A few months after my election as district superintendent in 1996, I visited a small congregation that was struggling to survive. Once, the church had a thriving ministry; now, there were only a handful of faithful people, and they were discouraged.

Nearly everyone stayed for a customary lunch after the Sunday morning worship service. Our table conversation was as warm and genuine as it was noncommittal. Everyone knew the church was at a crossroads, but no one was willing to venture in any direction. After a while I began to question those who were gathered around the table about their hopes and dreams for the church and its ministry. Their initial answers weren’t very certain, so I rephrased and made another attempt.

“What are you expecting God to do for you?” I asked.

The only teenager in the group, a boy, was sitting on the floor with his back to the wall just to my right. He had been reading a book, and I didn’t think he seemed to be paying much attention to the conversation. But I was wrong about that! He was far more observant than it appeared. He understood something the adults in that small group were unwilling to admit.

“Not much,” he immediately answered. “Not much!” Despite the disapproving looks he received from the adults, his was an honest answer: The congregation was dispirited. They long ago ceased to anticipate that God was going to do much of anything.

The writer of Hebrews declares, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (ESV). Perhaps that is why Jesus frequently asked questions of the people who came to Him. His questions were not always the same, but they were always designed to probe self-understanding, reveal faith and excite expectation. For instance, Jesus asked the rich young ruler why he called Him good in order to reveal the man’s motivations.

Luke 18 records the story of a blind man begging alongside the road near the city of Jericho. As Jesus approached, the beggar cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The disciples tried to quiet him, but he cried out again and Jesus stopped. But Jesus did not immediately heal him. Instead, he asked a question. “What do you want me to do for you?” Only when the beggar said he wanted his sight restored did Jesus heal him. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has made you well’” (Luke 18:42, ESV). Apparently, our Lord believes that expectations are one measure of faith. The beggar expected Jesus to heal him, and his expectation was rewarded. The discouraged people I met with that Sunday afternoon had no expectation, and their lack of it revealed their failure to look to God in faith.

Matthew 7:7–8 is a familiar passage. Jesus says, “‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.’” I used to believe these words promised answers to prayer, and perhaps they do. However, my understanding has changed. Our Lord was encouraging prayer. He was also pointing out an essential quality of faith: expectation. It anticipates God’s willingness to do something!

People who ask, receive. Those who will not ask because they fear disappointment—or because they doubt the ability or the willingness of God to give—do not receive. It is really quite simple. If you are going to find something, you must first look for it. People who are not looking for things usually do not find them.

And, just in case His listeners missed the point, Jesus emphasizes the principle again. To whom is a door opened? You may stand outside a closed and locked door waiting to get in for a very long time, especially if you do not ring the doorbell. If you want those who are on the other side to open the door, Jesus suggests you try knocking on it. Doors are opened when people knock on them.

In a similar way, God works in response to the expectations of those who are willing to take a faith-filled risk. It may be that your requests will not be answered in the way you would like them to be. It is possible that you will ask and circumstances will remain as they are. But is it not worth asking, seeking and knocking? Asking, seeking and knocking do not guarantee a desired result, but the failure to do so certainly guarantees there will be no response.

Achieving God’s purposes involves taking faith-filled risks. That is one of our core values. We encourage people to take risks in ministry. Many churches are willing to pursue something that is considered to be “out of the box” in order to reach their community for Christ. But perhaps the place to begin is not “out of the box” but in the prayer closet. For it is in prayer that our expectations for God to work are revealed. It is first in prayer that faith is expressed. Without a willingness to ask, seek and knock, our ministry may well be filled with risk but absent the faith without which Hebrews reminds us, “it is impossible to please God.”

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