“Ask and you will receive,” Jesus promises us in our Gospel today. But let’s be real and go deeper: How many times have you prayed for a particular favor only to be disappointed? What do you do when you ask but do not receive?
The way I used to make sense of the times when I did not get what I begged for was to balance “Ask and you shall receive” with what Jesus also says later in our Gospel today: “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?” Perhaps getting what I wanted would not be good for me. Maybe what I was asking for was a snake or a scorpion – something that would hurt me, something dangerous for me and those close to me.
For a time, I was content with this explanation, but then I was assigned to be a chaplain in the Philippine General Hospital. I met many saintly patients: kind-hearted mothers with children who still needed them, heroic fathers who were providing not only for their own families but for relatives and even neighbors in their home provinces, teachers who devoted their whole lives to their students, and the list goes on. I prayed that their cancers be taken away, that their hearts would continue beating, that their bodies would recover from their injuries. Surely, those were good things and not snakes or scorpions. Yet they were not given.
Let’s be honest and go even deeper: What do you do when what you ask for is good, but still you do not receive?
In our Gospel today, Jesus does not really tell us, “Ask for anything and you shall receive.” In fact, what we should ask for is specified: “How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” If we ask for the Holy Spirit, then Jesus guarantees that we will receive the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is associated with the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The letter to the Galatians links the Holy Spirit with the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
But let’s be brave and go deeper still: Scripture also tells us what happens to people who are filled with the Holy Spirit.
In Luke 4, Jesus, returning to Nazareth, says the Spirit of the Lord is upon him and has anointed him. A few verses later, his townmates want to throw him off a cliff. In Acts 6, Stephen is chosen for a special mission because he is full of the Spirit. By the next chapter, Stephen is stoned to death. In Acts 8, Philip is led by the Spirit to teach an Ethiopian about the good news of Jesus. The lesson ends with the Ethiopian asking for baptism. But as soon as the Ethiopian comes up out of the water, the Spirit snatches Philip away to his next mission. This is what you can expect if the Spirit is with you.
If you ask for the Spirit, the Spirit will be given to you. But dare you ask for the Spirit?
Philip continued his mission to Azotus and preached as he traveled all the way to Caesarea (Acts 8:40). Stephen faced persecution, but his face remained like that of an angel (Acts 6:15). We can only guess that this means he was still joyful and at peace. And Jesus was rejected again and again until he was crucified. But on the cross, what words were on Jesus’ lips? “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
How could Philip continue? How could Stephen still be peaceful? How could Jesus still be forgiving? The Spirit must have still been with them.
Asking for and receiving the Holy Spirit does not automatically mean your problems will be solved. Difficulties will not just magically disappear. But asking for and receiving the Holy Spirit means you will be able to persevere, you will be able to have peace, and you will be able to keep on giving.
It has been said that false religion will promise you only blessings. False religion will tell you there is no need to fear. True religion will open your eyes to both blessings and trials. But true religion will also assure you that there is something beyond fear… because you will not be alone.
In the end, this is the pledge of the Spirit: You will never be alone. Now let’s be real, honest, and brave, and let’s ask ourselves: Is this enough for us?