The Nature of Prayer

July 5, 2004 | 13 comments
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Yesterday, in our discussion of Alma 14, our Gospel Doctrine teacher read an oft-quote passage from Spencer W. Kimball, which prompted some thoughts about the nature of prayer.

Then-Elder Kimball’s statement is as follows:

Now, we find many people critical when a righteous person is killed, a young father or mother is taken from a family, or when violent deaths occur. Some become bitter when oft-repeated prayers seem unanswered. Some lose faith and turn sour when solemn administrations by holy men seem to be ignored and no restoration seems to come from repeated prayer circles. But if all the sick were healed, if all the righteous were protected and the wicked destroyed, the whole program of the Father would be annulled and the basic principle of the Gospel, free agency, would be ended.

If pain and sorrow and total punishment immediately followed the doing of evil, no soul would repeat a misdeed. If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given the doer of good, there could be no evil-all would do good and not because of the rightness of doing good. There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no free agency, no Satanic controls.

Should all prayers be immediately answered according to our selfish desires and our limited understanding, then there would be little or no suffering, sorrow, disappointment, or even death; and if these were not, there would also be an absence of joy, success, resurrection, eternal life, and godhood.

As I listened to this line of reasoning, I begin wondering how God decides which wishes to grant and which to deny. (By the way, I use the word “wishes” rather than “prayers” to avoid the debate about whether God answers every prayer. That issue is slightly to the side of the issue that I am interested in exploring.) After pondering this issue for all of, say, two minutes, I jotted down these questions on my Ward Newsletter: When we see something that we pray for come to pass, are we seeing an answer to prayer? Or are we witnessing the simple conguence of our will with His? Is it possible that faith does not so much cause things to happen as it allows us to submit our will to the Father’s?

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13 Responses to The Nature of Prayer

  1. Clark Goble on July 5, 2004 at 4:19 pm

    I don’t think we really know. However it presumably is some limit designed so that we have to learn to sacrifice and be humble yet which is still bound by maximizing free will.

  2. Jim S. on July 6, 2004 at 1:38 am

    Slightly tangential remark:

    Our Gosp. Doct. discussion focused on two ironies: 1. the Sons of Mosiah seemed to suffer, or were allowed to suffer, in part, to keep them “living in tension,” as I call it. That is, there are two separate comments alluding to the possibility that the S.M. could very well relapse. Alma’s joy at seeing the SM is magnified because he sees that “they were still his brethren in the lord.” Alma worried. Mosiah worried, too, that if the kingdom were conferred upon someone other than Aaron, Aaron would relapse and draw away a part of the people, and become party to shedding much blood and perverting the way of the Lord. Additionally, even if Aaron were given the kingdom properly, it is quite possible he would “turn again to his pride, and vain things . . . and cause the people to commit much sin.” Mosiah uses the possibility of such relapse to argue against kingship itself. (Note that either the scribe or editor of Alma 17-22 gets it exactly wrong when he says, in 17:6, “[These Sons of Mosiah] . . . having refused the kingdom which their father was desirous to confer upon them . . .”] Mosiah did not desire to give them the kingdom, on my reading. He argued for a system of judges, so as to dilute the possibility of corruption, or at least the effects of corruption.
    Anyway, back to my original point. The Sons of Mosiah were “the very vilest of sinners. And the Lord saw fit . . . to spare them. nevertheless they suffered much anguish of soul because of their initquities, suffering much and fearing that they should be cast off forever.” It’s somewhat ambiguous, but I take it that this fear and suffering continued with them, for the reasons, at least in part, stated above. That is, the Lord allows the converted to suffer, in some way, retributively, even though their sins are forgiven. This suffering is not altogether deserved, yet seems, paradoxically retributive. I don’t want to argue this point, so much as observe that the Sons of Mosiah suffer much on their mission. They’ve come to the altar of God, and that altar requires lots of sacrifice: on-going sacrifice. “They had many afflictions; they did suffer much, both in body and in mind. . .” Coming to the altar of God does not eliminate suffering, but it does provide for comfort. So, by living in tension, by allowing for continuous, or nearly continuous suffering, the Lord kept them from moral and spiritual relapse. Suffering thus, though undeserved, in some ways, keeps our attention: our prayers, our loyalty. (Allowing the righteous to suffer, so as to preserve loyalty, seems counterintuitive.)

    Which brings me to the second point: the Sons of Mosiah were comforted first, before their missionary suffering, and not afterwards (17:10). So they had to look back for sustainance, rather than forward to a cessation. The text “explains” the ante-hoc comfort: so that they would be patient in long-suffering and affliction.
    This patience was instrumental: they were allowed to suffer so as become an example. “If these disciples suffer to such an extent, and do not doubt nor question, then they must know something.”

    To be sure, very often suffering is mysterious. Alma 17-22 gives a few reasons.

    Jim s.

  3. Blaine E. on July 6, 2004 at 11:10 am

    Gordon, I think your second question is very insightful. Do we think that we, by praying, can cause Heavenly Father to act in a way not in his will? Since he knows our thoughts, by praying for things, we are certainly not telling Him anything he doesn’t know. And since he knows what is best for us better than we do, we aren’t coming up with any good ideas that He is going to benefit from.

    Thus, I think that the effects of prayer are principally (if not entirely) on us. By praying we open ourselves up to the Spirit, which may help us with faith so that Heavenly Father can bless us in ways that He couldn’t without faith. It may humble us so that He can bless us. It may humble us and cause us to change our desires. In any event, I think that the answers we receive from prayers are a result of the change that prayer brings in us.

    I think this should affect how we pray. We should pray for faith, for humility, for the Spirit to know God’s will.

  4. Renee on July 6, 2004 at 3:00 pm

    I do believe He hears prayers and the act itself of praying is cathartic. Personally, I don’t know that prayer is so much about God doing anything for us though. I believe He can act when He chooses but I don’t think the point of prayer is for Him to act. It is for us to open our mind to revelation. In that sense, I believe it is similar to meditation. Prayer puts you in the frame of mind where you are open to guidance. It filters out the noise.

  5. Jan on July 6, 2004 at 3:40 pm

    I agree with Renee about the true power of prayer.

    I wrote a bit about whether or not God has a direct hand in our lives last month on my blog. Here is the link. My conclusion: if God does interfere in our lives in such a direct manner, then He is sociopathic.

  6. greenfrog on July 7, 2004 at 12:36 am

    Is it possible that it is the operation of consciousness through prayer that, itself, alters the world? If such a concept were correct, would we be correct in attributing the result to an act of God?

  7. Bryant S. on July 7, 2004 at 1:47 pm

    I’m new to T&S, so my question might have addressed before this thread, but I’m not sure that I totally agree that we pray solely to be open to understanding God’s will. Praying is definitely cathartic; I find it to be similar to writing in a journal where the mere attempt at articulating certain ideas often brings them into focus. I also think it helps us better align our will with God’s will. So, I agree with previous posts that prayer helps us more than it benefits God, but I think it does that too. I’m totally sure how, but why would Jesus, a perfect person, pray? If he were perfect would he need prayer to understand God’s will? Or was he just doing it out of obedience? Or does the act of praying strengthen the bond between the one praying and the one to whom the prayer is addressed?

    Prayer is also a way of praising God. Does the praise benefit Him, as well as us? (humbling ourselves to praise another being is beneficial, I think)

    I guess what I’m asking/saying is that I think God wants us to pray, not only because it is a form of meditation for us (and a commandment, but I don’t think I need to hear the whole obedience debate that has been going on here lately), but also because it helps Him somehow. Of course, maybe it just helps Him bless us by opening our minds to receive those blessings as was already mentioned. Any ideas?

  8. Bryant S. on July 7, 2004 at 1:49 pm

    I’m new to T&S, so my question might have addressed before this thread, but I’m not sure that I totally agree that we pray solely to be open to understanding God’s will. Praying is definitely cathartic; I find it to be similar to writing in a journal where the mere attempt at articulating certain ideas often brings them into focus. I also think it helps us better align our will with God’s will. So, I agree with previous posts that prayer helps us more than it benefits God, but I think it does that too. I’m not totally sure how, but why would Jesus, a perfect person, pray? If he were perfect would he need prayer to understand God’s will? Or was he just doing it out of obedience? Or does the act of praying strengthen the bond between the one praying and the one to whom the prayer is addressed?

    Prayer is also a way of praising God. Does the praise benefit Him, as well as us? (humbling ourselves to praise another being is beneficial, I think)

    I guess what I’m asking/saying is that I think God wants us to pray, not only because it is a form of meditation for us (and a commandment, but I don’t think I need to hear the whole obedience debate that has been going on here lately), but also because it helps Him somehow. Of course, maybe it just helps Him bless us by opening our minds to receive those blessings as was already mentioned. Any ideas?

  9. JeffreyB on July 8, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    Remember Jesus’ words: Ask and you shall recieve. As we all know prayer is a commandment. In this life we are bereft of many things, so our Heavenly Father has commanded us to ask for everything we need in the name of His Son. I feel that the purpose for prayer is that it provides us with what we need to survive this world. It is just as simple as that. God knows what we need before we ask, but prayer, as we know, isn’t to inform Him, but to supplicate and entreat for ourselves to obtain divine assistance. It isn’t as complex as we think it is.

  10. clarkgoble on July 8, 2004 at 4:06 pm

    Dennis Potter has an interesting paper on prayer that some might find interesting. It’s more philosophical but addresses (or at least questions) some of the recent comments here.

  11. Times and Seasons » Prayer Rolls on October 11, 2004 at 1:48 am

    [...] an 800 number? Our priesthood instructor mentioned this today, and it started me thinking again about the nature of prayer. And I admit, I am stumped by the prayer roll.

  12. Times and Seasons » Prayer Rolls on October 11, 2004 at 1:48 am

    [...] an 800 number? Our priesthood instructor mentioned this today, and it started me thinking again about the nature of prayer. And I admit, I am stumped by the prayer roll.

  13. susana on April 13, 2005 at 4:32 am

    Greetings!

    My name is Susana. I’m a teacher in Portugal, but I have a problem. My beloved brother has a disease who has no mercy! And I waste all my money with therapy and medicine!
    He love to learn(he has a deep Christian faith) but he have no money and a very few friends!
    The only joy he has is to read(it’s a compulsion).
    Will you please help out his poor and lonely soul by sending him some books. Any books would be greatly appreciated.
    He would really like books about Jesus Christ, any Christian book would be loved.
    Thanks for saving her soul from the hell in which he live.
    I really need a lot of help. I’m starting to think that there is no help for me, too! WE DON’T HAVE A PRIVATE COMPUTER!
    Please please please send me something!Old, even damaged print matterial, anything..

    I thank you your love

    Susana

    Our address:

    Susana Silva
    Travessa Monte Louro, 102 ,2º esq.
    4250-321 Porto
    Portugal