When we first moved into our home four years ago, it was a foreclosure. We had to strip out baseboards, carpet, and laminate flooring. There was brick red tile throughout the downstairs. That was not going to fly. So, prior to moving in, we had a mountain of tasks, which included pulling out the tile and laying new tile before installing the carpet. The time frame was short. We had given ourselves one day to remove the tile in that tight schedule. One day of removal turned into two, and was going to be at least three. We had purchased scrapers, a pneumatic hammer to chip away at the tile and the glue underneath. After getting the top tile off, we had to use a grinder to grind off the glue underneath so that there was only pavement. The young men even came over for an evening to work.
Exasperated, we called Bill Tsagrinos at 10:30 one night. He had his workers over at 6:30 the next morning, and I stood in amazement as they poured a bucket of water onto an untouched section of tile and then simply waited. A few minutes later, they picked up the tiles as though they were just sitting on the concrete and shoveled the glue residue out the door. The concrete underneath, save some moisture, was clear and ready for new tile. In a matter of two hours, they had finished what seemed to us at least another day – and probably two – of work.
Too often, we elect to shoulder the load, to engage in work that may be unnecessary. If we work to have a true understanding of prayer, we can accomplish the more difficult tasks of bending our will to the Lord’s and having an honest desire to serve him before we even kneel to seek his help. It is on those two components of prayer that I want to address today.
Bending Our Will
In June of 1828, Joseph Smith was embroiled in the translation of the Book of Mormon, of which he had completed 116 written pages of Lehi’s writings. Martin Harris, a close friend of Joseph’s, had asked to take the pages home to show his wife. Joseph asked the Lord for permission, and received a negative answer. Joseph continued asking, with the same result. Finally, the Lord relented. As we know, Martin took the pages, and they were lost to history. The lesson here is the struggle that Joseph went through in trying to get his way rather than submit to the will of the Lord.
After watching Martin leave with the manuscript, Joseph immediately regretted it. The day after he left, Emma gave birth to a son, who died the same day. Her health was questionable for the following two weeks. Joseph was physically uneasy and preoccupied with Martin during that time. He soon left for Martin’s home, and did not eat or sleep during the stagecoach journey. His condition was such that the other passenger in the coach departed with Joseph to assist him in traveling the remaining twenty miles on foot to get to Martin’s home. Joseph strong-armed the Lord into getting his way, and though the resulting suffering was not fatal, it was significant.
Is this too often what we do? We pray for what we want, “to gratify … man’s feelings,” as Lucy Mack Smith wrote of Joseph’s experience. The critical element of prayer is bending our will to that of the Lord. We are familiar with the purpose of prayer as outlined in the Bible Dictionary, that it is to bring our will into correspondence with the will of the Father. “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…”.
When I was young, I learned that I should pray every day, and that prayers should be sincere. As we have made our three cross-country moves in the last seven years, I have learned more about the work aspect of prayer. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” As we mature spiritually, we develop that unseen work ethic that is required to allow our will to be subsumed by our Heavenly Father’s.
Richard L. Evans expanded on that Bible Dictionary entry:
Most of us might be disposed to pray for unbroken good fortune, for uninterrupted happiness, for perpetual prosperity, for victory, for assured success, for affluence and ease. But life isn’t an uninterrupted holiday; nor, obviously, was it intended to be. Rather it is a time of training, and often of trial, of education, and of self-effort, …
It is not the usual purpose of prayer to serve us like Aladdin’s lamp, to bring us ease without effort. Prayer is not a matter of asking only. It should not be always as the beggar’s upturned hand. Often the purpose of prayer is to give us strength to do what needs to be done, wisdom to see the way to solve our own problems, and ability to do our best in our tasks.
We need to pray not only for freedom from difficulty but for strength to endure, for faith and fortitude to face what sometimes must be faced.
We can waste a great deal of time and energy kneeling in prayer and asking for something that we think we desire with all our hearts when that is simply not going to be the Lord’s way. Most often, his way is one that is less riddled with physical tribulations and always one that pushes forward his work. Just as Jared and I experienced unnecessary cuts, bruises, and broken tools – not to mention monetary costs – in trying to do the tile work our way, a much easier avenue was available if we had set aside our idea of how the work was to be done.
Prior to construction of the Kiev Ukraine temple, Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander ran into seemingly impossible roadblocks. In government and in society, the hurdles continued to arise. He expressed his concern in an interview with Elder Oaks. The apostle’s response was simple and appropriate. He said, “This is the Lord’s work; why don’t you let him do a little of it?” As Elder Neuenschwander let go of his idea of how to do the work and turned the matter over to the Lord in prayer, doors opened and acceptance grew.
Now, that’s not to say that we can allow ourselves to only “Pray as though everything depended on the Lord.” We must also “Work as though everything depended on [us],” to borrow from Brigham Young.
Willing to Commit
We may often be depriving ourselves of answers to our prayers because we are unwilling to commit to the Lord’s will. Prayer on our part without a commitment to live according to the Lord’s instruction becomes pointless. One of my prayers when we first learned of our move to Florida was that I would be able to endure the change. In a blessing from my husband, I was instructed to study section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants. I had no idea what was in section 121. As I read, I came across verses 7-9
7. My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;
8. And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.
9. Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands.
Now, as we make our preparations, I must actively study to receive the answer of comfort and instruction for which I originally prayed. It was not enough for him to give me the blessing. I had to receive it. I had to actively read and ponder to receive the peace and comfort I now have.
As we study with respect to a specific prayer and commit our course of action to the Lord, our knowledge of Him increases. “Having a knowledge of God, we begin to know how to approach him, and how to ask so as to receive an answer. … When we are ready to come to him, he is ready to come to us.” Joseph Smith, April 7, 1844, HC 6:302-317, The King Follett Discourse. As our knowledge of the Lord increases, so will our confidence that what we ask is in line with His will. In the great words of He who suffered in Gethsemane, we observe in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that he pled not to drink the bitter cup, nevertheless submitting his will to the Father’s. That is the only content of the intercessory prayer that we have in those three books. Not until John do we see the evolution of the prayer to where the Savior’s desire is not only not mentioned, but consumed with praying for our souls and our welfare. As we endure our Gethsemanes, our own prayers must evolve from our preferences into being dedicated to doing our Heavenly Father’s will. As that desire consumes us, we ask not for a way out of the trial, but a way through it. We become committed to the Lord’s course.
Because our prayers are sometimes answered in unanticipated ways, we cannot refrain from action, whatever it may be. Elder Scott talked about the importance of acting, regardless of our personal preference.
[Sometimes] the Lord … responds … to prayer by withholding an answer when the prayer is offered. Why would He do that?
He is our perfect Father. He loves us beyond our capacity to understand. He knows what is best for us. He sees the end from the beginning. He wants us to act to gain needed experience:
When he answers yes, it is to give us confidence.
When he answers no, it is to prevent an error.
When He withholds an answer, it is to have us to grow through faith in Him, obedience to His commandments, and a willingness to act on truth. We are expected to assume accountability by acting on a decision that is consistent with his teaching without prior confirmations. We are not to sit passively waiting or to murmur because the Lord has not spoken. We are to act.
Indeed, when we act according to our own, temporal will, the result is that we end up reacting to temporal forces. Acting on the Lord’s instruction is the only way in which we can retain our divine purpose of “act[ing] and not be[ing] acted upon.” In that manner, we retain – even magnify – our agency.
Sometimes, that action can seem insurmountable. President Monson taught, “Do not pray for tasks equal to your abilities, but pray for abilities equal to your tasks. Then the performance of your tasks will be no miracle, but you will be the miracle.” As we have prepared for this move, I have learned that sometimes, the action required is to accept the kindness of a home teacher or an outstretched hand from loving parents. Sometimes, by accepting the actions of others, my abilities are not inherently expanded, but those who reach out become my ability to accomplish the mountain of tasks ahead.
In our tile-removing experience, the action that was required was merely to pick up the phone and make a call. Instead, we thought that we knew better, that hard work and grinding away would accomplish what we were trying to do. The Lord has an easier way, if we will set aside our will. The personal humbling, and setting aside of our will is the Lord’s required work.
Heavenly Father knows and understands the weight we are often called to carry in answer to certain prayers also. I have enjoyed the story related by Brenda Foltz of Princeton, Minnesota while she was on her first rock climbing experience.
[She] was almost halfway to the top of the tremendous granite cliff. She was standing on a ledge where she was taking a breather during this, her first rock climb. As she rested there, the safety rope snapped against her eye and knocked out her contact lens.
‘Great’, she thought. ‘Here I am on a rock ledge, hundreds of feet from the bottom and hundreds of feet to the top of this cliff, and now my sight is blurry.’ She looked and looked, hoping that somehow it had landed on the ledge. But it just wasn’t there. She felt the panic rising in her, so she began praying. She prayed for calm, and she prayed that she might find her contact lens. When she got to the top, a friend examined her eye and her clothing for the lens, but it was not to be found. Although she was calm now that she was at the top, she was saddened because she could not clearly see across the range of mountains. She thought of the bible verse ‘The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth.’
She thought, ‘Lord, You can see all these mountains. You know every stone and leaf, and You know exactly where my contact lens is. Please help me.’
Later, when they had hiked down the trail to the bottom of the cliff they met another party of climbers just starting up the face of the cliff. One of them shouted out, ‘Hey, you guys! Anybody lose a contact lens?’ Well, that would be startling enough, but you know why the climber saw it? An ant was moving slowly across the face of the rock, carrying it!
A phrase that I often hear in prayer is that we may be tools in the Lord’s work. Well, a tool is useless unless someone picks it up and uses it. The difference between us and a piece of hardware is that we are here to act, and not to be acted upon. Prayer is the instruction manual that tells us how we are to be used.
Now, a word on sincerity of prayer. He is our Heavenly Father and we must talk to Him as such. Do not blow through prayer! What is the point in taking the time to pray if we’re just going to repeat various iterations of the same vain clichés? Only after beating shovels against tile, or heads against walls do we finally understand what is required for true, heartfelt prayer. We don’t need to do that if we front load the work and approach the Lord in humility.
In one particular discourse, Joseph said, “It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the character of God [or, faith], and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another….” (emphasis added) Joseph Smith, April 7, 1844, HC 6:302-317, The King Follett Discourse. Returning to Paul’s Corinthian epistle, he wrote, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face…”. When we begin to pray, it may be for some unknown, intuitive reason. But as we develop our spiritual parent-child relationship through the work of prayer, we can come to converse with our Heavenly Father in the manner described by Joseph.
As a boy, young Joseph Smith read in the first chapter of James, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” He knew that the Lord wants to answer us. The restoration of the fullness of the gospel did not come about merely because Joseph had seen a vision. It occurred because he asked with a willingness to pursue whatever course of action the Lord required. Today, we are the beneficiaries of Joseph’s action.
President Marion G. Romney taught, “The importance of prayer is emphasized by the fact that the most oft repeated command given by God to men is to pray.” Let us all do so properly, with a desire to do our Heavenly Father’s will. After all, that is the essence of the gospel as Jesus taught in 3 Nephi chapter 27.