“Enriching Our Prayers,” Ensign, Aug. 2002, 53–55
Perhaps no commandment is repeated in the scriptures more often than to pray. One of mortality’s great lessons is to learn for ourselves the will of God, and that knowledge comes largely as a result of righteous, dedicated prayer.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained the role of prayer: “Petitioning in prayer has taught me, again and again, that the vault of heaven with all its blessings is to be opened only by a combination lock. One tumbler falls when there is faith; a second when there is personal righteousness; the third and final tumbler falls only when what is sought is, in God’s judgment—not ours—right for us. Sometimes we pound on the vault door for something we want very much and wonder why the door does not open. We would be very spoiled children if that vault door opened any more easily than it does. I can tell, looking back, that God truly loves me by inventorying the petitions He has refused to grant me. Our rejected petitions tell us much about ourselves but also much about our flawless Father.”1
To help us each to improve the intentions, approaches, and results of our prayers, here are some scriptures and thoughts that have helped me.
Anciently, altars were built for the purpose of offering prayer. Building such altars required worshipers to prepare the ground, gather unhewn stones (see Ex. 20:25), and fit the stones carefully into place. The considerable time and effort spent reflected reverence, respect, and preparation.
While we no longer physically build altars for personal prayer, we can build figurative altars through our faith. Some of the stones available to us include scripture study, meditation, temple attendance, family history work, and service. When we kneel to pray, in a sense we offer up all our spiritual efforts and preparations. If we have not made sufficient effort, it can be equivalent to carelessly throwing stones into a pile for an altar.
Moroni said 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). The question is, How do we determine if we have real intent? Or perhaps a better way to state the question is, What do we intend to do with the answer God reveals to us? If the honest answer is “nothing” or “as little as possible,” we might expect Him to withhold our answer until we intend to willingly comply with all our heart. When we do receive answers, we need to be obedient if we expect further answers to come.
The Savior has given us the supreme example of being willing to do whatever our Father asks, even when the task seems painful or impossible. When faced with drinking the bitterest of all cups, His humble reply was, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39).
The Savior said, “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 enlighten us in this area: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (James 4:3); “Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss” (2 Ne. 4:35); “Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not” (D&C 8:10); “Whatsoever ye ask the Father in my name it shall be given unto you, that is expedient for you; and if ye ask anything that is not expedient for you, it shall turn unto your condemnation” (D&C 88:64–65).
It may be clear that we shouldn’t ask for the wrong things, but sometimes it is not as clear how we determine what the right things are to ask for. Asking to pass a test we didn’t study for or to win a lottery are clearly on the “amiss” side of the equation. But what about praying for obstacles to be removed in our lives, relief from afflictions, or help in directions we want to go?
The entry under “prayer” in the Bible Dictionary is insightful: “Prayer is 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.”
How is our will brought into correspondence with the will of the Father? The scriptures answer: “He that asketh in the Spirit asketh according to the will of God; wherefore it is done even as he asketh” (D&C 46:30). As we grow in the principle of prayer, we come to recognize that the Lord will guide our words by His Spirit, that the Holy Ghost will inspire us with what we should pray for. As we pray by the Spirit, we will find our minds lifted up as if on eagles’ wings, and our pleadings and praises will resound with the approbation of heaven because our minds will be in harmony with the mind of the Lord. The scriptures say: “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).
Discussing why it is necessary for the Holy Ghost to prompt us in our prayers, Elder Maxwell said: “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.’”2
Sometimes we already have an answer available before we kneel down to pray. The Lord expects us to search the scriptures and the words of living prophets. For example, a healthy Latter-day Saint young man does not need to ask if he should go on a mission. The Lord has already spoken clearly on that matter. It has been said that if we want to talk to the Lord, we pray. If we want the Lord to speak to us, we read the scriptures and the words of the living prophets. The scriptures can literally be a Urim and Thummim by which the Lord can answer our prayers.
Often the Lord requires us to use our own judgment, and therefore He lovingly and tutorially withholds an answer. Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “When we explain a problem and a proposed solution, sometimes He answers yes, sometimes no. Often He withholds an answer, not for lack of concern, but because he loves—perfectly. He wants us to apply truths He has given us. For us to grow, we need to trust our ability to make correct decisions. We need to do what we feel is right. In time, He will answer. He will not fail us.”3
President Brigham Young stated, “If I ask him [God] to give me wisdom concerning any requirement in life, or in regard to my own course, or that of my friends, my family, my children, or those that I preside over, and get no answer from him, and then do the very best that my judgment will teach me, he is bound to own and honor that transaction, and he will do so to all intents and purposes.”4
Perhaps one reason we sometimes don’t seem to receive answers to our prayers is that we are so concerned about our own needs that we fail to give thanks, praise, and adoration. The scriptures are clear: “Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things. … And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments” (D&C 59:7, 21). President N. Eldon Tanner (1898–1982) of the First Presidency said, “The sin of ingratitude is grievous.”5
I am grateful that this dispensation was opened because a young man believed in God and asked in prayer for direction (see James 1:5–6). It is today as it has been from the beginning and will be until the end of time: God hears and answers prayers. He is willing to grant us wisdom and help as soon as we are ready to receive.