A Primer on Mormon Prayer: Aligning

July 7, 2011 | 18 comments
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What exactly is it that you are trying to practice when you practice prayer? In particular, what exactly is it that you are trying to practice when you practice prayer as an end in itself rather than as a means to some other end?

I take two things as axiomatic with respect to the practice of prayer.

1. Take the LDS Bible Dictionary’s very orthodox, very Mormon description of prayer:

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 upon 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.

The practice of prayer is not to change the will of God but, rather, to bring my will into correspondence with his. Prayer is the work of aligning my will with the Father’s.

LDS Bible Dictionaries aside, this is the kind of prayer exemplified by Jesus, prostrate in the garden: “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).

Jesus’ “nevertheless” is the hinge on which the practice of prayer turns, the hinge that turns my will away from itself and towards the Father’s.

2. Take Paul’s very orthodox, very Christian description of prayer in Romans 8:25-26:

But if we hope for what we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

If the first thing to be considered is that the practice of prayer boils down to aligning my will with the Father’s, the second thing to consider is that I do not know the will of the Father. I do not know for what I ought to pray. His thoughts are not my thoughts, his ways are not my ways. The Spirit must itself make intercession for me to pray as I ought and, when it does, it will do so, Paul claims, with groanings that cannot be uttered.

The practice of prayer plays out between these two poles as the work of waiting on the Lord, as the work of patiently and persistently and attentively listening for his will to be manifest and then responding with an emphatic “amen, amen.”

The work of listening and and the work of remembering (again, and again, and again) to listen (again) are not just potential addenda to prayer, but its essence. Talking is simply a helpful frame. Talking doesn’t bring my will into correspondence with the Father’s, listening does.

The practice of prayer involves not just knocking on the Lord’s door but, above all, it involves the discipline of waiting for him there.

18 Responses to A Primer on Mormon Prayer: Aligning

  1. Adam Greenwood on July 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    In the very Christian, very orthodox Lord’s Prayer, you ask for bread and for forgiveness of trespasses. You don’t ask whether God wants you have those things or not.

    And I remember another very Christian, very orthodox passage of scripture that goes something like this:

    There was an unjust judge, but a woman kept harassing him until finally he relented and gave her what she wanted. So don’t be discouraged if God doesn’t respond to your petitionary prayers right away, keep at it. The end.

    http://lds.org/scriptures/nt/luke/18.1-8?lang=eng#primary

    Your practice of prayer is spiritual and otherworldly. Something about it doesn’t quite jibe with the fleshly, practical, material core of Christianity and Mormonism. I say what I have in mind in prayer, ask what I need, spiritual and temporal, and whether and how God responds is up to Him.

  2. DavidH on July 7, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    I tend to view God as the very moved Maker. Yes, I think we should be willing and seek to know God’s will. But often, like my earthly parents, God answers my questions with “What do you think, David?” or “What do you want, David?” And like my parents often would, God seems to adjust things to take my wishes into account. Of course, unlike my parents, God may (or may not) already know what I want.

  3. Adam Greenwood on July 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Added:
    my comment sounds critical and it is, a little, but I’ve really enjoyed this series you’re doing.

  4. John C. on July 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    I’ve always taken the passage in Romans 8:26 to mean that we should listen to the Spirit to tell us what to pray for (like in 3rd Nephi 20). So I think that both the interrogatory prayer of Adam G. and the Aligning prayer of Adam M. can be accommodated.

  5. Adam Miller on July 7, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Yes, though again I think the key to the interrogatory prayer is to carry even it out as an aligning prayer. As for the fleshiness – I think you’re right that this is pivotal. I’ll come back to this, but I’ve already hinted about it. The last thing we want with prayer is something metaphorical, something “spiritual,” something “otherworldly.” The point of prayer is, in many ways, to bring us back to the flesh.

  6. Adam Miller on July 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Though with respect to the more familiar, interrogatory prayer I want to be very clear about the points I’ve made before: prayer for the sake of some particular end can and does bless, heal, and cure. And this is good. Sometimes very good.

    But this is only one aspect of prayer and not, I think, the heart of it. Something else, something crucial, something salvific, happens, when – not knowing and not talking – we engage in prayer as a way of listening. In particular, something happens to and begins to saturate the rest of our very fleshy lives.

  7. Adam Greenwood on July 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Petitionary, John C. Not asking for questions. Asking for help.

  8. Adam Greenwood on July 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    I guess that’s where I disagree. I think petition isn’t epiphenomenal. Need is the basic thing, not whatsit.

  9. Adam Miller on July 7, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I guess this is where I do agree. Need is the basic thing. It’s also the basic problem. Salvation depends, in the end, on shifting our “natural” or “fallen” relationship to need. Prayer isn’t just about fulfilling needs but about fundamentally changing our relationship to them.

  10. Adam Miller on July 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Take, for instance, Jesus’ paradigmatic prayer in the garden. He expresses his need (“take this cup from me”). But then goes on to profoundly shift his relationship to that need (“nevertheless, not my will be done”). The first move is legitimate. The second move is salvific.

  11. DLewis on July 7, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    Great posts, Adam.

    And an important distinction between prayers as means and prayer as an end. I see this converging in Moroni 7:48, where prayer is the means for achieving Christ-like love–but Christ-like love is also the ultimate goal of the eternal experience. Ultimately, prayer that aligns itself with Christ-like love is what we are aiming for, and I would agree with Adam that it’s a different sort of prayer, a prayer orientated around salvation.

  12. Blake on July 7, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    If prayer is about aligning wills, then why don’t we pray: “Just do what you were going to do before I said my prayer and whether I said it or not.” (?) On second thought, prayer becomes superfluous.

    Maybe God waits on our prayers for permission to intervene in our lives. Maybe God wants us to formulate a decision so that he can confirm it and without which there is no confirmation. Maybe God is empowered by prayer to do what he couldn’t do without our cooperation. Maybe God’s choice for us is whatever our choice for us — after all God doesn’t want everyone in his kingdom; but only those who freely choose to be in his kingdon. Maybe we couldn’t ask amiss because asking is the whole point. If I seek to align my will with God’s, then I simply seek to love as God loves and I don’t need a prayer to do that.

  13. John C. on July 8, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Thanks, Adam G. I knew I wasn’t coming up with the right word, but hadn’t sufficient time to look it up at the moment.

  14. Adam Miller on July 8, 2011 at 8:04 am

    You’re free to disagree, Blake. As I’ve already indicated at length, I think petitionary prayer is a fine and productive thing. But if prayer is not ultimately about aligning my will with God’s, then I don’t know what Jesus is doing in the garden. For my part, prayer is simply an explicit, formal way of practicing charity. I need to pray precisely because I need to practice it.

  15. PL on July 10, 2011 at 5:29 am

    I simply think prayer is communication with God. I don’t understand it being an end in itself.

  16. Adam Miller on July 10, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    PL, good question. Just think about communicating with God as being an end in itself.

  17. Adam Greenwood on July 10, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    I can’t see alignment as *the* fundamental purpose of prayer because I can’t see that our need ends when our disalignment ends. Or our delight in God’s company, for that matter.

  18. Adam Miller on July 11, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Adam, for my part, I don’t think our needs ever end. Or our delight in God’s company.

    I really don’t understand the reluctance, here, though. I’d not only say that the fundamental purpose of prayer is to align my will with God’s (“thy will be done, not mine”), but that the fundamental purpose of LIFE ITSELF is to align my will with God’s.

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