Monday, May 3, 2010

Praying to Our Father in Heaven

I try not to do two blog posts in one day so that the first one doesn't get lost, but we had a great discussion at church today that I want to share. I really wish that I could've just recorded the whole thing because I'm obviously not going to be able to repeat the whole discussion word for word, but my hopes are that I'll be able to get the main ideas down and that you will benefit in some way too. My goal in this post is to just discuss a lot of what we discussed today and not add any other extra things.

What is Prayer?

Today during one of the meetings, we had a lesson about praying to our Heavenly Father. Prayer is a discussion with our Father in Heaven. It is more than a plea in time of need or wishlist of things that we utter in hopes that some Greater Being might hear it. When we pray, we are, in fact, talking to our Father in Heaven. He hears us. He answers us.

Prayer is a commandment. Indeed, when the Savior visited the American continents after His resurrection, He commanded the people to, "pray unto the Father in my name" (3 Nephi 18:19).

When I pray, I strive to think of my prayer as a discussion with my Father in Heaven. I'll admit that I don't always succeed. Thinking of God in the same way that I think of my father is kind of difficult of course but that does not mean that God is any less my Father. But, I do know that when we begin to think of God as our Father in Heaven prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part. I want to talk to Him, I want to share my thoughts, yearnings, desires, hopes, fears, and dreams with Him because I know He listens, understands, and cares. And, as I pray more sincerely and work to receive answers, I recognize more the hand of God in my everyday life.

As we recognize that He does hear and answer our prayers, our love for Him will grow, and we will desire more to pray to Him.

When Should We Pray? Part I

The prophet Alma taught:

17 Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you;

18 Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save.

19 Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him.

20 Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks.

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

22 Yea, cry unto him against the power of your enemies.

23 Yea, cry unto him against the devil, who is an enemy to all righteousness.

24 Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them.

25 Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.

26 But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.

27 Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.

At church today, we discussed two things that we gleaned from these verses. One, prayer is active! Alma counsels that we CRY unto the Lord. Cry, to me, sounds a lot more intense than simply saying a few words once in a while to God. Crying takes energy and effort and sincere desire is the motive.

Prayer has two parts. One involves the actual prayer but the other involves our actions. If we pray and then sit around waiting for something to happen, God will not answer our prayers. He expects us to do our part. Pray as though everything depends on the Lord and then work as though everything depends on you. He expects us to keep the commandments, He expects us to read the scriptures to search for answers, He expects us to work as hard as we can to make things happen for ourselves, and He expects us to love and serve our neighbors.

The second thing we discussed about the above-quoted verses is when we should pray and petition the Lord for help. In reading these verses, it seems as though we should pray about everything and in later verses Alma does teach that we should counsel with the Lord in all our doings that He may direct us for good (see Alma 37:36-37).

Indeed, the Lord does want us to involve Him in everything we do. And why wouldn't we? Why wouldn't we ask for help finding a job, or selecting which job or city is right for us and our family? Why shouldn't we ask the Lord Omnipotent what school would be best for us to attend or for help in taking a test or completing a project? Doesn't He know best how to raise a child, farm potatoes, run a business, lose weight, fix a computer, arrive somewhere on time, travel safely, make ends meet, or get along with a co-worker or family member? Can't the Lord God Almighty control the elements and the traffic lights, quicken our understanding, and more importantly, help us develop any knowledge or ability we seek? When should we pray? Always.

When Should We Pray? Part II

However, the Lord also teaches that it is not meet that we should be commanded or compelled in all things (see D&C 58:26). Praying always does not mean that we should pray for a new Ninja Turtle or to win the lottery. Crying unto the Lord for all our support does not mean ask Him to turn all the lights green or which gas station we should patron. And this principle does not just apply to the seemingly extreme or silly examples I just listed. The Lord has given us agency that we may choose for ourselves. He trusts us to make decisions and, quite frankly, allows us to make our own decisions so that we can learn from making wrong ones.

If we are living as we should, the Lord will direct us for good. We are to use our agency to make all of our small, day-to-day decisions. As we continually treasure up the word by studying the scriptures, strive to live worthy of the Spirit, and let our hearts be full and drawn out in prayer unto Him, the Spirit will guide our decisions and we will make good decisions without waiting for a sign or an angel from heaven. If we are living the gospel the best we know how, promptings to turn a different way on the drive home or to stop by a neighbor's house for a visit will come without praying at each intersection for direction.

In matters of very important or eternally significant decisions, we should absolutely involve the Lord every step of the way. However, the way is not to pray, "Lord these are the options, tell me which one I should choose," but we should study it out in our minds, make a decision, and ask the Lord if it be right (see D&C 9:7-9).

The Lord will not tell us what to do each time a decision arises. To do so would destroy the purpose of agency. We must make the effort and grow in the decision-making process. We should strive to listen to the Spirit but continue forward until we have received an answer. And, if we made the wrong answer, we are promised that if we did everything we could, the Lord will tell us that we made the wrong choice before we are too far down the wrong path.

I have numerous examples of decision making from my own life but I will share this one. When I was recently home from my mission and my time at my current school was coming to an end, it was time to choose an undergraduate program and school. I had a number of options, some more viable and realistic than others, and I prayed and wanted the Lord to tell me where to go. I was striving to live right and wanted to do the best thing so I asked the Lord to tell me what to do. He, of course, did not tell me what to do but instead made me make my own decisions. I continued to pray for guidance, but I did not sit still waiting for an answer. I studied other schools, applied to a few, waited for responses. I weighed the options, the costs, the benefits, the downsides of leaving my jump rope team and friends and family. The time came that I needed to find housing, pay tuition, tell my work what I was going to do, find a job in whatever new city, and otherwise make a decision and the Lord still hadn't told me what to do. I know that the Lord expects us to take a step into the dark before He shines a light in the tunnel, but that way is so hard! I just wanted an angel to appear and tell me what to do.

One of my friends at BYU called me wondering what I was going to do because he needed to sign a housing contract for us if I was going to move down there. So I made a decision. I signed a contract and paid a deposit, paid tuition, and got rid of my apartment in Rexburg. Then and only then did I get a confirmation from the Spirit that I had made the right decision. The Lord told me through thoughts in my mind and feelings in my heart that the decision I made was good and would be a great blessing in my life.

Now, I do not believe that the first involvement that the Lord had in this decision was at the end. I believe that He guided and directed me and helped me obtain all the necessary information so that I could make the right decision. I believe that He was actively involved every step of the way, but in ways that I did not recognize at the time. I believe that this is how the Lord works in helping us use our agency to our benefit and blessing.

Before and since that decision I have seen the Lord work the same way with me. Never just giving the answer right away as much as I would love Him to, but guiding me along and waiting for me to make a decision before He tells me yes or no. And I know that He does tell us when we make the wrong decision before it's too late to go back. I had that experience recently; I made a decision and had a stupor of thought just before I was to go through with it. I am so grateful that the Lord loves me enough to let me make my own decisions that I may learn and grown through the process. And I am grateful that He trusts me enough both to make my own decisions and to listen when I make the wrong decisions.

How Do I Receive and Recognize Answers?

This post is much longer than I intended and it is late so I will not continue on much longer. Instead, I'll leave you with a scripture and three links. The first is D&C: 8:2, and is a very concise teaching on how the Spirit speaks to us. The second and third are talks by Elder Richard G. Scott entitled, "Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer," and "To Acquire Spiritual Guidance," both of which have been featured as articles of the week (1) (2) on my blog.

The third is a bit different. It is the link to the PDF of the fourth chapter of a manual called Preach My Gospel, used by missionaries and families churchwide. A section entitled "Learn to Recognize the Promptings of the Spirit" begins on page eight and continues on page nine. On these pages is a box listing various ways the Spirit works and also lists the corresponding scripture references. Take a look at it if you wish, it is an incredible resource.

Our loving Father in Heaven hears and answers prayers. We should desire to pray to Him always. If we live according to His commandments and strive to do many things of our own free will and bring to pass much righteousness, He will direct us for good. This I know.