The scriptures have said, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Prov. 22:6.) And again, “As the twig is bent, so shall the tree be inclined.” It is obvious that if youth will establish correct habits of thought and action, pitfalls will be avoided, and a great and powerful generation will be developed.
In my extensive travels I am meeting many young men and women who are desirous of filling missions—young people who are preparing to go into the service of teaching the world a better life. I find many dedicated and clean. I find others equally personable, able, and eager, but who are not wholly prepared nor worthy to represent their Lord—some who have had distressing patterns of thought and action.
I remember the scripture which asks the question: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?” And the answer: “He that hath clean hands and a pure heart.” (Ps. 24:3–4.) We are now urging every boy to fill a mission. I always ask these prospective missionaries, whose hands have not been wholly clean and whose hearts have not been wholly pure, “How much, how often, how devoutly do you pray?” The answers have shocked me, for I could not believe that so many young men and women would fail to pray consistently.
As I interview numerous older people for important positions, again I am shocked. “Do you have your prayers regularly night and morning?” I ask. And many answer that they do have family prayers sometimes. Many try to pray once a day and feel that they are meeting requirements. Others shrug it off by saying they cannot get their families together—life is so demanding.
A certain seminary teacher asked his 35 youngsters the searching question, “Did your family have its prayer this morning?” Of the 35, two had had their prayers; 33 families had been too busy, too late, too hurried, or too disinterested.
Why should we pray? Because we are the sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, on whom we depend for everything we enjoy—our food and clothing, our health, our life itself, our sight and hearing, our voices, our locomotion, even our brains.
Do you not realize your dependence as you stand in perfect health with your opportunities? Do you think that they are of your providing? Do you give to yourself your breath, your life, your being? Can you lengthen your days by .a single hour? Are you so strong without the gifts of heaven? Are your brains made by self, and did you fashion them? Can you give life or give it prolongation? Do you have power to do without your Lord? Yet I find that many fail to pray. We are commanded to do so by our all-wise Heavenly Father: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5.)
One young man in his early teens lacked wisdom but was not lacking in faith or sincerity. His prayer opened a closed heaven and a confused world for further exploration. The common woods were made sacred that day; they blazed in glory. The trees were hallowed and the soil made holy ground.
The Lord has given us this solemn commandment: “He that observeth not his prayers before the Lord in the season thereof, let him be had in remembrance before the judge of my people.” (D&C 68:33.) “And they shall also teach their children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord.” (D&C 68:28.) “I command thee that thou shalt pray vocally as well as in thy heart; yea, before the world as in secret, in public as well as in private.” (D&C 19:28.)
When should we pray? The answer: pray always. But to be more specific, the Church urges that there be family prayer every night and every morning. It is a kneeling prayer with all or as many members of the family present as possible. Many have found the most effective time is at the breakfast and at the dinner table. Then it is least difficult to get the family members together. These prayers need not be long, especially if little children are on their knees. All of the members of the family, including the little ones, should have opportunity to be mouth in the prayer, in turn.
Many young men have stirred their non-praying families by saying, “In the mission field I will need all the blessings of the Lord, and it would be most helpful to me if I could be assured that every night and morning as I prepare for my day’s proselyting, I could know with certainty that all the members of my family were on their knees, including my needs in their prayers.”
We should express gratitude for past blessings. Paul says:
“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men;
“For kings, and for all that are in authority.” (1 Tim. 2:1–2.)
This will help develop loyalty to country and to leaders. One can hardly be critical of Church leadership if honest prayers are offered for them. Children will come to honor leaders for whom they pray.
The all-encompassing missionary work should be the object of our prayers. When each child prays all his life for the missionaries, he will be a great missionary. We pray for understanding, wisdom, judgment. We pray for loved ones, the sick, and those in need. We pray for the frustrated, the disturbed, the sinful. These prayers are largely general, and then our personal prayers are more specific. They fall into at least two categories. There are the formal prayers where we kneel regularly. Here we talk to the Lord more intimately. We pray for some of the same things as in our family prayers, but more for our immediate and pressing needs. We express our innermost thoughts. We confess our weaknesses. We plead for help to overcome and for forgiveness of our transgressions, our evil thoughts. We bare our souls.
Can anyone long have an enemy or continue to hate one for whom he prays? Here one sheds all pretense, sham, deceit. He stands before his Maker as he really is, without affectation or subterfuge. There are the personal prayers which are less formal. We always have a prayer in our hearts that we may do our best on the football field, that we may appear well in the classroom, that we may remember the things we have learned when the test is on, that we may be impressive to our friends. We pray as we stand to speak, as we walk, as we drive. We remember our friends, our enemies. We pray for wisdom and judgment. We pray for protection in dangerous places and for strength in moments of temptation. We utter momentary prayers in word or thought, aloud or in the deepest silence. Can one do evil when honest prayers are in his heart and on his lips?
The Lord told Joseph Knight, Sr., “You must take up your cross, in the which you must pray vocally before the world as well as in secret, and in your family, and among your friends, and in all places.” (D&C 23:6.)
This is what has disturbed me when I have interviewed numerous prospective missionaries: Too often I find them not praying, even though they have unforgiven follies. “Why don’t you pray,” I have asked, “when you have such great obligations to repay? Your hands are clean from earth stains but not from the deeper blots that ordinary water will not cleanse. Why don’t you pray when you have such a debt to pay? Do you think you can merely write it off and shrug your shoulders and rationalize that it is just a common practice? Why don’t you pray? Are you ashamed to kneel, ashamed of Christ?
“Is there some disbelief in God? Do you not know he lives and loves, forgives when repentance is forthcoming? Do you know that sins cannot be erased, transgressions cannot be forgiven through evasion and mere forgetfulness?”
Peter says, “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.” (1 Pet. 3:12.)
The Lord has promised he will answer, not always as we would ask, but as is for our good. We ask for what we want, rather than for what we should have. The Lord has said through Moroni:
“Strip yourselves of all uncleanness; ask not, that you may consume it on your lusts, but ask with a firmness unshaken, that ye will yield to no temptation, but that ye will serve the true and living God.
“… see that ye do all things in worthiness, and do it in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Morm. 9:28–29.)
Great decisions must be made by most of us. The Lord has provided a way for these answers. If the question is which school, what occupation, where to live, whom to marry, or such other vital questions, you should do all that is possible to solve it. Too often, like Oliver Cowdery, we want our answers without effort. The Lord said to him:
“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
“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.” (D&C 9:7–9.)
The Lord does answer our prayers, but sometimes we are not responsive enough to know when and how they are answered. We want the “writing on the wall” or an angel to speak or a heavenly voice. Often our requests are so absurd that the Lord has said, “Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not.” (D&C 8:10.)
There must be works with faith. How futile it would be to ask the Lord to give us knowledge, but the Lord will help us to acquire knowledge, to study constructively, to think clearly, and to retain things we have learned. How stupid to ask the Lord to protect us if we unnecessarily drive at excessive speeds, if we eat or drink destructive elements. Can we ask him to provide us material things if we give no effort? “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:20.)
You who pray sometimes, why not pray more regularly, more often, more devoutly? Is time so precious, life so short, or faith so scant? How do you pray? Like publicans or arrogant officials? The Pharisee recounted to the Lord his many virtues. He was not an extortioner, unjust, an adulterer like the publican or other men. He fasted twice a week and tithed possessions. But the publican standing humbly in the background “would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13.)
In your secret prayers do you present yourself with your soul bared, or do you dress yourself in fancy coverings and pressure God to see your virtues? Do you emphasize your goodness and cover your sins with a blanket of pretense? Or do you plead for mercy at the hands of Kind Providence?
Do you get answers to your prayers? If not, perhaps you did not pay the price. Do you offer a few trite words and worn-out phrases, or do you talk intimately to the Lord? Do you pray occasionally when you should be praying regularly, often, constantly? Do you offer pennies to pay heavy debts when you should give dollars to erase that obligation?
When you pray, do you just speak, or do you also listen? Your Savior said, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20.)
The promise is made to everyone. There is no discrimination, no favored few. But the Lord has not promised to crash the door. He stands and knocks. If we do not listen, he will not sup with us nor give answer to our prayers. Do you know how to listen, grasp, interpret, understand? The Lord stands knocking. He never retreats. But he will never force himself upon us. If we ever move apart, it is we who move and not the Lord. And should we ever fail to get an answer to our prayers, we must look into our lives for a reason. We have failed to do what we should, or we have done something we should not have done. We have dulled our hearing or impaired our eyesight.
A young man asked me, “Sometimes I feel so close to my Heavenly Father and such a sweet, spiritual influence; why cannot I have it all the time?” I said, “The answer is with you, not with the Lord, for he stands knocking, eager to come in.”
If you have lost that spirit of peace and acceptance, then every effort should be made to recapture it and retain it. Are you listening? Can you hear, and see, and feel? Or have you sometimes approached the situation of the brothers of Nephi, to whom he said, “Ye have heard his voice from time to time … but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words.” (1 Ne. 17:45.)
There seems to grow upon us a film of worldliness when we move away from the Lord. It might be like the film of grease spread over the body of the swimmer who would cross the English Channel. It fills the pores and covers the skin so there can be less penetration of the cold. It might be like the skin-diver’s rubber suit. But when we pierce the shell and penetrate the covering and humble ourselves with naked soul and sincere supplication and cleansed life, our prayers are answered. We can reach the point where Peter stood, and like him we may “be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
“But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.” (2 Pet. 1:4, 9.)
When you received your confirmation, you were commanded to receive the Holy Ghost. He was not obligated to seek you out. The Lord says, “I will visit thy brethren according to their diligence in keeping my commandments.” (Enos 1:10.) If our lives are responsive and clean, if we are reaching and cultivating, the Holy Ghost will come, and we may retain him and have the peace his presence thus affords.
Do you give thanks or merely ask for favors? Or are you like the lepers by the road? They begged for mercy and were healed but did not stay to thank the generous Savior.
“And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off:
“And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.
“And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God,
“And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks. …
“And Jesus answering [sorrowful and saddened] said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?
“There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger.
“And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.” (Luke 17:12–13, 15–19.)
In our public prayers we must not be like the Pharisees or hypocrites who loved to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets that they might be seen of men.
“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” (Matt. 6:7.)
We all are under heavy obligation to our Lord. None of us has reached perfection. None of us is free from error. To pray is required of all men like chastity is required, and Sabbath observance, and tithing, and living the Word of Wisdom, attending meetings, and entering into celestial marriage. As truly as any other, this is a commandment of the Lord.
“I stand at the door and knock.” I was reminded of this scripture when I was on a plane with a young man who was going to a military encampment. He told me where he lived. I knew he must be a member of the Church. He reluctantly admitted it.
As the stewardess brought the snack, he drank his coffee, I my milk; he smoked his cigarette, and I read the scriptures. The door was closed, and I could not penetrate. He was not listening to me, a humble servant, nor to the Lord, who was constantly knocking.
To those of us who would pay pennies toward our unfathomable debt, may we remember Enos, who, like many of us, had great need. Like many sons of good families he strayed. How heinous were his sins I do not know, but they must have been grievous. He wrote, “And I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.” The account is graphic, his words impressive.
“Behold, I went to hunt beasts in the forests.”
But no animals did he shoot or capture. He was traveling a path he had never walked before. He was reaching, knocking, asking, pleading; he was being born again. He was seeing the pleasant valleys across the barren wastes. He was searching his soul. He would have lived all his life in a weed patch, but now he sought a watered garden. He continues:
“And the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.”
Memory was both cruel and kind. The pictures his father had painted now stirred his soul. He was warmed and inspired. Then memory opened the doors to his ugly past. His soul revolted at the reliving of the baser things but yearned now for the better. A rebirth was in process. It was painful but rewarding.
“And my soul hungered.” The spirit of repentance was taking hold. He was remorseful for his transgression, eager to bury the old man of sin, to resurrect the new man of faith, of godliness.
“And I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul.”
He had now come to realize that no one can be saved in his sins, that no unclean thing can enter into the kingdom of God, that there must be a cleansing, that stains must be eliminated, new flesh over scars. He came to realize that there must be a purging, a new heart in a new man. He knew it was not a small thing to change hearts, and minds, and tissues. He writes:
“And all the day long did I cry unto him.”
Here is no casual prayer; here no trite, worn phrases; here no momentary appeal. All the day long, with seconds turning into minutes, and minutes into hours, and hours into an “all day long.” But when the sun had set, relief had still not come, for repentance is not a single act, nor forgiveness an unearned gift. So precious to him was communication with, and approval of, his Redeemer that his determined soul pressed on without ceasing.
“Yea, and when the night came, I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.” (Enos 1:2–4.)
Could the Redeemer resist such determined imploring? How many of you have thus persisted? How many of you, with or without serious transgressions, have ever prayed all day and into the night? Have you ever wept and prayed for many hours? How many of you have prayed for five hours? for one? for 30 minutes? for ten?
My missionary prospect with his errors had prayed occasionally for seconds. Yet with a heavy debt to pay he had expected forgiveness of his sins. He offered pennies to pay the debt of thousands of dollars. He wanted much for little. He desired to cancel his debt without payment of principal or interest.
How much do you pray, my young friends? How often? How earnestly? If you should have errors in your life, have you wrestled before the Lord? Have you found your deep forest full of solitude? How much has your soul hungered? How deeply have your needs impressed your heart? When did you kneel before your Maker in total quiet? For what did you pray—your own soul? How long did you thus plead for recognition—all day long? And when the shadows fell, did you still raise your voice in mighty prayer, or did you liquidate it with some trite word and phrase?
As you struggle in the spirit and cry mightily and covenant sincerely, the voice of the Lord God will come into your mind, as it did to that of Enos:
“Thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.” (Enos 1:5.)
Do you think prayer is not answered because you do not understand? Did Christ not come because men would not receive him? Is there no sound vibration because ears do not perceive it? Are there no vibrations in the air because no receiver sets are in tune? Does God not speak because our ears are closed? And does he not appear when eyes are leaden? Some people hear a noise; others think it thunders; while others hear and understand the voice of God and see him personally.
Solitude is rich and profitable. When we pray alone with God, we shed all sham and pretense, all hypocrisy and arrogance. The Savior found his mountains and slipped away to pray. Paul, the great apostle, could not seem to get into the spirit of his new calling until he had found cleansing solitude down in Arabia—for purification; for repentance; for forgiveness, to break the seal of worldly covering, to shed his film, his skintight suit of worldliness.
He went into solitude a worldly man and came out cleansed, prepared, regenerated.
He was born of water in a Damascus river and of the Spirit in an Arabian solitude. Enos found himself in solitary places to commune in forest fastnesses, with only ears of beasts to hear. The brother of Jared went to the mountaintop to get the Lord to touch the stones to light their way.
And Nephi learned to build a ship through communication with his Lord on a mountain far from human ears. Joseph found his solitude in the grove with only birds and trees and God to listen to his prayer.
We all need prayers to bring us close to God, to give us new birth. Like Alma said:
“I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.
“… all mankind … must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;
“And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.” (Mosiah 27:24–26.)
And in all our prayers we remember our insufficiency, our limitations, our dependence, our lack of wisdom. Like children we do not always know what is best for us, what is expedient. And so in all our prayers we say, “Thy will be done”—and mean it. We would not ask a Church leader for advice, then disregard it. We must never ask the Lord for blessings, then ignore the answer.
And so we pray, “Thy will be done, O Lord. Thou knowest best, kind Father. I will conform. I will accept it gratefully.”