Before Praying

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“Before Praying,” Ensign, Jan. 1976, 31

Special Issue: Prayer

Before Praying

If your prayers seem frustrating, rushed, and unanswered, could it be that you have not prepared?

I remember, as a young missionary, riding past a church on the way to my tracting area. On the front lawn of the church was a rather unimposing sign with this message on it: “We Know What You Want. What Does God Want?”

The thought was an intriguing one to me, one which has since then given me several moments of serious reflection, especially during times of prayer. Most of us, I suspect, go to our prayers with the intent of talking rather than with the intent of listening. We go to tell the Lord of our needs rather than to ask him of our needs. For most of us talking comes easily, listening is more difficult. Few of us seem willing to ask honestly how we should alter the course of our life, especially when we are comfortable in our present situation.

When I go to the Lord in prayer I usually go with rather definite goals in mind. I have previously determined the course I presume my life should follow and sense the demands which that life-style places upon me. In other words, I have chosen the questions to ask and I go to the Lord for answers. Answers, however, are determined in part by the questions we ask. Is it possible that we are asking the wrong questions, posing the wrong problems to our Heavenly Father?

Are we, through our shortsightedness, trying to solicit from the Lord answers to meaningless questions? Are we trying to persuade him to deal with issues that are not in our best interest in an eternal sense? Is this the reason why the Lord seemingly has so little to say to us? Is this why we often find such little satisfaction from our prayers?

On the other side of the question, if the topics chosen for discussion were more purposeful, would he have more to say? If we stopped talking so much in our prayers would we hear more? What does he have to say to each of us individually? What does God want—for us?

Once we have decided the course our lives will take, it is difficult for the Lord to turn us from our predisposed paths of activity. Judging from the experiences of Paul and Alma the younger, he could if he so desired; however, it also appears evident from the experiences of countless others that he most commonly will not change our life’s course unless seriously invited to do so.

How then can we open ourselves to direction from God in our prayers? How can we change the process of prayer into a more dynamic listening experience? How can we truly come to know what God wants for us in a more specific sense?

First, and this should be evident from what has been said previously, it seems to me that we need to go to prayer with a more open attitude—as nearly as this is possible—with a more sincere desire to be taught. Perhaps our sole petition initially should be that he will teach us what we ought to pray for. This is in effect a request that he will inspire us concerning the questions we should ask, the problems we should pose for him in prayer. We are told that when the Savior was among the Nephites and they entered into prayer with him that “they did … continue, without ceasing, to pray unto him; and they did not multiply many words, for it was given unto them what they should pray, and they were filled with desire.” (3 Ne. 19:24; italics added.)

Second, we need to divorce ourselves as much as possible from the noise, the confusion, and the cares of the world. We need to remove all turmoil, outside or inside ourselves, in order that we can be perfectly still. The Lord’s counsel to David is perhaps even more appropriate in our day: “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10.)

Initially, this silence may be disturbing to us, and perhaps even frightening. Few seem to be totally comfortable with quietude. Somehow, in our busy society, we have come to be uneasy with quiet moments of inactivity; some even equate silence with waste. Who among us, after an extended period of silence in a fast and testimony meeting, has not heard some brother or sister rise to their feet and exclaim, “I hate to see the time going to waste.” We have designed our meetings for activity; we instruct rather than meditate. Our hymns are filled with metaphors centering in work and activity. We speak of a person’s spiritual status in terms of his or her activity in the Church, i.e., are they “active” or “inactive” in the Church?

It seems significant to me that the leaders of the Church have counseled us to let the time of the sacrament service be a time of complete silence. Such has not always been the case. Earlier in our history, sermons were delivered during the passing of the sacrament dealing with its significance, or devotional music was played as part of the services.

Stillness, however, is essential to inner peace—that peace which opens the way for the Lord to speak in our soul. God speaks much more commonly and effectively to the inner recesses of the soul than he does in open vision. We need to prepare ourselves to listen more when he speaks.

As a young seminary teacher I was impressed by some counsel from Elder Harold B. Lee, then a member of the Council of the Twelve, given to a group of seminary and institute instructors. A few weeks prior to our visit by Elder Lee, President David O. McKay had been reminding the Twelve of the necessity of being responsive to the whisperings of the Spirit. These promptings, he advised them, come when one is relaxed and not under the pressure of appointments. President McKay then took the occasion to relate to the Twelve an experience of one of the former General Authorities of the Church.

The individual concerned had had a son who had been run over by a freight train. The boy’s mother was inconsolable. She mourned during the three days prior to the funeral, received no comfort at the funeral, and was in a rather serious state of mind.

One day soon after the funeral services, while she was lying on her bed relaxed but still mourning, she says that her son appeared to her and told her not to grieve. He reported to her that his death had been an accident. Then he reported—and this is the point Elder Lee wanted to make—that as soon as he realized that he was in another environment he tried to see his father, but couldn’t reach him. His father was so busy with the duties of his office he could not respond to his call. Therefore, he had come to the mother. He said to her, “You tell father that all is well with me, and I want you not to mourn anymore.”

I knew immediately what Elder Lee was telling us. I was, at the time, a young seminary teacher beginning my teaching career, eager to do well in my newly chosen vocation and eager to please the Lord. I had been given a calling at the stake level as well as one in my own ward, in addition to my home teaching assignment. Being relatively new in the community I was accepting a speaking engagement nearly every Sunday evening. All of this was in addition to everything I was trying to do in developing lesson plans for my classes in seminary.

Through the rush of these pressures, although they were all directed toward the work of the Lord’s kingdom, I had overextended myself and was finding it increasingly difficult to find time to communicate meaningfully with Him. As a consequence I was probably doing less than my best in each capacity, and my own spiritual well-being was suffering as a consequence.

Therefore, even in a Church experience we must be careful that we do not mistake purposeless activity for a state of spiritual well-being. The Master himself emphatically stressed the necessity of the development of the inner life as well as outward activity. Unless the inner self is being enriched and nourished by our activity, is it not possible that such outward efforts are sometimes in vain? The focus of the Master, it seems to me, was always on the inner man, on the heart and the soul, rather than on that which was experienced only at the exterior.

My second point, therefore, is that quietude is a vital prerequisite for communion with God. Unless inner peace is evident, the cares of the world—in a religious setting as well as a secular setting—can drown out the promptings of the still, small voice of the Spirit. If the Master needed frequently to escape the crowds that assembled around him, and if Joseph Smith needed the solitude of the grove away from his home, how much greater is our need to create those silent moments of escape, physically and emotionally? As Louis Kahn, a prominent architect of our time, has noted, “Out of silence is born creativity.”

Third, it should be noted that prayer is not entirely a passive stance. One attempts to empty one’s mind of preconceived ideas and to open the way for God to speak thoughts that seem obtainable in no other way, but one must also draw upon his own powers of concentration to exert himself to his utmost in an attempt to seize upon any thoughts that God may put into his mind through the instrumentality of the Holy Ghost. Fasting, meditation, and contemplation are necessary complements to inquiry and silence in the prayer process.

I have been deeply impressed by the fact that Jesus in his blueprint for the Christian character—the Sermon on the Mount—after listing the requisites for a Christian life and the relationship between this life-style and that required under the law of Moses (see Matt. 5), then revealed to his disciples the way to develop the strength necessary for the Christian life. The activities listed were few: prayer, fasting, and the giving of alms. (See Matt. 6:1–21.) The manner of approach to these activities, however, was carefully stipulated; they must all be performed in secret so that God and the participant were the only ones who were aware that the quest was on. If done in secret, one’s spiritual batteries, as it were, were charged to maximum capacity by the influx of power from God. If not done in secret, but for the purpose of seeking honor among men, the batteries were as cells with leakage. The power simply did not store within.

During prayer we must telescope our focus deeper and deeper into the inner recesses of the soul. This is not an easy process; it often calls forth the entire inner resources of the individual involved. It requires time; it requires concentration. This amazing mind that God has put into the human soul is ofttimes an unruly force. Through its functions of memory and imagination it has the capacity to hurdle backward or forward in time; it has the power to transcend the normal barriers of space. To control it is not easy. Fasting can be a valuable aid in accomplishing this.

William James, in his penetrating and comprehensive study, Varieties of Religious Experience, after investigating literally hundreds of cases associated with spiritual experiences that have come to people—including those of the Prophet Joseph Smith—noted one factor that they all seemed to share in common: the spiritual strength seemed to flow in just at the point of utter desperation, at the moment of giving up, at the limit of one’s human extremity, in short, at the moment of crisis. Through fasting one creates a type of minor crisis in one’s life and forces himself more rapidly to his extremity. He comes more quickly to reach an understanding of his own inadequacies and of his dependence upon the Lord.

When a person fasts he begins to draw his energies more completely from the inside than from the out. He symbolically turns his back on the things of the world in his hungering and thirsting after righteousness. In his quest for spiritual nourishment, he turns to Christ as the bread of life and the source of living water. As the hours and sometimes days of fasting begin to mount, a minor crisis is created in his life as he begins to sense more intensely the pangs of hunger. To overdramatize for purposes of emphasis, he finds himself caught, as it were, in a struggle between impending starvation and the establishment of contact with God.

Fasting helps release us somewhat from this world. It helps us to recognize our dependence upon the Lord. It helps demonstrate the seriousness of our intent, both to ourselves and to the Lord. It is a first step in subjecting our will to his. Properly entered into, fasting helps increase our powers of concentration by impressing upon us the urgency of our quest. It is often an indispensable companion to effective prayer. One has only to look to the example of the Master and others such as Moses to see the truth of this.

Contemplation is also vital to the questing process. The Master spent forty days on the so-called Mount of Temptation seeking the companionship of the Spirit in the early part of his ministry and an entire night in prayer before choosing his apostles. The scriptures are full of examples of the necessity of concentration in prayer. Vital prayer is never a three-minute pause on the way to a good night’s sleep. Rather, we need to invite the Lord into our thoughts and, in the light of his guidance, subject our life-style to our most penetrating scrutiny. At such moments of total concentration on our part new thoughts may flow into our minds. As Joseph Smith records the feelings:

“A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.” (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3:381.)

Then, as one meditates on these insights and other revelations from God, further insights may be gained. Prayer must be active as well as passive. We strive to become passive through opening our hearts to God’s guidance in total quietude, but we also strive with all our heart, mind, and strength to make contact and to understand that which might come to us. Striking both poses simultaneously is not an easy matter.

Meditation brings to mind one more matter allied with prayer. When we seek the guidance of the Lord, it is wise to start first with what the Lord has already had to say about life through others who have talked with him. Scripture study and the words of living oracles of God provide a good starting point for meditation. We seek the voice of God in prayer; we also seek the voice of God in the scriptures. The two are simply different facets of a common quest; each enhances the other, each is vital to the function of the other. In the main, scripture emphasizes what the Lord has had to say to the Church or to the world in general; prayer emphasizes what the Lord has to say to us in particular.

Contemplation of the messages found in the scriptures often provides a good preface to prayer. The Prophet Joseph was led to the Sacred Grove in response to the words of James and to the waters of the Susquehanna and baptism by prophets of the Book of Mormon. We too may receive spiritual promptings from what prophets—past and present—have had to say.

Scripture reading draws us away from the world into the realm of the things of God and supplies a focal point for our meditation, a seed, as it were, for the flowering of personal revelation. It provides yet another channel through which the Lord may speak to us—or at least begin the process of speaking to us. Coupled with the other facets of the prayer process mentioned above, it can open new vistas in our lives.

Then again, sometimes these great spiritual crescendoes come without special preparation on our part, when we anticipate them least. Elder Lorenzo Snow, later fifth president of the Church, enjoyed one of his greatest spiritual experiences one evening after retiring in prayer to the woods behind his home, not from a burning passion to commune with God, but simply because it was his habit to do so. Although Elder Snow felt the heavens “as brass” over his head, the Lord chose that moment to bestow spiritual powers upon this recent convert to the kingdom in such an intense manner that he referred back to it throughout his life as one of the spiritual highlights of his earthly experience.

Yet we must also realize that there is no easy way to God through prayer, no spiritual exercises that will always produce the desired results. Sometimes one may follow all of the procedures suggested above and find only a profound silence at the conclusion. God has a disturbing way of being there when we don’t want him—as Alma and Paul discovered—but a more unsettling way of not being there when we want him most—at least not with specific answers.

Even while writing this I am perplexed within by memories of several young people with serious problems—problems of vocation, of school, of friends, of marriage—good young members of the Church who have come to my office to seek counsel of me when they seemingly have been unable to obtain the same from the Lord, even after extended periods of fasting and prayer. Indeed, I have come to suspect that faith is sometimes developed in the true Christian in spite of, rather than because of, immediate answers to prayer—at least to that type of prayer which we are all too prone to offer, that which admonishes God to do our bidding, that which reduces his role to that of a cosmic servant.

However, I am also certain that there is one type of answer one can expect to receive in almost every instance of sincere prayer. When we have reached our ultimate human extremity, if we seek him earnestly, he will always be there to bestow peace upon a troubled soul—perhaps not with specific answers, but at least with the comfort to the soul that is found in that peace which surpasses all understanding. Though he agitates us when we get too complacent, he also comforts us in our moments of deep spiritual frustration. He works as he deems best, and we must learn to be willing to accept that fact.

Photography by Jed Clark