Answered Prayers or Coincidence?

The Lord’s subtle way of answering prayers sometimes escapes us.

I was serving as a bishop of a student ward at the University of Utah when doctors diagnosed blood clots in my leg and in my lung. They suspected heart damage. I was put on blood-thinner in the hospital and scheduled for an angiogram on a Saturday.

Members of my student ward organized a fast for me and met in the chapel at noon of that same Saturday. The group included two ward members who played for the university’s basketball team and had a game scheduled that night. The faith and sacrifice of these young, committed Latter-day Saints touched me.

The angiogram took longer than usual. The technicians could not find any blood clots, although they photographed me from every possible angle. Soon the hospital diagnosis changed to pneumonia, and I was released after a couple of days. A treadmill test later showed my heart to be in perfect condition.

“They just misdiagnosed you,” some friends observed. “Maybe you didn’t even need to go to the hospital and could have just taken antibiotics.” But I have a testimony that something else happened: the Lord responded to the fasting and prayers of my family and friends and healed me of a serious health risk.

When the Lord answers our prayers, it’s easy for us to say, “Lord, forget that request a few days ago. I’ve taken care of it myself.” We think that we have done something ourselves, or that what occurred by divine direction was merely a coincidence. A number of experiences have convinced me otherwise. The Lord constantly blesses our lives, but often we fail to recognize those blessings.

Why are answers to prayer often difficult to recognize? Possibly because they usually come quietly, unfolding naturally in our lives without drama or fanfare. Sometimes, too, we don’t consider ourselves worthy to receive answers and fail to recognize our Father in Heaven’s love for us. Finally, answers to prayers aren’t always the answers we expected or even necessarily asked for.

While I served as a student-ward bishop, I once counseled a student couple in a difficult situation. The young woman was twenty years old and from an active LDS family in the East. Her parents had instilled in their children high moral expectations. Her boyfriend was also from the East but was not a member of the Church. They were in love, and she was expecting a child. During our discussion, they asked me if I would perform their marriage ceremony.

The young woman was extremely upset because of the transgression—which isn’t my focus here—and because she didn’t know how to tell her parents what had happened. We decided that on Wednesday of that particular week, she would mail a twenty-four-hour-delivery letter to them explaining what had happened, then call Friday evening to talk with them. The three of us knelt and prayed, asking Father in Heaven to prepare the parents for what would be very disappointing news.

Several days later, the young woman called me. She was upset because her parents hadn’t received the letter and, even worse, had just left town for a trip to the Washington Temple. They wouldn’t be home until Saturday night. “Let’s think about what’s happening here,” I said. “Isn’t it odd that a guaranteed express letter hasn’t yet arrived and that, in the interim, your parents felt impressed to go to the temple? Isn’t that a pretty good place for the Lord to touch their hearts?”

The parents arrived home Saturday night and found the letter. They then called their daughter in Salt Lake City. Despite lots of tears, the conversation went well. I talked with the father myself on the night before this couple was married and assured him that the repentance process was under way and that the groom was a good man already interested in learning more about the Church. The parents sent a telegram to the couple on the wedding day expressing their love, and during a spring break the couple had a wonderful visit with the bride’s family.

I share this story to emphasize that when we pray for help, the response usually comes quietly and naturally, just as it did for this young couple. And responses can and do come even when we make mistakes. Our Heavenly Father loves all of his children, all of the time.

I once took a bus to Logan, Utah, and a young woman asked if the seat next to me was taken, although there were plenty of other seats available. After finding out that I was LDS, she told me that she, too, was a Latter-day Saint, from Canada, and we began a two-and-a-half-hour conversation. Because of a serious moral transgression, this young woman had lost her Church membership. She was very discouraged about the road her life had taken, and she needed to talk to someone.

I tried to provide the encouragement she needed. We discussed the gospel plan and the opportunity for repentance. I bore my testimony frequently to her during our brief time together. She thanked me as I got off the bus and said she couldn’t believe she had shared this story with a stranger. I told her that it was not a coincidence that we had sat together; a loving Heavenly Father had known that one of his daughters needed encouragement and had given me an opportunity to provide it.

This sister and I exchanged correspondence for a while. I found out that when I had got off the bus in Logan, another man had got on and picked my empty seat. He was an active Latter-day Saint, and the two had continued talking about the gospel all the way to Butte, Montana. After a year had passed, the young lady called me from her bishop’s house in Canada to tell me she was going to be baptized.

Was the bus ride another coincidence? Some may say yes, but I think not. Perhaps neither of us had been praying to have that particular experience—but maybe someone close to the young woman had. Whatever the circumstances, a Father in Heaven whose love reaches out to all his children wanted someone to help one of his daughters who had gone astray.

When things like that happen, I try to jot down a few notes about them. These kinds of experiences, although not earth-shattering, need to be remembered. Otherwise, we either forget them or mentally place them in the “coincidence file.”

Other kinds of answers to prayer that we tend to ascribe to coincidence come during trials. Because these answers help us carry the burdens we bear but don’t necessarily lift the burdens altogether, we may not even acknowledge that relief has occurred if we aren’t sensitive to the way the Lord works.

I know a devout Latter-day Saint woman who must have asked her Father in Heaven “Why?” many times because of the adversities she has endured. Yet she still recognizes Heavenly Father’s responses and the relief his answers bring her. Her daughter was born with a spinal defect and is still in a wheelchair. And several years ago, great tragedy disrupted their happy family.

One day her husband, always on time, was expected home at noon. He never called, and he never came home. The family called the police, then the F.B.I. A week later they found his sports car in another state. It had been in a wreck, and inside was a knife with blood on it, but not enough blood to get a blood type.

The authorities issued a death certificate a year and a half after the husband’s disappearance to assist in legal matters, but this woman’s husband has never been found.

And yet my friend is one of the most cheerful, easygoing individuals I have ever met—not bitter, not frustrated, not angry. When she tells her story, she tells of the comfort and strength Heavenly Father has extended to her during this difficult period of life. She speaks of the unending support of ward members and of the peace she has found in the holy temple. She exemplifies how the Lord always seems to give us relief when we seek his help.

I’ve also observed that even when people lose contact with the Lord, he is sometimes able to reach them through promptings—unasked-for answers to prayer, you might call them, that let us know we are moving in the wrong direction. Young people leaving home for the first time, especially those going off to school and away from parents and lifelong friends who know them well, need to be especially aware of the way God sends quiet messages.

There have been many times during the past few years that my phone rang at home and the individual at the other end of the line—often with a shaky and emotional voice—said, “Bishop, my name is so-and-so. I’ve not been active for a while, and things aren’t going right in my life. I’m not very happy and think I need to get back to church. Could I set up an appointment with you?”

A young man in our stake who had lost his membership later began the procedure for coming back. When the stake president asked why he wanted to return, the young man replied, “To be able to live again in the presence of my Father in Heaven.” He went on to describe what it was like to live without the Spirit. He missed his assignments, missed not being able to home teach. And he learned that a testimony needs constant nourishment if one is to stay in tune with spiritual promptings.

This longing to return to Heavenly Father and again partake of the blessings of the Church is another quiet and natural answer from heaven—for those who recognize the promptings. For those who ignore them, however, the longing subsides and the adversary soon takes advantage of the situation. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once observed that we lose our susceptibility for religious impressions as we grow older. The scriptures describe it as being “past feeling.”

The longer we ignore spiritual promptings, the more the subtleties of God’s influence in our lives escape us. Sometimes members want to establish a “track record” before they visit with their bishop, thinking that it’s better to report that they have been faithful members of the Church for six months rather than a week. But I have found this approach to be very dangerous.

A young man in my ward who had a problem after his mission wanted to establish this “track record” before going to the bishop. He told me it was the biggest mistake he ever made. “I should have seen my bishop right away,” he said. “Under the adversary’s promptings, I moved even further in the wrong direction. I haven’t been active for three years.” When he did come in, I could see the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll those years had taken.

The Spirit whispers to us all the time. But we often don’t take the time to listen, especially if our spiritual antennae are rusty. But if we are in tune, the message will be clear and direct—helping us, comforting us, and even saving us on those occasions when God intervenes on our behalf.

When my oldest daughter, Heidi Sonntag, was seven-months pregnant, she was in a car accident that left her unconscious and in the hospital. Although Heidi had cuts on the top of her head, and her shoulders, chest, legs, and arms were bruised and sore, her abdomen remained unharmed. The baby was protected—a blessing for which my wife, Karyn, and I thanked our Father in Heaven.

But a few weeks later, despite the physicians’ reports that the baby was doing fine, Karyn felt impressed to encourage an ultrasound scan of the baby. Because of it, the doctors found that the baby was not being properly nourished due to problems with the placenta. The baby was under an extreme amount of stress, probably due to the car accident.

Heidi followed orders for complete bed rest for several weeks, and the baby grew substantially. Had we not arranged for the scan and made the proper corrections, the doctor said that either Heidi would have lost the baby or major complications would have arisen after delivery.

A blessing? A coincidence? I acknowledge the role that chance plays in a world based upon agency. But I have experienced enough answers to prayer to know that we are being watched over by a loving Father in Heaven. He answers our prayers, and we need to recognize those blessings. They bring to us true exhilaration and a sense of well-being that affects almost every aspect of our lives. They also let us know that God loves us and will lead us “in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (Ps. 23:3.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Snow

Raymond A. Haeckel, director of government, community, and public relations at the University of Utah, serves as a high councilor in the Salt Lake Bonneville Stake.