I have always been taught to pray, but often I don’t seem to get answers. I have faith and I think I’m worthy. What should I do?
, President of the California Oakland Mission
Your question is a common one. I think we all have struggled with the problem of “unanswered” prayers. That’s a difficult situation to be in. We usually don’t worry about whether or not our prayers are being answered when all is well. It’s when we’re in trouble, when we have special needs, that we seek with some intensity to obtain answers to our prayers. And when those answers don’t come, our need seems to increase.
It’s natural in that situation to contemplate, “Where are you Heavenly Father?” “Are you listening?”
We can answer those questions by remembering that God is constant. He operates by pre-established principles, not unwisely or by whim. We should also remember that he has promised to not leave us alone.
So, it seems to me that if we’re not getting answers to our prayers the problem is in us or in our asking, not in the Lord.
What are some common problems that may be holding us back from receiving answers? One is that we ask impatiently. We sometimes expect the Lord to give us immediate answers. But he hasn’t promised that—and sometimes it’s for our good that he waits. Sometimes when the Lord doesn’t answer our questions immediately—or within a day, or a week, or a month—we assume that he isn’t going to answer them at all. That, of course, is a serious mistake. As long as we continue in our prayers we have the promise of an answer. But we’ve never been promised an answer to questions that we don’t ask and we’ve never been promised an immediate answer.
A second problem is that we don’t listen. Our senses are constantly bombarded with other information: we kneel to pray and feel the floor under our knees or our arms folded across our chests; a truck rumbles past the house; rain hits the window pane; the clock ticks loudly in the corner. No wonder it’s difficult to find enough spiritual quiet to hear the things the Lord is trying to tell us. But we can make things even worse by failing to make a real effort to listen. We utter our prayers, even with feeling and sincerity, and then immediately rise and jump into bed, rise and run to work, rise and converse with a family member about non-related concerns.
How can the Lord get us to hear an answer under those conditions? It takes practice and patience to learn how to receive spiritual communications in the best of circumstances. Again, the difficulty is not with the Lord; it is with us. I believe he will give us answers rather freely, but if we are not listening or if we are not in tune, we may not receive or understand the answer. The result is that we may think the Lord is not even listening, when the real problem is that we’re not listening.
We can learn to listen by trying to rid ourselves of outside interference—as well as inside interference-and by taking the time just to feel the Spirit.
What else should we consider as we attempt to receive answers to prayer? First, we must not expect the Lord to do all the work for us. Oliver Cowdery received a special revelation from the Lord teaching him that principle: “Behold, you have not understood,” he was told. “You have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.” (D&C 9:7.) Then the Lord explained the process: We should first study the problem out in our minds, consider the various factors involved, and come to a decision. Then we may go to the Lord to seek his approval, redirection, or further counsel.
Second, we must be careful not to “ask for that which we ought not” (D&C 8:10). Sometimes we ask for things that would not be in our best interest. In such cases the Lord is being very kind when he doesn’t grant our requests. But when we want something very much, we often times don’t hear any answer unless it is the answer we want. And since the Lord isn’t going to give us something he knows would be harmful for us, we think he isn’t answering us at all.
Third, we must be willing to work for the answers to our prayers. If we pray to get out of debt and then just sit around waiting for someone to miraculously come up and give us the exact amount we need, we’ll probably be disappointed. If we pray to get out of debt, we should be willing to work hard enough and be smart enough to make it happen. When missionaries pray to be led to the honest in heart, they must be willing to move their feet in the direction shown them. If a person prays for a testimony, he must do his part by studying and living the commandments.
Fourth, we must learn how to recognize the answers when they come. A person might do all of the above and still not hear what the Lord is trying to tell him. Part of the difficulty may stem from the fact that he just doesn’t know the voice of the Lord; he may not know how it feels to have a prayer answered, so he doesn’t recognize the answer when it comes.
There are many ways prayers may be answered. Joseph Smith often had heavenly visitations. Moses heard a voice from a burning bush. Some people receive dreams. I must confess that I have never seen a vision nor had such a dream, nor have I ever heard an audible voice speak to me from the other side. But I can identify with Enos, who said, “While I was thus struggling in the spirit, behold, the voice of the Lord came into my mind.”
This is the way the Lord usually answers my prayers. Perhaps he knows it is the way I’m best prepared to hear him.
He answers others in other ways. He spoke to Oliver Cowdery about a feeling like a burning in the bosom (see D&C 9:8). That feeling comes to different people in different ways, I’ve learned. For some it’s a warm feeling in their chest. For others it’s a feeling of exhilaration. For still others it may come in yet another way.
But we must remember that the burning in the bosom is not the method of answering prayers that the Lord mentions the most. In revelations to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Hyrum Smith, the Lord talks about answering prayers by enlightening the mind, speaking peace to the mind, telling the person “in your mind and in your heart,” filling the soul with joy (see D&C 6:15, 23; D&C 8:2; D&C 11:13–14). He will speak to us in ways that will be most effective for our own conditions. We must learn to recognize how we feel when the Spirit is with us and when he is communicating to us.
Sometimes the answer to our prayers is no. We can receive that answer in the form of a “stupor of thought” (D&C 9:90); or it may come as a dark feeling, a feeling of disquiet and unrest, a feeling of uneasiness.
I’m afraid I’m making this all sound very complicated. Actually it isn’t once we learn. When we righteously seek help and counsel from the Lord, remembering the principles we’ve considered here, we’ll grow in our ability to receive and interpret the answers to our prayers.
Our Father is not a cruel, uncaring Being. He loves us; he wants us to grow and progress. And he stands willing to answer our prayers. He promised through James, the brother of Jesus: “If any of you lack wisdom [or need comfort, or seek direction, or need help in overcoming the chains of sin, or desire heavenly assistance] let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
“But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.” (James 1:5–6.)