My daughter was about five the day she gazed thoughtfully at her grandmother and said, “Grandma, you really do have big feet.”
“Well, I know, Lynne,” Grandma replied, “but there isn’t much I can do about it.”
“Oh, yes, there is,” Lynne answered.
“You can pray.”
That summer was a season of drought. We lived in an area of orchards and farms, where the income of many Church members depended on adequate moisture. The Sunday preceding my daughter’s confident advice to my mother had been a special day of fasting for rain, and in sacrament meeting the bishop had asked us to offer special prayers that evening.
Before going to bed, Lynne asked in her prayer that it might rain so that the crops would grow. I kissed her goodnight and went to the kitchen, expecting her to go right to sleep. But half an hour later, I heard the front door close. I looked to see if perhaps my husband had come home, but instead saw Lynne in her nightgown picking up a few toys from the front lawn and putting them in her little red wagon.
“Lynne, come in here!” I called. “What are you doing?”
“Just bringing in my toys, Mommy, so they won’t get wet when it rains tonight.”
And during the night, the rain came.
A few days later, Lynne and I sat in a line of cars waiting to get out of a busy shopping center. The intersection was notorious for the long waits involved in getting out of the center across busy lines of traffic. We had been sitting for what must have been five minutes, although it seemed longer, when a hole in the traffic allowed us to dart out into the lane that would get us home.
“It worked! It worked!” Lynne shouted.
“I prayed and we got out.”
After two seemingly quick, specific, and positive answers to her prayers, Lynne was faced with the size of her Grandma’s feet, which hadn’t changed in forty years. Lynne wanted to know why Grandma hadn’t prayed about it. I replied that Grandma had not considered it an important problem.
“But do you pray only about important things?” she asked.
“We can pray about anything we want help with. But it’s better to learn to live with some things than to ask Heavenly Father to make them exactly like we want them.”
“Well, the learning is good. And besides, what if two people wanted the same thing to have different measurements?”
At the tender age of five, Lynne came to at least elementary terms with a problem that many of us are still trying to define with greater precision: What does God mean when he tells us, “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do” (John 14:13)?
More specifically, what are we to expect from the following passage: “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong” (D&C 9:8, 9)?
These and other scriptural excerpts like them are often quoted incompletely and out of context, as they are here. However, God has said, “Ask and ye shall receive,” to many people in many different circumstances, and the cumulative message seems to be that if we go to God with a problem he will help us solve it.
We read one very clear expression of that message in Christ’s sermon on prayer to his disciples: “Ask, and it shall be given you, seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Luke 11:9.)
The Lord then discusses the pure love our Heavenly Father has for us:
“If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?
“Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?
“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:11–13.)
This scripture not only acknowledges our Heavenly Father’s desire to give, but also indicates to me a problem some of us have with prayer: we think God is giving us a stone—no answer at all—when what we are actually receiving is bread unrecognized. These scriptures tell us that our Heavenly Father loves us and would never give us stone. Yet because of our imperfect understanding, we may perceive the bread he offers us—perhaps his most nourishing and filling—as cold stone. We forget his eternal perspective as the crisis or problem of the moment looms before us.
We all know people whose blessings seem to include no problems with the question of “bread or stone”: they testify that God answers their prayers, that they have received help on such matters as where to find a lost wallet, whom to marry, what occupation to choose, and how to teach children to keep clean rooms. They bear moving testimony of direct daily help in problem solving.
Unless we are among that group so blessed, we may feel dismayed, frustrated, or even guilt-ridden by such assertions. It has been helpful for me to realize that the commandment to “pray always” should describe our behavior, and that there is no corresponding clause binding the Lord to “answer always.” If he chooses to do so, it is because he deals differently with each of us.
However, when someone has prayed with all his soul and yet has sensed no guidance on important matters, he may feel that he lacks sufficient faith, or that God chooses to give him no help, or that he can’t help, or that he doesn’t exist.
The relationship each of us has with God through prayer is individual, and the experience of one person cannot serve as a model for all others. Our needs differ, and therefore God’s responses to prayers arising from individual needs also differ. Because our feeling about those responses, or seeming lack of them, is crucial to our faith both in God and in ourselves, no thoughtful reader of the scriptures can ignore the kind of problem presented to Lynne by the size of her Grandma’s feet and what prayer might do for them.
Both before and since my marriage, I have had more help through prayer, in matters small and great, mundane and dramatic, than I can possibly list.
As a small child, I was afraid one night of the dark. I asked Heavenly Father to help me not be afraid, and immediately felt comfort, peace, and the courage to investigate the scary shadows.
When I was thirteen, I developed diabetes. I prayed for help in taking care of myself, that I might live a normal life, and a short time later President David O. McKay gave me a blessing which confirmed an answer to that prayer. I still have diabetes, but it has not prevented my living a rich and active life.
At the premature birth of my first child, who was stillborn, I hemorrhaged badly. Twice my lack of heartbeat and blood pressure suggested to the doctor that I was dead and once I heard him mutter, “I think she’s gone.” However, my prayer throughout the ordeal was answered, and I lived.
Later, as my children grew in independence and vigor, I would on occasion meet the taunting disobedience and rebellion so many parents know; at times my rising frustration exploded in unthinking, angry shouts at the offending child (useless, because they did no good—for me or for the child). I learned that consistent prayers for help as a parent were invaluable, and that in the middle of rising frustration at a difficult confrontation a silent prayer brought calm ability to listen to the child and help him.
In short, I have had reason to believe that when I pray to my Father, he hears me and answers me. His immediate help has at times been as real as cool air on my cheek in the heat of July.
And yet, when faced with the most important decision of my life, I could feel no help from him—no answer, no assistance, not even any sense of his spirit.
I met Bob when I was a sophomore at Brigham Young University. Without him, I found myself lonely in a crowd of my good friends; but with him, I recognized differences in our life-styles that could promise a troubled marriage. Both of us wanted temple marriage, Church activity, a family, graduate education, time in the mountains, good music—we agreed upon the kinds of things in nice lists people construct to prove compatibility; but besides that, we shared curiosity and excitement about so many things that the world changed after we met. However, the differences were important enough to make our relationship considerably less than ideal.
When Bob asked me to marry him, I took his ring, then returned it, then took it back with misgivings. Not trusting my own decision, I asked God to confirm it for me. With all my soul I asked Him to give me a “burning feeling” in my heart if marrying Bob were right, or a “stupor of thought” if it were wrong; I experienced neither the burning feeling nor the stupor of thought. Wondering if my faith had been insufficient, I rephrased the question, asking if it was right to break off the engagement; again, I experienced neither burning nor stupor.
I prayed in my room; I prayed in the shower; I prayed high on a mountain I climbed alone: all my thought was “Please tell me if I have made the right decision. Please tell me what thou wouldst have me do.” But I sensed not the slightest response.
Feeling abandoned, and not understanding why, I would have cried like David, had I known the words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
“O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not, and in the night season, and am not silent.”
I didn’t know the words at the time, but when I read them in the twenty-second Psalm years later I knew their meaning: if he had promised to answer my prayers, why had he forsaken me when I needed him most?
Twenty-one months after we had met, I married Bob in the Alberta Temple without receiving any recognizable assurance that doing so was right or that not doing so would be better. I made my own decision, committing myself to a relationship with risks and without any guarantees except the promises we made to each other before the most important witnesses. That commitment and those promises were mine, and I know now that I needed to make them without commandment to do so. I knew the Lord heard my prayer, so I didn’t understand why he didn’t tell me whether or not I should marry Bob. What I didn’t understand was the difference between what I wanted and what I needed. I wanted to know if I should marry Bob. What I needed was a different lesson, and that’s what the Lord was teaching me.
I know now that I wanted God to take all the risk out of my marriage, and hoped that he would guarantee my good relationship with a husband. Instead, God required that I solve problems and make the commitment on my own. In the process of growing closer together, Bob and I have found adventure and sorrow, growth, identity, and a great joy. Most people need a positive answer that their choice of partner is right; I needed an answer of silence so I could grow in the ways I have mentioned. My situation is probably very rare. In most instances I’m certain it would be very unwise to move into an eternal marriage covenant without the sustaining testimony of the Holy Spirit.
I have known other people who, like myself, felt no response to their prayers at times of crisis in their lives. These are people trying to be good, wanting to be good, who have asked in faith for direction or help at times when they felt inadequate to choose or to learn what was best for themselves and others dependent upon them. They are people who believed in God and his goodness, and who still do. Many of them tell of increased wisdom, capabilities, faith, and love because of their struggle.
For example, a friend of ours named David was a brilliant student for whom school had always been easy. But when he entered the Language Training Mission before going to Peru, he found the Spanish language impossible. He studied, he worked, he fasted, he prayed; but Spanish remained an alien obstacle. One day, a friend found him sitting on the stairs, head in his hands and tears on his face. “What more can I do to learn the language and be a good missionary?” he asked.
Several months later, as David was boarding the plane for Peru, his mother said to him, “I’m sorry you’ve had such a hard time with the language.”
“No,” he replied, “be glad for it. If God had answered my first prayers, I wouldn’t have developed the relationship I now have with him. The struggle has given me humility and faith and strength of testimony I never had before.”
Sometimes a prayer may not be answered because we do not truly want it to be. When my husband was in his late teens, he read the Book of Mormon and became confident that it would be possible to communicate with the Lord. He says that he put off making that awesome move, not from thinking it impossible as much as from not being ready for so great a step. One day he rode his horse out into the mountains, dismounted and knelt down to pray. As he contemplated the possibilities of personal change and responsibility that would come if the Lord communicated with him, he began to realize that he was not as ready to give up his comfortable style of life as he was eager for the Lord’s approval. He felt so certain the Lord would answer him if he asked that he became acutely aware for the first time that he did not really want to experience a change as great as that communication might lead to. He got up and rode away.
It was a few months later that he approached the Lord again, this time readier to accept the communication and the responsibility. And on that occasion, the Lord did answer.
It had not been the Lord who was unwilling the first time, but rather Bob. He had wanted to please the Lord, and had wanted the Lord to think well of him, but did not fully want to give up the easiness of the world—not really knowing that the gospel is true, and not really wanting to grow up quite yet. The Lord knew his heart better than he did himself, and allowed him his truest desire on both occasions.
Perhaps there are many occasions in which we think we know what our intentions are when we pray, and yet our hearts contain “hidden agendas” which the Lord recognizes and respects. Our own conflicts are in the way of our most conscious desires. Thus the Savior has advised us often to ready ourselves with singleness of heart when we would pray.
Many people are grateful for their experiences with prayers that didn’t seem to be answered. But there are many kinds of prayer, and some people, still involved in struggles for which there seems no help, may get little comfort from someone else’s faith-promoting experience. Their problems with prayer that doesn’t yield a recognizable answer are not easily solved by the usual methods of comparison and reasoning.
If we know that God is good and capable and that he loves us, then we can assume that he allows what will ultimately bring the greatest good to his children, whether it be interference with weather or lack of it, good health or pain and death. Even if we cannot recognize or understand that “greatest good” at the moment, and even though we suffer pain or sorrow, we will trust his response to prayer although we see no evidence of it.
However, if we doubt his existence, his goodness, his power, or especially his love for us, “unanswered,” or unrecognized answers to, prayer for help can be devastating. Ultimately, it is the strength of a person’s faith in God and understanding of his purposes that will determine his feelings about the prayers to which he doesn’t perceive a response.
On a purely logical and intellectual basis, no person can either prove or disprove to another any “answers” to prayer. Neither, on such a basis, can a person justify or explain God and his seeming response, or lack of it, to a specific prayer: we haven’t yet the knowledge, perspective, experience, or complete evidence to do so. Ultimately, our feelings about prayer must be determined within ourselves by our feelings about God himself, and by the relationship we have with him.
This is not to suggest that in matters of prayer we must deny the reason and intellect that so gloriously declare our kinship with God. Knowledge of God and trust in him do not require denial of our own perceptions, experience, questions, or education, but rather require the use of them to the fullest, with acknowledgment of their limitations.
Today men and women walk the moon and send cameras to Mars, make rain and chart hurricanes, cure ulcers and install heart pacemakers, split some atoms and work to fuse others, develop higher yields of grain and breed better strains of livestock, debate cures for poverty and discuss causes of injustice. Many of our generation are trained to look, analyze, question, think, evaluate, produce, create: passivity and lethargy are decried by our teachers. And to many people, accustomed to the philosophy and reasoning of current Western civilization, trust in the Lord unfortunately implies passivity and lethargy, blindness and denial.
But Christ was neither passive, nor lethargic, nor blind; and neither did he deny “reality.” Yet trust in his Father and in his Father’s purposes strengthened him for trials beyond our own and for the moment of crisis when even he was “forsaken” by his God. (See Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34.)
It is Lucifer who would have us passively submit to his decisions and power, but God created our world so that we might be free to create our own identities and choose to become like him. Knowing this to be difficult, God offers his help; he does not offer to accomplish the task for us.
Our scriptures repeatedly tell us to trust in the Lord, to praise him, glorify him, honor him, and proclaim his power and majesty. I do not believe that God requires our trust and praise and glory and honor to establish him as God: he knows who he is. But rather, it is we who need the trust that comes of our understanding his goodness and power and love. Without that understanding of him, we cannot begin to understand our world or its pain and sorrow.
Ancient Israel found that trust in God difficult to maintain, largely because they did not follow the directions God gave them for doing so. For many Jews, Nephites, and Christians, continued trust in the Lord has required more study, will, desire, experience, and prayer than they would give. The person most capable of knowing God and trusting him is one who studies the scriptures, thinks about them, acts upon them in ordinary living, and prays not only to declare gratitude or ask help but to develop a relationship with God.
In giving us a pattern for prayer (Matt. 6:9–13), Christ first of all acknowledged both the existence of God and our loving relationship with him (“Our Father which art in heaven”). He then acknowledged belief in his goodness and his holiness (“Hallowed be thy name”) and support of his purposes (“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven”). Again, I don’t believe that God needs such acknowledgment and trust from us to establish him as God. However, unless these profound acknowledgments preface our requests to him, it will be difficult for us to trust his responses, whether they be direct or in the form of answers we don’t recognize as answers.
Can any of us literally eat bread and think it stone? Or look at a fish and think it a serpent? Or hold an egg and feel a scorpion’s sting? I suppose it is possible for us to experience such illusions, but it would be our perception and not the thing itself that is distorted.
God, not being a product of man’s thinking, is not limited by man’s perception of him, and his ways are not defined by man’s perception of them. We are blessed to live in a time when he has told us how to better know him and his ways if we want to do so. We may taste cold stone or feel the scorpion’s sting in unanswered prayer; or, by trusting his love and learning to perceive his blessings, we may eat bread and fish and eggs, and grow.