I had always wanted to visit India. In the India of my imagination, a myriad of colors, smells, sounds, and people danced together. The air would always be saturated by an atmosphere of mystery. India would never be a place that could be categorized neatly or understood completely; comprehension would slip stealthily around a corner just as I thought I had gotten hold of it.
In reality, India was indeed a land of color, contrast, and mystery. Like a whirling dervish, India spins round and round in constant activity, rarely standing still. One cannot help but feel both overwhelmed and exhilarated by life there.
Despite all the complex, continual motion, one constant became apparent to me: Hospitality—gracious, open, generous and dignified—is a way of life. People are always around to serve, whether they are paid to do so or not. Someone is there to take your bags from the car, or someone is bringing you a cup of tea just the way you like it. Someone is enticing you to eat more, and someone is sweeping the city streets clean of leaves, dust, or debris with a broom made from a bundle of twigs. There are household servants, and those designated to serve as a result of their caste. Yet, regardless of why someone is serving, there is always someone to serve, someone who through class or training or culture inhabits an ethos of hospitable care. All one need do is ask and it will be done.
It was in India that I learned something about the nature of request. One morning, having spent a good portion of the previous night dealing with what I affectionately came to call my “spicy stomach,” I was languishing for plain, cold cereal and milk—my normal breakfast when at home. Having enjoyed too much fabulous Indian cuisine, I knew I simply couldn’t have any more or my stomach would rebel entirely. Not wanting to offend my hosts or their generous hospitality, I timidly expressed my desire for bland food. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “Why didn’t you ask?” “My husband and I normally eat eggs and toast or cereal for breakfast!” Instantly, the phrase you do not have because you do not ask came to mind.
In the biblical letter of James, you do not have because you do not ask is used in quite a different context.(1) The author issues a rebuke against the quarrels and conflicts that rage within human beings. We are jealous of others, we covet them, and so we get into conflicts with others because of our lust and our greed.
But I had been thinking for quite some time about the nature of request as it relates to prayer. I was wrestling with the nature of prayer as request in the face of so many no’s as answers. The result was that I simply stopped asking. I began to wonder if God was not hospitable to me any longer and would not honor my requests with answers that accorded my needs. Even in my personal relationships, I had stopped asking for fear of rejection or disappointment. I would sit on my hands, as it were, and stew with resentment and anger. And yet I became haunted by this phrase from James: You do not have because you do not ask.
What seemed a tangential connection between the service culture of India, and my own choice to withhold requests from God, actually revealed a powerful reality about the nature of request. Like household servants who are there at my beckon call, there are some things over which we have total control. If there are weeds in the garden, or if we have a broken faucet, we do not request that the weeds go away, we go out and pull the weeds, or fix the faucet.
There are many things, perhaps even most things, however, over which we exercise minimal, direct control. Instead, we have to make a request—a request that may or may not be granted. As one author notes, “The request, while powerful, does not always get us what we have in mind as we make it. This is true when it is addressed to other human beings and true when it is addressed to God as prayer….It is a great advantage of requesting and prayer that it not be a fail-safe mechanism. For human finitude means that we are all limited in knowledge, in power, in love, and in powers of communication.”(2)
Nevertheless, requests are made and they are powerful because in making them our deepest selves are revealed. We can truly hear what we are asking for. We come to stare at our desires face to face. In so doing, we have the opportunity to see the often complex motivations behind our requests. Furthermore, as we make requests we do so with the knowledge that we cannot always fulfill all that is asked of us, or by us. As we make requests of God and of others, we make them with a tenacious trust in the power of love that grants or withholds.
Prayer is never just asking, nor is it merely a matter of asking for what I want—even as we cling to the hope that the God of the universe cares for what concerns us. While there is no simple explanation to why some requests are granted and some are not, and while there is mystery surrounding the efficacy of request, there is always the power to ask. We may still not have even when we ask with what appears to be the purest intentions, but we always have the power of request. The way into the meaning of request is to start by making them, just as I learned in India. Perhaps as we do, “The circle of our interests will grow in the largeness of God’s love.”(3) Perhaps as we do, the admonition to ask, seek, and knock will not simply be a formula to get what we want, but an invitation to look into what we ask for, whom we seek, and upon which doors we are knocking.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) See James 4:1-3.
(2) Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 239.
(3) Ibid., 242.