WHAT IS PRAYER?
When I think of this question, I think of the story the President of the Ogden Utah Mission told in a Saturday session of the Ben Lomond Stake Conference in 2009. He told about asking one of his Elders how he was doing in an interview. The Elder said, “Sometimes I get homesick.” He was about to begin his long-practiced spiel about “How to prevent/overcome…” when the Elder finished, “Now don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I just feel so close to the Lord in this work, I just miss being with Him all the time.”
In my opinion, that is what prayer should be. It can be a reconnection to Our Father who sent us to “do our work” on this mortal earth to prepare to return to be “with Him all the time.”
Every one of the old Priesthood/Relief Society manuals has wonderful material on prayer. Here where to look. Joseph Smith (Chapter 10), Brigham Young (pp. 44-46), John Taylor, (pp. 147-149), Wilford Woodruff, (Chapter 11), Joseph F. Smith (Chapter 3), Heber J. Grant (Chapter 19), David O. McKay (Chapter 8), Spencer W. Kimball, (Chapter 5), Harold B. Lee (pp. 52-57). All of these (found in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church:… series) can be found at “lds.org” then “Gospel Library” then “Lessons” then “Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society.”
That prayers should be “sincere” and “heartfelt” is an important point made in this section. President Heber J. Grant proposed:
Earnest, honest, and sincere prayer to God is worth more to you than all I can say or write. (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, 177)
President Monson observed;
We learn to pray by praying. One can devote countless hours to examining the experiences of others, but nothing penetrates the human heart as does a personal, fervent prayer and its heaven-sent response. (Ensign, Nov. 1997, 17)
The concept of “daily” prayer can be emphasized with the old modern proverb:
“Seven days without prayer makes one weak.”
President Monson recently counseled:
When we remember that each of us is literally a spirit son or daughter of God, we will not find it difficult to approach our Heavenly Father in prayer. (Ensign, Jan 2006, 2)
It is important to note that for most of the quotes in this blog, the rest of the talk also has lots of good stuff for this lesson.
WHY DO WE PRAY?
A simple answer to this question is the standard (as taught in the first paragraph), “God said to - - it is a commandment.” Elder Boyd K. Packer taught:
You have your agency, and inspiration does not—perhaps cannot—flow unless you ask for it, or someone asks for you.
No message in scripture is repeated more often than the invitation, even the command, to pray—to ask.
Prayer is so essential a part of revelation that without it the veil may remain closed to you. Learn to pray. Pray often. Pray in your mind, in your heart. Pray on your knees. (New Era, Jan 1995, 4)
In addition to Moses 5:8 (from the manual), in Moses 1:11-22 (especially 17 & 18) are some wonderful ideas to discuss.
One answer to the question posed in the heading for this section is “to help us draw closer to God.” President Heber J. Grant, who spent a lot of time in the home of President Brigham Young, reflected:
“Upon more than one occasion, because of the inspiration of the Lord to Brigham Young while he was supplicating God for guidance, I have lifted my head, turned and looked at the place where Brigham Young was praying, to see if the Lord was not there. It seemed to me that he talked to the Lord as one man would talk to another.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, 173)
That seems to capture what we would want in our prayers.
Another answer comes from that terrific resource, Doctrines of the Gospel Institute Student Manual. Elder Bruce R. McConkie said:
This course [prayer] is essential if men are to be saved; there is no salvation without prayer. How could a man set his heart on righteousness, so as to work out his salvation, without communing by prayer with him who is the author of righteousness?” (p. 33)
WHEN SHOULD WE PRAY?
It may seem strange to some, but sometimes we forget to pray. Brigham Young had a simple solution to that problem. Elder W. Eugene Hansen explained:
Years ago I read about Brigham Young following a practice of never taking any food or drink in the morning before he had his personal prayer…I commend that practice to you and I guarantee you won’t forget your prayers. (BYU Speeches of the Year, 30 June 1998)
From 2 Nephi 32:8 (listed in this section) we read:
For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray…
We found it interesting that before we left our mission in Charlotte, North Carolina, members and missionaries told us that ministers had started warning their congregations, “What ever you do, do not pray with Mormon missionaries!”
An important concept of missionary work is:
“We don’t ask you to believe us. We only ask that you ask.”
In a recent seminal talk given at Harvard, Elder Dallin H. Oaks gave a wonderful answer dealing with this idea:
Ben DeVan, a student at the Harvard Divinity School, asked Elder Oaks what made Mormon revelation different from revelation received by Muslim founder Muhammad and Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science movement.
"Why should we believe that what Joseph Smith said is true as opposed to these others?" said DeVan, a Christian from Atlanta.
"If you want to know, go to the ultimate source," Oaks replied. "The answer to that question can only come from God himself. That's what I encourage anyone who asks me about it. ... I can't promise when it will happen with anyone, but I can promise it will happen." (Deseret News, Friday, Feb. 26, 2010)
Some have wondered about Joseph Smith’s declaration that the First Vision was his first vocal prayer. He said of that occasion:
It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally. (Joseph Smith-History 1:14)
The training he received from his family, however, did include prayer:
My father’s religious habits were strictly pious and moral. … I was called upon to listen to prayers both night and morning. … My parents, father and mother, poured out their souls to God, the donor of all blessings, to keep and guard their children and keep them from sin and from all evil works. Such was the strict piety of my parents.”1 William also said: “We always had family prayers since I can remember. I well remember father used to carry his spectacles in his vest pocket, … and when us boys saw him feel for his specs, we knew that was a signal to get ready for prayer, and if we did not notice it mother would say, ‘William,’ or whoever was the negligent one, ‘get ready for prayer.’ (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), 37)
As Joseph said, he was “called upon to listen to prayers.” Perhaps only parents were expected to pray.
HOW SHOULD WE PRAY?
The first line in this section, which contains the phrase, “whether we stand or kneel” reminded me of the following poem by Sam Walter Foss:
"The proper way for a man to pray," Said Deacon Lemuel Keys,"And the only proper attitude Is down upon his knees.""No, I should say the way to pray," Said Reverend Doctor Wise,"Is standing straight with outstretched arms And rapt and upturned eyes.""Oh, no, no, no!" said Elder Slow, "Such posture is too proud.A man should pray with eyes fast closed And head contritely bowed.""It seems to me his hands should be Austerely clasped in frontWith both thumbs pointing toward the ground," Said Reverend Doctor Blunt."Last year I fell in Hidgkin's well Head first," said Cyrus Brown,"With both my heels a-stickin' up And my head a-pointin' down.And I made a prayer right then and there, The best prayer I ever said,The prayingest prayer I ever prayed A-standin' on my head!"
Much of what is taught in this section can be wonderfully supplemented and clarified in the Bible Dictionary under “Prayer” (p. 752-3), especially the last third.
Two of my favorite quotes on the idea from the Bible Dictionary of making sure “the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other” are as follows. First, from Elder Neal A. Maxwell:
Moreover, our prayers should allow for three more special words: “And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you.” (3 Ne. 18:20; italics added)
It is only by yielding to God that we can begin to realize His will for us. And if we truly trust God, why not yield to His loving omniscience? After all, He knows us and our possibilities much better than do we. (Ensign, May 1985, 70)
The second is from Marion G. Romney:
This principle we learned in our home through a rather impressive experience. During the early years of our married life, my wife and I intensely desired what we considered to be a particular blessing. We set about through fasting and prayer to obtain it. We considered many of the scriptures which seemed to make a blanket promise that ". . . Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive" (Matt. 21:22). We asked, we believed, we thought we had faith, but though we fasted often and prayed fervently, the years rolled by without bringing us the desired answer to our prayers. Finally we concluded that we had not fully understood; that we were not giving proper consideration to the will of the Lord. Rather were we concentrating our faith and prayers upon receiving the particular thing which by predetermination we had set our hearts upon. We had to reconsider the conditions of the promise. We found that Jesus had stated them in full to the Nephites as follows: ". . . Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you" (3 Ne. 18:20), and to this generation thus, "Whatsoever ye ask the Father in my name it shall be given unto you, that is expedient for you" (D&C 88:64). We had to learn to be as earnest in praying, "If it be thy will" as we were when presenting our personal appeals. (Conference Report, October 1944, 53)
Concerning this principle, in conference, Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained:
Similarly, the Savior taught the Nephites that they must always pray to the Father in his name, adding: “And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you” (3 Ne. 18:20).
Here the Savior reminds us that faith, no matter how strong it is, cannot produce a result contrary to the will of him whose power it is. The exercise of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is always subject to the order of heaven, to the goodness and will and wisdom and timing of the Lord. That is why we cannot have true faith in the Lord without also having complete trust in the Lord’s will and in the Lord’s timing. When we have that kind of faith and trust in the Lord, we have true security in our lives. (Ensign, May 1994, 98)
Most of us know that closing our eyes when we pray helps us to shut out the world and focus on praying. However, Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone talked about a possible exception:
A ward mutual was having a swimming party. The bishopric attended, dressed in suits. Many of the youth had already been in swimming. Everything stopped while a great old high priest gave an opening prayer. During the prayer there was a splashing in the pool. The counselor in the bishopric said: “I think I have always been practical enough, so I opened one eye to see who it was that was so irreverent as to swim during the prayer. A twelve-year-old Spanish boy, who could not swim, had somehow gotten into the deep end of the pool and was drowning. His eyes reflected fear and terror. I took two steps, dove into the pool, suit, shoes and all, pulled the young man to the side and helped him out. He sat on the edge of the pool and I waited in the pool. The good old high priest prayed on and on.”
The counselor continued, “I think the young man would have drowned if we had waited for the prayer to end to save him.” Then he concluded by saying, “I think we have to keep an eye open and be ready to do whatever is necessary to save our youth. And by the way, the bishop never did open his eyes, even when I dove in.” (Ensign, Nov 1983, 36)
This may also lead to an effective discussion about always being alert to receiving answers to our prayers.
Finally, a suggestion from Elder Russell M. Nelson:
In our prayers we use the respectful pronouns Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine instead of You, Your, and Yours. Doing so helps us to be humble. That can also enhance our prayers. (Ensign, May 2009, 46)
Someone, not LDS, once challenged the idea that in our Church we had public prayers and quoted the following from Matthew 6:5-6 to document his stand;
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
He did not notice that the caution in this scripture was concerning hypocrites, not where they preyed. However, thru modern temples and sacred prayers in our temples we learn at least three things are important in prayer:
1. Group prayers out loud are important.
2. We should be grateful for our Prophet.
3. We need to pray for others.
HOW ARE PRAYERS ANSWERED?
The first principle taught in this section is that “sincere prayers are always answered” but “sometimes the answer is no.” Elder Neal A. Maxwell explained why:
God cannot, brothers and sisters, respond affirmatively to all of our petitions with an unbroken chain of “yeses.” This would assume that all of our petitions are for that “which is right” and are spiritually “expedient.” (3 Ne. 18:20; D&C 18:18; D&C 88:64-65). No petitioner is so wise! (Ensign, May 1991, 88)
President Hinckley said some interesting things on a TV interview with Larry King:
KING: When you pray, what is that? What's occurring? Are you talking to God? You're a prophet, so God talks to you.
HINCKLEY: I'm talking to God, yes. I do pray. Of course I do.
KING: What do you do when they're not answered?
HINCKLEY: Well, they are answered, but not always just the way you'd want them.
KING: Sometimes it's no.
HINCKLEY: Sometimes it's no.
KING: And when it's no, how do you explain that to yourself?
HINCKLEY: You accept it and go forward with faith.
KING: Isn't that hard?
HINCKLEY: Oh, it may be. But after all, that's the challenge of life.Sure. (CNN, Larry King Live, aired December 26, 2004)
This section states that “Sometimes the answer is to “wait a while.” Brigham Young
All I have to do is keep my spirit, feelings and conscience like a sheet of blank paper, and let the Spirit and power of God write upon it what He pleases. When He writes, I will read; but if I read before He writes, I am very likely to be wrong. (Deseret News, Apr. 19, 1871, 125)
I was surprised to find that this quote comes from “lds.org” then “About the Church” (Church History) then “History of the Church” then “Presidents of the Church” then “Brigham Young” then “Quotes.” Amazing what I still don’t know about the Church website!
Richard G. Scott (in another great conference talk on prayer) stated:
When we seek inspiration to help make decisions, the Lord gives gentle promptings. These require us to think, to exercise faith, to work, to struggle at times, and to act. Seldom does the whole answer to a decisively important matter or complex problem come all at once. More often, it comes a piece at a time, without the end in sight. (Ensign, Nov 1989, 30)
Boyd K. Packer also explained a little bit more about this process:
When you have a problem, work it out in your own mind first. Ponder on it and analyze it and meditate on it. Read the scriptures. Pray about it. I’ve come to learn that major decisions can’t be forced. (Ensign, Aug 1975, 85)
Concerning the idea in this section that “Sometimes the Lord answers our prayers through other people” is explained by President Spencer W. Kimball:
God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another mortal that he meets our needs. (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 252)
There are many great talks about prayer to draw on for resource, but in my opinion, there are few better than “Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer” given by Elder Richard G. Scott in April Conference, 2007. I wanted to put twelve quotes from this talk into this blog, but refrained. Here is the one I could not resist:
Some misunderstandings about prayer can be clarified by realizing that the scriptures define principles for effective prayer, but they do not assure when a response will be given. Actually, He will reply in one of three ways. First, you can feel the peace, comfort, and assurance that confirm that your decision is right. Or second, you can sense that unsettled feeling, the stupor of thought, indicating that your choice is wrong. Or third—and this is the difficult one—you can feel no response.
What do you do when you have prepared carefully, have prayed fervently, waited a reasonable time for a response, and still do not feel an answer? You may want to express thanks when that occurs, for it is an evidence of His trust. When you are living worthily and your choice is consistent with the Savior’s teachings and you need to act, proceed with trust. (Ensign, May 2007, 8–11)
Elder Neal A. Maxwell made a good summary statement about praying;
Petitioning in prayer has taught me, again and again, that the vault of heaven with all its blessings is to be opened only by a combination lock. One tumbler falls when there is faith; a second when there is personal righteousness; the third and final tumbler falls only when what is sought is, in God’s judgment—not ours—right for us. Sometimes we pound on the vault door for something we want very much and wonder why the door does not open. We would be very spoiled children if that vault door opened any more easily than it does. I can tell, looking back, that God truly loves me by inventorying the petitions He has refused to grant me. Our rejected petitions tell us much about ourselves but also much about our flawless Father. (New Era, Apr. 1978, 6)
This was in a great article with other quotes about prayer in “Prayer: The Soul’s Sincere Desire” found in Ensign, Aug 2002, 52–59.