There must be few pastors who have not repeated the words of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:7, with a wistfulness equal to his: "You were running well. Who hindered you?" The Apostolic finger had touched upon the timeless tragedy of a life that showed early spiritual promise yet was blighted by a lack of perseverance. It is, of course, the same sad story as Jesus told in the parable of the sower, when He describes the one who "hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while" (Matt. 13:20).
Perseverance is a word applied in the Bible in two ways. First is the ultimate perseverance that depends on God's preserving us, His people, which is the ground of our assurance of eternal glory. The Westminster Confession of Faith devotes a whole chapter to this subject, assuring us that true believers "can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end" (17.1). This depends on God's election of a people for Himself.
But there is also a use of perseverance to describe a quality in the believer, an example of which is in Ephesians 6:18: "Keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints." That is a quality of Christian character, and a fruit of the Holy Spirit's work in our lives. This latter use of the word is most frequently applied to perseverance in the face of opposition or trials, or to perseverance in prayer. It is the second application that will be our theme here.
There is no doubt that Jesus is focusing on the subject of perseverance in prayer toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:7–11. Literally translated, it would read, "Keep on asking and it will be given to you; keep on seeking and you will find; keep on knocking and it will be opened to you" (v. 7). All three verbs are present imperatives, and it is likely that they are much more than just a repetition of the same idea. Rather, I think the three commands "ask," "seek," and "knock" are a progressive intensification. Repeatedly asking requires perseverance, and still more so does continuous seeking. Persistent knocking suggests an intense desire for entry.
It is interesting that Luke in his gospel places at this point in Jesus' teaching the parable of the persistent friend who comes to the door at midnight and refuses to be put off in his request for bread. "Because of his persistence" is Jesus' explanation of why the man obtains a response. But look more closely at each of Jesus' key words in this paragraph: they are "ask," "seek," and "knock" (Luke 11:5–13).
Asking is the most common idea in supplicating before God's throne. It is the language of one who is bereft of what he most needs, but knows who can supply his need. In this case, it is the language of the child who has a need that his Father can satisfy.
In the explanatory verse at Matthew 7:9, Jesus draws a parallel with the experience of an earthly father-son relationship: "Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?" The father delights to give good gifts to his son—not just any gifts, but good gifts. The son is exercising filial faith in asking, and the father is exhibiting grace in giving.
Grace and faith are key elements in prayer. In the case of our heavenly Father's gifts, there is a perfection about the giving that takes us into a new realm. The Father's gifts are perfect; that is why we should be so eager to come to Him.
If you wonder why God needs us to ask before He gives, there are two things to remember: one is that He daily gives us good things we have not even thought about, much less asked for; the other is that in Psalm 2, we have a remarkable excerpt of a conversation between God the Father and God the Son regarding how the Son will have the nations for His inheritance and the ends of the earth for His possession, and the Father says, "Ask of me, and I will give you" (Ps. 2:8). If the only begotten Son is told to ask, the children of God adopted by grace into His family should not be surprised that they must ask also.
Seeking reveals something more of God's character to us. I am not entirely sure why it should be so, but there is no doubt that God responds to those who seek Him (remembering, of course, that no one can truly seek God unless God draws him).
We need to listen to the emphasis on this in the Bible. In Jeremiah 29:13, God says, "You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart" (see also 2 Chron. 7:14 and Isa. 55:6).
Knocking is another intensification of the idea of asking and seeking. I think the thought behind this word is seriousness. The man in Jesus' story who came to his friend at midnight displayed his seriousness in persistent knocking. God responds to seriousness. Superficial devotees and spiritual jesters will not engage His heart and mind.
So, when you pray, be a suppliant, be a seeker, and be serious. True prayer demands all three.