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RS/MP Lesson 8: “Praying to Our Heavenly Father” (Gospel Princples Manual)

Posted by BrianJ on April 4, 2010

I once prayed solely to curse God.

From the manual:

“At times we may not feel like praying. We may be angry or discouraged or upset. At these times we should make a special effort to pray.”

Well, I was more than angry multiplied by discouraged and amplified by upset!

From the manual:

“We should not repeat meaningless words and phrases.”

I hadn’t ever prayed like that before, so it certainly wasn’t repetitive. And as you can probably imagine, my words were anything but “meaningless.” It was, as the manual instructs in the opening section, “a sincere, heartfelt talk”—although, I admit that I was screaming more than talking.

I don’t want to suggest that this was the only, or even the most, sincere prayer I have ever offered, but here’s the miracle of it: I know that God heard it, I know that it drew me closer to him, and I know that praying has been more tangible—more real—to me since then than ever before.


Why Do We Pray?

The lesson manual asks, “Why Do We Pray?”. A response I often hear is what I’ll call “the travelling child analogy”:

Imagine that you have a child who is leaving to a far away place for a long time. You miss her and worry about her welfare every day. You look forward to each phone call or email from her—they fill the void in your heart and reassure you of her safety. When long periods pass by without hearing from her, your heart aches.

It’s a moving analogy, but consider it from another angle:

Imagine that you are an omniscient parent who can at any time know exactly where your daughter is in that far away place, what she is doing/eating/saying, what she needs and wants, and so on. You have no need to hear from your child in order to know whether or not she is safe or healthy. You do not miss her because she is as “present” now as when she slept in the room just down the hall.

The analogy is not helpful in describing how prayer connects us to God because it depicts a God that lives in the dark unless and until we pray to him. Importantly, even if it accurately portrayed our relationship with God, it skirts the question “Why do we pray?”: the analogy tells what God gains from prayer (he doesn’t miss us so much) but not what we get out of it.

Interestingly, the manual also skirts the question a bit: many of the points in the section “Why Do We Pray?” answer what we should pray for but not why. Here are a the points that directly address the question:

  • It’s a commandment.
  • Helps us draw closer to God.
  • It influences our thoughts and actions.

Looks like a pretty short list! I think a valuable lesson approach would be to delve into this question deeper:

  • Why is it a commandment? Is this just one of those “obedience for the sake of obedience” things, or is there some real value to prayer?
  • Are there other benefits to prayer than “drawing closer to God”—or, at least, can you be more specific about the benefits of prayer? (“draw closer to God” is a pretty broad term.)
  • How does prayer influence your thoughts and why would you want them influenced that way? How does prayer influence your thoughts in ways that, you know, just thinking does not?
  • Why do you pray for the things you pray for? For example, the manual suggests that we pray for the Lord’s guidance—but does the Lord really need to be asked to do something that is presumably his intent and purpose anyway? Why should he require that prompting/prodding (if indeed he does)?

One last thought on this section: it would have been nice to see the manual include admonition to pray for our enemies in addition to praying for our “families and friends, our neighbors, our crops [etc., etc.]” and even “protection from our enemies,”—Cf. Matt. 5:44 or Alma 33:4:

For [Zenos] said: Thou art merciful, O God, for thou hast heard my prayer, even when I was in the wilderness; yea, thou wast merciful when I prayed concerning those who were mine enemies, and thou didst turn them to me.

What is Prayer?

Yes, I’m taking the sections a bit out of order. The first section ends with a statement that I think deserves more discussion. “We do not pray to any other being.” Why not? Why shouldn’t we pray to Jesus, or the Holy Ghost, or to deceased relatives (think of the “travelling child” analogy!)—or even to living relatives? Why are we told not to pray to Jesus and yet the Nephites were told to (3 Nephi 19)? (I’ll confess that as I’ve thought about this the best I can answer is: we don’t pray to Jesus because he asked us not to.)

When and How Should We Pray?

Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening. (Alma 34:21)

Ye must watch and pray always. (3 Nephi 18:15)

So which is it? Do we offer many prayers throughout the day, or do we live in a constant state of prayer? If in a constant state of prayer, then why offer what amount to mini-prayers that have a defined beginning and end?

Are there times when you know God did not hear your prayer—or, more precisely, that he did not hear what you were trying to pass off as a prayer? What makes the difference?

How Are Prayers Answered?

I’ll confess upfront that for several reasons I had a difficult time with the way this section is presented. The first has to do with the use of the word “answer.” In one place, the word is used to mean “fulfill,” as in “Often God gives us the power to help answer/fulfill our own prayers. As we pray for help, we should do all we can to bring about [i.e., fulfill] the things we desire.” Yet in the beginning, this section uses the word to mean “respond/response”: “Sometimes the answer/response may be no…[or yes, or “wait a while”].” What is the consequence of expecting a response to prayer when the Lord intends only to fulfill it, and vice versa? Also, consider how the word “answer” is used in D&C 112:10:

“The Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand, and give thee answer to thy prayers.”

What is the significance of switching from singular “answer” to plural “prayers”? Does that indicate a different meaning to the word “answer” than merely “a response, such as no, yes, or wait a while”? Is there any scriptural basis for the claim on pg 37: “Sometimes the answer may be no…about what we should do.” The scripture cited, D&C 9:8-9, doesn’t say anything about a “no” response, except perhaps feeling a “stupor of thought” and completely forgetting the thing that was asked—which is very different than being told “no.” I worry that in an effort to make sense of prayer, the manual artificially systematized the process.

A second concern is the claim that “our prayers are always answered at a time and in a way that the Lord knows will help us the most.” That’s a sweeping claim—but what is it based on? Perhaps it’s inferred from God’s character: he is perfect, so he would never do (or not do) anything less than perfect. Makes me wonder about the necessity of prayer if it doesn’t change God’s actions at all, and that causes me to think about Abraham pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah and, well, changing God’s actions. At any rate, I’d like to see the manual spell out how it reaches this conclusion.

Third, after reading about Sarah and Hagar, and Rebecca/Isaac/Jacob, I question the admonition to “do all we can to bring about the things we desire.” There may be additional examples in the scriptures, but one common interpretation of the actions of the individuals mentioned is that they did not show faith in God and instead took matters into their own hands in order to get what they wanted quicker or more surely. (Now, I’m not about to call Sarah impatient, but perhaps the author of Genesis does.)

So, what did I like about this section? I like the questions it asks, both at the beginning and the end. The last question, for example, “In what ways has Heavenly Father answered your prayers?” That cursing-prayer I mentioned at the beginning of the post: God answered it by listening to it. No “yes” or “no”, no condemnation or indignation, no rush to offer comfort or withdraw his spirit. Just listening.

20 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 8: “Praying to Our Heavenly Father” (Gospel Princples Manual)”

  1. Matt A. said

    “That cursing-prayer I mentioned at the beginning of the post: God answered it by listening to it.”

    This is a really important point. It has also been my experience that many times, the answer to my prayers has been to feel that God has heard me. I haven’t necessarily gotten the things I’ve asked for, but I feel that I have always been heard.

  2. Clark said

    I’ve done like you and had prayers that mainly consisted in me being angry. In hindsight largely without merit. However I think that had I not continued to have that dialog things could have gone very awry. So even those angry prayers full of hubris were valuable.

  3. NathanG said

    Interesting post Brian. I had some similar questions related to blessing the sick while listening to conference this weekend. It sounds like through faith and the priesthood people can be healed unless they are appointed to death. So when are we making a difference with priesthood blessings and with prayers.

    I had similar questions going through school with people who expressed no particular faith. I prayed to do well on tests, they didn’t. They did well, and I did well enough.

    There is a woman I know that taught what may be the most useful lesson on prayer I have had. She has a debilitating, but slowly progressing form of multiple sclerosis. She related to me that early in the course of her illness as she was praying for the miracle she had an impression come to her like this, “You have sufficient faith to be healed, but if you are healed you will not end up where you would like to be.” Her prayer resulted into important insight as to how she should approach her illness, and it made all the difference for her. Perhaps the vast majority of our prayers should involve taking counsel from the Lord, understanding his point of view. The action of prayer and the effort to hear the answer slows us down enough to pay attention to what God would teach us. Continual prayer serves as a continual reminder of God.

  4. Robert C. said

    Nathan #3, your comment reminds me of Elder Oaks’s talk regarding blessings:

    “Fortunately, the words spoken in a healing blessing are not essential to its healing effect. If faith is sufficient and if the Lord wills it, the afflicted person will be healed or blessed whether the officiator speaks the words or not.”

    Brian, your angry prayer seems very similar to Job’s, in all the best ways (at least on my reading of Job, which is closely tied to the point you basically made…). Nice post.

  5. NathanG said

    Yes, that’s what I was thinking about.

  6. kirkcaudle said

    Great post Brian.

    #3, Nathan, I appreciate you sharing that experience of the woman with multiple sclerosis.

    I have had Tourette Syndrome my entire life. However, I was not actually diagnosed until I was 20 years old, everyone just thought I had bad habits (including me)! After I understood why I did the things I did I prayed to ask god “why” on occasions. I never liked feeling like my tics were disturbing others around me. I had (and still have) multiple people tell me that if I just prayed, fasted, and had a blessing it would go away. God answers any pray by faith.

    However, what I came to understand was that, like the woman with multiple sclerosis, “if I was healed I would not end up where God would like me to be.”

    In a way this might connect with the D&C scripture that Brian quotes, “The Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand, and give thee answer to thy prayers” (112:10). Perhaps the significance of switching from singular to the plural is because although we are praying about different situations, many of our prayers require the same answer, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

  7. BrianJ said

    Matt A: I typically don’t feel like my prayers are heard, so you’re definitely ahead of me there. Perhaps that’s what stands out to me about this particular one: my prayer that was least “deserving” was definitely heard.

    Clark: That’s an interesting observation. And keeping the communication lines open has been helpful to me, as you say.

    Nathan: you did better than well enough, that I know. :)

    I’m reluctant to subscribe to any Rules and Regulations of prayer. For example, you wrote, “Perhaps the vast majority of our prayers should involve taking counsel from the Lord, understanding his point of view.” Why? Part of my purpose in sharing my (very very very very) personal example is to illustrate that when I supposedly broke all the rules of prayer (I didn’t even use “thee” and “thine” when I cursed!) that it was one of my most real and effective prayers.

    The example you share about that woman is very interesting.

    Robert C: As much as I enjoy studying Job, I had never made the connection between my prayer and his. How very odd! (I actually thought of myself more like Israel during their awful wanderings in the wilderness….) But yes, I can see that I reached essentially the same point he did.

    Kirk: thanks for taking up the question about switching from singular to plural. To me, it was the most interesting question in my notes. :) Also, thanks for your personal take on this. I wonder if you could flesh out how “Be still and know that I am God” helps or reassures you in any way. If I can be a bit flippant to illustrate my point: If you’re suffering, why do you care if he is God or something else, or if someone else is God? How does his God-ness make a difference to you?

  8. kirkcaudle said

    Brian, I don’t have time to type out a good answer for this at the moment, but I will…I promise.

  9. Molly Bennion said

    “Be still…” offers 2 powerful counsels for prayer: 1) to listen for answers at least as much as we talk to God. We tend to monopolized our “conversations” with the Lord. 2) “Be still” invites meditation, something President McKay once advised, with its possibilities of a rested and invigorated mind also better able to analyze our choices and understand the Lord.

  10. Molly Bennion said

    That would be “monopolize.” Best I put “more proofing” with “more prayer” on my To-Do list.

  11. BrianJ said

    Molly: Thanks for your thoughts on the “be still” portion of that verse. For you, is the second section (“know that I am God”) separate or connected in some way? For example, does knowing that he is God help you to be still?

  12. Julie said

    Thanks for being real and genuine. What a breath of fresh air!

  13. kirkcaudle said

    #7, Brian, “I wonder if you could flesh out how “Be still and know that I am God” helps or reassures you in any way. If you’re suffering, why do you care if he is God or something else, or if someone else is God? How does his God-ness make a difference to you?”

    Sorry for the delay, I do not find time to post as often as I would like. However, I have been thinking about this a bit.

    Why do I care if God is God? I suppose because I “need” to believe it. I need to believe there is a higher power, a higher purpose to things. None of us like to feel like we are needlessly wondering through life with random acts of violence/sadness coming our way that lead to no positive outcomes.

    If God is God then that means God can answer prayers. It means that God has control over my life. It means that God is watching over me. It means that God hears me.

    How does God hear me?

    I think I will co-sign with what Molly had to say about “be still” in relation to meditation. I think meditation is essential to understanding answers to prayers. If I really know God is God then I will “be still” and give him all the time in the world to receive an answer to him. If I cease to believe God is God, then I will start to give him time frames and demand afflictions and other trials be done away with on my terms, not His.

    Therefore, The way we wait for answers to our prayers directly relates to the testimonies we have of God and who He is.

  14. BrianJ said

    Kirk: thanks for the reply. I wonder about the last part, “If I cease to believe God is God, then I will start to give him time frames… Therefore, The way we wait for answers to our prayers directly relates to the testimonies we have of God and who He is.”

    On the one hand, if I cease to believe in God then I just wouldn’t pray at all, right? But perhaps you mean, “if I cease to believe that God is a caring God” or “cease to believe that the person hearing my prayers is actually God.” I’m just trying to make sense of your statement, especially since it leads into a “therefore.”

    And in regards to the “therefore,” that makes sense: how we pray depends on what we think we are praying to. What if we believe that we are praying to a God who doesn’t mind hearing our demands—not just our praise and supplications?

  15. Julie said

    RE: Be Still and Know that I am God. I’m not sure that my response directly reflects prayer itself. But it makes me think of the song Be Still, My Soul. It makes me cry every time. I believe being still is the way I feel when I am at the beach watching the waves crash and feeling the power of the ocean. It calms me and invigorates me at the same time. Know that I am God, I think, means Trust Me. When I feel that calm strength, I am able to trust God and know he’s got my back even when it looks like he’s left me. Even now, I don’t understand why what’s happening is happening or why it has to last so long, or how it could possibly be the Lords will, but somehow, if I am still and know that he is God, and not lose faith, it gives me more strength than all the work I can put forth on my own. It’s like when you are in the celestial room and everything else around you just disappears for a moment.

  16. Molly Bennion said

    BrianJ: Sorry for the necessary delay. My mother needed help in another city.
    Yes, I think knowing he is God does help us be still, listen and wait. At a minimum, prayer demands at least the hope of faith. Sincere prayer, whether we are screaming or whispering, is an act of humility toward the petitioned. How sincere could a petition to a perceived imaginary being or even anyone we do not believe has the power to help ever be?
    I also think you are correct in saying we need to believe God doesn’t mind hearing our demands. Not only do the scriptures make clear he urges us to speak with him, but I think the OT invites us to dialogue, reason, argue with him. Jewish scholars treat deeply the arguments of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and others. The Psalms and Lamentations accept man’s protests to God. As C.S Lewis said in Letters to Malcolm, “We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us,” and trust him to help us change the former to the latter in time.

  17. NathanG said

    I’m working on my lesson on prayer for the priests tomorrow. The lesson manual gives a list of scriptures, some of which address “why” we pray. Definitely not exhaustive, but may help. I particularly like all of 2 Nephi 32.

    2 Nephi 32:9

    1 Thessalonians 5:18

    James 1:5

    Matthew 7:7–8

    3 Nephi 18:15

  18. Alyssa said

    Your question about where the manual gets the idea that we should only pray to Heavenly Father (not to Christ or anyone else) is an interesting one. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I suspect we can see Bruce R. McConkie’s fingerprints if we look closely. In 1982, McConkie renounced the idea of praying to Christ in a BYU Devotional. Although he never mentioned BYU professor George Pace by name, many believed this statement was a direct response to his book _What it Means to Know Christ_ (published the previous year), which stated that members could develop a personal relationship with Christ by praying to Him. While I deeply respect McConkie as an inspired apostle (what an incredible final conference address!), I have noticed that he does have a track record for making his well-considered opinions sound like doctrine. And then his ideas consequently get treated as such by the general church membership.

  19. robf said

    I taught this lesson in our Gospel Essentials class today, or more accurately I sat on the table in the front of the room as the class members discussed prayer. Practically the whole class period was taken up with a discussion of a question raised by an investigator–“if God already knows everything that is going to happen, and what we need, and what we are going to do, what is the purpose of prayer?” Lots of good discussion about agency (our lives are not predetermined) and love (if you love someone, you want to be in communication–prayer is just communication with God, whom we love and want to remain close to). Agreed the “What is Prayer” and “Why Do We Pray” sections were a little skimpy in the book–fortunately the question raised in our class today was enough to get us deeper into that subject.

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