Jesus spent many long hours in prayer–whole nights, 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his life mission. He probably spent hours every day in prayer. He was a busy man. Why was he spending all this time in prayer? And what was he doing with all this prayer time? Certainly, Jesus was not doing the sort of long-winded praying for which he criticized the religious leadership of his time. In his teachings, he clearly recommends solitude and sincerity.
In the opening verses of the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we find the disciples noticing that Jesus spends much time in prayer. One day, after he finishes praying, they ask him to teach them to pray. Jesus, according to Luke, gives his disciples a brief set of terse sentences we call “the Lord’s Prayer.” Then Luke continues the subject of prayer with Jesus teling his disciples a story about a man who goes to his friend in the middle of the night to get three loaves of bread for his suprise guests. The friend is already in bed and won’t get up. Jesus says that if this man persists, his friend will get up and give him everything he needs.
Jesus applies this story to the subject of prayer, “And so I tell you, ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. The one who asks will always receive; the one who is searching will always find, and the door is opened to the person who knocks.” (Luke 11:9,10) These verses seem to contradict about half of what we experience in our real lives. We have all asked for things we never received. We have all done some passionate seeking without finding. And we have all done some knocking on doors that never opened.
Some interpreters of these verses have suggested that our problem is poor praying. If we were to pray correctly, we would receive what we are praying for. But such interpreters have never satisfied me; nor have they convinced me that this is what Jesus really meant. In the 14th chapter of Mark, we see Jesus himself praying all night not to have to drink the cup of crucifixion. As part of his prayer, he notes that all things are possible to God. Yet he apparently knew that God might not give him his request, for he concludes his prayer, “Yet it is not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)
So what does it mean to say that the person who asks always receives? An answer to this question can be found in the verses that follow the verses about always receiving:
“Some of you are parents, and if your child asks you for some fish, would you give that child a snake instead, or if the child asks for you for an egg, would you give that child the present of a scorpion? So if you, for all your evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more likely is it that your Heavenly (Parent) will give The Holy Spirit to those who ask (Him/Her)!” (Luke 11:11-13)
God gives the Holy Spirit! What a curious thing to say. The verse seem to imply that if we ask God for some fish or an egg, God will give us The Holy Spirit! And this gift is a “good thing.” The Holy Spirit is a better gift than fish or egg or whatever specific things we asked for.
Is this the way that prayer works? No matter what we ask for, God gives something better. God sends the Holy Spirit! Let me stretch this metaphor out a bit: The divine prayer-answering order-house works very simply: it only has one product, all packaged and ready to go. No matter what you order, you get this same package, the Holy Spirit. This makes things easy for the prayer-answering order house. You pray for a new car. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for better health. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a lover. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a workable, planetary social order. God sends the Holy Spirit.
So what is this Holy Spirit? And why is it so wonderful that it can be the answer to every prayer?
First of all, the Holy Spirit is freedom. This is the way Paul describes it. The Holy Spirit is liberation from sin, liberation from the fear of death, liberation from the law, liberation to creatively affirm the life possibilities coming toward you. Here is certainly one aspect of the way life works: If you pray for health to the liberating God of the Bible, this God sends you the freedom to take care of yourself, the freedom to read up on health matters, the freedom to give up your addictive eating, the freedom to exercise your body, the freedom to find tranquility in sickness and in health. God sends more than you ask for. God sends freedom. God sends the Holy Spirit.
If you pray for a new love relationship in your life, God sends you the freedom to look around you at the real possibilities you may have been overlooking. God sends you the freedom to improve your shy and halfhearted efforts to interest some appropriate person in a relationship with you. God sends you the freedom to find tranquility in being alone or in being mated. God sends more than you ask for. God sends freedom. God sends the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps I need to say a few words about the phrase “God sends.” This is metaphorical language. We must be careful not to fall back into thinking literally about a big being beyond the sky. “God sends” means “The Wholeness of Being issues forth to us.” We are talking about a real experience, not about a transaction in the sky, not about a Supreme Being in heaven stooping down to do something here on Earth.
Whenever you, in your freedom, persist in asking for something from that Final Reality which you confront, you will receive a response from that Final Reality. You will receive the Holy Spirit. You will receive freedom. No magic here. This is just the way life works. Persist in prayer and you will receive the freedom to live toward what you are praying for. You will receive the openness to have what you are praying for, if and when it happens. You will receive the liberty to do without it if what you are praying for does not happen.
Whatever you pray for, God sends you freedom, the freedom to go for it, the freedom to enjoy it, the freedom to do without it. God always sends you more than you ask for.
You can’t ask for too much, as long as you are willing to recieve a Holy Spirit answer. Ask for the moon, you will always get more than that. If you pray for everlasting life, God sends you the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is not just freedom, but also trust, compassion, and bliss, poured out on you here and now. These gifts of the Spirit do not end. They are everlasting realities. Indeed, God always sends you more than you ask for. God sends the Holy Spirit.
These insights give us a deeper grasp of the nature of true prayer. Prayer is not some sort of magic by which I persuade some Supreme Being to get me something I want, though praying might issue in getting what I want. Prayer is an exercise. Prayer is an exercise in two ways: (1) Prayer is a rehearsal of your freedom in preparation for the performance of your freedom in the wide world. And (2), prayer is exercise that builds up your freedom muscles, strengthening yourself for freedom living in the wide world. The more you persist in using your freedom to ask, to seek, to knock, the more freedom you receive. This is the divine economy. There is just one currency: freedom. The more you spend freedom, the more freedom you get to spend.
So let me invite you to pray with me for a planetary human society more in tune with nature, more just, and more sane. Our long hours of persistent prayer will be answered with the Holy Spirit welling up within us. We will receive freedom, the freedom to create winning strategies, the freedom to compose for ourselves effective vocations of action. God always sends more than we ask for. God always sends the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is also compassion or spirit love; trust or faith, and tranquility, peace, joy, or bliss. But I will save these vast subjects for another time. For now, let us simply meditate on using our profound spirit freedom to ask, and on receiving more freedom to persist in asking, and on using that freedom to ask some more. For, “the one who asks will always receive; the one who is searching will always find, and the door is opened to the person who knocks.”
If you are interested in more on the topic of “Spirit Freedom,” I suggest the following essay:
A still longer exposition of related topics can be found in the book The Love of History and the Future of Religion: Toward a Manifesto for a Next Christianity.