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The following is the final part of Ted Gibbons’ series on prayer. It comes from his book, ‘Put Off Thy Shoes’. To get your copy, click here. To read other articles in the series, click here

Under the right circumstances, we can receive everything we pray for. There are two preliminary requirements. First, what we ask for must be right. Second, we must be right.

Consider these two conditions:

1. What we ask for must be right 

  1. “And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right . . .” (3 Nephi 18:20, emphasis added.)
  2. “And now, if God . . . doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right . . .” (Mosiah 4:21, emphasis added.)
  3. “My God will give me, if I ask not amiss . . .” (2 Nephi 4:35, emphasis added.)
  4. “Whatsoever ye ask the Father in my name it shall be given you, that is expedient for you.” (D&C 88:64, emphasis added.)

If we come before the Father in prayer but we are not certain that the thing we request is right, then we must follow the Savior’s example in Luke 22:42: “. . . Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”

So very much of pure prayer seems to be the process of discovering, rather than requesting, the will of our Father in heaven and then aligning ourselves therewith. (Elder Neal A. Maxwell, All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, p. 93.)

The Bible Dictionary of the Church’s edition of the King James Version tells us that:

Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for other blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them. (Bible Dictionary, p. 752,753.)

On occasion, the Lord has granted requests for things that were, perhaps, better left ungranted, in order to teach a lesson and in order to satisfy the demands of a servant who will not accept ‘No’ for an answer. Martin Harris, Joseph Smith, and the one hundred and sixteen pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript offer a striking illustration (See D&C, section headings for sections 3 and 10.) Martin had rendered such valuable aid to Joseph, and was under such pressure from his family, that Joseph could not bear to turn down his request to take the translated pages home in order to prove the inspiration of the work.

It was only after “much solicitation” and having “wearied the Lord in asking” that permission was finally given for the pages to be entrusted to Martin, who covenanted to show them only to a small group of relatives. Martin Harris did not keep his covenant, and the manuscript pages were lost.(See Documentary History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 20, 21.) Joseph shared the responsibility for the loss because he had not been willing to accept the Lord’s refusal when first he sought consent. The Lord chastened Joseph for his part in the affair: “For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God.” (D&C 3:7.) The Lord also said, “Because you delivered up those writings . . . into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them. And you have also lost your gift [to translate].” (D&C 10:1,2.)

No matter how desirable a blessing seems to us, and no matter how marvelous (in our perspective) the benefits might be, we must submit to the Lord’s will and the Lord’s answers, lest we find ourselves, as Joseph did, in great difficulty.

Boyd K. Packer explained:

On several occasions when a member has insisted that something be done his way, I have remembered that great lesson from Church history. I have said to myself in my mind:

All right, Joseph, give the manuscript to Martin Harris. Do it your own way, and see where you get. Then when you’re confounded and confused, come back and we’ll get you set on the course that you might have taken earlier if you had been submissive and responsive. Someone wrote:

With thoughtless and impatient hands
We tangle up the plans
The Lord hath wrought.
And when we cry in pain He saith,
`Be quiet, man, while I untie the knot.’
(Ensign, November 1979, p. 21)

We must be right 

  1. “For the Lord hath heard thy prayers and hath judged of thy righteousness.” (Mosiah 3:4, emphasis added.)
  2. “And now, if God . . . doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive . . . (Mosiah 4:21, emphasis added.)
  3. “Ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith . . .” (Moroni 10:4, emphasis added.)
  4. “All things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will. (Helaman 10:5, emphasis added.)
  5. “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering . . .” (James 1:6, emphasis added.)

Remember that the Lord may say, in answering our requests, “No” or “Not yet.” If we get either of these answers, there are two possible reasons. First, what we have asked for may not be right, and a “Yes” answer might impede the plans of God for the welfare of his children. Second, we might not be right, and a “Yes” answer would do us more harm than good by teaching us incorrect principles, or reinforcing our unworthiness. It is imperative that we never lose sight of the reality that we are being proved in this mortal environment (Abraham 3:25.) We should not expect God to remove all of our problems because we pray. Sometimes we must endure in faith while we pray, waiting on the will of God and knowing that whatever he is doing to us will be good for us if we are willing.

We tend to think only in terms of our endurance, but it is God’s patient long-suffering which provides us with our chances to improve, affording us urgently needed developmental space or time (see Alma 42:4-5.)

Paul observed, “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11.) Such “peaceable fruit” comes only in the appointed season thereof, after the blossoms and the buds.

Otherwise, if certain mortal experiences were cut short, it would be like pulling up a flower to see how the roots are doing. Put another way, too many anxious openings of the oven door, and the cake falls instead of rising. Moreover, enforced change usually does not last, while productive enduring can ingrain permanent change (see Alma 32:13-16; Elder Neal A. Maxwell, C.R., April 1990, p. 42.)

The Prayers of the Imperfect

Some time after he had lost the one hundred and sixteen translated pages, Martin Harris desired to be one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. He made it a matter of prayer.

The Lord had made clear to Joseph by revelation the nature of this man. He called Martin Harris a wicked man (D&C 10:1); he said that Martin had tried to destroy Joseph’s gift (D&C 10:7); he indicated that Martin refused to humble himself (D&C 5:24) and confess his sins. (D&C 5:28.) Under these circumstances, the Lord’s response was “No.” Martin was not right, and the answer would not change until he got himself right:

And now, except he humble himself and acknowledge unto me the things that he has done which are wrong, and covenant with me that he will keep my commandments, and exercise faith in me, behold I say unto him, he shall have no such views, for I will grant unto him no views of the things of which I have spoken. (D&C 5:28.)

There is another great lesson in this story, one that has encouraged me for many years. Even though Martin was an unrepentant and disobedient man, “a wicked man,” the Lord gave him an answer to his prayers through Joseph, telling Martin what he needed to do to get a “Yes” answer. However, in the event that Martin Harris was unwilling to comply with these requirements, then, said the Lord, “I command you, my servant Joseph, that you shall say unto him, that he shall do no more, nor trouble me any more concerning this matter.” (D&C 5:29, emphasis added.)

Martin’s prayers troubled the Lord, but he did not simply tune them out or turn them off. He listened. And he responded.

This is not a unique event. In August of 1831 the Lord gave instructions to the Saints in Zion concerning the use of the resources of the earth. “This,” he said, “is according to the law and the prophets; wherefore, trouble me no more concerning this matter.” (D&C 59:22, emphasis added.)

In March of 1833, the Lord spoke to the Saints in Zion again, about their apparent requests that Joseph come to live in Zion. He said, “I have called [Joseph] to preside over Zion in mine own due time. Therefore, let them cease wearying me concerning this matter.” (D&C 90:32,33, emphasis added.)

Joseph recorded that on one occasion he was praying very earnestly to know the time of the Second Coming when he heard a voice:

Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter. (D&C 130:15, emphasis added.)

I have on occasion imagined my Heavenly Father in a great room, the walls covered with switches, and the switches labeled with the names of his children. When we are right, our switches are in the ‘on’ position, and Father hears our prayers. But when we are wrong, when our lives do not demonstrate our commitment to our covenants, the Lord flips the switches to ‘off.’ For example, “Martin Harris is a wicked man.” Click! The Saints in Zion have troubled me too much about Joseph moving there.” Click! “The people of Ninevah are debased, depraved, and degenerate.” Click! “Ted Gibbons is a terrible home teacher.” Click! But this is clearly not the way our prayers work. Nahum said of Ninevah,

Woe to the bloody city! it is full of lies and robbery; the prey departeth not; The noise of a whip, and the noise of the rattling of the wheels, and of the prancing horses, and of the jumping chariots. The horseman lifteth up both the bright sword and the glittering spear: and there is a multitude of slain, and a great number of carcasses; and there is none end of their corpses; they stumble upon their corpses: Because of the multitude of the whoredoms of the wellfavoured harlot, the mistress of witchcraft, that selleth nations through her whoredoms, and families through her witchcrafts. (Nahum 3:1-4.)

The armies of Assyria, of which Ninevah was capital, were renowned for cold-blooded cruelty and sadistic terror.

The prophet Jonah was called to preach destruction to Ninevah (Jonah 3:4), but he refused and fled in the opposite direction with what seems to be good reason.

The Lord was able with the help of a big fish to persuade Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach. His message was not a recitation of the Love of the Lord and a gentle invitation to repent. Rather, he announced to the people that they would be overthrown in forty days. Then, to Jonah’s chagrin and amazement, these dreadful people repented, giving themselves to fasting and mighty prayer. (Jonah 3:7,8.) And God listened. We must not miss the meaning of this. Here was a city of one hundred and twenty thousand or more that was so wholly given to wickedness that God’s messenger did not preach repentance, but destruction. But when they prayed, God listened!

Is that not comforting? Lucifer would love to convince us that our wickedness prevents the Father from hearing our prayers. Nothing could be less true! We must remember that when we pray, regardless of our attitude or worthiness or effort, our Heavenly Father is listening. Our switches are always in the ‘on’ position.

I want you to know that whenever one of Heavenly Father’s children kneels and talks to him, he listens. I know this as well as I know anything in this world— that Heavenly Father listens to every prayer from his children. I know our prayers ascend to heaven. No matter what we may have done wrong, he listens to us. (Bishop H. Burke Peterson, Ensign , June 1981, p. 73.)

The Sensitivity of the Spirit 

In the process of living in the world, all of us are subject to sin. In fact, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves . . .” (1 John 1:8.) Thus, we may never be wholly right when we bend our knees and appeal for God’s help. Sometimes, it is in the process of prayer that we get ourselves right.

The sensitivity of the Spirit is so great that even a small, unresolved matter with a brother or a family member might prevent us from receiving answers. This is in part the meaning behind the following verses from the Sermon on the Mount:

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. (Matthew 5:23, 24.)

MY brother, while he was in a stake presidency, had a disagreement with a high councilor over a sister in one of the wards. Both leaders felt that she should be called to positions they were trying to fill. My brother felt certain that he had received a spiritual confirmation of his decision to call her. But when he presented the matter to the President, the high councilor admitted that he had already interviewed her and called her into the organization for which he had responsibility.

The matter was resolved, and the positions were both filled, but there remained some negative feelings.

Many months passed. The Stake President asked my brother to travel to one of the branches in the stake for the purpose of releasing the branch president and calling a new one. The above-mentioned high councilor was to go as his companion. They arrived early and began interviewing, with the intention of making the leadership change in sacrament meeting. There were several logical choices, but they could not get a confirmation. They changed the order of the meetings to give themselves more time, but the day came to an end with no new President selected. They had to return the next week.

The interviewing commenced once again and continued without progress of any kind. During a momentary break, my brother, feeling frustrated over their inability to conclude the matter, looked at his companion, remembered the conflict over the call of a sister so many months ago, and realized that he still had feelings of resentment.

With that realization, he understood the problem. He turned to the high councilor and said something like this: “You know, I never really apologized for that disagreement we had. Maybe that’s why we’re not getting help. I want to ask you to forgive me.”

The companion expressed the same sincere feelings of apology and they returned to the process of finding the new branch president. My friend concluded, “We both had one of the richest outpourings of our experience a few moments later when we prayed about a man. The choice was clearly confirmed.”

“I did pour out my whole soul”

When we are not right, the probability of God answering our prayers in the way we desire is diminished. In fact, this is the only reasonable explanation when we pray for things which are right, yet the prayers continue for hours or days or years before an answer comes. Such prayers are not an attempt to change God but to change ourselves. Our Father is not waiting until he is inclined to answer but until the answer will be a blessing in our lives.

When Enos got himself right, answers came in finished sentences, and with promises that even now affect the descendants of Lehi. (Enos 1:13.)

Twelve times in the Book of Mormon a phrase appears which illuminates one means by which we make ourselves right when we pray. The phrase first occurs in Enos 1:9, where Enos says, “I did pour out my whole soul unto God.” (emphasis added.) This matter of pouring out the soul in prayer is also mentioned in Mosiah 14:12, Mosiah 24:12, Mosiah 24:21, Mosiah 26:14, Alma 19:14, Alma 34:26, Alma 46:17, Alma 58:10, Helaman 7:11, Helaman 7:14, and Mormon 3:12.

Most of our lives contain hidden chambers. We try to present to those around us, and to our Father, the appearance of near-perfect obedience, but sometimes there are areas of our lives, as there might be bottom drawers and upper shelves in a home, that need to be cleaned. Likewise, we sometimes keep back parts of our soul for our own purposes rather than surrendering them for the glory of God and the building up of Zion. It is because of this tendency that the scriptures so often repeat the injunction “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.” (Deut. 6:5.) Likewise we are enjoined to have “an eye single to the glory of God.” (D&C 4:5.)

Mosiah 15:7 describes the relationship between the Father and the Son in these words: “The will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father.” What an honor it would be if a similar thing could be said about us. “Her will is swallowed up in the will of the Savior. Nothing leaks out. Nothing spills over the edges.”

When we pour out our whole soul unto God, we pour ourselves “into the cups of our words.” (Truman Madsen, The Improvement Era, February 1966, p. 158.) We continue pouring until we have poured all of ourselves out, until we have emptied the hidden chambers, until we have mastered our will and made ourselves submissive to the will of the Father and the Son, until we are purified. Then the answers come. D&C 50:29 says, “And if ye are purified and cleansed from all sin, ye shall ask whatsoever you will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done.”

The promise of this verse is sobering, for it teaches that it is possible to get everything we ask for. Already we have referred to the promise made to Nephi, the son of Helaman, that “all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word,” which promise was made because the will of Nephi was swallowed up in the will of the Father and the Son. The Lord explained, “For thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.” (Helaman 10:5.)

In simplest terms, all that is necessary for us to get everything we pray for is for us to accomplish the following:

  1. We must be right. We must submit ourselves to the will of the Father and purify ourselves.
  2. We must ask for those things that are right, and we can know, in advance, which things are right, if we are inspired by the Holy Spirit in our requests:
    1. He that asketh in the Spirit asketh according to the will of God; wherefore it is done even as he asks. (D&C 46:30.)
    2. And if ye are purified and cleansed from all sin, ye shall ask whatsoever you will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done. But know this, it shall be given you [you shall be inspired in] what you shall ask. (D&C 50:29, 30.)
    3. . . . and they did not multiply many words, for it was given them what they should pray, and they were filled with desire. (3 Nephi 19:24.)

This does not mean that prayers are answered only for the perfect. The closer we come to perfection the less probable it is that what we ask for will be withheld. Perfection is not a requirement. What is required is that we be prepared in such a way that an affirmative answer will not damage our spirituality or our concept of the nature of God and his expectations of his children. We must also be patient as we wait on the will of the Lord.

Help from the Lord generally comes in increments. He can immediately cure serious illnesses or disabilities or even allow the dead to be raised. But the general pattern is that improvement comes in sequential steps. That plan gives us an opportunity to discover what the Lord expects us to learn. It requires our patience to recognize His timetable. It provides growth from our efforts and trust in Him and the opportunity to express gratitude for the help given.(Richard G. Scott, “Obtaining Help from the Lord,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, p. 85.)

“And yet thou art there”

When I was little, I wanted to be Aladdin. I dreamed of magic lamps and genies and three wishes. Those days are past, but I have not been disappointed. I have a Father and God who framed the universe and filled it with worlds without number (Moses 1:33); who set the stars in the heavens (Job 38:31-33) and gave them light (D&C 88:9); a being of immeasurable ability and limitless love who listens to me and answers me. And as I make my will conform to his and seek his help, he opens to me the storehouses of his wisdom and power and goodness. And his bounty does not end after three gifts.

I pray that all of you . . . will remember that you can get just as close to your Heavenly Father as you can to your earthly father, if you will undertake to live righteously, to talk to him regularly, and to keep his commandments. (Hugh B. Brown, The Improvement Era, June 1967, p. 96.)

He is kind, forever

It is a boundless blessing to be able to talk at any time with an omnipotent and omniscient being who loves us, who blesses us, who weeps over us, and who will converse with us.

Enoch described the greatness of God in these words:

And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations. . . . (Moses 7:30.)

Yet in the midst of this magnificence and creative splendor, the honest seeker can always find God, the Father:

. . . and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there; and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever. (Moses 7:30,emphasis added.)

I have learned that he is there. In the midst of an incomprehensible number of creations, I have always been able to find him. And I have learned that Enoch was correct. He is just and merciful and kind—so very kind—forever.