Prayer: The Soul’s Sincere Desire22908_000_012
Enriching Our Prayers
Perhaps no commandment is repeated in the scriptures more often than to pray. One of mortality’s great lessons is to learn for ourselves the will of God, and that knowledge comes largely as a result of righteous, dedicated prayer.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained the role of prayer: “Petitioning in prayer has taught me, again and again, that the vault of heaven with all its blessings is to be opened only by a combination lock. One tumbler falls when there is faith; a second when there is personal righteousness; the third and final tumbler falls only when what is sought is, in God’s judgment—not ours—right for us. Sometimes we pound on the vault door for something we want very much and wonder why the door does not open. We would be very spoiled children if that vault door opened any more easily than it does. I can tell, looking back, that God truly loves me by inventorying the petitions He has refused to grant me. Our rejected petitions tell us much about ourselves but also much about our flawless Father.” 1
To help us each to improve the intentions, approaches, and results of our prayers, here are some scriptures and thoughts that have helped me.
Preparing to Pray
Anciently, altars were built for the purpose of offering prayer. Building such altars required worshipers to prepare the ground, gather unhewn stones (see Ex. 20:25), and fit the stones carefully into place. The considerable time and effort spent reflected reverence, respect, and preparation.
While we no longer physically build altars for personal prayer, we can build figurative altars through our faith. Some of the stones available to us include scripture study, meditation, temple attendance, family history work, and service. When we kneel to pray, in a sense we offer up all our spiritual efforts and preparations. If we have not made sufficient effort, it can be equivalent to carelessly throwing stones into a pile for an altar.
Praying with Real Intent
Moroni said it is “counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such” (Moro. 7:9). The question is, How do we determine if we have real intent? Or perhaps a better way to state the question is, What do we intend to do with the answer God reveals to us? If the honest answer is “nothing” or “as little as possible,” we might expect Him to withhold our answer until we intend to willingly comply with all our heart. When we do receive answers, we need to be obedient if we expect further answers to come.
The Savior has given us the supreme example of being willing to do whatever our Father asks, even when the task seems painful or impossible. When faced with drinking the bitterest of all cups, His humble reply was, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39).
Asking for the Right Things
The Savior said, “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you” (3 Ne. 18:20). Other scriptures enlighten us in this area: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (James 4:3); “Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss” (2 Ne. 4:35); “Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not” (D&C 8:10); “Whatsoever ye ask the Father in my name it shall be given unto you, that is expedient for you; and if ye ask anything that is not expedient for you, it shall turn unto your condemnation” (D&C 88:64–65).
It may be clear that we shouldn’t ask for the wrong things, but sometimes it is not as clear how we determine what the right things are to ask for. Asking to pass a test we didn’t study for or to win a lottery are clearly on the “amiss” side of the equation. But what about praying for obstacles to be removed in our lives, relief from afflictions, or help in directions we want to go?
The entry under “prayer” in the Bible Dictionary is insightful: “Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them.”
How is our will brought into correspondence with the will of the Father? The scriptures answer: “He that asketh in the Spirit asketh according to the will of God; wherefore it is done even as he asketh” (D&C 46:30). As we grow in the principle of prayer, we come to recognize that the Lord will guide our words by His Spirit, that the Holy Ghost will inspire us with what we should pray for. As we pray by the Spirit, we will find our minds lifted up as if on eagles’ wings, and our pleadings and praises will resound with the approbation of heaven because our minds will be in harmony with the mind of the Lord. The scriptures say: “And if ye are purified and cleansed from all sin, ye shall ask whatsoever you will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done. But know this, it shall be given you what you shall ask” (D&C 50:29–30).
Discussing why it is necessary for the Holy Ghost to prompt us in our prayers, Elder Maxwell said: “God sees things as they really are and as they will become. We don’t! In order to tap that precious perspective during our prayers, we must rely upon the promptings of the Holy Ghost. With access to that kind of knowledge, we would then pray for what we and others should have—really have. With the Spirit prompting us, we will not ask ‘amiss.’” 2
Finding Answers through Inspired Sources
Sometimes we already have an answer available before we kneel down to pray. The Lord expects us to search the scriptures and the words of living prophets. For example, a healthy Latter-day Saint young man does not need to ask if he should go on a mission. The Lord has already spoken clearly on that matter. It has been said that if we want to talk to the Lord, we pray. If we want the Lord to speak to us, we read the scriptures and the words of the living prophets. The scriptures can literally be a Urim and Thummim by which the Lord can answer our prayers.
Often the Lord requires us to use our own judgment, and therefore He lovingly and tutorially withholds an answer. Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “When we explain a problem and a proposed solution, sometimes He answers yes, sometimes no. Often He withholds an answer, not for lack of concern, but because he loves—perfectly. He wants us to apply truths He has given us. For us to grow, we need to trust our ability to make correct decisions. We need to do what we feel is right. In time, He will answer. He will not fail us.” 3
President Brigham Young stated, “If I ask him [God] to give me wisdom concerning any requirement in life, or in regard to my own course, or that of my friends, my family, my children, or those that I preside over, and get no answer from him, and then do the very best that my judgment will teach me, he is bound to own and honor that transaction, and he will do so to all intents and purposes.” 4
Expressing Praise and Gratitude
Perhaps one reason we sometimes don’t seem to receive answers to our prayers is that we are so concerned about our own needs that we fail to give thanks, praise, and adoration. The scriptures are clear: “Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things. … And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments” (D&C 59:7, 21). President N. Eldon Tanner (1898–1982) of the First Presidency said, “The sin of ingratitude is grievous.” 5
I am grateful that this dispensation was opened because a young man believed in God and asked in prayer for direction (see James 1:5–6). It is today as it has been from the beginning and will be until the end of time: God hears and answers prayers. He is willing to grant us wisdom and help as soon as we are ready to receive.
“Insights,” New Era, Apr. 1978, 6.
“What Should We Pray For?” in Prayer (1977), 45.
“Learning to Recognize Answers to Prayer,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 31.
Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe (1954), 43.
Introduction to Prayer, 3.
Prayer in a Practical Vein
As a single mother, I have had many opportunities to pray for Heavenly Father’s help with all kinds of challenges, from fixing a broken furnace in subfreezing temperatures to seeking a master’s degree so I could earn enough to support my family. Heavenly Father has always responded wisely and generously—though not always as I have expected—and I have come to understand some practical things about prayer.
Starting Each Day with Prayer
I begin my day praying for Heavenly Father’s help in guiding my activities. I am then able to order my priorities correctly and set attainable goals. Many times I have so much to do that I know I can’t get it all done, and I feel overwhelmed. In prayer I choose a few of the most important things to do that day. Often what seemed so important in the daily grind of life takes its proper place during prayer. As I ponder choices and alternatives, the most important tasks seem to become more vivid in my mind, and the less important ones become dimmer (see D&C 9:8–9).
When I have asked for Heavenly Father’s help and if I am receptive to promptings from the Holy Ghost, I am often guided in carrying out the day’s activities. Many times I have seen what I might once have called coincidences happen to help me meet my goals. I feel that beginning the day with prayerful planning, helps all things work together for our good (see D&C 90:24). Even when things don’t go as planned, I am satisfied that I have done my best to seek inspiration and wisdom and that other divinely approved opportunities and lessons are in store for me.
Exercising Spiritual Muscles
Inspiration often comes as we participate in everyday righteous habits. Tasks that can seem mundane are actually the foundation of inspiration, revelation, and miracles. Scripture reading, family prayers, church attendance, and all the things we do hundreds and thousands of times during our lives are stones that build mountains of spirituality. When I am deeply involved in doing a much-needed and worthwhile project, it is easy to bypass often-repeated religious tasks. Yet they are the very tasks that exercise my spiritual muscles and open my understanding to the Lord’s communications.
One habit that helps prepare me for receiving answers to prayers is service. Not only is our spirituality increased when we are thinking of others and looking for ways to serve them, but we can receive blessings of our own. For example, one time a family member needed to pick up a friend at the airport. She didn’t know the way, so I took time despite my busy schedule to drive her there. At the airport I happened to see a man I knew, and it turned out he was able to give me the name and address of another person I had been praying to find. I counted that episode a blessing of service.
Other good habits that don’t necessarily seem spiritual can contribute to receiving Heavenly Father’s help and influence. For example, Doctrine and Covenants 88:124 [D&C 88:124] has become my standard for work habits: “Cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated.” I have found that by retiring early and arising early, my understanding is enhanced and my energy is increased.
Writing Down Thoughts and Experiences
Writing down thoughts and experiences is an excellent way to recognize and remember inspiration that comes through prayer. I personally find it difficult to take time to write things down, but I am always rewarded when I do. On the other hand, I have lost ideas and insights when I have failed to write them down. One summer morning, for example, I heard beautiful flute music as I awoke. After I got up, I felt I should write down the tune, but it was so vivid in my mind that I thought I would never forget it. I got busy with daily tasks, and when I finally made time to write down the tune it was gone from my memory.
Often inspiration comes as a flood. Many times problems have more than one possible solution, and some challenges have many facets to deal with. When we ask for help in prayer, inspiration may come then or later with many answers for many aspects of our request. In such cases, writing down the flood of ideas becomes the only way to save all the ideas. Often I find myself needing to write in short sentences or sentence fragments, perhaps returning later to organize and complete my notes after the flood is over.
Our minds work on problems while we sleep, and sometimes when we wake up our minds will surge with ideas. It is wise to have paper and pen handy for such moments. In fact, many people who deal in ideas keep paper handy at all times. While we control when we pray, we cannot predict when the Spirit will speak ideas and inspiration to our minds.
Gratitude encourages a positive attitude that enables inspiration to flow to us. Gratitude mirrors our priorities: what we are thankful for reminds us of what means the most to us. Gratitude influences our spiritual progress: what we are grateful for tends to be increased, and what we are not grateful for is decreased or eliminated.
An attitude of gratitude helps us prayerfully use opportunities that would otherwise be a burden. For example, driving is a burden for me. During a special project at work, it was necessary for me to drive long distances. By directing my attitude into positive gratitude, I found those drives to be valuable for thinking without everyday interruptions. The long stretches often became a time to communicate my thoughts and feelings to God. We can find many other ways to turn seemingly wasted or irritating facets of life into opportunities that increase our prayerfulness and receptivity to inspiration.
I am grateful that prayer can be a constant part of our lives if we so choose. Some people see the gospel as a religious compartment that is removed from the daily tasks and concerns of life, but in reality the gospel is a necessary component of everyday living. Prayer is the most powerful source I know of to plan and accomplish our goals and dreams, overcome or endure our problems and challenges, and grow closer to Heavenly Father each day.
A Testimony of Prayer
“Believe in prayer,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley. “I remind you that the Church came out of an initial prayer offered by the boy Joseph Smith. … The Lord will hear the prayers of faithful people as certainly as He heard the prayers of the boy Joseph. I believe that with all my heart” (in Church News, 2 Oct. 1999, 2). Following are expressions by members showing the blessings and strength that come through prayer.
Prayer with Mother
Just before our family vacation to visit my parents, I became extremely ill. Not wanting to disappoint my husband and family, I told them I felt well enough to go.
After we arrived, I spent most of my time in bed recuperating. While my family went with Grandpa to see the sights, I spent long hours talking with my mom. I told her my frustrations. In tears, I lamented that I felt powerless against my illness and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to care for my children.
My mother paused, then took my hand in hers and offered a prayer for me. She explained my frustrations to Heavenly Father and pleaded for my return to health. When she finished, I felt at peace. I returned home reassured that Heavenly Father had heard my mother’s prayer. Although my illness persisted, I dealt with it better.
Months later, my daughter, then a senior in high school, came to me with a difficult challenge. Still physically weak, I wondered how I could help her. As I pondered the situation, I remembered my mother’s prayer for me. I took my daughter’s hand in mine and knelt with her to pray. I thanked Heavenly Father for her and explained her problem. I asked Father in Heaven to help her. After our prayer, she hugged me and expressed her feelings of comfort.
As I reflected on the experience, a flood of memories came over me as I thought of all the times as a child—and as an adult—I had heard my parents pray for me. Humbled, I realized the heritage of prayer in my family. My ancestors, members of the handcart companies, prayed for strength when they felt they could go no farther. Thanks to them and their descendants, this tradition of prayer has been passed from one generation to the next—from my mother to me and now from me to my children.
Jesus Christ prayed for us too, setting the example of prayer for all (see John 17:20–21). And when He later visited the Nephites, He wept as “he prayed unto the Father, and the things which he prayed cannot be written. …
“… And he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them.
“And when he had done this he wept again” (3 Ne. 17:15, 21–22).
Gratitude fills my heart for a loving Savior who would teach us to pray, and pray for us.—, Nampa 16th Ward, Nampa Idaho Stake
The Unyielding Knob
The heat can be extreme in Coalinga, California, where my family once lived. On one particular day the temperature was 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 °C) and climbing. We had a good air conditioner in the front-room window, but for some reason it stopped functioning. I decided to use our backup evaporative cooling unit, but, try as I may, I could not turn the knob controlling the water. I became concerned because I was home alone with my three small children.
Desperate, I used a dampened cloth to assist in gripping the knob; then I used a hammer to try to jar it loose. Neither attempt worked.
I told the children we were going to say a prayer to our Father in Heaven and ask for help. This we did. After the prayer, I looked up. The children were all looking directly at me, confident now that I could take care of this problem. I wasn’t so sure, but as I looked at the knob I felt an overwhelming urge to give it just one more try.
It not only turned—it nearly bent from the strength in my fingers.
Veronica, our three-year-old daughter, said, “Heavenly Father did help you, huh, Mom?”
This was a beautiful learning experience to have such a prayer answered in the presence of my children. We knelt again and offered a humble prayer of thanks.—, Carpinteria Ward, Santa Barbara California Stake
A Prayer That I Might Teach
A few years ago I taught an extremely difficult and troubled group of children in school. I was upset by my inability to reach them and found myself depressed and tearful as I left school each day.
One day the woman working with me as an aide, who was not a Church member, told me she had been praying for a calming influence to enter the classroom so I could teach. She knew the power of prayer and was, I feel, prompted by the Spirit to tell me of her prayers to remind me what I should do.
I realized that I had been so involved with the problem that I had neglected to go to Heavenly Father for help. From then on I frequently found myself on my knees before school began, praying for inspiration. As the weeks went by, a calming spirit did enter the classroom and I was able to see that some progress was being made with the children. There were still moments of frustration, but I seemed better equipped to deal with them. I learned from this that the Holy Ghost influences us in simple ways to allow great things to happen in our lives.—, Verdugo Hills First Ward, La Crescenta California Stake
President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor in the First Presidency, has said, “We learn to pray by praying. One can devote countless hours to examining the experiences of others, but nothing penetrates the human heart as does a personal, fervent prayer and its heaven-sent response.
“Such was the example of the boy Samuel. Such was the experience of young Nephi. Such was the far-reaching prayer of the youth Joseph Smith. Such can be the blessing of one who prays” (“Teach the Children,” Ensign, Nov. 1997, 17).