Discerning Answers to Our Prayers
February 1996

“Discerning Answers to Our Prayers,” Ensign, Feb. 1996, 48

Discerning Answers to Our Prayers

“President,” the missionary declared, “I don’t seem to be getting an answer to my prayers!” “Elder,” I answered, “one of the beautiful truths of the gospel is that our Father in Heaven is very close and responsive to all who earnestly pray to him. ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth’” (Luke 11:9–10; emphasis added).

We were engaged in one of the many interviews I would conduct as a mission president. My young missionary friend, like many other people, had become discouraged in his prayer experience, thinking that Heavenly Father was unresponsive. But the reassuring message of the scriptures is that all who pray in faith for divine assistance, asking for that which is right, will be answered in some way (see 3 Ne. 18:20; D&C 88:63–65). The promise is sure. Our challenge is to discern our Father’s abundant and varied responses.

We know that our Father and our Savior both are eager to strengthen, comfort, and inspire each one of us. The scriptures tell us, for example, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him” (2 Chr. 16:9). The Lord Jesus Christ compared Heavenly Father’s responsiveness to that of an earthly father who gives good gifts to his children (see Matt. 7:9–11; compare JST, Matt. 7:12–17). We read also that the Savior stands at the door and knocks and will enter and sup with us if we are willing to hear his voice (see Rev. 3:20).

“Mighty Prayer and Supplication”

If we wish our prayers to be answered by our Heavenly Father, we must, of course, do all in our power to make them spiritually effective.

The scriptures encourage us to pray with great fervency, crying unto the Lord, as Enos did, in “mighty prayer and supplication,” pouring out our “whole soul unto God” (Enos 1:4, 9). “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).

As I talked with my missionary friend during our interview, I told him of an experience in my youth when I prayed with desperate urgency. I was fourteen and had tried to catch a bus to visit my father, who was stationed at an army base in Tooele, Utah, some thirty-five miles from Salt Lake City. I missed the bus, however, and decided to hitch a ride instead. A man took me as far as the Great Salt Lake and dropped me off near a smelter about twenty miles west of the city. It began to rain, and night was descending. Sulfuric fumes from the smelter filled the air, and I began to cough and wheeze.

Remembering my parents’ teachings, I started to pray. As I struggled for breath, my prayers became more desperate and earnest.

Into my mind came a voice that said, “Run.” I didn’t feel like running and shrugged off the impression. But the voice repeated more distinctly, “Run.” I started to jog through the cold rain. The voice came again and said more urgently, “Run as fast as you can!” So I did.

As I staggered over the top of a hill, I saw a lone car in the process of making a U-turn. I croaked out a noise and waved my arms. The car stopped, and even though I couldn’t speak coherently, the kindly couple in the car seemed to understand, invited me in, and drove away from the fumes. I was thoroughly drenched and was shaking uncontrollably from the cold. The couple told me that they had been sitting in their home in Tooele and felt that they should take a drive—in the middle of the storm!

Receiving Inspiration

That night on the lonely road to Tooele I gained confidence that our Heavenly Father answers fervent prayers. I also learned several other lessons.

First, obey spiritual impressions without delay. Don’t hesitate, as did Zacharias in accepting the word of an angel (see Luke 1:11–20). It is wiser to be like Abraham, who “rose up early in the morning” (see Gen. 22:1–3) to follow the Lord’s commandment. This rule applies even if what I am called on to do is hard. The Spirit can prompt us to do new, challenging things that cause us to grow and, as often is the case, to bless others at the same time (see Ether 12:27; 2 Ne. 32:5). I am especially attentive when an impression comes repeatedly. When I have any doubt about what seems to be inspiration, I ask the Lord to sweep away my own biases and to reaffirm his will in my heart and mind.

Another lesson I have learned: after praying, I must do my part to help answer the prayer. President Spencer W. Kimball taught: “When we pray for health we must live the laws of health and do all in our power to keep our bodies well and vigorous. We pray for protection and then take reasonable precaution to avoid danger. There must be works with faith” (Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972, p. 205).

A scriptural lesson on how to judge impressions is given in chapter seven of Moroni: “Every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, … and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God” (Moro. 7:13, 16; see also Moro. 7:17–19).

Modern prophets have cautioned us that true personal impressions from the Lord will always be in harmony with what is taught in the scriptures and by the living prophets. It is well to remember, furthermore, that only the President of the Church receives revelation for the Church as a whole (see D&C 28:2; D&C 107:91–92). Personal revelation is for one’s own edification. “Strong, impressive spiritual experiences do not come to us very frequently,” said Elder Boyd K. Packer, now Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “And when they do, they are generally for our own edification, instruction, or correction. Unless we are called by proper authority to do so, they do not position us to counsel or to correct others” (Ensign, Jan. 1983, p. 53).

Why a Still, Small Voice?

My confused young missionary friend seemed worried that the voice of the Spirit might be so soft and unclear that its message could be difficult to discern; so I asked him to consider the following questions: “Why must the voice of the Spirit be so still and small? Why doesn’t the Lord simply write with his finger on your wall every morning the names of those he wants you to visit?”

“Well,” the elder answered thoughtfully, “I suppose if the Lord did that, I wouldn’t have to make any effort myself. I would be living by knowledge and wouldn’t have to develop faith. I wouldn’t have to listen to the Spirit.”

Immediate divine intervention to solve every problem would invalidate the test that earth life was designed to be. Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote: “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. … 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” (Ensign, Jan. 1976, p. 11).

Even though our Heavenly Father may not give us the immediate and complete answer that we think we need, he nonetheless may offer comforting assurance that we will in due time receive the blessings right for us. This revealed assurance is itself an answer! It tells us that the Lord will care for us. The Apostle Paul ties this assurance to faith (see JST, Heb. 11:1), a divine gift that enables us to persist in the face of adversity without knowing when promised blessings may be received in full.

When the Prophet Joseph Smith cried out in anguish, “O God, where art thou?” (D&C 121:1), the Lord’s answer was comfort and assurance that the Prophet would ultimately triumph. This heavenly assurance gave him the strength and patience to endure. Similarly, while witnessing the terrible martyrdom of innocent women and children at the city of Ammonihah (see Alma 14:8–11), Alma was given revealed assurance that “the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory,” which allowed Alma to endure in the face of horror. Likewise, we may receive heavenly assurances, according to our faith and our Father’s wisdom, that will see us through our adversity. When we seek his blessings worthily, we can be sure that we will receive them at the time and in the way that will be best for us.

A Variety of Answers

Our Heavenly Father may answer prayers in a wide variety of ways other than a simple “yes” or “no.” For example, when we have properly prepared ourselves to receive and accept his counsel, he might lead us to a scripture offering the very answer we need. I have a close friend who some years ago was pondering whether to adopt a Native American child. Having considered their personal situation thoroughly, he and his wife prayed, then randomly opened the Book of Mormon. On the pages in front of them, they saw first a passage about being nursing fathers and mothers to the Lamanites. Feeling the confirmation of the Spirit, they accepted the scriptural passage as a direct answer to their prayer and went on to build a loving relationship with the daughter they adopted.

When there seems to be no clear-cut “yes” or “no” answer to a question asked in prayer, it may be that either choice is acceptable. Or perhaps neither choice is the best one. We might consider changing the question to ask an all-knowing, loving Heavenly Father what his will is. Again, the answer might come in a variety of ways—a new thought or opportunity we had not considered, a change in the situation to make one course clearly preferable, or intervention by someone with needed information, practical skill, or spiritual perspective.

A young man desiring to know of the truth of the gospel prayed about the question one night in a gully behind his family’s home. He felt a prompting to go to the front of the house. There he found in a parked car a member of the stake presidency who gave him wise counsel. A fragile testimony was strengthened. God’s sweetest blessings often flow to us through those who are called as our spiritual leaders here on earth.

In considering our prayers, our all-knowing Heavenly Father may answer our needs by giving us a greater capacity to solve our problems ourselves. “It is not the usual purpose of prayer to serve us like Aladdin’s lamp, to bring us ease without effort,” Elder Richard L. Evans of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote some years ago. “Often the purpose of prayer is to give us strength to do what needs to be done, wisdom to see the way to solve our own problems, and ability to do our best in our tasks” (quoted in Richard L. Evans, Jr., Richard L. Evans: The Man and the Message, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1973, p. 289).

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that divine answers can come through pure intelligence flowing into us, giving us “sudden strokes of ideas” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 151). When we feel this acceleration of thought, President Packer has explained, it is the Spirit conveying to us “what we need to know without either the drudgery of study or the passage of time, for it is revelation” (Ensign, Jan. 1983, p. 53). Often this acceleration of thought comes while we study the scriptures. Nephi counsels us to “feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do” (2 Ne. 32:3).

Besides telling us in our minds, the Lord also tells us in the feelings of the heart (D&C 8:2). President Packer further indicated that “these delicate, refined spiritual communications are not seen with our eyes, nor heard with our ears. And even though it is described as a voice, it is a voice that one feels, more than one hears. …

“The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting or shaking us with a heavy hand. Rather it whispers. It caresses so gently that if we are preoccupied we may not feel it at all” (Ensign, Jan. 1983, pp. 52–53).

The Spirit’s mellowing, softening influence can fill us with “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith” (Gal. 5:22–23). When we are praying more, reading the scriptures more, and becoming more humble and Christlike in our behavior, we are heeding the Spirit’s promptings, which lead us to do good, and qualifying ourselves for answers to our prayers (see D&C 112:10) and discernment to recognize them in all their variety.

Intensifying the Voice

There are many ways of making the voice of the Spirit stronger in our lives. One of these is praying with faith, really believing that our Father will answer us. On the other hand, being skeptical of such answers is a self-fulfilling fear! These two opposing truths are taught in James 1:5, the verse that motivated Joseph Smith to go into the grove to pray, and in the two verses following:

“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally. …

“But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.

“For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord” (James 1:5–7).

The more often we pray with sincerity and humility, the more often the Spirit has opportunities to whisper to us. In fact, we promise our Father in the sacramental covenant that we will remember his Son always, in return for which he promises us that we “may always have his Spirit to be with [us]” (D&C 20:77, 79; emphasis added).

It is wise to have worship of the Father in our hearts whenever we undertake to act in his service. Nephi taught: “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).

Having virtuous thoughts and keeping the commandments can give us greater confidence, greater trust that “the Holy Ghost shall be [our] constant companion” and that our prayers will be answered (see D&C 121:45–46). How can we have confidence that God will give new guidance to us unless we are being true to the principles he has already revealed? “When they shall cry unto me I will be slow to hear their cries,” the Lord told the people of wicked King Noah through his prophet Abinadi. “And except they repent … , and cry mightily to the Lord their God, I will not hear their prayers” (Mosiah 11:24–25).

We are much more likely to hear the voice of the Spirit when we pray for the right things. “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). Other scriptures tell us that “right” things to pray for include strength to escape temptation (see 3 Ne. 18:18), blessings upon our families (see 3 Ne. 18:21), the gift of love (see Moro. 7:48) and other gifts of the Spirit (see D&C 46:8, 26, 28–30), and forgiveness for our debts (see Matt. 6:12, footnote 12a). Of course, it would also be appropriate to ask for assistance in doing the work of the Lord, with questions such as “How can I help activate Susie?” or “How can I help the Sunday School class I am teaching to want to live the principles we are to discuss this Sunday?”

The Spirit can teach us what we should pray for (see Rom. 8:26; 3 Ne. 19:24). John the Revelator declared: “If we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:

“And … we have the petitions that we desired of him” (1 Jn. 5:14–15).

Gratitude and Understanding

Some months after my interview with the elder who was having difficulty discerning the answers to his prayers, I sat in a testimony meeting at the end of his mission. “I am learning what it means to pray mightily,” he testified. “And I have come to better recognize the many answers the Lord is giving me. I know he loves me and is helping me.”

His words showed an attitude of thanksgiving for his Father’s blessings. This aspect of receiving answers to our prayers is often neglected, but the Savior himself has taught that we should receive the blessings of God with praise and thanksgiving (see, for example, D&C 46:7, D&C 78:19, D&C 136:28). It is through gratitude that we find the key to understanding how deeply our Father loves us.

He is eager to give us good gifts—including the blessings that we need and the answers to our prayers—as we ask in righteousness. By faith we can come to understand his answers and know that they are the best things for us at that particular time, answers lovingly offered by a Heavenly Father who can see with perfect clarity to the depths of our souls.

Let’s Talk about It

This article may furnish material for a family home evening discussion or for personal consideration. You might consider questions such as:

  1. Do I really listen for Heavenly Father’s answers to my prayers—or only for confirmation of what I think is right?

  2. Am I prepared in my heart to obey, whatever the answer may be?

  3. Is there anything amiss in my life that blocks the whisperings of the Spirit?

  • Grant E. Barton, the director of training at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, serves as high priests group leader in the Pleasant View Fifth Ward, Provo Sharon East Stake.

Illustrated by Cary Henrie