“Prayer—Try Again,” Ensign, June 1981, 72
The following address was given at a BYU 14-stake fireside, Sunday, 2 March 1980.
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. In this mortal experience there are many Christlike things we can do; 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.
There are several important things we can all do that will help us pursue our goal to know the Savior. We speak of selfless service to others, daily scripture study, daily prayer, keeping the commandments, and so forth. The list goes on and on. The number of things we must do seems endless.
In our pursuit of a righteous life, we all experience trials, disappointments, discouragements, and frustrations. You name it, and somebody has had it. Never-ending problems seem to be the name of the game. They come to all. 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 one. Since I have become acquainted with the General Authorities, I have found that all of them struggle with problems—in their personal lives, in their families, and with their health—that challenge the very best in 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 that 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 matter of a few days. As they gave him the blessing, many thoughts went through my mind.
President Kimball had been raised in Arizona, as I had been, and I had paid particular attention to him. I remembered many of the trials that he had experienced, especially the very serious health problems. I knew that he sang in a quartet at one time with members of the Twelve, and I understood he sang beautifully. Then he had cancer and had to have that voice taken away from him.
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.
Now for the next few minutes, I would like to visit with those of you who have become discouraged in your personal prayers—the ones you say when no one else is listening. I’d like to talk to those of you who have stopped praying or who do not pray as frequently or as fervently as you once did. 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 prayed and prayed for days and days for something special and then found that it didn’t work out? 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? 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 reflecting on 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 unrepented sins. 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 bounce off. His messages don’t penetrate, so we say, “He doesn’t hear,” or “He doesn’t answer.” Sometimes this wall is very formidable, and the great challenge of life is to destroy it, or, if you please, 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 the 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 closed, it was still cankering my soul. One day my wife, who is very astute and knows when I’m not doing everything I should, said, “You don’t like so and so, do you?”
“No, I don’t,” I said. “But how could you tell?”
“Well, it shows—in your countenance it shows. Why don’t you do something about it?” she said.
“Why don’t you pray about it?”
I said, “Well, I did pray once, and I still don’t like him.”
“No,” she said, “why don’t you really pray about it?”
Then I began to think, and I knew what she meant. So 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 kept it up, 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. That stone of unforgiveness needs to be removed from all of us, if it happens to be there, and I suggest that persistent prayer might be a way to remove it.
Another stone that gets set into this wall between us and heaven is evil speaking. Have you ever come home from a sacrament meeting, priesthood meeting, or Relief Society meeting and said, “What a dumb lesson,” or “Why did the bishop do that tonight; wasn’t he thinking?” or “Goodness, I wish they would get a better teacher; she’s a lemon,” and on and on. I believe that every time we speak evil of anyone who is a servant in the kingdom, we are sowing the seeds of apostasy. We talk about speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed, but I believe that “anointed” applies to all who are working in the kingdom. I believe that you can’t speak evil of a bishop, a counselor, or a teacher without putting a stone in your path that might keep the messages of heaven from reaching you. So I would suggest that we look for elevating things to say about people and not for the degrading things, no matter who we are talking about.
One of the stones that presents a very real problem for many is unworthy thoughts. Our minds are tremendous reservoirs; they have the capacity to retain an thin that we put into them. We can put filth, garbage, trash, or vulgarity into our minds—or we can fill them with beauty and spiritual experiences. Our minds, however, are not like our physical bodies. When we put something into our physical body that isn’t right, that is dirty or trashy, that is not good for us, we can get rid of it in a brief period through natural bodily processes. But our minds will retain the trashy kinds of things for days and weeks, months and years, and sometimes for a lifetime. So the important thing to do, remembering that the mind has a hard time cleansing itself, is to be careful of what you put into it. Magazines that are suggestive—or even more than suggestive—should not be looked at.
Do you ever go to a show in which there are some bedroom scenes or nudity displayed on the screen; if so, do you have the courage to get up and walk out? Or do you say, “Why not? Everybody talks about this now; everybody’s watching this kind of thing. Why not just stay?” I suggest that every time you look at something that would not have the approval of the Master, you are filling your mind with something that you will have a hard time getting rid of. As we review Church court cases we find, if a proper report is given, that the mind’s processes and thoughts eventually lead to the act. Those who unceasingly fill their minds with things that are filthy and ugly are the ones who are led step-by-step into terribly destructive experiences. So have the courage to walk away from any such experience, whether it’s seeing, hearing, or even speaking things that fill your mind with garbage. Then plead with the Lord for experiences that will fill your mind with refreshing thoughts. There are many stones that need to be removed.
The pattern of 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 had a bout 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, 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 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 three-inch 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 the language; 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 wonder if he is ever going to answer. 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, 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 one of the girls said to me, “Are you sure we re supposed to have another baby?” My wife had said that she knew we could have one, so we went and collectively asked her, “Are you sure we’re going to have a baby?” She said, “Yes, but we haven’t prayed long enough or hard enough. So we prayed for another year, and still no baby came. Then we asked the question again: “Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?” “Yes,” was her reply. So we prayed and prayed and prayed for one and two and three and four and five and six and seven and eight years! And then one day at the table she 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. This element is important. Many feel the promptings of the Spirit, but not all have the courage to obey. We’ve all had the experience of knowing and not doing. One of the great challenges of life is to live to receive the message and then to have the courage to obey it.
I want to give you an additional thought on what to pray for. We’re all alike, and we seem to want the best for ourselves, but sometimes what we consider to be the best isn’t right for us, especially when the Lord doesn’t think we’re ready for it. May I suggest that when you pray for something very special, you pray for two things. First, pray for the blessing that you want, whether it’s a new baby, or a job, or whatever; and second, ask the Lord for the blessing of understanding. Then, if he feels for some reason that the blessing isn’t appropriate for that time, the blessing of understanding will come—and the frustrations that ofttimes come because we feel our prayers are not answered will blow away in the wind.
Now, tonight … and tomorrow … and the next day … 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. And if your spouse or roommate doesn’t pray, perhaps your example tonight will be all that he or she needs to make a fresh start. Go and kneel.
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. Don’t repeat trite phrases that you have heard others say; instead, 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.
Those of you who may have had some particularly difficult experiences may only want to ask him for a desire to pray. That may be all you will want to ask for tonight. But at least ask for that—a desire to pray. Then plead with him, 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, for we will have closed the door. He does not close the door—we do. I plead with those of you who are discouraged to not give up. I think we have all had at least one experience, and perhaps many more, in our lives when we have had an unusually warm and good feeling about something spiritual. That feeling, the warmth of the Spirit that comes as we learn to talk to the Lord, is available to each of us, and I plead with you to not give up.
It is recorded in the New Testament that after the Savior had been crucified, some of the disciples had gone fishing. They had gone out on the Sea of Galilee that afternoon, and every time they threw their nets, they brought them back empty. They fished all night, and when morning came their boats were still empty. Tired and discouraged by the failure, they started for the shore. As they approached the shore, they saw a man walking; they didn’t recognize him, according to the scriptures, but it was the Savior. As they drew closer, he told them to cast out their nets one more time. Now, they didn’t argue with him; they didn’t say, “We’ve tried,” or “I tried praying and it didn’t work,” or “I’m discouraged.” Instead, they listened; they had faith; and they obeyed. They lowered their nets in the waters one more time—and this time they brought forth nets overflowing with fish. (See John 21:1–6.)
May the Lord bless you to persevere in righteous purposes, my brothers and sisters. I testify to you that he lives, that he is in his heavens, and that he loves you.
Let’s Talk about It
After reading “Prayer—Try Again” individual or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a gospel study period:
1. What might be some of the Lord’s purposes in allowing his children to encounter trials, disappointments, and frustrations in their lives?
2. The author states that “we ofttimes build a rock wall between ourselves and heaven.” What in your experience, are some of the most difficult barriers to effective communication with the Lord?
3. What does unkindness or failing to forgive another or backbiting have to do with effective prayer?
4. The author speaks of his experiences with both immediate and not-so-immediate answers to prayers. Can you think of instances in your own life when an answer to prayer came right away? when it didn’t come until later?
5. The author discusses two vital elements of a prayer for a particular blessing. What are they, and why are they important?
6. There are many ways in which the prayer experience can be made more meaningful and successful. Discuss how the specific steps suggested by the author can be used by you and your family to develop a closer relationship with the Lord through prayer.