What guidelines can help us pray in accordance with God’s will?

“What guidelines can help us pray in accordance with God’s will?” Ensign, Feb. 1999, 53–55

Nephi states that God gives liberally to those who “ask not amiss” (2 Ne. 4:35). What guidelines can help us pray in accordance with God’s will?

Response by Alan L. Wilkins, academic vice president of Brigham Young University.

The Bible Dictionary in the Latter-day Saint edition of the King James Version of the Bible defines prayer as “the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them.”

As I have gained more perspective about prayer, I have realized that some of my prayers have been, to an extent, misguided. In the past I have sometimes pleaded with our Heavenly Father to do according to my will on some matters without a clear sense of “thy will be done” (Matt. 6:10), and I have sought to make my agenda His rather than to align my desires with His purposes.

On this particular point, President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988), a counselor in the First Presidency, was a wonderful example of someone who learned how to approach God in prayer. For instance, after President Romney’s wife, Ida, suffered a stroke in early 1967, she lay in the hospital for weeks and could no longer recognize him. Her condition worsened following priesthood blessings, fasting, and prayer, and President Romney feared that she might be “appointed unto death” (D&C 42:48). If it was the Lord’s will to take Ida, President Romney did not want to pray for something contrary, though he loved her deeply.

He searched the scriptures and fasted that he might know how to show his faith. He didn’t directly ask the Lord to heal his wife, though this desire was never far from his heart. Rather, he worried whether it was right to ask for such a blessing.

President Romney struggled with this internal conflict for some time. One evening, shortly after returning from visiting Ida in the hospital and finding her condition unchanged, he turned to the Book of Mormon. A particular passage touched his heart and struck him as a personal revelation:

“Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou hast done; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. And thou hast not feared them, and hast not sought thine own life, but hast sought my will, and to keep my commandments.

“And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will” (Hel. 10:4–5).

President Romney felt personal confirmation that the Lord accepted him.

“By refusing to ask a special favor without first ascertaining the will of the Lord, he had unknowingly demonstrated the quality of his faith. …

“With awe [President Romney] fell to his knees. The scripture was the direct answer to many prayers. More than anything else he wanted to know the Lord’s will for Ida. He was willing to let her go; or, if need be, he would care for her in whatever condition the Lord wanted her to be in. As he concluded his prayer with the phrase ‘Thy will be done,’ he seemed to feel or hear a voice which said, ‘It is not contrary to my will that Ida be healed’” (F. Burton Howard, Marion G. Romney: His Life and Faith [1988], 141–42).

Quickly President Romney put on his tie and suit coat and again went to the hospital. Arriving at Ida’s hospital room after 2:00 A.M., he placed his hands on her head and promised her that she would recover. “Even though he did not doubt, [President Romney] was astonished to see Ida’s eyes open as he concluded the blessing” (Marion G. Romney, 142). Thereafter, Ida recovered fully and miraculously.

From the example of President Romney we can learn several things about bringing our will into harmony with God’s. Notice how he waited on the Lord and how much effort he devoted to ascertaining and opening his heart to God’s will. What remarkable faith and self-restraint he demonstrated! We must likewise educate our desires and progress to the point that our desires become right in God’s sight so that we do not ask amiss.

Of course, many of our prayers, perhaps most—such as our expressions of gratitude and hope—are appropriately offered without such careful forethought and effort to learn God’s immediate will for us. In such instances, we trust that the Spirit will influence our thoughts as we pray.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has observed that “there are ever so many ways in which we must come to be guided even in the content of our prayers. It is not enough to kneel, important as that is, or to have faith, as essential as that is. We must come to bend our will to the will of God, so that in our prayers we really commune with him and ask for those things which are right” (in Prayer [1977], 46).

For President Romney, bending his will to the will of God on an important issue to him began with scripture reading, fasting, and prayer. Scripture reading was the way to put himself in tune with what God has revealed to prophets about His mind and will.

The Lord, referring to those who have been duly authorized to represent Him, has said, “Whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (D&C 68:4). If we will immerse ourselves in the scriptures and in the words of living prophets, we can come closer to understanding God’s mind and will. We are thus more likely to make righteous petitions to our Heavenly Father.

Notice that President Romney waited to ask for his wife’s restoration to health until he felt confirmation from the Holy Ghost about both his own standing before the Lord and the will of the Lord. Certainly his fasting and prayers helped soften his heart and cleanse him so that he could receive the Holy Ghost, which can prompt us to pray for that which is right.

After the Holy Ghost had been given to the 12 Nephite disciples, who had been commanded by Jesus to pray, “they did not multiply many words, for it was given unto them what they should pray” (3 Ne. 19:24).

Without the promptings of the Holy Ghost, we may find ourselves asking for that which is not expedient (see D&C 88:64). The education of our desires, said President Joseph F. Smith, “is one of far-reaching importance to our happiness in life” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. [1939], 297).

“Only with the help of the Holy Ghost can we be lifted outside the narrow little theater of our own experience, outside our selfish concerns, and outside the confines of our tiny conceptual cells,” said Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

“God sees things as they really are and as they will become. We don’t! In order to tap that precious perspective during our prayers, we must rely upon the promptings of the Holy Ghost. With access to that kind of knowledge, we would then pray for what we and others should have—really have. With the Spirit prompting us, we will not ask ‘amiss’” (in Prayer [1977], 45).

Such spiritual promptings in our prayers are contingent upon our personal righteousness:

“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.

“But know this, it shall be given you what you shall ask” (D&C 50:29–30; emphasis added).

Bending our whole souls to God prepares us to hear the word of the Lord and helps us to open our hearts to do what might be very difficult. Indeed, this process of learning changes us and allows us to enter into the spirit of prayers and petitions demonstrated by the approach of President Romney.

Thus, as we consult the scriptures, study the words of living prophets, and seek to cleanse ourselves from sin so that the Holy Ghost may be given to us, we become focused on harmonizing our will with the will of our Father in Heaven, and then we are able to ask “in the Spirit … according to the will of God; wherefore it is done even as [we ask]” (D&C 46:30).

Photo by Longin Lonczyna Jr.

Three Nephites, by Gary L. Kapp