You are right if you thought that this was going to be a book about prayer. It is, but for our purposes, the word ‘prayer’ is often unhelpful, given that so many make a subject out of it, as if there is something out there by that name that it is our job to acquire by any and all means. The French theologian and sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote: “One cannot speak of prayer, but only of what the person does who prays.” 1 What do they do? They ask and their asking assumes a hearer who will respond. There are so many words and terms that describe the act of praying: calling on, crying out, beseeching, pleading, entreating, appealing, inquiring, communing, travailing, seeking, knocking, interceding, listening, petitioning, supplicating, prevailing, to name a few. You could add other biblical phrases and expressions to the list. However, though different terms, they have a common meaning and purpose: asking.
Prayer is asking, but sadly, the word ‘prayer’ becomes generalized in many people’s minds and practice. All sorts of expressions pass for prayer that maybe are not prayer, but more like recitations, observations, incantations, reflections, or perhaps, a spiritual-sounding conversation with oneself. Fundamental to a biblical understanding of prayer is ‘asking’. All of Jesus’ teaching about prayer is all about asking. “ASK!” sums it all up and is a one-word compendium on prayer. It is when our confidence in asking erodes that prayer dissipates into general and tentative conversation. We back off the specific asking. Why? That is a good question to ask. There are many reasons that we will look at, but make no mistake about it, by talking about asking we are dealing with the heart of prayer. “If prayer is the heart of religion, then petition is the heart of prayer … Petition is, and must ever remain, the heart and center of prayer.”
When you begin to ‘ask about asking’ it is not surprising that a number of questions present themselves. Why ask at all? What is the point and purpose of it? Is uncertainty about this the reason why we do not ask that much, for much? If God is going to do what He is going to do, is our asking just a therapeutic exercise to help us to talk about what we think that we need? Does our asking actually secure help or is it more an exercise of self-help? Is asking a condition of God’s answering? What does my asking assume about God? What does my asking imply about me? Before I ask anything of God, are there things that God asks of me? Am I the only one doing the asking in this relationship? Are there things that God actually asks me to ask about and for? While we are thinking about that, are there things that God says we should not ask for, and we are wasting our time if we do? Are there kinds of asking that are welcomed but still may not be answered? What provokes our asking? Why do we stop asking? Is asking presumptuous? How and why does God respond to our asking? If He does happen to respond to what I ask for, do I assume He does so for the same reasons that I asked for it? Are there conditions to our asking or does anything go? Can we really ask whatever, whenever, wherever for whoever, or is it not quite as unconditional as that suggests? Are there things that encourage and help our asking? Are there things that hinder or subvert asking? When asking does not seem to be answered, what are we meant to conclude about it? There is plenty to ask about asking.
Psychological research is fascinated by the nature of asking. One leading child psychologist writes, “We all take for granted the fact that human beings ask.” 3 According to another, a child asks about 40,000 times between the ages of two and five. 4 It would seem that our asking is an admission that we know that there is so much that we need. Developmental research acknowledges that this innate drive to ask is intrinsic to our understanding of how humans are wired. As Christians, we know that. We were created to ask, because as creatures, we are dependent on our Creator.
So why are you asking about asking?
A few years ago, my wife Celia and I became part of an international prayer network called THE ASK NETWORK whose mission statement is this: “Gathering all generations to pray for all nations, asking God to do what only He can do, and doing whatever He asks of us.” 5 Although I had been exposed to intercession all my life, through praying parents, and through personal involvement in prayer ministries and movements, it was the simplicity and specificity of that word ‘ask’ that caught my attention and imagination afresh, and provoked the question, “How much do I really know and understand about asking?” I committed myself to renewed biblical study on the subject, which led me to a conclusion that inspired this book. Despite all my commitment to the necessity and practice of prayer, I was overwhelmed by how much more I could ask of God. Or to put it a little more pointedly: how little did I ask of God when all was said and done.
In pursuing this matter, I began to notice how little was actually written or taught about asking, certainly recently. After surveying a large number of well-known and high-circulation books on prayer, many of them already on my shelves, I was surprised to find very little that was specifically about asking. It was always just assumed. In one of the rare books that devoted an entire chapter to asking, Jim Packer and Carolyn Nystrom observed that: “for adults to practice the petitionary mode of prayer in a way that honors God and leads to the joy of seeing answers, more is needed.” 9 That shared conviction was an encouragement to my task. Indeed, more is needed.