THREE HARD TO LEARN WORDS: ASK, RECEIVE, GIVE

BY:  HARRY R. FOX, JR.

Speech given at the Sunstone Symposium in the Hilton Hotel,

Salt Lake City, Utah 

AUGUST 11, 1995

The three hard to learn words about which we will be speaking are also hard to arrange in any certain order. Much depends on our personality type as well as the circumstances under which we encountered these words. In other words, our life experiences will determine to some extent the order in which we learn them. Another matter to keep in mind is how possible it is for any of us to believe we have learned those words only to discover how mistaken we were. In my own case, “give” was the first of these three that was impressed on me the earliest. Being what I call the “older brother/sister” type, I quickly assumed that I had learned to practice it. But I was later to learn otherwise.

Since there may be no “right” order in which to discuss the three words under consideration, I am choosing to start our discussion with the New Testament text of James 4:1-3 which reads as follows:

“What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war among your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend on your passions.” (RSV) 

This text introduces us to the first of the three words I want us to consider today, namely, the word “ask.”

I. ASK

In Matthew 7:7 Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (RSV) These admonitions sound simple, and we quickly assume that we are obeying them in our daily lives. But on closer reflection we discover that such has not always been true. When we look at ourselves in the light of James’ statement just quoted, and ask ourselves if we have all that we want, we may find ourselves resonating to his “You do not have, because you do not ask.” This, in turn, may cause us to ask, “Why haven’t we asked?” We may discover various answers to this question, but a first answer will probably be, “because we don’t want to admit that we are in need of anything.” An underlying reason may be our experience as children and adolescents in being denied so much of what we asked for. We may have to admit that we are afraid of being turned down. On the other hand, we may discover that although we had been under the impression that we had done a lot of asking, we had actually been “demanding” rather than “asking”. In the course of such self-examination, we may learn a very important truth about the difference between “asking” and “demanding.” When we ask for anything from anyone, we must be quite clear that we are leaving the other person free to respond in one of three different ways: {l} give us all that we ask; {2} give us only part of what we ask; or {3} give us none of what we ask. Thus, if for example, the other person gives us none of what we ask, we will not be angry or resentful toward him or her and will remain on good terms with that person. A demand, on the other hand, does not leave the other person free to do other than what we demand, although, of course, if that person is strong enough, he will not yield to a demand {about which we will have more to say under the heading of “Give”}.

The difference between asking and demanding is sometimes very subtle and not recognized by the person doing the asking. But the difference is usually perceived by the person being asked. That perception is based on the silent message of the one doing the asking, which comes across something like this, “I want you to know that if you do not give me everything I ask for I will never ask you for anything else again, and our friendship will have been damaged, if not destroyed.” That kind of message can be very intimidating to some people, especially to those who are not sure of themselves and can thus be easily manipulated.

Someone may now say, “Are you saying that there is no place for demands, or for something somewhere between asking and demanding?” The answer to this is, of course, that there is a place for demanding as well as for something in between asking and demanding. Jesus gives an example of the “in-between” when he tells the hypothetical story of “the importunate friend” in Luke 11:5-9. Here the friend does more than simply ask, even though he does not go so far as to demand. What we have here is persistent, almost dogged asking. And here the person doing the asking is not intimidated into quitting by the refusal of the one being asked. The text reads as follows: 

“Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a long journey, and I have nothing to set before him;” and he will answer from within, “Do not bother me; I cannot get up and give you anything?” I tell you though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” 

To which Jesus then adds the same admonition quoted earlier from Matthew 7:7, Ask . . . seek . . .and knock.” By means of these three words Jesus means to indicate that asking need not be limited to timid lengths but may be pursued much further, even to “knocking.” And yes, there is a time and place where demands must be made. Parents, by necessity, demand that their small children not touch a hot stove or run into a street in front of a speeding car. But in most other instances, we need to be sure that we do not confuse “asking” and “demanding.”

In the parable of “The Prodigal Son” we have a vivid example of two sons, one of whom (the younger) did not hesitate to ask, and the older of whom was apparently unaware that he had any right to ask. This parable is found in Luke 15:11-32. Even though the younger son did not always ask for what is regarded as “good” in conventional circles, he did ask, and he did get all he asked for (the first time he asked) and much more than he asked for (the second time). The older son lived a drab and uneventful life and unnecessarily deprived himself by not even being aware of all that was available to him, let alone ask for it. How sad, but how typical of so many who are generally regarded as “good” people!

This ties into our reading from the fourth chapter of James awhile ago. There we were asked from whence comes so much violence. The answer given by James is that we “do not have,” and the main reason for that is that we “do not ask.” To the extent that we “do not have” we will be susceptible to outbursts of violence on the one hand or to docility and apathy on the other. The truth of this is certainly to be seen in the person of the older brother. When we first encounter him in the parable he is the docile, technically “obedient” son who does everything his father asks of him, that is, until his father asks him to participate in the celebration of his younger brother’s return home. At that point the older brother manifests hatred for his brother even to the extent of being unwilling to acknowledge him to be his brother. When it is remembered that in Matthew 5:21,22 Jesus equates hatred of another with murder of that other we can begin to understand the baleful effects of being deprived people.

Most Americans are not seriously deprived economically, but many of us are, or have been, emotionally and spiritually deprived. Consistent with this has been the relative ease with which we have asked for economic help in one form or another, while finding it extremely difficult to ask for emotional and spiritual nourishment. Stated more specifically, we have wanted and needed much more love and affection than we have been willing to ask for, or to accept when offered to us. (This latter phenomenon, that is, the reluctance to receive what is offered to us, will be discussed much further under our next heading of “Receive.”) It is mainly our emotional and spiritual deprivations that have given rise to the terrible increase in violence that is so noticeable all over our world today. Some of this violence has been directed toward others while far too much of it has been directed toward the self in all kinds of self-destructive behavior, including depression.

When we are hungry for emotional satisfactions of which we have been deprived in one way or another, we tend to depend on impersonal substitutes. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “addictive behavior.” Thus interpersonal relationships become almost impossible in the face of the depersonalization that is so characteristic of addictive, exploitative relationships. In such relationships mutual giving and receiving is replaced by mutual extraction. And this brings us to our second and third hard-to-learn words. Let us now consider the word “receive.”

II. RECEIVE

In Japan, where I was born and lived until age 14, I noticed how reluctant most people were to accept gifts. When I became acquainted with their social system I began to understand why this was so. According to that system it was wrong to accept a gift unless one was willing to repay the gift with something of equal or greater worth. In other words, in that system there was no such thing as a free gift. Every accepted or received gift placed the receiver under heavy obligation to the one from whom the gift was received. Thus, there naturally tended to develop a skepticism toward any and all “gifts,” a questioning of the motives of givers of gifts, a desire to know what “strings” were attached to every so-called gift. Although this attitude toward the acceptance of gifts has been formalized and institutionalized in Japan to a degree beyond what we have in America and elsewhere, we know from experience that a similar attitude exists here. We are especially aware of it in regard to gifts accepted by politicians, from wealthy donors seeking thereby to influence legislation, even though donors and recipients try to get us to believe that no such doing occurs.

In Romans 6:23, the Apostle Paul communicates to us the refreshingly good news that what God offers us is FREE with no strings attached. Here is what he says. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (RSV) In Matthew 10:8 Jesus tells His disciples that what He had given them had cost them nothing and since they had “freely received” they were to give just as “freely.(KJV) This is such a hard lesson to learn! For even here in America we have been taught that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” We are taught that everything worth having must be EARNED. That is why we look with so much disapproval on anyone who receives “welfare.” Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus said in Mark 10:15, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. (RSV)

And what was and is and forever will be the “Kingdom of God”? It is the entire package of all God’s gifts to us: His sacrificial love on our behalf in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in which we are forgiven and reconciled to God and given the Gift of the Holy Spirit and the community of loving relationships known as the church. Peter, in Acts 2:38 says that even the rite of entrance into the “Kingdom” is a gift to be received when he tells the multitude gathered before Him to “repent and receive baptism” (Japanese version). Another word encompassing this gift package is “grace,” as stated by the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:17 where he says, “If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one Man Jesus Christ. (RSV, emphasis mine)

So rich is the content of this grace that we sometimes manifest a strange resistance to it. For example, when the children of Israel were brought by God out of Egyptian bondage to the border of the “land of promise” they refused to go in because they said they were afraid of “the giants in the land.” If we think in symbolic terms and ask what is symbolized by this “fear of giants” we notice that the “land of promise” was also known as the “land of milk and honey.” Thus, we find that their fear was in regard to what “milk and honey” symbolized, namely, “sweet nourishment,” (reminiscent of the mother-infant relationship) i.e., sweetness, softness, gentleness and comfort,” or, in one word, “tenderness.” When we get really honest with ourselves, we have to admit that this is what we want as much as, or more than, anything else. We never did get enough. But how hard it is to admit this desire, let alone receive it! It reminds me of a marvelous passage from a sermon by C.S. Lewis entitled, “The Weight of Glory,” in which he says,

“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you, the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.”

Another example of our reluctance to receive “milk and honey” is the lament of Jesus over the City of Jerusalem when He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37, RSV, emphasis mine) We see here again the connection between violence and the lack of “milk and honey” in those who commit violence.

This additional factor in our reluctance to be receivers helps us to see how complicated, how much more complicated, is this whole matter of learning to be receivers. Yet how essential it is for us to learn to do so. Earlier I mentioned that I thought I had learned to be a good giver before I learned to ask or receive. But when in mid-life I discovered how incapable I was of being an adequate giver I was forced to discover how slow I had been to realize how critical was my need to be a receiver. In I John 4:19, we are told that only those who have first been loved can love others.

Before moving on to the importance of the word “give” we should pay attention to another factor which further complicates our learning to “ask” and “receive.” We need to become aware of the times when God takes the initiative and gives Himself and His gifts to us without our asking for them. This truth is taught in Romans 10:20, where the Apostle Paul says that “Isaiah is so bold as to say: ‘I have been found by those who did not seek Me; I have shown Myself to those who did not ask for me.‘” (RSV) This is what pure grace is all about. So we need to be alert to those occasions when what we need most comes to us “out of the blue” without our having known we needed it, let alone asked for it. And when we are encountered by it we need to be ready and willing to freely accept it for the free gift that it is.

III. GIVE

If it is hard for us to learn to ask and receive it is even harder for us to learn to truly give. So much of our so-called giving is so conditional, so cluttered with all kinds of strings, so dependent on obtaining something in return. How different is the giving of God to us! The all time classic passage on this is Luke 6:35 where Jesus says that we should lend (or give) “EXPECTING NOTHING IN RETURN” so as to be “sons of the Most High” who “is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish” (RSV, emphasis mine)

The last people we are inclined to feel kindly toward are selfish and ungrateful people. How magnificently great, therefore, is the love of God for us, His children! As Paul once did in Romans 11:33, we want to break forth in ecstatic praise to such a God! Hear Paul as he writes to the church in Rome

“O the depth of the riches and wisdom of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable are His ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to Him that He might be repaid?’ For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen. (RSV)

In contrast to God’s love for us, we are so stingy in our giving. Even when we have outgrown our more crass forms of giving where we expect “equivalency of return” on what we give, we still expect the recipients of our gifts to be GRATEFUL, at the very least.

Since none of us is yet anywhere near the ideal givers described by Jesus, what are we to do in the meantime? I would suggest that the first thing we need to be careful about is to be sure that whenever we give, we truly GIVE which is to say, willingly. Another way of saying this is to be sure that we are not allowing somebody to EXTRACT from us what we are not able or willing to give. We must be enough in charge of our lives to know what our finite limits are. Some simple examples of this are when someone calls us on the telephone and asks, “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” or someone comes to our door for a visit without advance notice and asks a similar question. What do we too often do?

We let the phone caller or the visitor take up far more of our time than we are willing to give because we were not honest enough to tell them at the outset that we had only a certain amount of time to give. This inability to set limits on what we can give is sometimes called “codependency” or “enabling,” and is harmful to both the giver and receiver. In other words, this kind of unreal giving leaves the giver angry and the receiver feeling uncomfortable, understandably so!

The place where we most need to learn to give is in the home between husbands and wives, parents and children, and brothers and sisters. In Ephesians 5:21, Paul states what I believe to be the bedrock foundation on which all interpersonal relationships in Heaven and on earth are based. That verse reads as follows: “Be subject one to another out of reverence for Christ.” Mutual subjection means at least that we will LISTEN to each other, pay attention to each other. That is why we reverence (or admire and love) Christ so much, for that is how He relates to us. Long before God-in-Christ asked us to be subject to Him and to each other, He subjected Himself to us. And what applies to us in our homes must also apply to us in the church. As brothers and sisters in Christ we need to listen to each other until we truly understand, not simply hear what the other has said but understand what the other means by what he or she said. This is the least we can learn to give.

IV. CONCLUSION

At the conclusion of this all too brief look at three hard to learn words, I hope that we have learned not to confuse asking with demanding, receiving with extracting, and giving with bartering. Also, that in order to be good givers, we need to be good askers and receivers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THREE HARD TO LEARN WORDS-ASK, RECEIVE, GIVE [Harry R. Fox, Jr.]          1

 

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