“Why the Lord Ordained Prayer,” Ensign, Jan. 1976, 7
On the west wall of the Council of the Twelve room in the Salt Lake Temple hangs a picture of the Lord Jesus as he prays in Gethsemane to his Father.
In agony beyond compare, suffering both body and spirit, to an extent incomprehensible to man—the coming torture of the cross paling into insignificance—our Lord is here pleading with his Father for strength to work out the infinite and eternal atonement.
Of all the prayers ever uttered, in time or in eternity—by gods, angels, or mortal men—this one stands supreme, above and apart, preeminent over all others.
In this garden called Gethsemane, outside Jerusalem’s wall, the greatest member of Adam’s race, the One whose every thought and word were perfect, pled with his Father to come off triumphant in the most torturous ordeal ever imposed on man or God.
There, amid the olive trees—in the spirit of pure worship and perfect prayer—Mary’s Son struggled under the most crushing burden ever born by mortal man.
There, in the quiet of the Judean night, while Peter, James, and John slept—with prayer on his lips—God’s own Son took upon himself the sins of all men on conditions of repentance.
Upon his Suffering Servant, the great Elohim, there and then, placed the weight of all the sins of all men of all ages who believe in Christ and seek his face. And the Son, who bore the image of the Father, pled with his divine Progenitor for power to fulfill the chief purpose for which he had come to earth.
This was the hour when all eternity hung in the balance. So great was the sin-created agony—laid on him who knew no sin—that he sweat great drops of blood from every pore, and “would,” within himself, that he “might not drink the bitter cup.” (D&C 19:18.) From creation’s dawn to this supreme hour, and from this atoning night through all the endless ages of eternity there neither had been nor would be again such a struggle as this.
“The Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity,” who had “come down from heaven among the children of men” (Mosiah 3:5); the Creator, Upholder, and Preserver of all things from the beginning, who had made clay his tabernacle; the one person born into the world who had God as his father; the very Son of God himself—in a way beyond mortal comprehension—did then and there work out the infinite and eternal atonement, whereby all men are raised in immortality, while those who believe and obey come forth also to an inheritance of eternal life. God the Redeemer ransomed men from the temporal and spiritual death brought upon them by Adam’s fall.
And it was at this hour that he, who then bought us with his own blood, offered the most pleading and poignant personal prayer ever to fall from mortal lips. God the Son prayed to God the Father, that the will of the One might be swallowed up in the will of the Other, and that he might fulfill the promise made by him when he was chosen to be the Redeemer: “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” (Moses 4:2.)
True, as an obedient son whose sole desire was to do the will of the Father who sent him, our Lord prayed always and often during his mortal probation. By natural inheritance, because God was his father, Jesus was endowed with greater powers of intellect and spiritual insight than anyone else has ever possessed. But in spite of his superlative natural powers and endowments—or, shall we not rather say, because of them (for truly the more spiritually perfected and intellectually gifted a person is, the more he recognizes his place in the infinite scheme of things and knows thereby his need for help and guidance from Him who truly is infinite)—and so by virtue of his superlative powers and endowments, Jesus above all men felt the need for constant communion with the Source of all power, all intelligence, and all goodness.
When the time came to choose the Twelve special witnesses who should bear record of him and his law unto the ends of the earth, and who should sit with him on twelve thrones judging the whole house of Israel, how did he make the choice? The inspired account says: “He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” Having thus come to know the mind and will of Him whose offspring he was, “when it was day, … he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles.” (Luke 6:12–13.)
When the hour of his arrest and passion were at hand; when there remained one more great truth to be impressed on the Twelve—that if they were to succeed in the assigned work and merit eternal reward with him and his Father they must be one even as he and the Father were one—at this hour of supreme import, he taught the truth involved as part of his great intercessory prayer, fragments of which are preserved for us in John 17.
When he, after his resurrection—note it well: after his resurrection, he was still praying to the Father!—when he, glorified and perfected, sought to give the Nephites the most transcendent spiritual experience they were able to bear, he did it, not in a sermon, but in a prayer. “The things which he prayed cannot be written,” the record says, but those who heard bore this testimony:
“The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father;
“And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father.” (3 Ne. 17:15–17.)
But here in Gethsemane—as a pattern for all suffering, burdened, agonizing men—he poured out his soul to his Father with pleadings never equaled. What petitions he made, what expressions of doctrine he uttered, what words of glory and adoration he then spoke we do not know. Perhaps like his coming prayer among the Nephites the words could not be written, but could be understood only by the power of the Spirit. We do know that on three separate occasions in his prayer he said in substance and thought content: “Oh my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matt. 26:39.)
Here in Gethsemane, as he said to his Father, “not my will, but thine, be done,” the inspired record says, “There appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.
“And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:42–44.)
Now here is a marvelous thing. Note it well. The Son of God “prayed more earnestly”! He who did all things well, whose every word was right, whose every emphasis was proper; he to whom the Father gave his Spirit without measure; he who was the only perfect being ever to walk the dusty paths of planet earth—the Son of God “prayed more earnestly,” teaching us, his brethren, that all prayers, his included, are not alike, and that a greater need calls forth more earnest and faith-filled pleadings before the throne of him to whom the prayers of the saints are a sweet savor.
In this setting, then, seeking to learn and live the law of prayer so that we, like him, can go where he and his Father are, let us summarize what is truly involved in the glorious privilege of approaching the throne of grace. Let us learn how to do so boldly and efficaciously, not in word only but in spirit and in power, so that we may pull down upon ourselves, even as he did upon himself, the very powers of heaven. Perhaps the following ten items will enable us to crystallize our thinking and will guide us in perfecting our own personal prayers.
Once we dwelt in our Father’s presence, saw his face, and knew his will. We spoke to him, heard his voice, and received counsel and direction from him. Such was our status as spirit children in the premortal life. We then walked by sight.
Now we are far removed from the divine presence; we no longer see his face and hear his voice as we then did. We now walk by faith. But we need his counsel and direction as much or more than we needed it when we mingled with all the seraphic hosts of heaven before the world was. In his infinite wisdom, knowing our needs, a gracious Father has provided prayer as the means of continuing to communicate with him. As I have written elsewhere:
“To pray is to speak with God, either vocally or by forming the thoughts involved in the mind. Prayers may properly include expressions of praise, thanksgiving, and adoration; they are the solemn occasions during which the children of God petition their Eternal Father for those things, both temporal and spiritual, which they feel are needed to sustain them in all the varied tests of this mortal probation. Prayers are occasions of confession—occasions when in humility and contrition, having broken hearts and contrite spirits, the saints confess their sins to Deity and implore him to grant his cleansing forgiveness.” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 581.)
There are three basic and fundamental reasons why we pray:
a. We are commanded to do so. Prayer is not something of relative insignificance which we may choose to do if the fancy strikes us. Rather, it is an eternal decree of Deity. “Thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore,” was his word in the first dispensation. “And Adam and Eve, his wife, ceased not to called upon God.” (Moses 5:8, 16.) In our day we are instructed: “Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (D&C 4:7.) Home teachers are appointed in the Church to “visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret.” (D&C 20:47.) And speaking by way of “commandment” to his latter-day people, the Lord says: “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.)
b. Temporal and spiritual blessings follow proper prayer. As all the revelations show, the portals of heaven swing wide open to those who pray in faith; the Lord rains down righteousness upon them; they are preserved in perilous circumstances; the earth yields her fruits to them; and the joys of the gospel dwell in their hearts.
c. Prayer is essential to salvation. No accountable person ever has or ever will gain celestial rest unless he learns to communicate with the Master of that realm. And, “how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?” (Mosiah 5:13.)
We are commanded to pray to the Father (Elohim) in the name of the Son (Jehovah). The revelations are perfectly clear on this. “Ye must always pray unto the Father in my name,” the Lord Jesus said to the Nephites. (3 Ne. 18:19.) And yet there is an amazing mass of false doctrine and false practice in the churches of Christendom and occasionally even among the true saints.
There are those who pray to so-called saints and plead with them to intercede with Christ on their behalf. The official prayer books of the various sects have some prayers addressed to the Father, others to the Son, and others to the Holy Spirit, and it is the exception rather than the rule in some quarters when prayers are offered in the name of Christ. There are those who feel they gain some special relationship with our Lord by addressing petitions directly to him.
It is true that when we pray to the Father, the answer comes from the Son, because “there is … one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2:5.) Joseph Smith, for instance, asked the Father, in the name of the Son, for answers to questions, and the answering voice was not that of the Father but of the Son, because Christ is our advocate, our intercessor, the God (under the Father) who rules and regulates this earth.
And it is true that sometimes in his answers, Christ assumes the prerogative of speaking by divine investiture of authority as though he were the Father; that is, he speaks in the first person and uses the name of the Father because the Father has placed his own name on the Son. For a full explanation of this see the official pronouncement, “The Father and The Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by The First Presidency and The Twelve,” beginning on page 465 of the Articles of Faith by Elder James E. Talmage.
It is also true that we and all the prophets can with propriety shout praises to the Lord Jehovah (Christ). We can properly sing unto his holy name, as in the cry, “Hallelujah,” which means praise Jah, or praise Jehovah. But what we must have perfectly clear is that we always pray to the Father, not the Son, and we always pray in the name of the Son.
We are entitled and expected to pray for all things properly needed whether temporal or spiritual. We do not have the right of unlimited petition; our requests must be based on righteousness. “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” (James 4:3.)
Amulek speaks of crops and herds, of fields and flocks, as well as of mercy and salvation, when he lists those things for which we should pray. (See Alma 34:17–29.) The Lord’s Prayer speaks of “our daily bread” (see Matt. 6:11), and James urges us to ask for wisdom (see James 1:5), which in principle means we should seek all of the attributes of godliness. Our revelation says, “Ye are commanded in all things to ask of God.” (D&C 46:7.) Nephi says, “Ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.” (2 Ne. 32:9.) And the Lord’s promise to all the faithful is: “If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal.” (D&C 42:61.)
It is clear that we should pray for all that in wisdom and righteousness we should have. Certainly we should seek for a testimony, for revelations, for all of the gifts of the Spirit, including the fulfillment of the promise in Doctrine and Covenants 93:1 [D&C 93:1] of seeing the face of the Lord. But above all our other petitions, we should plead for the companionship of the Holy Ghost in this life and for eternal life in the world to come. When the Nephite Twelve “did pray for that which they most desired,” the Book of Mormon account records, “they desired that the Holy Ghost should be given unto them.” (3 Ne. 19:9.) The greatest gift a man can receive in this life is the gift of the Holy Ghost, even as the greatest gift he can gain in eternity is eternal life.
Our prayers are neither selfish nor self-centered. We seek the spiritual well-being of all men. Some of our prayers are for the benefit and blessing of the Saints alone, others are for the enlightenment and benefit of all our Father’s children. “I pray not for the world,” Jesus said in his great intercessory prayer, “but for them which thou hast given me.” (John 17:9.) But he also commanded: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44.)
And so, just as Christ “is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe” (1 Tim. 4:10), so we pray for all men, but especially for ourselves, our families, the saints in general, and those who seek to believe and know the truth. Of especial concern to us are the sick who belong to the household of faith and those who are investigating the restored gospel. “Pray one for another, that ye may be healed,” James says, with reference to church members, for “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16.) And as to those who attend our meetings and who seek to learn the truth, the Lord Jesus says: “Ye shall pray for them unto the Father, in my name,” in the hope that they will repent and be baptized. (3 Ne. 18:23. See also 3 Ne. 18:30.)
“Pray always.” (See 2 Ne. 32:9.) So it is written—meaning: Pray regularly, consistently, day in and day out; and also, live with the spirit of prayer always in your heart, so that your thoughts, words, and acts are always such as will please Him who is Eternal. Amulek speaks of praying “both morning, mid-day, and evening,” and says we should pour out our souls to the Lord in our closets, in our secret places, and in the wilderness. (See Alma 34:17–29.) Jesus commanded both personal and family prayer: “Watch and pray always,” he said; and also, “Pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed.” (3 Ne. 18:15, 21.)
The practice of the Church in our day is to have family prayer twice daily, plus our daily personal prayers, plus a blessing on our food at meal times (except in those public or other circumstances where it would be ostentatious or inappropriate to do so), plus proper prayers in our meetings.
Always address the Father; give thanks for your blessings; petition him for just and proper needs; and do it in the name of Jesus Christ.
As occasion and circumstances require and permit, confess your sins; counsel with the Lord relative to your personal problems; praise him for his goodness and grace; and utter such expressions of worship and doctrine as will bring you to a state of oneness with Him whom you worship.
Two much overlooked, underworked, and greatly needed guidelines for approved prayer are:
a. Pray earnestly, sincerely, with real intent, and with all the energy and strength of your soul. Mere words do not suffice. Vain repetitions are not enough. Literary excellence is of little worth. Indeed, true eloquence is not in excellency of language (although this should be sought for), but in the feeling that accompanies the words, however poorly they are chosen or phrased. Mormon said: “Pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart.” (Moro. 7:48.) Also, it is “counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.” (Moro. 7:9.)
b. Pray by the power of the Holy Ghost. This is the supreme and ultimate achievement in prayer. The promise is: “The Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith” (D&C 42:14), “and if ye are purified and cleansed from all sin, ye shall ask whatsoever you will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done” (D&C 50:29). Of the coming millennial era, when prayers shall be perfected, the scripture says: “And in that day whatsoever any man shall ask, it shall be given unto him.” (D&C 101:27.)
It is not, never has been, and never will be the design and purpose of the Lord—however much we seek him in prayer—to answer all our problems and concerns without struggle and effort on our part. This mortality is a probationary estate. In it we have our agency. We are being tested to see how we will respond in various situations; how we will decide issues; what course we will pursue while we are here walking, not by sight, but by faith. Hence, we are to solve our own problems and then to counsel with the Lord in prayer and receive a spiritual confirmation that our decisions are correct.
As he set forth in his work of translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith did not simply ask the Lord what the characters on the plates meant, rather he was required to study the matter out in his mind, make a decision of his own, and then ask the Lord if his conclusions were correct. (See D&C 8 and D&C 9.) So it is with us in all that we are called upon to do. Prayer and works go together. If and when we have done all we can, then in consultation with the Lord, through mighty and effectual prayer, we have power to come up with the right conclusions.
These (though many) are simple and easy and contribute to the spirit of worship that attends sincere and effectual prayers. Our Father is glorified and exalted; he is an omnipotent being. We are as the dust of the earth in comparison, and yet we are his children with access, through prayer, to his presence. Any act of obeisance which gets us in the proper frame of mind when we pray is all to the good.
We seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our prayers. We ponder the solemnities of eternity in our hearts. We approach Deity in the spirit of awe, reverence, and worship. We speak in hushed and solemn tones. We listen for his answer. We are at our best in prayer. We are in the divine presence.
Almost by instinct, therefore, we do such things as bow our heads and close our eyes; fold our arms, or kneel, or fall on our faces. We use the sacred language of prayer (that of the King James Version of the Bible—thee, thou, thine, not you and your). And we say Amen when others pray, thus making their utterances ours, their prayers our prayers.
There is an old saying to this effect: “If you can’t pray about a thing, don’t do it,” which is intended to tie our prayers and acts together. And true it is that our deeds, in large measure, are children of our prayers. Having prayed, we act; our proper petitions have the effect of charting a righteous course of conduct for us. The boy that prays (earnestly and devoutly and in faith) that he may go on a mission, will then prepare himself for his mission, and in fact receives his call to service. The young people who pray always, in faith, to marry in the temple, and then act accordingly, are never satisfied with worldly marriage. So intertwined are prayer and works that having recited the law of prayer in detail, Amulek then concludes:
“After ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.” (Alma 34:28.)
We have now spoken, briefly and in imperfect fashion, of prayer and some of the great and eternal principles which attend it. There remains now but one thing more—to testify that these doctrines are sound and that prayer is a living reality which leads to eternal life.
Prayer may be gibberish and nonsense to the carnal mind; but to the saints of God it is the avenue of communications with the Unseen.
To the unbelieving and rebellious it may seem as an act of senseless piety born of mental instability; but to those who have tasted its fruits it becomes an anchor to the soul through all the storms of life.
Prayer is of God—not the vain repetitions of the heathen, not the rhetoric of the prayer books, not the insincere lispings of lustful men—but that prayer which is born of knowledge, which is nurtured by faith in Christ, which is offered in spirit and in truth.
Prayer opens the door to peace in this life and eternal life in the world to come. Prayer is essential to salvation. Unless and until we make it a living part of us so that we speak to our Father and have his voice answer, by the power of his Spirit, we are yet in our sins.
Oh, thou by whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way!
The path of prayer thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray.
(Hymns, no. 220.)
Of all these things I testify, and pray to the Father in the name of the Son, that all of the Latter-day Saints, as well as all those in the world who will join with them, may—through prayer and that righteous living which results therefrom—gain peace and joy here and an eternal fullness of all good things hereafter. Even so. Amen.