you need a fish and if we humans know how to give good gifts (implying a fish when a fish is needed) God does so even more.
    All the exegetical puzzles I know aside, I think this is one of the hardest things in the Bible to cope with. What does it mean that God gives good gifts in the midst of the difficulties of life? When one persists in prayer for a loved one’s poor health and the person dies instead, it’s hard to see that as bread or a fish or any kind of good git. I find Jesus’ statements about prayer just about the most difficult things in the Bible. Since Jesus’ statement “whatever you ask in my name, I will do” (John 16:24) seems manifestly to not mean what it looks like, I’m stumped as to what it does mean. This theme goes back to my issue of God’s care. If you can’t see it at work, what sort of care is it that God expresses?

  • Maria

    Dear Ken,
    The hardest part about praying is listening to God. You have been trained to think about God speaking to us through the Bible. When you look at a flower, what do you hear God saying? Or a duck? Can you find God’s presence when you look at the fire crackling in the fireplace? Is his presence any different in the wild fires of Texas? Jesus was able to do the miracles he did because he followed what his father was doing. He could hear God very well. I want a relationship like that! Slowly I have been being able to hear him better. I still feel like an infant surrounded by strange sounds only being able to pick out a few words here and there. I find there is no avenue that he doesn’t use to speak to me. I find that my own preconceived ideas get in the way of hearing him. I am often like the Jews who received the Messiah they prayed for, but weren’t willing to accept him because they had decided that the answer to their prayers would save them from the Romans. I find that God has answered my prayers like he answered the disciples’ prayer for fish. The fish were there, they just needed to let their nets down on the other side. God’s answers often don’t look like what I’m expecting or what I’m used to doing.
    God has planted in your heart certain desires/dreams which come from who you are as a person: genetically, culturally, historically. Your education is part of all that, so are your hands. Faith is living within the limits of reality while pursuing the promises God has given us, expecting that he will make up the difference between what we can do and what we desire to do. Abraham and Sarah couldn’t have a child, but they could live in the promise land. Being a tent maker doesn’t preclude God from using your NT knowledge.
    From post 32. I gather that God is testing your faith, a much more difficult school. It takes a while to adjust our associations of pain and death from evil to good. Christ’s death was our greatest gain. And it is through the difficult times that we experience the greatest spiritual gain. Job’s friend Elihu gave a wonderful explanation for the purpose of suffering. Jesus promises to honor what we ask for as long as it fits within his character: not my will but yours. The loved one who died is now completely healed in a body untainted with pain and suffering. Because of the loss we experience, it’s hard to see the positive side; it’s hard to see how God can be working for our good or answering our prayers. Sometimes it takes years to see how God works things out for good. Abraham only became a great nation after his death.
    Peace, Maria