The Gospel teaches us on which truths to focus

It is important to know the truth. Jesus taught that “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Yet there are dangers involved in knowing the truth, especially when the truth in question is a profound one. More specifically, it is possible so to emphasize a particular truth that one loses sight of other, more important truths. The disproportionate attention paid to the one can actually make us to validity and reality of the other.

I will give an example. St. Paul wrote that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). There are two truths here, conjoined by the word “but” which highlights the contrast between the two of them. Now, suppose a person comes to be obsessed with the truth that the wages of sin is death. If this is all a person hears, if this lone truth, in insolation from the other, comes to overwhelm a person’s attention and preoccupy her thoughts, she will likely despair and perhaps even go crazy. It is a hard truth and does not offer any hope. If a person only ever focuses on this truth, she will despair. But even more than that, an exaggerated preoccupation with this truth could even move a person to reject the second truth about the free gift of eternal life. “Why should there be a free gift, if the wages of sin is death?” someone might say. So the overemphasis of the one leads a person to disbelieve in the other.

Now, I want to move from this example to another. Some persons lack confidence in prayer, and this because of their understanding of God. They believe, for example, that God is not a genie, that He is not there for the fulfillment of all our fancies, that His sovereign will is over all things and that our prayers cannot change His mind about things, etc. These are all truths, of course, and they cannot be disputed. But an overemphasis on these truths will lead the same persons to lose all their faith in God’s fatherly care for them, which Jesus teaches us to seek out in prayer.

Suppose that such a person strongly desires some thing, but she also thinks that her praying for the thing does not mean that she will receive it from God. If that is the whole story, then this incomplete appreciation of the truth could lead her to see God as far away from her, as uninterested in caring for her, as unconcerned for what concerns her. Moreover, she will put the burden of acquiring what she wants entirely on her own shoulders, and then she might even come to think that God is working against her when her efforts fail in the end. This attitude doesn’t do anything except to put her at odds with God and to diminish her faith.

Jesus taught the following about prayer:

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!

(Matt. 7:7-11)

There is such a radical difference between what Jesus says here and the person who says that asking for something doesn’t mean she will receive it! It is almost as if Jesus directly contradicts her. Now, of course, it is obvious in the New Testament that we do not literally and always receive whatever we ask for. James gives a reason:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

(Jas. 4:1-3)

On the other hand, John says the following:

This is the boldness that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know we have obtained the requests made of Him.

(1 John 5:14-15)

Jesus and the Apostles recognize that we might not receive what we ask for, but they never propose this truth in such a way as to discourage prayer altogether. On the contrary, Jesus and the Apostles do not even conceive of a prayerless Christian life, and they regularly encourage us to bring all of our requests to God (Phil. 4:6). They provide reasons for which we might not receive the things we ask for, and guide us into a better way to ask.

In other words, the message of the Gospel, the teaching of Christ and His Apostles, is not simply a list of truths. It also teaches us how to think of these truths in connection with one another, where to put the emphasis, on which to focus, etc. The Gospel teaches us the truth that God is sovereign and that He cannot be manipulated by human beings asking for the desires of their heart. That is true. But it also teaches us that God is our Father, and that if we ask for good things from Him, then He is far more willing to give us good things as we would be to our own children. It trains us to adopt a certain attitude towards God in the face of His sovereignty. With respect to the topic of prayer, the Gospel teaches us to pray to God as to our own Father, in the expectation of receiving good things from Him. It does not teach us to adopt an attitude of stoic resignation in the face of the immutability of divine sovereignty.