My daughter was about five the day she gazed thoughtfully at her grandmother and said, “Grandmother, 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.”
Lynne wanted to know why Grandmother hadn’t prayed about it. I replied that Grandmother 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.”
“The learning helps us grow. And besides, what if two people wanted the same thing to have different measurements?”
“Oh. That would be a problem.” At the tender age of five, Lynne came to at least partly understand a problem that many of us are still trying to define more exactly. 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).
God has said, “Ask and ye shall receive,” (D&C 4:7) 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.
We all know people who 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 chose, and how to teach children to keep clean rooms. They bear moving testimony of direct daily help in solving problems.
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.
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. 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 lead to problems in marriage.
When Bob asked me to marry him, 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” (see D&C 9:8) in my heart if marrying Bob were right, or a “stupor of thought” (see D&C 9:9) 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.
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 know now that I wanted God to take all the risk out of my marriage, and hoped that he would guarantee a good relationship with my 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 would 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 enter 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.
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, be 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 intentions” which the Lord recognizes and respects. Our hidden desires 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. (See D&C 36:7)
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 bring no recognizable answer are not easily solved by the usual method 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.
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 of him; we cannot begin to understand our world or its pain and sorrow.
Ancient Israel found that it was difficult to maintain trust in God, largely because they did not follow the directions God gave them for maintaining trust in Him. For many Jews, Nephites, and Christians, continued trust in the Lord has required more study, will power, desire, experience, and prayer than they were willing to give. The person most capable of knowing God and trusting him is one who studies the scriptures, thinks about them, follows their guidance in ordinary living, and prays not only to declare gratitude or ask help but to develop a relationship with God.
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 is not a product of man’s thinking and therefore is not limited by man’s perception of Him. 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 feet 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.