Last week, a friend sent me an email with a question about the "ask, seek, knock" passage in the Bible (it appears in Matthew 7 and Luke 11, if you want to look it up real quick). Her question revolved around someone telling her that if she didn't receive what she asked for she didn't ask for the right thing, which led to some questions about some professional pursuits of hers.
I hadn't realized, when I was answering her yesterday, that today's assigned Gospel reading was the Luke 11 version of the saying.That coincidence prompted me to look at what I sent my friend. What follows is an edited version of my answer to her:
First, I think a lot of first world Christians make the mistake of taking a verse or two of the Bible and then misapplying it. We might be misapplying it because we're out of a cultural context or we might not be reading enough text around the verse and expect the verse to apply to whatever we want it to apply to on it's own. There are sometimes socio-economic reasons for the misapplication, too.
I think this "ask, seek, knock" verse is one of those verses that gets misapplied for all those reasons. This passage appears only in Matthew and Luke.
In the Matthew account, it is part of the extended Sermon on the Mount, which includes the beatitudes and the Lord's prayer. Luke places this teaching right after teaching the Lord's prayer. In both cases, We're seeing Jesus in his usual mode of discussing the present-and-coming Reign (Kingdom) of God (as the Lord's Prayer asks for the Kingdom to come), while Luke's concern for the Holy spirit is also evident. (" . . . how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.")
So I'm not sure Jesus it talking about asking for a career or a car or a boyfriend, no matter what honorable reasons we might give God for asking for those things. ("Oh God, if only I had a car, just think of all the ways I could better serve you and the community!") I think we have here Jesus talking more about asking, seeking, knocking to see the Reign of God, where the poor are blessed, the mournful are comforted, the naked are clothed, and we receive our daily bread.
I understand how we get confused. The parable Jesus tells just before the ask-seek-knock passage (in the Luke account) is about a neighbor who bangs on the door in the middle of night, asking to borrow some bread for unexpected guests. The persistence of the neighbor is rewarded, eventually. And maybe there's something to that for those of us wanting a particular career---persistence not only in asking for it but also working for it.
But one commentator I read also points out that while we often associate God with the person who has already gone to bed for the night, Jesus is really saying that God is at least as good as the one disturbed in sleep and better. In the context of Jesus' larger message, however, I'm led to think that Jesus is really talking about seeking God's Reign. Ask to see God's reign, seek it out, knock on the door of God's Kingdom and we see it. Be persistent in the desire for the Holy Spirit, and God will not deny us.
But asking for something else, not getting it, and then thinking it's some kind of fault on behalf of the asker . . . well, it's not a wrong assumption, I guess, because the asker is seeking for something Jesus never promised.
It's also a little bit like treating God like Santa Claus. If we ask and receive, we were good, if we ask and didn't receive, we were naughty? It's God as magician and praying/asking correctly as incantation. A good number of American Christians seem to believe in this, I don't.
On the other side of the question, however, is the question of vocation or calling. If I'm called to be a ________, why aren't I more successful at it?
I think I can only talk about this from my personal experience.
I have an entry in my journals, from 1985, where I declared (in rather pious terms) that I felt the calling to be a performer and that this was a calling from God. Over the years, I'd let that go, not finding a way to pursue it in the way I felt called to. Realizing I was gay, I didn't believe I could pursue "Christian theater" (yeah, that was an interest at the time) and because performance is so dang expensive to produce, I turned to something else I'm fairly good at: writing. I think writing is, indeed, part of my calling, but for several years, I focused on that exclusively. I reconnected with performing in grad school, but even then I didn't take it seriously.
To be honest, both writing and performing have sometimes seemed like really frivolous callings to me. Mother Teresa had a serious calling. I felt like I didn't. But finding that journal entry from 1985 again, it hit me and hit hard. Well, shit, that's still it.
So I've put more energy into performing the last three years. It's difficult, it's full of hit and miss, I don't make a living at it. I'm also the most content I've been in a long time.
I think the thing about vocation is that we think that if God is calling us to something, we'll be successful. Of course, that depends upon definitions of "success." What I've come to realize is that following God will not necessarily make us successful in any kind of terms that includes a nice house with a swimming pool. I mean, it may, but that's not the point. I think we get confused about following our calling whenever we forget that to follow Jesus is to follow someone who ended up on a cross. On top of that, several of his first followers also ended up on a cross or were beheaded or fed to lions or in other unwelcome situations. The point of following a call isn't success. The point is the following. The following, the journey, whatever you want to call it, is the reward.
Which is all probably cold comfort, but I really believe it. The peace I've had since giving up making excuses for why I'm not performing seems like some sort of confirmation. Not that there aren't obstacles and frustrations and real fear and failure. I suspect it takes an awful lot of peace to be able to follow Jesus into a confrontation with lions.
So, whatever you're called to. follow that calling, recognizing the obstacles and dangers therein. Follow the calling with an eye and ear turned toward why you've been called to this task. (My own calling is currently being tested and refined by this). Do what you have to do to keep living indoors and eating and follow the vocation. I promise no bed of roses, but I think you'll find some sort of peace and maybe even some sort of success in that following.
Just be ready to have all your definitions of success turned upside down.