The Power of Prayer

February 6, 2007 | 31 comments
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I am something of a realist and a cynic. I assume that I basically have little or no power over the universe, and that there is almost nothing I can do to change that. You know the story of the guy walking along the beach and throwing back star fish. Someone points out that there are more star fish than he can possibly save, and he replies, “Perhaps, but I made a difference to that one,” throwing another star fish back into the ocean. I have to confess that my sympathies tend to be with the questioner.

Generally speaking, I enjoy my powerlessness, and I avoid worrying about the world’s problems or trying to congratulate myself on being “part of the solution” by engaging in largely meaningless gestures. (Like bumper stickers.) Of late, however, I am surprised to find myself actually worried about some “big issues.” Not interested in them. Not thinking about them or analyzing them. Worried. There are two in particular that worry me. First, is the situation in Iraq and the rather grisly choices that it presents policy makers. The second is the growth and health of the church. While there are obviously things that I can do in a micro level about both of these issues, I am realistic enough to realize that at the end of the day virtually anything that I do will be wholly ineffectual on a macro level.

I have found to my surprise, however, that prayer has had a huge impact on my spirit. I don’t want to slip into a kind of cheap pietism that allows us to pray and do nothing. Brigham Young was once reportedly heading south with a party of associates when their wagon became stuck in a patch of sand. One of his earnest companions asked, “Brother Brigham, should we pray?” Brigham responded, “We prayed this morning, let’s get out and push.” Brigham’s approach seems right and good to me. And yet, I find a burden of worry is lifted from me when I pray for the people of Iraq, for the church, for the leaders of nations, and for the prophets. I put my fears and hopes before God, and he returns to me my hopes

31 Responses to The Power of Prayer

  1. Wacky Hermit on February 6, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    I recently got angry at a woman whose position was that if we are only sufficiently righteous, that if we pray to the Lord and ask for dinner menus, he will reveal dinner menus to us. While I appreciate the role that the Lord can take in even the smallest of endeavors, I also have never had dinner menus revealed to me, even though I badly need them since my family members suffer from multiple food allergies. When I have tried praying about each little decision, the answer I’ve gotten is “I gave you a brain for a reason, now YOU figure it out!” I don’t think this woman’s opinion is accurate, because the contrapositive of it is that if you don’t receive dinner menus from the Lord when you ask, you must not be sufficiently righteous, and I know that’s not true. So I’m with Brother Brigham in this.

  2. Robin on February 6, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    Great post. I think that that distillation of hope that comes from prayer is intended to help us be able to contribute positively to the world. Maybe you cannot change the situation in Iraq, or the church on a macro level, but being freed from the mire of worry enables you (and me) to contribute positively to whatever situations you encounter.

  3. Lizzilu on February 6, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Nate
    I think (those who know me in real life say REALLY) I am a control freak. My powerlessness in the world since I was a child has always been a source of terror for me.
    What specifically about the growth and health of the church worries you?

    I have found to my surprise, however, that prayer has had a huge impact on my spirit. ………..I put my fears and hopes before God, and he returns to me my hopes.

    In RS this past week we we were discussing this subject. There are so many things we are helpless to change in life and our worrying about them causes us stress that we shouldn’t have to endure if we do just what you said, give it to the Lord. We have to do our part but after that let it go. When I don’t this it is when I’m trying to be too controlling or proud. I’ve found that when I am able to pray and “put my fears and hopes before God” it strenthens my spirit and I’m more likely to keep it up, it builds momentum.

  4. Carolyn on February 6, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Wacky Hermit,

    We get what we need. I think the lady with the dinner menu probably got the right answer for her and you got the right answer for you. Sometimes when we get an answer from the Lord for our circumstances (and I include myself in this) we try to apply our answer to other people. When in reality our answer is just for ourselves. You got the right answer for you. The lady with the dinner menus go the right answer for her.

    I don’t mean to pick on you, but over the years I’ve seen so much needless conflict arise when people take their personal revelation and try to apply it to others. The person who felt prompted to have a large family will pressure a newly married couple to have children. The person who got married right off their mission will pressure the single adult to marry. And on it goes.

    I hope you will leave room for the possibility that you and the menu lady are both right and that you each received what you needed. (Hint, maybe she needs a little more hand holding from the Lord than you do. ;-))

  5. JKC on February 6, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    I like what you say about making symbolic gestures and then walking around in self-congratulatory contentment. Is there also a danger of doing that with prayer, though? Incidentally, I’m with you that we should pray for things like Iraq. I think we ought to pray for the president of the church as well. No matter how righteous he is personally, I think there’s something to the idea that the Lord will only reveal to him (at least on an institutional level) what the church has faith to accept. But does it lead to the same self-congratulatory attitude we disapprove of? How do we avoid letting prayer make us complacent?

  6. endlessnegotiation on February 6, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    Like Nate I too “enjoy my [own] powerlessness.” In fact, for me the realization of my own powerlessness may have been the only true epiphany I’ve ever received as a result of prayer. I was raised in a family where we prayed over every event or decision and where we were taught that God really cared about the outcomes. My problem was that I never felt any sort of “impression” or “inspiration” as a result of my prayers. This didn’t present much of a problem until I served a mission at which point the absense of any revelation became something of a personal crisis. I was certain that if God cared about anything that He would care about the Work and would provide me the inspiration necessary to be an effective tool in His hands. My upbringing lead me to believe that the Heavens were closed to me because of some measure of personal unrighteousness. To cope I became one of those ultra-obedient missionaries that so annoy everyone else (I was reassigned to a new area almost on a monthly basis). I would insist that we not waste (in my opinion) a single minute. I obeyed every rule to the letter in the little white handbook plus the ones specifically created for my mission (CLAM). I tried to make every action the epitome of righteousness but to no avail– no inspiration came. I was further frustrated by all the anecdotes offered by “less-than-obedient” missionaries about how they were inspired to go there, say that, or teach such-and-such all with positive effect. The irony of the situation was that no matter with whom I was teamed we were successful at baptizing families yet I fell further and further into depression. Towards the end of my service I felt so unworthy that I would refuse to attend the baptismal services for the people whom I had taught. I felt like a hypocrite and a failure. When I returned to normal life (which meant school) I gradually came to realize that the gospel doesn’t guarantee anyone anything regardless of any individual’s personal level of righteousness. One night I read D&C 46 seemingly for the first time and I found my Hope in the gospel at v. 14. That night when I went to pray I really thought about what I expected to accomplish through my prayer– if perhaps I had been praying for gifts that would never be mine. That night my prayer simply consisted of nothing more an expression of gratitude for all that I had without any pettitions for guidance or assitance and from that point on a giant weight was lifted from my soul. Every personal prayer I’ve offered from that point on has followed that exact model. Accepting that my prayers will have no effect on the outcome of events has allowed me to live a happier, healthier existence. It allows me to appreciate the daily miracles of my existance because I’m unburdened by the notion that if I had just done a little more good or been a little more obedient God would answer all my prayers and end all the suffering in the world.

  7. Mel D on February 6, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    “I put my fears and hopes before God, and he returns to me my hopes”- I love that.

    I serve as the chair of a committee responsible for 3,000 YSAs in 5 stakes. At max, 25% are active and accounted for. Prayer has been my greatest relief from the burdens of stewardship– in a ‘macro’ level calling there is just no way to reach everyone. I do as much as I can to serve and inspire others to serve, but I know and accept that I will always come up short (which is kind of hard to take). Prayer helps to fill in that gap between what I can do and what I want to do.

  8. MikeInWeHo on February 6, 2007 at 4:49 pm

    re: 3 I think Nate is referring to the huge discrepancy between the official numbers and what is really going on, but that is a hot topic for another thread.

    This is a fantastic post. Thanks, Nate.

    The older I get, the more my prayer life crystalizes around the concept articulated by Reinhold Neibur as described here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

    While it’s now mostly associated with AA, it’s really for all of us. The Serenity Prayer has become the guide I follow in life and when try to turn to Heavenly Father, I think along those lines. Not only does it bring calm to my mind during stressful times, it motivates me to action in many good ways. For me it has been much more useful than the “I thank thee…I ask thee….” model which seems increasingly pointless in my life.

    “God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    Serenity, courage, and wisdom. These are the only three things I ask for from God.

  9. Seth R. on February 6, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    I guess the thing is, I don’t feel powerless to change these things.

    It’s not particularly that I’ve got an ego problem (though I’m sure that’s part of it). It’s just that I believe in the power of a single individual to enact societal change. You never know where the ripples from your tiny stone will hit. I feel that I have something to say about the state of our nation and the direction of our church. And I feel that my voice can change things.

    I’m an optimist ultimately.

    I think cynicism and powerlessness simply breeds complacency. It’s the electorate that doesn’t vote. It’s the “back row” in Elder’s Quorum that is content to gripe about the Presidency without ever doing anything to help or guide their leadership. It’s the angry nursery worker who can’t believe that the Bishop would be so insensitive as to ignore his own problems and put him somewhere he doesn’t want to be – when a single passing remark to the Bishop would have been all that was needed to get him reassigned.

    It’s the people who have decided that their lives are a dead-end, so why care about it?

    Make no mistake. I aim to change things. I intend to take my swipe at the clay feet of Babylon and have down with the whole rotten mess. Such is the birthright of every Mormon.

  10. Nate Oman on February 6, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    “Make no mistake. I aim to change things. I intend to take my swipe at the clay feet of Babylon and have down with the whole rotten mess. Such is the birthright of every Mormon.”

    Good luck…

  11. Nate Oman on February 6, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    The responses here make me think of C.S. Lewis’s argument about petitionary prayer. His claim was the purpose of prayer was not to change God by getting him to do something but rather to change use so that our desires are more like his.

    I think that there is a great deal of power to this way of looking at things, but what I find odd in my own experience is the power that purely petitionary prayer has for me. I really do want folks in Iraq to suffer less and leaders to be wise (especially when I don’t know what the wise decisions would be), and I really do want God to help them. There is something about pleading for these things that is good for the soul. It is not a matter of simply expressing gratitude or seeking serenity. I want God to intervene in history to make things better, and I plead with him to do so. What he actually ends up doing is, of course, ultimately his business, but the act of pleading is still powerful.

  12. Seth R. on February 6, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Laugh all you want Nate.

    You feel that small prickling in your socks?

  13. Geoff B on February 6, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    Nate, your #11 sounds a lot like Nephi, Jacob, Mormon and Moroni and other praying for the Lamanites and their own people. Sounds like a good cause to me.

  14. Sterling on February 6, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    I wonder if we are conflating different types of power in these posts. It seems to me the Book of Mormon talks about two types of power: temporal and spiritual. Regarding the first, the Book of Mormon says “a man may have great power given him from God” (Mosiah 8:16). With regards to the second, Chief Captain Moroni said “I seek not for power, but to pull it down” (Alma 60:35).

  15. Sterling on February 6, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    Oops. I should have reverse the order of those two verses.

  16. greenfrog on February 6, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    I liked the description Mother Theresa gave of her experience of prayer, recounted in Stephen L. Carter’s Civility:

    An interviewer asked Mother Theresa what she says to God when she prays.

    “I don’t say anything,” she replied, “I just listen.”

    So the interviewer asked her what God says to her.

    “He doesn’t say anything,” said Mother Theresa. “He just listens.” And before the astonished interviewer could press her further, she added, “And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”

  17. danithew on February 6, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    This past weekend, when a suicide bomber killed at least 130 people in a Shi’a market, I had to ponder the existence of evil and how human beings are sometimes truly powerless to do much about it. I couldn’t help but think of that as I read Nate’s comments about the grisly situation in Iraq.

    I do think that prayer is an active way to deal with things over which typically a person would not exercise any influence. The world certainly needs prayer today and as Nate points out, there are certainly some things worth “worrying” about.

  18. Heather O. on February 6, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    I like the question that JKC raises. Ironically, it seems like there is a real danger in believing that our prayers are important, if that leads us to either congratulate ourselves are not do anything more active. And yet prayer is still powerful.

  19. Sideshow on February 6, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    Nate,

    I suspect one part of the reason you feel the way you do is that your prayers are helping you to develop charity, even (especially) if you have little or no real influence over those situations.

    Of course, you shouldn’t underestimate the power of example. Even if it’s a drop in the bucket, the things you do can inspire others to produce their own drops. I think that one person can make a big difference, although as you mention it is not helpful to do things that won’t have any good effect just to feel like you are doing something (why am I thinking about politicians right now?). I’d be really impressed if someone could report a story about a bumper sticker having a significant effect on society.

    And I have no idea how anything you do could really change the Iraq situation, but if lots of people were praying about it, God might accomplish what we cannot. I believe Spencer W. Kimball asked us to pray about the Iron Curtain, which came down before it might have.

  20. manaen on February 6, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    Thanks for this posting, Nate.

    Prayer has been a welcome gift to me after my repentance and change of nature. Communing with Him who brought about my creation and forgiveness now is affirming and refreshing. Echoing some of the comments above, this passage from the entry on “Prayer” in the LDS Bible Dictionary has been helpful to me:

    As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are his children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part (Matt. 7: 7-11). Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship. 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. Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work, and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings.

    […] Christians are taught to pray in Christ’s name (John 14: 13-14; John 15: 7, 16; John 16: 23-24). We pray in Christ’s name when our mind is the mind of Christ, and our wishes the wishes of Christ – when his words abide in us (John 15: 7). We then ask for things it is possible for God to grant. Many prayers remain unanswered because they are not in Christ’s name at all; they in no way represent his mind, but spring out of the selfishness of man’s heart.

  21. j.a.t. on February 6, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    Prayer is powerful yes, but not necessarily always powerful in complacency. There is a time and season to every purpose; times for calming reassurances, and times for ACTION! Are we deluding ourselves sometimes by confusing the peace of the spirit with a green light for non-action? Perhaps the H.G. isn’t lighting matches inbetween people’s toes as much these days.

    Shouldn’t that feeling of calm from prayer be strengthening us to take more courage, roll up our sleeves and get to work instead of singing “All is well in Zion, yea, Zion prospereth”?

    I see the Lord answering our prayers and giving us footing . . . confidence . . . reassurance . . . etc. It’s for a purpose other than to help us sleep more soundly at night. We’re the covenant people who have signed up to be “doers”. I’m always so suprised to see how many people are complacent to sit and bask in the glow. (I can’t draw a balancing line right now.)

  22. Bookslinger on February 6, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    J.A.T. wrote: “There is a time and season to every purpose; times for calming reassurances, and times for ACTION! Are we deluding ourselves sometimes by confusing the peace of the spirit with a green light for non-action?

    That represents my thoughts very well. Of the 3 paragraph’s in Nate’s original post, the 3rd one is good. But the first two paragraph’s are disheartening and, to me, a bit disturbing. Nate’s comment #11 is good, but his comment #10 is disheartening.

    Sure, one starfish is just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean is made of drops (from a quote of Mother Theresa).

    Let’s assume there are perhaps 500,000 active adult “core” members of the church in the United States.

    In those quantities, the individual drops can really add up. What if those 500,000 gave an extra 10 cents per month ($1.20/year each) to the Perpetual Education fund? That’s $50,000/month or $600,000/year.

    Of those 500,000 active adult core members of the church in the US, suppose 300,000 live outside Utah.

    What if those 300,000 gave out one (extra) pass-along card per week? If 1 out of 1,000 random contacts gets baptized (that’s the statistic I heard), that’s 15,600 extra adult baptisms per year. Even if only 1/3 of them stay active, that’s still an (extra) 5200 adult converts/year. It takes longer to grow the leadership, but still, that is, in effect, 30 wards or 3 stakes of people per year. (I’m thinking of active adult members per ward/stake, not total roster-members per ward/stake.) Multiply that year after year, factor in the geometic increase of their descendents, and them giving out more pass-along cards, and the potential numbers skyrocket.

    If you look at a graph of church growth, I think the “knee of the curve” happened in the 1950’s. One of my theses here is that the church has long passed “critical mass” stage, such that very small things done on an individual basis, once replicated throughout the core membership, can have HUGE impacts not only within the church, but on society as a whole.

    I also see a confusion in Nate’s comments between power to control and influence. We have no true power to control. But we all have influence. We can use that influence rightesouly and effectively when we let the Lord be in control, and then adjust our actions in accordance with his will. Along the lines of what JAT wrote, the Lord’s control does not excuse inaction on our part. We are the active agents of the Lord. We are to be his hands and feet and mouthpieces.

    Here’s a book I bought for $1.00 at a close-out store. Start Something, by Earl Woods (Tiger’s dad).

    That books has been one of my inspirations. Very small things, even gestures, can mean a lot to people. The story (recited by Pres Monson) about a student who decided not to commit suicide because someone helped him pick up his books may be a made-up story. But it illustrates how small acts can greatly influence others.

    In the terms of the Serenity prayer:

    “God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    it sounds like Nate has the first point, but hasn’t taken in the 2nd two points yet.

    Perhaps on a day-to-day basis, our efforts may seem futile at the macro level. But that is short-sightedness. The Lord often plans things out by generation. The Lord doesn’t send prophets and politicians and generals. He sends babies. (quote from Spencer W. Kimball).

    The Lord doesn’t need more Bishops, Stake Presidents, Apostles and Prophets. Those exist in sufficient quantity.

    There are many former Bishops, former Stake Presidents, and former High Councilors who are trained and qualified to step back into service in those callings should there be a need. But we don’t need them back in service (yet), because we’re neglecting to bring in those 15,600 converts a year because we’re not giving out pass-along cards like we’re asked.

    And we’re neglecting to retain tens of thousands of converts each year partly because we’re not fellowshipping them, befriending them, and nourishing them in the word.

    So we’re missing out on hundreds of wards of people due to us not exercising the proper righteous influence we ought to be exercising.

    What are needed are home-teachers, visiting-teachers, friends, and mentors who can steady others’ hands and strengthen feeble knees. The kingdom needs a lot more home-teachers and visiting-teachers to go and do, and be good influences.

    Yes, the power is the Lord’s. But we are to allow ourselves to be the instruments through which he wields that power.

    Yes, we’re always going to fall short. But that doesn’t excuse us from stepping up to the plate and taking a swing when it’s our turn at bat.

  23. manaen on February 6, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    22. Bookslinger — Wow! Thanks.

  24. Nate Oman on February 6, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    “his comment #10 is disheartening.”

    It all depends on the tone of voice in which it is typed…

  25. Razorfish on February 6, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    Re #16 – Nice thought. I love reading your prose Greenfrog.

    Regarding the “power of prayer”, I think it’s an interesting thought to consider how much prayer is intended to benefit the person offering the prayer and how much it is intended to benefit others (the recipients of those prayers).

    Since God typically works and answers prayers through others, and since we often times ignore or don’t act on the promptings of the spirit, we are usually incredibly ineffective at making the prayers of others efficacious. However, we are in most cases rewarded with a sense of peace when we pray for others (assuming we are not too overtly hypocrictical by then doing absolutely nothing about it).

    Personally, I think God asks (requires) us to pray often understanding that the offerer of the prayer will likely reap the greatest personal and intangible benefit and any favorable by-product that ends up helping others is pure icing on the cake.

  26. Susan S. on February 6, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Nate,
    I wish you would also pray for the earth. I don’t think we’re kind. I find myself thinking recently: I’m probably old enough to dodge the problems myself. I’ll manage to die first.

    But then I’m left thinking. What about my kids? And what about those amazing grandkids? What will the world be like in twenty years, thirty years, forty years. I grew up in the shadow of the nukes of the 50s. I remember speeches in church about the end of the world, just one step short of duck and cover. But I’m left thinking recently, will it be worse for my grandchildren? We dodged the bullet? Will they?

    It’s the Iraq thing. I agree. The world of hate. But it’s also the earth. So maybe just an addendum to the prayer.

  27. Eve on February 7, 2007 at 3:42 am

    I put my fears and hopes before God, and he returns to me my hopes.

    I love this sentence, Nate. Beautiful.

  28. Richard O. on February 7, 2007 at 9:34 am

    Nate thank you for your insightful and lifting comments.
    I find that prayer for me is often a two part process. My formal prayers usually focus on lots of “thanks” to the Lord along with a few “concerns.” But the actual “answers” that I recieve often come later, usually in the middle of the night. I’m a bit of an isomnsomniac. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and just quietly sit on the couch. Sometimest as I sit there, thoughts come streaming into my mind that often answer questions that I have been thinking about. My information base isn’t usually enlarged, but I sometimes see new or at least more clearly defined, relationships between bits and pieces of information that were already in my mind. Those earlier prayers uttered before going to bed help prepare me to listen later on in the night. The mental solutions are usually focused on specific problems that I am working on. Sometimes those problems are things that I can actually modify through my actions. For me, “be still and know that I am God” helps me to empty out some of my preconceptions and open myself us to being shown these new relationships in the middle of the night. Perhaps if I lived closer to the Spirit I would be able to get the insights while I was on my knees. The fact that the answers come several hours later, when I am not in a telling mode, but rather a listening mode, tells me that the Lord sometimes has to wait for me to be open enough to actually hear His answers.

  29. Norbert on February 7, 2007 at 9:38 am

    I have a lot of respect for all of these responses. I think this is a question that requires a journey and the answer to which changes all the time.

    I recently had a conversation with another father of young children about prayer. He wondered if it made sense to pray for the safety of his child if it was God’s will that decided it anyway (citing the LDS belief that children who die before they are eight were valiant in the pre-existance). I said that I wondered if it made sense to pray for the safety of children because it would limit individual free agency and/or the laws of nature, and as a person who tilts toward a diest view at times, it didn’t make sense. We talked about our respective views, but in the end we agreed that despite our intellectual misgivings about Providence, we believed in it. And this is where I still stand: it doesn’t make sense to me, but I still believe. I suppose that’s the point of faith.

  30. Eve on February 7, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    Oh, and FWIW there’s a much, much better version of the starfish story, a fairly bleak and existential essay by Loren Eiseley entitled “The Star Thrower,” from which I suspect the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” versions were ripped off.

  31. Jeremiah J. on February 10, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Nate: A while back you found it a bit odd that someone would suffer moral anguish over having agreed with some action over which he had no influence (Russell and the Iraq War). Along the same lines one may think it silly to feel real regret over a vote (or a “bumper sticker” or a choice of light bulb), since an individual vote is almost never an efficient cause of any significant political outcome. Is this post an expansion of that same thought or a bit of a change of heart? I think one could read it either way.