Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matthew 7:9-11)
What a wonderful passage, one of encouragement and a reminder of the incredible relationship Christ has brought us into where we can cry ‘Abba’ in full assurance. It is a Word given by a loving Father to His children, a reflection of His grace, His care and His absolute provision. Sadly, however, this passage is often plucked out of context and used to justify and validate erroneous teachings, skewing our perception of God’s desire to provide for us in favour of our demands that He provide what we desire.
The entire context of the passage in Matthew 7 is that of our attitude to God and to our faith. In fact, the very next verse contains a ‘therefore’ – and it’s always a good thing, when we find a ‘therefore,’ to stop and see what it’s there for. ‘Therefore’ always refers back to the verses immediately preceding it. In other words, they set the scene for the statement that follows the ‘therefore.’
In this particular instance, Jesus goes on to say: Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. What He is saying, in effect, is that our attitude to God and His Word is manifested or reflected in our attitude to people. It is, in a sense, a condition attached to fulfillment of the verses preceding it – the Law and the Prophets refers to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, which reveals the Word to us. Back in the Old Testament, God used prophets through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Today, through grace, we have the Spirit with us always to reveal the truth.
The context, then, is simple. If we desire the ‘every good thing,’ our attitude needs to be right – to God, to His Word, to His Spirit and to mankind. Already, here is a significant challenge – do we really ‘do unto others as we would have them do unto us?’ Do we really ‘give’ to others as we desire God to give to us? It’s the same principle as ‘forgive them so He can forgive us.’ Our attitude to others is the reflection of our attitude to God. We cannot separate them. How we respond to and treat others is the fruit of how we respond to and treat God. It is the outward reflection of an inward attitude.
James tells us that we have not because we ask not, or because we ask incorrectly. That is the essential ingredient that underscores our attitude. We are told to ask – we are, after all, God’s children, and as Father He desires to give us every good thing. But here, sadly, is where the truth of these verses is so often manipulated and misused. We’ve already established the principle of our attitude to men, and that it reflects our attitude to God. It follows, therefore, that we cannot have a right attitude to men if our attitude to God is incorrect. This is the crux of the matter.
Erroneous teachings use this passage to justify that God will, in essence, give us everything we want. We only have to ask. He’s sitting in heaven, just waiting for us to ask for that fancy car, that mansion, that extravegant trip, the best of everything. That’s His purpose, isn’t it? Hasn’t He said here that He desires to give us every good thing? Therein lies the error. Our definition of ‘good’ is entirely different to God’s definition of ‘good.’
Consider, for a moment, how we use the word ‘good’ in our modern context. That was a good meal, a good context, a good TV show, a good party…. We shouldn’t have indulged in that sarcastic rejoinder to someone who irritated us, but it felt so good. We have taken a word that God uses to define Himself and apply it across the board. We use the nature of God, in other words, to define things that often have absolutely no connection to Him at all. We’ve lost the essential, fundamental core meaning of ‘good,’ and that is why it no longer has any real relevance or meaning aside from the flesh.
God is good. Of that there is no doubt. We cannot even begin to define or fathom or comprehend the utter, complete, unchanging goodness of God. But we need to take this one step further. Only God is good, or God alone is good. He is good because He is holy. If we get back to an understanding and a realisation of the real truth inherent in the word ‘good,’ we can move back to the correct understanding of what He is actually saying.
The truth of this passage is underscored by a proper comprehension of this truth. What God defines as good is so often very different to what we define as good. If we look at the examples He uses to exlain His attitude in this matter, and interesting fact emerges. He uses bread and He uses fish. These are things that sustain us. They are food, the thing vital for life and health. In other words, they are ‘needs’ not ‘greeds.’ They have absolutely no relation to the things we may desire, covet, wish for, or seek after. They are totally and completely focused on those things that are for our good.
Having said all that, we cannot say that God may not bless us with other things. He is, after all, the God of exceedingly and abundantly, and it’s His sovereign right to release blessings to anyone in whatever form He chooses. But, like any Father, he’s going to have us eat our dinner before we have dessert. He’s going to provide what we need for healthy growth first. It’s clearly stated: We are ‘evil,’ i.e. sinners, with an incomplete comprehension of what is really good. But grace makes provision for that. The parallel is obvious. Just as we, as parents and as people with no real grasp of true goodness, know how to provide our children with what they need for health and growth, He knows what we really need. It’s sovereign divine knowledge, and by grace is beyond our limited understanding.
I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve encountered who are disappointed and disillusioned as a result of subscribing to erroneous gospel. New believers and old are often pulled into things like the prosperity gospel due to real need. They are seduced because they’re vulnerable, and instead of correct teaching which places the Word of God in context, they’re fed misinformation that often leaves them worse off than they were before. The perception that God is some kind of divine ‘vending machine’ is dangerous and destructive. We cannot simply pop the right ‘ask’ in the slot and get instant gratification, neatly packaged in a salvation wrapper. God loves us way too much for that.
Asking is an attitude not a right. First and foremost, it is the relationship with the Father that defines our access to His provision. By defining Himself as our Father, He does not assume the role of ‘provider no matter what.’ By calling Him Father we give Him the right to decide what is good and what is not. We give Him the right to provide according to His wisdom and knowledge of us, His will, His purpose and His infinite love for us.
Significantly, the parallel verse in Luke 11:13 says: If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. What a revelation! If we want our attitude and our ask to be right, here is the answer. He gives us His Holy Spirit to enable us to pray according to His will and purpose. In Spirit and in Truth. That is the key. If we walk in these, if our attitude to God is grounded in, defined by and guided through these, we can be assured that we will ask for what is truly ‘good,’ and that our heavenly Father will indeed respond and give us what is truly ‘good.’ We can, in essence, be truly thankful that He does not always give us what we ask for.
We thank You, Father, for Your abundant grace, and for Your infinite care for each of Your children. We take encouragement from the assurance that You know us better than we know ourselves, that You have already seen our past and our future, and know with perfect wisdom, exactly what we need in any given circumstance. Thank You for Your Word and Your Spirit, the gifts that enable us to come to You in right attitude, surrendered to Your Father-heart, and to Your will, to ask those things that are both right and good.