When I was about twelve or thirteen years of age I had an experience that was at first frightening but became, as I later thought about it, a profound lesson that has guided me in the years since. My father and I were pheasant hunting near our home in southeastern Idaho. Dad had always been a stickler when it came to gun safety. I had been taught and trained over and over again how to care for a gun and how to hunt safely. I guess what I hadn’t been trained in was what to do when others around me were not so careful in their hunting practices.
When we had decided upon the field we were going to walk through in our quest for the ever-elusive (at least for us) ringneck, we had pulled over to the side of the road and parked the car. We took our shotguns out of the trunk, loaded our guns, and grabbed several additional shotshells to put in our jacket pockets. About the time we closed the trunk, locked the car doors, and were ready to start into the field, we heard several gunshots from the field on the other side of the road. Almost instantaneously a big, beautiful rooster pheasant flew over our heads. Before I could even react, shot pellets from the guns of the hunters in the opposite field began peppering us and bouncing off the car.
I was more stunned than hurt. Fortunately, the pellets did not penetrate our skin, but only stung a little. My immediate thought was, “You idiots! Don’t you know that you never, never, never shoot across a road!” (My father had taught me that safety rule hundreds of times!)
In the instant I was mentally castigating “those dumb hunters” in the other field, my father had pulled me down to the ground and covered me up with his own body. I was as stunned by his quick action as I was by the initial shots. At first I was embarrassed–when you are a tough teenage boy you don’t want your dad hugging you, let alone lying on top of you!
When all the initial excitement was over and after a few moments of grumbling our displeasure with the hunters who had disregarded our safety, I realized what my father had done. He was protecting me because he loved me and was more concerned about my safety than his own. Even though I never said anything to him about it, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Even now, many years later, I get emotional when thinking about his split-second decision to protect me. He acted out of reflex, but the reflex was based on his love and concern for the safety of his son.
I got a glimpse that day of how much my Heavenly Father must also love me. His love is infinitely greater for me than even that of my earthly parents. His desire for my spiritual safety and protection from the evils of the world far surpasses even my dad’s risking his own safety to protect me from physical harm.
We live today in a dangerous world both physically and spiritually. Often we tend to focus on the physical dangers that can be seen. These can maim and kill the body. There are, however, other dangers in the world, dangers not always easily seen by the eye or discerned by the mind. These cannot only affect the body but also can injure the mind, wound the heart, and pierce the soul. These spiritual dangers are lethal, destroying lives and homes here and now and sometimes destroying souls eternally. How grateful I am that my Heavenly Father, like my earthly father, loves me enough to protect me. He has given us the means whereby we can be shielded from these “fiery darts of the adversary.”
To His Nephite disciples the resurrected Christ spoke of the spiritual dangers they would face and the means whereby they could be protected. “Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, ye must watch and pray always lest ye enter into temptation,” Jesus taught, “for Satan desireth to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. Therefore ye must always pray unto the Father in my name.” (3 Nephi 18:18-19.) Satan desires to destroy you! What a frightening thought! “Therefore, ye must always pray.” What a loving and protective warning!
The Prophet Joseph Smith experienced on many occasions the power of Satan and his devilish desires to destroy. After the loss of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript the Prophet was reminded by the Lord that Satan sought to destroy him and the work of God. With this warning also came divine counsel which, if followed, would bring safety and heavenly protection. The counsel is as vital to us today, if not more so, as it was to the young prophet in 1828. “Pray always, that you may come off conqueror,” the Savior promised, “yea, that you may conquer Satan, and that you may escape the hands of the servants of Satan that do uphold his work” (D&C 10:5).
“Watchful unto Prayer Continually
—It’s a Matter of Life or Death
“One can pray and yet not really pray,” Elder Neal A. Maxwell insightfully observed. “Prayers can be routinized and made very superficial. When this happens, there is very little communication and very little growth. Yet, given the times in which we live, improving our prayers should be one of our deepest desires if we are genuinely serious about growing spiritually.” (All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980], p. 91.)
The roadblock to greater spirituality posed by “praying without really praying” is all too prevalent in the world today, even in the lives of those who profess to know the power of prayer and how to pray. It is certainly a challenge that we struggle with in our own family. Sometimes when one of our children has offered the family prayer or the blessing on the food at mealtime, I have to take a quick peek to see if someone is really praying or if it is just a tape recording. It might as well be a tape recording, because it is exactly the same each time–same sequence, same wording, same tone of voice. If anyone says anything different, everyone notices.
As parents we tend to think our children’s prayers are too short and not thoughtful enough. On the other hand, our children tend to think our prayers are too long. “Don’t call on Mom for family prayer,” my children used often to lament. “We’ll be late for school again!” I have discovered, however, that the length of the prayer does not necessarily translate into fervency or faith. “Vain repetitions” can be found in long prayers as well as in short, “automatic” prayers.
The emphasis should not be solely on the word repetition, but also on vain, for even if words or phrases are not repeated over and over again, a prayer can be “vain”–without meaning, empty, fruitless. And the repetition of some phrases doesn’t constitute “vain repetitions” when the repeated words come from deep within the soul and are heartfelt expressions of faith.
While I sometimes get after my children for praying without thinking, I have sometimes found myself falling into the very same trap of offering the same prayer in the same way time after time. While I may be able to identify exactly what each child will say in his or her prayers, they too can pretty well predict what I am going to say. I have often sarcastically joked with our family when one of the children offers one of those “pre-recorded” or”automatic” prayers, as it were, “Boy, that prayer will really have the power to protect us today!” or “Wow, that one really got Heavenly Father’s attention!”
On a more serious side, I have wondered how differently I would approach prayer, whether it be personal or if I knew that that would be my last uttered words and expressions in mortality. How would we approach prayer if it was truly a matter of life and death? I came to find out in a very personal and traumatic way the difference between “saying prayers” and what the Book of Mormon characterizes as “crying unto the Lord” in “mighty prayer.”
Several years ago while our family lived in northern Virginia, our two-year-old daughter had a serious accident that struck terror into our hearts. She was outside with her older sisters and their friends dancing and playing. When the other kids were not paying much attention to her, she climbed up on top of our big station wagon (which our kids had lovingly dubbed “Latter-day Saint Limo”). She was dancing and jumping on the roof of the car when she lost her footing and fell head-first off the car onto the concrete driveway. She was knocked unconscious and her seven-year-old sister picked her up and carried her, like a rag doll, to her mommy.
As our little girl convulsed and drifted in and out of consciousness we were scared to death, not knowing whether she was seriously injured. Not wanting to take any chances, we rushed her to our pediatrician’s office. After examining our daughter, the doctor told us it could be a very serious head injury, and she wanted our daughter to be flown by medical helicopter to the trauma center several miles away.
Amidst all the noise and comings and goings of the doctor’s office I laid my hands on my daughter’s head and gave her a priesthood blessing, promising her that she would recover fully from her injuries. A moment later the doctor told us the helicopter was on another mission and we must transport our daughter to the trauma center by ambulance. My wife, Wendy, accompanied Emma Jane in the ambulance with its medical crew. Our doctor called the trauma center and arranged for a neurosurgeon to await their arrival. There was no room in the ambulance for me, so I was left alone to drive our car behind the ambulance.
It was only about fifteen miles to the Fairfax County Trauma Center, but it seemed like hundreds. As I followed behind the ambulance I felt totally helpless. All I could do was cry and pray. My prayers during those next several minutes, however, were much different than our family prayer that morning or the blessing on the food at lunch. I was not just “saying prayers.” I was truly “crying unto the Lord,” pleading with Him to bless my daughter, to bless the doctors, to bless my wife. Never before had I so fervently pleaded with God. Never before had I felt so much love for my children, as I fearfully faced the prospect of losing one. I continued to plead with God in silent prayer at the hospital as the doctors examined Janey and ran all kinds of tests.
My prayers ending that day were truly a matter of life or death.
After a miraculous recovery from a serious concussion, Janey returned home to a happy reunion with her brother and sisters. Our fervent prayers for her recovery were replaced with heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving and love.
From this experience I came to better understand why the Book of Mormon never uses the phrase “saying prayers” but rather speaks repeatedly of “mighty prayer.” Because of the dangers we and our families face each day of our lives–dangers that can destroy spiritually as well as physically–we need “mighty prayer,” not just “saying prayers.” It is indeed a matter of spiritual life or death! It is one of the means our Heavenly Father, in His infinite love for us, has provided to protect us from evil and guide us in the paths of righteousness. “For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray,” Nephi admonished his people, “ye would know that ye must pray.” Likewise Satan knows the protective power of “crying unto the Lord” in prayer. As Nephi further stated, “For the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray” (2 Nephi 32:8).
Throughout my many years of service in the Church, I have conducted hundreds of interviews–youth interviews, temple recommend interviews, personal interviews. One of the questions I often asked was “How are your personal prayers?” From those many interviews and from my own life’s experiences I have come to see the “life or death” importance of prayer. Almost always there is a striking correlation between the frequency and fervency of one’s personal prayer and one’s individual righteousness and faithfulness. On the other hand, almost always I interviewed people who had been guilty of serious transgression there had been an extended period of time when either no prayers were uttered or only routine, vain-repetition-filled, quickly muttered prayers were said before drifting off to sleep. In my own life, I know that those times when I have been and am most vulnerable to the “fiery darts of the adversary” are when I am either not praying or am only hastily and casually “saying prayers.”
Real communion with God through prayer is one of the most significant principles of protection found in the gospel. After teaching the Zoramites how to “experiment upon the word,” Alma also taught that worship of God is not confined to a church building or a religious ritual. True worship involves communication with God through prayer. In contrast to the vain prayers they had witnessed at the Rameumptom (see Alma 31:8-24), the Zoramites were taught by Alma the true nature of prayer–real worship, pure communion with God, whenever and wherever.
Do ye remember to have read what Zenos, the prophet of old, has said concerning prayer or worship? For he 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.
Yea, O God, and thou wast merciful unto me when I did cry unto thee in my field; when I did cry unto thee in my prayer, and thou didst hear me.
And again, O God, when I did turn to my house thou didst hear me in my prayer.
And when I did turn unto my closet, O Lord, and prayed unto thee, thou didst hear me.
Yea, thou art merciful unto thy children when they cry unto thee, to be heard of thee and not of men, and thou wilt hear
Yea, O God, thou hast been merciful unto me, and heard my cries in the midst of thy congregations.
Yea, and thou hast also heard me when I have been cast out and have been despised by mine enemies; yea, thou didst hear my cries, and wast angry with mine enemies, and thou didst visit them in thine anger with speedy destruction.
And thou didst hear me because of mine afflictions and my sincerity; and it is because of thy Son that thou hast been thus merciful unto me, therefore I will cry unto thee in all mine afflictions, for in thee is my joy; for thou hast turned thy judgments away from me, because of thy Son. (Alma 33:3-11; emphasis added.)
It is often said that “ninety percent of success is in showing up.” Something similar can be said of the efficacy of prayer. The Book of Mormon doesn’t give us much of a “how to” handbook when it comes to prayer. It does, however, repeatedly teach us that we should pray often, even always, and pray fervently. “Saying your prayers” might be confined to kneeling by the bedside morning and night. Even family prayer often has a set time and location. While each of these times of prayer is important, the Book of Mormon teaches us that real communion with God can be, should be, in fact must be at all times and in all places. We can talk with our Father about all matters great and small, temporal or spiritual.
Prayer is often described as “vocalized faith.” It could also be characterized as “vocalized love.” There is not a day that goes by that I do not call my wife from my office or she does not call me. Often such calls might be reminders to do something or find something for me. Other times there may be requests that I pick up something at the store on my way home. Most often, however, the calls are just “check in” calls, checking on how things are going, accompanied by expressions of love and affection. We view these phone calls, however short they may be, as vital in “staying in touch”–emotionally as well as temporally–with each other and as essential nourishment to our loving relationship.
Sometimes I am in meetings or in faraway places where I cannot call Wendy, but I can and do think of her always. In contrast, I am never in a place or circumstance where I cannot communicate with my Father in Heaven. He is never “out of range.” I can speak with Him, express my love and gratitude, and even request a much-needed blessing, at any time, in any place, and under any circumstance. Our relationship with our Heavenly Father needs that kind of “vocalized faith” and “vocalized love”–constant “staying in touch.” The prophet Amulek taught us concerning this kind of constant communication with God.
Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save. Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him.
Cry unto him, when ye are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks.
Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening.
Yea, cry unto him against the power of your enemies.
Yea, cry unto him against the devil, who is an enemy to all righteousness.
Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them.
Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.
But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.
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. (Alma 34:18-27.)
How is it possible to “pray without ceasing”? (See 1 Thessalonians 5″17.) When the Savior admonished His disciples “always to pray, and not to faint” (see Luke 18:1), was He saying they should always be on their knees? Of course not! Continual, persistent prayer, as Amulek taught, is in the mind and the heart, not just on the knees and from the mouth. Prayer is as much an attitude as an action, if not more.
Many times when I have taught the Book of Mormon story of Enos’s “wrestle” with God in “mighty prayer,” my students will ask, “How can you pray all day and into the night?” To them it is a genuine question, for they can’t imagine praying longer than three minutes maximum–they think they would run out of things to say. Did Enos pray vocally for a continual period of many, many hours? Perhaps. But it could also be that he “cried unto the Lord” both vocally and silently, both in formal prayer for a period of time and in deep spiritual and emotional pondering for other periods.
Supplication is often more from the depths of the soul than expressed in words. I can see Enos on his knees praying, pleading with the Lord for many, many minutes. His communion continued even after getting up off his knees and sitting or walking and pondering deeply for hour upon hour. Then, perhaps, he fell on his knees again in verbal prayer. His “mighty prayer” was a process of continual communion–mouth, mind, heart, and soul.
Sometimes, as strange as it may sound, my most heartfelt and effective prayers are not offered when kneeling at the side of my bed but when I am driving to work. During the commute, I can have time alone to “talk with God.” I don’t close my eyes or bow my head (neither of which is highly recommended when you are driving), but I can talk aloud–talking as I would to my own earthly father. I have felt a special closeness to my Heavenly Father even in the midst of honking and heavy traffic. Even when I carpool and others in the car are talking, I can silently pray and ponder. (Sometimes those silent prayers are for safety, depending upon which of my colleagues is driving!) How thankful I am for the blessing and privilege it is to know that I can talk to and communicate with that perfectly loving and kind Father at any time and in any way I need. Whether it be on a walk observing the beauties of nature or sitting in a boring meeting staring at the walls, I can have a full heart “drawn out in prayer continually.”
Many times at my office my life is chaotic–there are phone calls, visitors, tasks that need immediate attention, meetings that must be attended. I don’t always have the quiet time that I need to prepare mentally and spiritually for my classes. It is a much-appreciated respite when I can kneel down in my office and pray for success in my teaching or other responsibilities, but often I cannot do that. Yet I can still pray, even “cry unto the Lord.” It may be while I walk across campus that I can silently “raise my voice high that it reache[s] the heavens” (see Enos 1:4). It may be that a silent yet soulful prayer is offered standing in front of my class when an important question needs an inspired answer. It may be when a teenage child is trying my patience and when I am sorely tempted to say or do something unwise that silent prayer, a cry unto the Lord, will prove most useful.
What a blessing! We can pray anytime, anywhere, even when we aren’t down on our knees or opening or closing a meeting. If I will allow my heart and soul and mind to be drawn out continually in prayer I am never alone. “There is no loneliness so great, so absolute, so utterly complete,” wrote Elder Richard L. Evans, “as the loneliness of a man who cannot [or who does not] call upon his God” (in Richard Evans” Quote Book [Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1971], p. 148).
Pray for Forgiveness
“Sin keeps a man from prayer,” President Brigham Young said, “and prayer keeps a man from sin.” Not only is prayer essential for repentance, but repentance is essential for prayer. The blessings of heaven are obtained only “by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (see D&C 130:20-21). As much as our Father in Heaven may love us and as fervently as we may pray, His answers to our prayers and the blessings we desire are inextricably linked to obeying the commandments. Therefore, one of the primary purposes of prayer is to faithfully seek forgiveness of our sins and rededicate ourselves to keeping our covenants. Only in this manner can our prayers produce the desired results.
Perhaps nothing better characterizes “praying without really praying” than when the words we utter do not coincide with the life we are striving to live. “We cannot, for the purposes of real prayer,” wrote Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “hurriedly dress our words and attitudes in tuxedos when our shabby life is in rags” (All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, p. 96). One may ,’go through the motions” of prayer, yet get up off his knees knowing full well that he has no intention of keeping the commandments of God. How can such hypocrisy yield blessings? Even Huckleberry Finn recognized such incongruency. “You can’t pray a lie,” Mark Twain had Huck say in that classic novel.
I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from [God]. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing,.., but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie~and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie~I found that out. (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [New York: New American Library, 1959], pp. 208-9; quoted by Elder Marvin J. Ashton, “Personal Prayers,” in Prayer [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978], p. 75.)
The Book of Mormon clearly teaches and testifies of the relationship between righteousness and answers to prayers. “When they shall cry unto me I will be slow to hear their cries,” the Lord declared to the Nephites under the reign of wicked King Noah. “And except they repent in sackcloth and ashes, and cry mightily to the Lord their God, I will not hear their prayers.” (Mosiah 11:24-25, see also D&C 101″6-7.)
When we understand this important relationship, we should view prayer as a continual opportunity to come before the Lord in faith and repentance in order that our petitions may be heard. For this reason, Satan would have us believe that we cannot pray when we are sinful. In contrast, our Heavenly Father beckons us to come unto Him constantly praying for forgiveness. “If the Devil says you cannot pray . . .,” President Brigham Young taught, “tell him it is none of his business, and pray until that species of insanity is dispelled and serenity is restored to the mind” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977], p. 45).
The command “pray always” is, in its own way, a command to “repent always,” for there can be no repentance without prayer and no real prayer without repentance. What a blessing prayer provides! Not only does it give us the opportunity to petition our loving Father for much-needed blessings, but also it provides us with an opportunity for continual self-evaluation and the means whereby we can be lifted up when we have fallen down. Just as it did for Enos, “mighty prayer and supplication” for forgiveness of sins opens the door for each of us for other prayers to be heard and other blessings to be received (see Enos 1:2-18).
Pray for Strength to Resist Temptation
“Yea, and I also exhort you, my brethren, that ye be watchful unto prayer continually,” Amulek admonished, “that ye may not be led away by the temptations of the devil, that he may not overpower you” (Alma 34″39). There is probably no better protection against the vast array of “fiery darts” of evil we face in these last days than consistent, conscientious, and heartfelt crying unto the Lord in personal prayer. It is indeed the “armor of God” that shields us from temptation and sin.
No right-thinking law enforcement officer or soldier would enter into a skirmish with bullets flying all around without the protection of a helmet and bullet-proof vest. It is equally as foolish to think we can escape spiritual “battle wounds” if we do not avail ourselves of the very protection God has provided. The spiritual warfare we face today is of such a nature that no one can survive it by standing alone, unprotected by faith and prayer. “I will never be tempted beyond my ability to withstand,” I have heard some people say. Such a view is a misinterpretation of the scripture (see 1 Corinthians 10″13).
Indeed, all of us can easily be tempted beyond our mortal ability to resist if we do not avail ourselves of the means the Lord gives us for strength and protection. We can escape the tempter’s grasp only if we utilize the “escape routes” the Lord provides. “Humble yourselves…, and call on his holy name, and watch and pray continually,” Alma declared, “that ye may not be tempted above that which ye can bear, and thus be led by the Holy Spirit” (Alma 13:28).
Over the last several years I have been involved in research concerning how faith and family combine to help young people resist temptations and stand strong against negative peer pressures. While several factors were found to be significant, one in particular was most profound: Those young people who faithfully remembered to “cry unto the Lord” in daily personal prayer were better able to resist temptation. As one young woman in the study reported: “Personal prayer is one thing that cannot be done without.” It is as true for adults as it is for youth and children of all ages. This kind of daily, meaningful “vocalized faith” demonstrates how temptation can be overpowered, as Alma taught his son Helaman: “Teach them to withstand every temptation of the devil, with their faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Alma 37:33).
Modern prophets have added their testimonies and apostolic promises to those made by the Savior and the ancient prophets of the Book of Mormon. President Heber J. Grant taught:
I have little or no fear for the boy or the girl, the young man or the young woman, [or the older man or woman] who honestly and conscientiously supplicate God twice a day for the guidance of His Spirit. I am sure that when temptation comes they will have the strength to overcome it by the inspiration that shall be given them. Supplicating the Lord for the guidance of His Spirit places around us a safeguard, and if we earnestly and honestly seek the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord, I can assure you that we will receive it. (Gospel Standards, cd. G. Homer Durham [Salt Lake City: The Improvement Era, 1941], p. 26.)
President Spencer W. Kimball called prayer “an armor of protection against temptation” and promised that if we would pray “fervently and full of faith, many of your problems are solved before they begin” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], p. 117). Similarly, President Ezra Taft Benson promised that through faithful, fervent, personal prayer, “you will be given the strength to shun any temptation” (“A Message to the Rising Generation,” Ensign, November 1977, p. 32). Truly, personal prayer is an enabling gift of grace from our loving Father in Heaven~a gift of guidance, a gift of strength, a gift of protection. “Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, ye must watch and pray always lest ye enter into tempation; for Satan desireth to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. Therefore ye must always pray unto the Father in my name.” (3 Nephi 18″ 18-19.)
Pray for your Family
From his vision of the tree of life, Lehi perceived that because of the unspeakable joy he had experienced when he partook of the fruit of that tree, “I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also” (1 Nephi 8:12). After he had further seen in that vision that some of his family members would not come unto the tree and partake of the fruit, he feared for them and “did exhort them then with all the feeling of a tender parent” (1 Nephi 8:37).
Lehi’s feelings are no different than those of almost any loving parent. We desire our own family to be blessed, guided, protected by the Lord. We desire that they come to taste of the fruits of the gospel that have been sweet to our spiritual taste and nourishing to our souls. “Pray in your families, always in my name” the resurrected Christ commanded the Nephites, “that your wives and your children may be blessed” (3 Nephi 18:21). The protective “armor of God” is forged in the home.
Just as we are commanded to pray privately and personally, the Lord has commanded us to pray in our homes so that each member of the family can be spiritually shielded from the “fiery darts of the adversary” through the prayers of faith. As President Harold B. Lee taught: “Family prayer is a safeguard to the individual members of the family as they leave from the home each day and go out into the uncertainties of the world” (The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996], p. 280).
One of the great themes of the Book of Mormon (and of all the scriptures) is that it is not enough to just pray in our families. We must also pray for our families. Even beyond kneeling together as a family each morning in a more formal family prayer, there is great power in parents–individually and together–praying for the welfare of each child and in children praying for their parents. How grateful I am for this special blessing God affords me, both as a father and as a son. Although I have had many experiences throughout my life that testify of this principle, my testimony of it was renewed and strengthened by one I had while our family lived in Israel several years ago.
Parents Praying for Children
Prior to joining us in the Holy Land for the last six months of our stay, our oldest daughter remained behind at BYU. We had occasional phone calls and letters, but it was certainly not the same as having her with us. When she encountered some serious challenges, we felt that our help was seriously limited because of the distance that separated us. I worried about her almost constantly. There were nights when I didn’t get much sleep. The phone calls helped some, but mostly we felt totally helpless. How grateful I was then and am now that the Lord was mindful of her in our absence and heard our cries in her behalf, both in daily family prayer and in constant personal prayer of a parent in behalf of his child.
One can only imagine the terrible pain felt by Alma and King Mosiah and their wives over the wickedness and rebellion of their sons. Alma the Younger not only had chosen the path of personal wickedness but he also persecuted the righteous and led many Church members away from the truth. This rebellion against God came to a dramatic end and their lives were miraculously turned around with a visitation by an angel. To Alma the angel declared: “Behold, the Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore, for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith” (Mosiah 27:14).
Perhaps many parents, hurting from the wounds inflicted by a rebellious child, have read that story and wondered why the Lord has not heard their prayers and sent an angel to rescue their loved one. It may be, however, that He has sent His angels–seen and unseen, heavenly and mortal servants–in response to the pleas of faithful parents in behalf of their children. Many times there are miraculous blessings in the lives of sons and daughters that result from parental faith, fasting, and “crying unto God.” Often those miracles come in a manner much different than we had expected. Sometimes we, as parents, may not even know exactly how the Lord did indeed answer our prayers, only that He did.
A dear friend of mine shared with me a personal experience that profoundly demonstrates the power of parental prayer. When he was a teenager he became involved with a group of kids who did not share the values of his family. On the weekends they would party and drink themselves into oblivion. Soon it became not just a weekend activity, but almost an everyday occurrence. Finally, the group of teens decided to see how many consecutive days they could get drunk. The days soon turned into weeks. This young man, who had been reared in a good Latter-day Saint home, had gotten drunk with his so-called friends nearly forty consecutive days.
One evening when his friends came to pick him up to go partying, he went to say good-bye to his parents (which he usually did not do). When he yelled for them and could not get an immediate response, he went up to their bedroom looking for them. He could hear his father speaking in the room, and he noticed the door was only slightly open. As he approached the room, he could hear his parents praying. Through the crack of the slightly open door he could see his father and mother kneeling at the side of their bed, with tears streaming down their faces, pleading with the Lord to bless their son, protect him, and in some way touch his heart and turn him away from evil.
What he felt as he saw and heard his parents “crying unto the Lord” in his behalf miraculously turned his life around. There was no angel, no vision, no earthshaking experience. Yet his life was dramatically transformed by the simple, loving, pleading prayers of concerned parents. Such miracles–even Alma-like experiences–continue to occur today when parents pray with their children and for their children individually and continually.
Children Praying for Parents
During the time we lived in Israel I received a phone call in our Jerusalem apartment from my parents back home in America informing me that my father was to have emergency heart surgery that very day. I was stunned and afraid. I wished I could have been there with them. I wanted desperately to give my father a blessing and be there for my mother and hold them and express my love in person, but there was nothing I could do from ten thousand miles away–nothing except pray. Our Father in Heaven is as mindful of fervent “crying unto the Lord” by children on behalf of their parents as He is of parents praying for their children.
When I felt most helpless I was comforted by going to the source of the greatest help possible. Just as the Lord was mindful of my prayers for my parents, He has been merciful and mindful in our behalf because of the prayers of our children. Sometimes when we feel that there is nothing more we can do than pray for them, we may in fact be doing that which is most important and effective.
Although the record does not explicitly state it, righteous sons and daughters in the Book of Mormon undoubtedly prayed for their parents. Nephi prayed for Lehi and Sariah. Moroni surely prayed for the safety of his father, Mormon, during those difficult days of Nephite history. Perhaps it was due to the faith and prayers of King Lamoni that his father responded to the preaching of Aaron.
Not only do miracles occur in the lives of children, but also parents’ lives can be profoundly affected by the prayers of faith on the part of caring children. It may be a simple prayer to help Mom or Dad in their Church callings or a speaking assignment, or the deep pleading of a child for the conversion or reactivation of a parent. Sometimes the simple prayer of a child for a parent can do more good than many of the combined efforts of Church programs, home teachers, or quorum leaders. Miracles, previously thought impossible, can and do occur today through the prayers of children for their parents and siblings. No matter who we are or what our circumstances, we can never outgrow family prayer. Parents and children alike need each others’ prayers. Truly, “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man [or woman or child] availeth much” (James 5″16).
Pray for Your Enemies
Just as He taught in the Old World “Sermon on the Mount,” the Savior reminded the Nephite disciples to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you” (3 Nephi 12:44). Book of Mormon prophets had also taught that men must also pray for their enemies (see Alma 33:4). Our prayers may not result in the dramatic change of attitude or behavior of the “enemy,” but they can result in the change of our own hearts and perspective.
While attending a meeting with other bishops in my stake, I gained an insight into the Lord’s command to pray for our enemies. As we were discussing some of the problems and challenges that each of us was grappling with, one of the bishops shared an experience that profoundly affected my view of that scripture. He told of a couple that was on the verge of a divorce. There had been years of contention and bitterness in the home. He had counseled with them scores of times, but all to no avail. It seemed as if nothing could save the marriage.
Almost ready to give up on them, the bishop had this scripture come into his mind. This couple viewed each other as “the enemy” and perhaps it would work for them. He read the scripture to them and made them commit to daily pray for each other–not just “say prayers” but truly pray for the other’s welfare and blessing, and for needed changes in their relationship. There really wasn’t much more he could say, so he set a date one month later to once again meet with them. If there was no change, it seemed likely they would divorce. During the month he quietly asked them if they were keeping the commitment. They assured him they were.
By the end of the month, dramatic changes had occurred. From sincerely praying for their “enemy” this husband and wife began to view each other with new eyes and a new heart. It was hard–virtually impossible–to earnestly and consistently pray for the blessing and well-being of another yet hold on to feelings of bitterness and anger. When the heart was changed, the behavior followed. Truly, the Lord had turned these “enemies” to each other through the simple, life-changing act of prayer.
Whether it be a troubled marriage, difficult neighbors, a person at work who has offended, or other people who have used and abused us in all kinds of ways, prayer can change us even if it doesn’t immediately change the “enemy.” The command to pray for our enemies is not so much for their sake as it is for ours. It is evidence of our own spirituality and true communion with God. Satan stirs up hearts to contention, which leads to angry actions. God heals wounded hearts through prayer, which leads to acts of kindness, mercy, and compassion. The Prophet Joseph Smith epitomized this strength of character, this spirituality, as he would often pray for his enemies and act with kindness in their behalf. His faith and prayers often touched the hearts of even the bitterest of enemies and turned them to him. Daniel Tyler, a contemporary of the Prophet, described one such remarkable prayer.
At the time William Smith [Joseph’s brother] and others rebelled against the Prophet at Kirtland, I attended a meeting “on the flats” where Joseph presided. Entering the school house a little before the meeting opened and gazing upon the man of God, I perceived sadness in his countenance and tears trickling down his cheeks. A few moments later a hymn was sung and he opened the meeting by prayer. Instead of facing the audience, however, he turned his back and bowed upon his knees, facing the wall. This, I suppose, was done to hide his sorrow and tears.
I had heard men and women pray–especially the former–from the most ignorant, both as to letters and intellect, to the most learned and eloquent. But never until then had I heard a man address his Maker as though He was present listening as a kind father would listen to the sorrows of a dutiful child. Joseph was at that time unlearned, but that prayer, which was to a considerable extent in behalf of those who accused him of having gone astray and fallen into sin, was that the Lord would forgive them and open their eyes that they might see aright. That prayer, I say, to my humble mind, partook of the learning and eloquence of heaven. . . . It appeared to me as though, in case the veil were taken away, I could see the Lord standing facing His humblest of all servants I had ever seen. It was the crowning of all the prayers I ever heard.
. . . . The next Sabbath his brother William and several others made humble confessions before the public. (Quoted in They Knew the Prophet, comp. Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mac Andrus [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974], pp. 51-52.)
Pray with Gratitude
“O how you ought to thank your heavenly king!” King Benjamin declared. “I say unto you, my brethren, . . . you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that you should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another” (Mosiah 2:19-20). I do not believe it is coincidental or merely a matter of structural protocol that we teach that expressions of gratitude should precede requests for blessings in the pattern of prayer. There can be little real communion with the Almighty if all we do is ask for more without acknowledging what we already have received. “Gratitude is of the very essence of worship,” President Gordon B. Hinckley has taught, “thanksgiving to the God of Heaven, who has given us all that we have that is good” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997], p. 250).
I am reminded of a mother who not only would diligently fast and pray for needed blessings but would just as often, if not more frequently, fast and pray in thanksgiving for the blessings of God. Thinking of her example of supreme gratitude causes me to sheepishly examine my own prayers and the prayers of our family. We carefully follow the prescribed pattern of prayer, but there is an overwhelming imbalance between the “We thank thee”s and the “We ask thee”s. Yes, we have many needs, but they are still few and small in comparison to the many and mighty blessings the Lord has poured out upon us. Yet often far less time and effort is expended in expressions of gratitude than in petitioning for more.
When our prayers–both public and private, both personal and family~are more filled with profound expressions of thanks-giving we become more cognizant of how the Lord has already blessed us and answered our prayers. Gratitude opens our eyes and our hearts and leads to even more sincere “crying unto the Lord,” which in turn opens the windows of heaven anew. We can never get out of debt to the Lord. We are always “unprofitable servants,” but we should always be grateful ones. “Get on your knees and thank the Lord for his bounties,” President Hincldey has admonished. “Cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving for the blessing of life and for the marvelous gifts and privileges you enjoy.” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 246.)
When our prayers are filled with this kind of gratitude and awe, we will recognize and receive, as Ammon did, answers to our prayers, success, and joy even beyond our expectations. “Now Ammon seeing the Spirit of the Lord poured out according to his prayers upon the Lamanites, his brethren, who had been the cause of so much mourning among the Nephites, or among all the people of God because of their iniquities and their traditions, he fell upon his knees and began to pour out his soul in prayer and thanksgiving to God for what he had done for his brethren; and he was also overpowered with joy” (Alma 19″14).
“Get Up Off Your Knees and Go to Work”
“We sometimes find ourselves praying for others when we should be doing things for them,” Elder Neal A. Maxwell observed. “Prayers are not to be a substitute for service, but a spur thereto.” (All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, p. 97.)
The Book of Mormon not only teaches us the whens, whys, hows, and what fors of prayer, but also shows the relationship between faith and works, prayers and actions. After his lengthy admonition concerning the expansive scope of prayer, the prophet Amulek included this important addendum. “And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart not of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need~I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith (Alma 34:28; see also James 2:14-26).
President Brigham Young often taught the practical relationship between spoken prayers and service rendered. When the beleaguered handcart pioneers who had suffered so much on the plains of Wyoming approached the Salt Lake Valley, he dismissed the afternoon session of conference and urged the Saints to be prepared to render assistance. “Go home and prepare to give those who have just arrived a mouthful of something to eat, and to wash them and nurse themup,” the prophet urged those gathered in the Tabernacle.
You know that I would give more for a dish of pudding and milk, or a baked potato and salt, were I in the situation of those persons who have just come in, than I would for all your prayers, though you were to stay here all the afternoon and pray. Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and pudding and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place on this occasion; give every duty its proper time and place. (As quoted in LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion [Glendale, Calif.: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1960], p. 139.)
How foolish it would be to kneel in prayer and ask Heavenly Father to bless and protect the people whose car broke down in front of our house, yet be unwilling to extend help to them. I may not be able to fix the car, but giving them a ride home or letting them use my phone would be more providential than vain prayers. “I shall not ask the Lord to do what I am not willing to do,” President Brigham Young taught (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 43).
This principle of combining our human efforts, however feeble, with our prayerful petitions, however fervent, applies as much to the acquisition of blessings for ourselves as it does for others. How can I pray for increased gospel knowledge and then be unwilling to diligently study the scriptures and the teachings of the gospel? How can I ask the Lord to help me find a good job if I am unwilling to adequately prepare myself, work hard, and diligently seek that job? How can God answer my prayers to get good grades at school ifI don’t study, attend class, pay attention to the teacher, and do all in my power to succeed? It may be that many times when we feel that God has not answered our prayers it is because He cannot–because we have tied His hands by our inaction and unwillingness to do our part. When prayers are offered in this way, they are nothing more than another form of “vain repetitions.”
One of the guiding maxims of President Gordon B. Hinckley, not only preached but personally practiced, is” “Get on your knees and ask for help, and then get up and go to work, and you’ll be able to find your way through almost any situation” (quoted in Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996], p. 167). In a way this reflects what Nephi taught about the grace of Christ, that is to say our prayers are answered and blessings are granted by the goodness and mercy of God, “after all we can do” (see 2 Nephi 25:23). My efforts are puny in comparison to the power and goodness of God, but many times I find my answers and receive the blessings I prayed for after I have gotten up from my knees and done my part.
How thankful I am for protection, guidance, comfort, joy, peace at prayer affords. Through “crying unto the Lord” I feel the perfect love my Father has for me. Mormon taught his son, Moroni, that perfect love–that divine fruit of true communion with God–“endureth by diligence unto prayer” (Moroni 8:26). “Pray always,” the Lord has admonished us. This is not merely a commandment. It is truly an invitation to come unto the Father in prayer, the language of true worship, the means of true communion with the Infinite.
Prayers “said” may bounce off the ceiling, but there will always be a divine ear listening to sincere, heartfelt expressions of love and gratitude, requests for forgiveness, blessings upon ourselves and our family members, and for spiritual strength and guidance as we journey through life. We are not merely commanded to pray; we are lovingly invited. As we respond continually, even always, to the divine invitation, we will come to know in unspeakable ways how truly “prayer is the soul’s sincere desire.” May we always follow Alma’s admonition to his son Helaman, and come to personally realize the promise to all those who faithfully “cry unto the Lord.”
Cry unto God for all thy support, yea, let all thy doings be unto the Lord, and whithersoever thou goest let it be in the Lord; yea, let.., the affections of thy heart be placed upon the Lord forever.
Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good; yea, when thou liest down at night lie down unto the Lord, that he may watch over you in your sleep; and when thou risest in the morning let thy heartbe full of thanks unto God; and if ye do these things, ye shall be lifted up at the last day. (Alma 37:36-37.)