Christians insist that God answers our prayers, but every mature Christian also recognizes that God does so in ways that are for our ultimate good, which may or may not be what we’ve specifically asked for in the moment (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:8-9). That’s why we always offer our prayers with an implicit “but thy will be done,” confident that our Heavenly Father will know better than we how to best care for our needs. But there’s one prayer that, when prayed with a sincere heart, is guaranteed to be answered with exactly what we’ve prayed for!
Many Christians struggle with a nagging feeling of ‘incompleteness.’ They know intellectually that they have been redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, yet they continue to struggle with sinful longings and behaviors. Or it may be that they are experiencing a ‘dry spell’ in their spiritual life – a time when they feel distant from God. They may even identify with the young Martin Luther who struggled with his anger at God. In such circumstances, Christians may feel like ‘counterfeits’ because their hearts seem to stubbornly resist their best pious intentions, and it may seem that the Holy Spirit has abandoned them. When the desire to be a faithful follower of Christ seems to be at odds with the reality of who we are, what then can we do? Jesus provides the answer:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. … Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? … [If you] know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)
Read that passage again! Do you see any equivocation or double talk? Any ‘loop holes’ that would exclude your prayer for spiritual help? Is the promise conditioned in any way on your own worthiness? Nope! This is a simple and iron-clad promise that if you sincerely ask, you will receive the Holy Spirit!
OK, perhaps you’re stuck on that word ‘sincerely.’ But think about it – just as a loving parent wouldn’t honor a child’s request for food if it was for purposes of wasting it, we would not expect the God who instructed us “Do not give dogs what is holy” (Matthew 7:6) to give His Holy Spirit to a cynical manipulator. But apart from that obvious caveat, the promise is indeed unconditional: no matter how unworthily we might approach God seeking His Spirit, He will not refuse us! Jesus said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6) The only ‘qualification’ is to be hungry!
So what happens when you pray for the Holy Spirit? Well, first of all, God won’t be sending the Spirit into your heart for the first time – it’s simply not possible to want to pray for the Spirit unless the Spirit already lives in you! It is the Spirit Himself who is creating the hunger for more, and so when we pray for the Spirit, we are also praying in the Spirit. We are praying that the work of transformation already begun in us will be brought to completion – that the seed of faith planted in Baptism may flourish and yield fruit.
Secondly, there probably won’t be the kind of spiritual ‘fireworks’ that are described in Acts 2! That Pentecost event, like other dramatic miracles described in the Bible, was an extraordinary exercise of God’s power to advance His Kingdom. More commonly, the Spirit’s mode of operation is the quiet voice that nudges us towards quiet holiness: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) The changes don’t happen overnight but, as the Spirit increases in us, our hunger for and production of those ‘fruits of the Spirit’ steadily grows. That quiet transformation is the Spirit at work!
The most immediate effect of praying for the Spirit is usually a sense of peace. Because the work of the Spirit is done in God’s time and in God’s way, we may not immediately perceive the other changes that are being made in our lives. Sometimes, in fact, it is necessary that we walk through some spiritual ‘desert places’ before He leads us to the flowing spring of joy that is His destination. But, when we pray for the Spirit, we place the journey in His hands, and we walk assured, regardless of how treacherous the mountains and barren the valleys may seem to be, that He is leading us surely to His eternal salvation. How can we be so sure of that? Because that is God’s own will for us! So we can pray confidently: “Thy will be done — in me!”