The greatest purpose and challenge in life is to learn to know the Savior. We learn to know him as we live like him by keeping his commandments. Knowing him is increased as we testify of him. But unless we keep his commandments and testify of him, we will not achieve our full purpose in life. The world has many good people who do many wonderful things but who cannot testify of the Savior and his mission.
In our pursuit of a righteous life, we all experience trials, disappointments, discouragements, and frustrations. Never-ending problems seem to be a constant situation. They come to all of us. None are shielded; none are exempt from problems.
While I was a bishop and stake president in Arizona, I honestly thought that the General Authorities were fortunate because they didn’t have anything to worry about except running the Church. And then I became a General Authority. I have found that all of the Brethren struggle with problems—in their personal lives, in their families, and with their health—that challenge the very best of them. And these are trials that I certainly wouldn’t want to trade with them.
We have all been aware of President Kimball’s health problems. I remember several years ago when I was called into the Presiding Bishopric and we were invited into a room in the temple where the newly sustained Brethren were to be set apart. Prior to the setting apart the Brethren were going to give a blessing to President Kimball, who was then President of the Quorum of the Twelve, because he was going to have open-heart surgery within a few days.
I thought as I saw him seated in his chair, with the Apostles’ hands on his head, “Why? Why should a man who has been through what he has endured now have to go through open-heart surgery?” I knew the Lord could heal him in an instant if he chose to, and I wondered why he didn’t. But now I understand, as I’m sure you do, that the Lord was preparing a man, an Apostle, to be his prophet. He wanted a prophet and a president who would listen to him, who could receive the promptings of the Spirit and would be open to them.
These are the reasons for the continual trials with which we are all faced. We need these experiences so that we might draw closer to the Lord and learn to depend on him for everything. That is what he wants for each of us. More than anything else, he wants us to know him.
Perhaps you find it difficult to pray because you aren’t sure the Lord is listening; maybe you aren’t sure if he is even there; or maybe you feel guilty or unworthy. But whatever the reason, your communication isn’t what it ought to be.
Have you ever knelt down alone and asked the Lord for something that is really important to you, and then gotten up and found that your prayer wasn’t answered as you had hoped? I have. Have you ever continually prayed for many days for something special and then found that it didn’t happen as you desired? I have. In times past, on more than a few occasions, I have gotten up off my knees and wondered in despair, “What’s the use in trying?” He isn’t even listening,” or “Maybe I’m not worthy,” or “Maybe I just don’t understand the signals.”
A few years ago, after one such frustrating experience in prayer, I was thinking about my experiences with my earthly father who has been dead for some time. I remembered that when he was alive, I could always go to him and talk to him about anything, and he would listen to me. He was not a perfect man, but he would listen. I want you to know that I know that whenever one of Heavenly Father’s children kneels and talks to him, he listens. I know this as well as I know anything in this world—that Heavenly Father listens to every prayer from his children. I know our prayers ascend to heaven. No matter what we may have done wrong, he listens to us.
I also believe he answers us. I don’t believe he ignores his children when they talk to him. The problem in our communication with him is that not all of us have learned how to listen for his answers, or perhaps we are not prepared to hear him. I believe we receive his answers as we prepare ourselves to receive them.
As we go through life, we ofttimes build a rock wall between ourselves and heaven. This wall is built by our sins we have not repented of. For example, in our wall there may be stones of many different sizes and shapes. There could be stones because we have been unkind to someone. Criticism of leaders or teachers may add another stone. A lack of forgiveness may add another. Vulgar thoughts and actions may add some rather large stones in this wall. Dishonesty will add another; selfishness another; and so on.
In spite of the wall we build in front of us, when we cry out to the Lord, he still sends his messages from heaven; but instead of being able to penetrate our hearts, they hit the wall that we have built up and they bounce off. His messages don’t penetrate, so we say, “He doesn’t hear me,” or “He doesn’t answer me.” Sometimes this wall is very formidable, and the great challenge of life is to destroy it, or, in other words, to cleanse ourselves, purifying this inner vessel so that we can be in tune with the Spirit.
Let me give you some examples. I suppose we have all had someone do something to us that we didn’t like, and that made us angry. We can’t forget it, and we don’t want to be around that person. This is called being unforgiving. Now, the Lord has had some very strong words to say to those who will not forgive one another. Many years ago I had an experience with being unforgiving. I felt I had been taken advantage of, and I did not like that person. I did not want to be around him; I would pass on the other side of the street if he came down it; I wouldn’t talk to him. Long after the issue should have been finished it was still like a canker to my soul. I decided that I was going to pray for a better feeling about this person until I had one. That night I got on my knees, and I prayed and opened up my heart to the Lord. But when I got up off my knees, I still didn’t like that person. The next morning I knelt and prayed and asked to have a feeling of goodness toward him; but when I finished my prayers, I still didn’t like him. The next night I still didn’t like him; a week later I didn’t like him; and a month later I didn’t like him—and I had been praying every night and every morning. But I continued to pray, and I finally started pleading—not just praying, but pleading. After much prayer, the time came when without question or reservation I knew I could stand before the Lord, if I were asked to, and that he would know that at least in this instance my heart was pure. A change had come over me after a period of time. The stone of unforgiveness had been removed.
The way we live our lives determines our eligibility to receive the promptings of the Spirit and to hear the answers to our prayers. Again, let there be no misunderstanding. Heavenly Father does answer our prayers, but often we aren’t prepared to hear him. Some are answered immediately, but some do take longer, and that’s where we may become discouraged.
A few years ago I had an assignment that took me to Germany. I had been sick with the flu before I left, and I wasn’t sure if I ought to go: but I felt that I had better make the trip because of what had been planned and because of the many people who were depending on me. After the flight from New York to Frankfurt, Germany, I was tired and not feeling well. I was alone, and I didn’t speak German, so I checked into the hotel at the airport. Before going to my room, I went to the pharmacy and got a medicinal spray to disinfect my throat. It was in a push-button canister that dispenses the medication through a finger-length piece of plastic tubing that you stick down into your throat.
I went to my room and prepared to rest for a while; but when I began to spray my throat, the plastic tube came loose and drove itself down my throat and into my chest. I couldn’t feel it, but I knew there was a 7 1/2 cm piece of plastic somewhere, and I didn’t know what to do. I coughed. I did all that I could to get rid of it. Then I began to worry—not that I would die, for I knew that I wasn’t near death. But there were people waiting for me in various countries where I was to be traveling for the next three weeks, and I knew that if something didn’t happen right away I would end up in the hospital to have the plastic pipe removed surgically. So I needed immediate help. I knelt at my bed and told the Lord that I had no place to go; I didn’t speak German; I didn’t know a doctor; I didn’t know anyone; and there were people waiting for me. And I asked him to please remove this tubing. I got up from praying, and in two seconds it came out of my throat. You see, there are some answers to prayers that come immediately.
There are other times when you might wonder if he is ever going to answer our prayers. About twenty-two years ago our fourth daughter was born. After she was born, the doctor told my wife that she shouldn’t have any more children. We talked about it, and she said. “I feel that there is another child for us.” So we decided, of course, that we were going to have another baby.
Well, a year went by, and the baby didn’t come; and two years went by. Finally, after eight years of praying, my wife said, “Guess what? We’re going to have a baby.” Prayers, you see, are sometimes answered quickly, but other times you pray a long, long time before you get what you want.
As we learn how to listen to the promptings of the Spirit, as we prepare ourselves to receive them, we must also learn to obey what we feel prompted to do. One of the great challenges of life is to live to receive the message and then to have the courage to obey it.
Regardless of your circumstances, in good times or in bad, I plead with you to do the following.
Tonight, if it’s possible for you to be alone, go where you can be alone. If you can’t be alone, do what I suggest anyway.
Think about who you are praying to, for ofttimes we kneel and start to pray so quickly that we don’t have in mind to whom we are praying. Frequently, I will try to picture in my mind a painting of the Savior. Now, I’m not exactly sure what Heavenly Father looks like, but that thought gives me something to contemplate as I kneel.
And then as you think to whom you are praying, speak out loud to him—or, if you wish, whisper to him. Address him as your Father and say what you would like to say to him. Be sincere with him, and talk about the things you want to talk about. Thank him for what he has done for you. Confide in him; let him know what’s in your heart. Ask him for some help. Enjoy his Spirit. Tell him you love him. I don’t know how many of you have prayed out loud and in that vocal prayer have told the Lord that you love him, but that is a great experience.
After you have talked to him, listen to him. You must listen carefully, or you are going to miss his answers. Sometimes people will pray for a minute, or two, or five, or fifteen, and then not even listen for a second. Perhaps something different would happen if you continued to kneel at your chair or your bed (after you prayed) for a minute, or two, or five, or fifteen, until you get that good, warm feeling that you have received an answer. Then you know the Lord has heard your prayer. You know he’s there, and you know that you have finally found a way to allow him to get his messages through to you. A great experience comes to those who feel the Spirit.
I testify that the Lord is in his heavens. I know he listens to us and answers us. I know, too, that we must be prepared to hear him. Without prayer we will never really know our Heavenly Father or his Son, the Savior; and without prayer we cannot return to him.