The work that is prayer
Like everyone else, my heart is broken watching Ukrainians stand alone against an evil dictatorship. Political leaders are debating about how involved we will be collectively, but God-fearing believers already want to be involved personally. But we individuals can't send military aircraft or fight alongside the Ukrainian soldiers. What can we do? We can follow our Prophet's example and pray.
If you think that sounds like a cop-out answer, you're not alone. A strong contingent of the population scoffs at the idea of prayers in the face of tragedy, calling requests for prayer a "a cynical meme" and "a cruel joke." One current, high-ranking national leader even instructed Americans "No more thoughts and prayers." Those leaders who do call for prayers are scorned and belittled.
We are at a point in society when your public image is safer never mentioning an earthquake, a flood, or a shooting than to mention you are praying for its victims. The devil, who "teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray," must be enjoying the public perception created by prayer-mockers who tell us that prayer doesn't work.
Work: the physics of prayer
But do the prayer-mockers have a point? What good is it to recite wishful thoughts in the light of the crises we face? Is God some sort of gumball machine that will fix tragedies simply because enough people wish it didn't happen and say the magic words? That's where prayer-mockers misunderstand the point of prayer. And maybe we sometimes do, too. If you read the entry for Prayer in the Bible Dictionary, you'll find this little gem:
Prayer is a form of work.
What does it mean for prayer to be a form of work? When I first read that line several years ago, I thought of an equation from my high school physics class:
That's the physics formula of work. Translated to normal English, this rule states that:
By this definition, I accomplish work when I can answer these three questions:
- Is movement possible through my effort?
- Where is my effort directed?
- How much effort am I applying?
If any of these three components are absent, the amount of work being done, by definition, is zero; any effort expended is in vain.
Growing up, I always thought when Christ warned against "vain repetitions," He was just urging us not to pray with vanity. Like the Pharisees or the Zoramites who praised themselves under the guise of praising God. But under the definition of work previously described, there's a lot more to "vain" prayers than just pride. A vain prayer is any prayer that results in no work– no movement.
So ask yourself this question with me: Do my prayers move the hearts and minds and mountains in the world around me? Or are most of my prayers in vain? Let's evaluate each of the three components of work in the context of prayer:
Question #1: Is movement possible through my effort?
Remember, any effort that doesn't result in movement is not work and is done in vain. Pushing a shopping cart is work because your effort moves the cart in the direction that you push it. On the other hand, pushing a brick wall does not move it. It doesn't matter how long you push or how much you sweat– the wall doesn't move, so no work is done, and pushing is in vain.
Just as it is vain to push an unmovable brick wall, it is vain to pray for something that cannot happen– something that is contrary to the mind and the will of God. For example:
- Asking God to save the life of a loved one whom He has already "appointed unto death."
- Asking God to let "mercy rob justice" and save me or a loved one from divine consequences.
- Asking God to alter His doctrines to accommodate the sexual orientation or lifestyle of myself or someone I love.
Repeatedly praying for something when God has already told us no is like pushing against that brick wall. How can we overcome this type of vain prayer and learn to "ask not amiss?"
1. My will be stated
We are taught, "seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand." But sometimes in our earnest efforts not to "counsel the Lord," we go too far and almost erase voice and our desires from the equation entirely. Like the Three Nephites and John the Beloved, we may feel too timid to tell God what we actually want. But God already knows what we want, and all healthy relationships– mortal and divine– must include transparency and openness to succeed.
Our Father is the best parent and friend we could ever have. He won't be offended or upset judgmental for having an opinion or voicing your feelings to Him in prayer. So go ahead, tell God what you want! As Pres. Nelson counseled: "Pray in the name of Jesus Christ about your concerns, your fears, your weaknesses— yes, the very longings of your heart." Let God know your will.
If you don't yet know what you want, you might not be ready to pray. God wants us to align our wills with His, but that requires us to first have a will to align. He wants us to study out issues in our minds, do our research, and form a hypothesis before we raise our hand and get the Teacher to check our answers. Remember the words of the Lord when he chided Oliver Cowdery over his lack of skin in the game: "You have not understood… you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me."
Our first responsibility in prayer is to do our homework, use the mind God gave us, and develop and express our own will.
2. Thy will be done
But we must never stop with merely expressing our wills to God. Remember, a successful prayer is one where " the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other." But this alignment of wills is not a two-way street:
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
God invites us to express the longings of our hearts and let our wills be stated. Christ certainly did that in the Garden of Gethsemane– He pled with all the energy of His soul to let the cup pass. But at the end of the day, after we've expressed the longings of our hearts, we must put those longings on the altar, no matter how powerful those longings may be. We must humbly tell God, "Thy will be done," and mean it.
3. Trouble God no more
When the purpose of our prayer is to change our hearts and minds instead of God's, then we will accept the answers He gives. Whether the answer comes through personal revelation or the formal channels of His Church, we will let this suffice, and trouble [God] no more on this matter."
Some point to Christ's parable of the importunate widow and the unjust judge and conclude that God will bless us with what we want if we are just doggedly persistent in asking. But modern prophets have clarified that this is not the meaning of Christ's parable. God will not fulfill such prayers. Or worse, maybe He will. The scriptures teach that when we repeatedly ask God for stones instead of bread, He sometimes gives us exactly what we ask for, and we aren't going to like it.
The ancient Jews "sought for things that they could not understand," so God "[took] away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand… And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble" (Jacob 4). To Latter-day Saints who gravitate towards dramatic and exciting "signs" instead of seeking to grow and confirm their faith, the Lord is "angry… not well pleased" and if they seek signs, they may very well see the signs they seek, but "only in wrath unto their condemnation" (D&C 63). As Martin Harris and Joseph Smith learned from the 116 lost pages, accept the answer the Lord gives you and stop nagging Him about it, or you'll be in for a world of hurt.
Component #2: Where is my effort directed?
Imagine a wife asking her husband to move the coffee table across the room. Exerting himself a little more than is advisable, he lifts the table off the ground a few inches, walks it to the new location, and carefully sets it down. According to physics, what was the work done in this example?
Remember, work, in the physics formula, is directional and depends on something moving to a different place in that direction. The husband applied a tremendous upwards effort lifting the table, but the table ultimately ended up at the same height after the move. There was no final change in vertical location, so by definition, no work was done vertically. Was horizontal work done? Yes; the table was moved to a different location on the living room floor.
Note that this horizontal work was done not by his strained arm and back muscles but by his legs walking forward across the carpet. That forward motion by itself did not require substantial effort. Imagine the table floating in the air and you get a sense of the amount of energy you would need to move that levitating table to its new location. You could do that with your pinky. In fact, with enough patience, you could do that by blowing on it. It's that minuscule portion of the husband's total effort that caused work to be done– from a physics perspective, the overwhelming effort of lifting the table upwards was done in vain.
Like the strained husband, we may be surprised to find that our strenuous efforts in one direction are ultimately in vain, while a small and simple effort in another direction makes all the difference in the world. How can we improve the direction of our prayers so we can accomplish the most efficient work?
First, we need to trim the cruft. I'm talking about all those phrases that we toss in to avoid putting real thought into what we're saying. Remember, prayer is real-time communication with our Heavenly Father. Put yourself in His shoes for a moment. How would you feel if your kids called you on the phone and spent most of the call reading from a script? Just as mortal parents prefer heartfelt, personalized letters over generic store-bought cards, Our Heavenly Father prefers heartfelt, personalized prayers over generic recitations.
Second, we need to pray for what matters most. I wrote in a previous post about how constantly asking for "no harm or accident to befall us" or the food to "to do us the good that we need" can be modern-day "vain repetitions," as if we were worshipping a pagan god who might punish us with meteors or salmonella if we don't recite the magic words. Think of what message that sends to Heavenly Father about our trust in Him. Remember Jesus's teachings: "your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him" and He delights to "give good gifts unto [His] children." Prayers that mainly list the bad things we don't want to happen send hundreds of words to heaven, but rarely do anything– they are spoken in vain. Instead, we should replace the fearful pleas with faithful gratitude and spend our cherished time in prayer talking with our Father about what matters most: a family member or friend who is going through a hard time, inspiration on how to address the needs around us, opportunities to serve, etc. A 2-minute prayer with intent accomplishes more than a week's work of box-checking prayers.
Component #3: How much effort am I applying?
The first component– effort– is the easiest to understand. If you don't swing the hammer, the nail is never going to move, and no work is done.
I can't speak of effort in prayer without mentioning in my mother-in-law, Hope (she passed away as I was halfway through writing this post, more on that in a future post). My wife and I lived with my in-laws during the last 2 months of our house's construction (which turned into 9, of course). We each took turns saying the family prayer each night. Most of us prayed for a minute, maybe two on occasion. But Hope was in a league all of her own. When it was her turn, she would pray for what often felt like 10 minutes.
We all teased her about it. But we also appreciated it. Jesus chastised the ancient Jews who offered long prayers to get attention, but in Hope's case, there was never any pretense. When she closed her eyes, the outside world melted away. Let everyone's knees ache, let the kids squirm and fuss, she was conversing with her Heavenly Father, and there was just no rushing that. Hope understood that when something is important, you take the necessary time to give it the attention it deserves.
Laman and Lemuel failed to understand this concept. Nephi prayed to understand his father's vision and was granted a panoptic vision of the condescension of Christ, the future of his people, the destiny of the American continent, and the entire vision recorded in the book Revelation. After this amazing experience, he returned to his tent to find his brothers bickering, laying the seeds for the destruction he had just seen.
The subject of this latest debate was how to understand the vision of their father, the very subject on which Nephi had just received answers. Nephi asked, "did you think to pray?" Of course, they had not. "The Lord maketh no such thing known unto us," they declared. Silly Nephi, how could you imagine that prayer would answer such a difficult question as this! Nephi later lamented this flaw in latter-day readers: you won't receive "because ye ask not, neither do ye knock." We need to put forth the effort.
But it's not just a question of whether we apply effort– it's also a question of how much effort we apply. Going back to physics, for an object to move, that object first has to overcome the force of its static friction. If you've ever tried to slide a loaded moving box along the ground, you have experienced this. Even though the box takes relatively little to move once it's already sliding, it takes quite the shove to get it going in the first place. If you don't apply enough effort to get something moving, your effort is in vain and no work is done.
How often do we pray for a blessing on ourselves or others, but without the effort required to see the results? When we passively recite a thought among the litany of things we're asking for and then forget about it, are we really serious about it? Nephi's "eyes watered his pillow by night" as he poured out his soul "crying" to God for his people. Jacob (Israel) and Enos both described their prayers as "wrestles" with God. Moroni tells us to "pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart," and Nephi encourages us to "pray always, and not faint."
Crying, pouring out your soul, wrestling, all the energy of our hearts so that we might faint. That is serious effort in prayer. We may not have the capacity to pull an all-nighter like Enos, and I'm not saying opening prayers in Sacrament meetings should be as long as the talks themselves. But perhaps we could put a little more energy and time into our personal prayers. Is 15 minutes each day really too much? Pres. Nelson counseled us:
Find a quiet place where you can regularly go. Humble yourself before God. Pour out your heart to your Heavenly Father. Turn to Him for answers and for comfort.
Pray in the name of Jesus Christ about your concerns, your fears, your weaknesses—yes, the very longings of your heart…
I plead with you to make time for the Lord!
Of course, praying about the issues alone is not enough. Oliver Cowdery believed a spiritual gift would be given just for the asking. When the promised blessing was not delivered, he was rebuked: "you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me." God expects us to put skin in the game, too. Contrast Oliver Cowdery to Abraham's efforts from our Come, Follow Me studies. He did everything in his power to bring to pass the blessings he had been promised. Sometimes his efforts appeared to go sideways, but God honored and blessed his attempts to fulfill the prophecies of the Lord. The same is true for us. "Pray as though everything depended upon God. Work as though everything depended upon you."
Powerful, directed prayer, combined with powerful, directed action, pull down the powers of heaven.