Ask and Ye Shall Receive
January 19, 2014
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the Lord!”
As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
I’ve been watching people for a long time now, and one of the most curious and widespread behaviors I’ve witnessed is a person’s refusal to ask questions when faced with an unknown.
I have seen this behavior at work when a person is asked for information and then supplies an answer to a question as any expert in the field would, even when he or she knows absolutely nothing about the subject. I suppose this tendency is motivated by a basic fear of being seen as one who doesn’t have the answers, as one who is uneducated. Answering the question anyway is a means of preserving personal dignity.
I was at a zoo up in Maine, standing at the rail and looking into a pen containing large South American rodents called capybaras, when I overheard a child ask his father what those animals were. The father answered, “That there is a warthog, son. Go ahead, you can pet it—it won’t hurt you.” I suspect that Dad didn’t want to look dumb in front of his son. I don’t understand this behavior completely, but it does seem to be the case that many times we are reluctant to admit it when we don’t know something.
Where I see this tendency doing us the most damage is in our religious life—our spirituality. There are so many different denominations in this world, and most of them claim to have some understanding of truth that no one else has. Quite a few were founded in response to someone who experienced a divine revelation, and who could serve as some sort of informational conduit between this world and the spiritual world. People who are attracted to churches such as these and become active members are likely to have answers to the spiritual questions they are asked. I suspect that few would feel comfortable with saying, “I don’t know.”
English playwright Arnold Wesker has a line that expresses this phenomenon rather well. “Education isn’t only books and music,” he writes. “It’s asking questions all the time. There are millions of us, all over the country, and no one, not one of us, is asking questions; we’re all taking the easiest way out.” The “easiest way” he speaks of is finding some answer that sounds good to us and insisting that it’s the truth, and acting defensively toward anyone who suggests that we’re mistaken. All this because it’s so difficult to admit that we do not know, because we feel more empowered when we give information rather than ask questions.
For our own spiritual well-being, we need to learn how to come to terms with the fact that there is much we do not yet know, and we need to learn how to feel comfortable with asking questions—with being a student in the face of this spiritual world instead of an expert. We are all familiar with the passage from the Gospels, “Ask and ye shall receive,” but let me offer you a new twist on our reading of it for you to consider: we cannot receive until we are able to ask.
“Ask and ye shall receive.” Receive what? We often interpret this verse as receiving what we have asked for—something that we want or need, something that we wish to see happen. But we know that we are receiving all the time—receiving love and life and insight. If we are able to ask questions when we need to, putting aside all of the fears and pride and sense of dignity that prevent us from asking, then that which we receive will be more meaningful to us. It will be more meaningful because we are being true to our station with respect to the divine. We are all students in this life. It is our obligation to ask questions. That is our job. If we can ask, then we shall receive.
Who among you, if a child should ask for the truth, shall give them a fabrication designed more to save face than to satisfy curiosity? “Who among you, if his son asks for bread will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, will give him a serpent?” There is no shame in saying “I don’t know.” In fact, nothing strengthens a relationship or a community more than when someone who normally has all the information owns that “this is something I have yet to learn, because I am a student too. Perhaps this is something that we can learn together.”
To ask a question is a beautiful thing; it is a clear expression of our questing spirits. And it is still the simplest and most effective way of finding things out. Amen.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you, and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. – Thomas Merton
Rev. Eric Hoffman