Meridian Magazine published an article this week from author Darla Isackson called, “Why God Answers Some Prayers with a ‘Yes’ and Not Others“. In response to this, one commenter said the following: 

A good and thoughtful article but at the end I find myself asking “Why pray, then?”. God is going to implement his will regardless of our prayers and, being God, will not change his mind as that is tantamount to saying the first direction of his will was the wrong direction – clearly an impossibility.

This is the quagmire into which I get when I am asked to pray for something and would dearly love somebody’s thoughts.

The comment left me pondering and studying at length on the topic and though I may not have a simple, straightforward answer to the question posed, the commenter asked for somebody’s thoughts, so here are mine: 

We know from the scriptures that prayer is essential to our spiritual progression and not just the opening and closing prayers in a meeting or a “nourish and strengthen our bodies” type prayer over the food. In Doctrine and Covenants 90:24 the Lord tells us to “pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for [our] good…”

Taking it a step further, Nephi tells the people in 2 Nephi 32 that it is the evil spirit that “teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray”. The adversary delights in hampering this communion. He, no doubt, hopes to cut off all of the blessings and benefits that stem from regularly approaching the Lord in humble, sincere prayer. So, what are those benefits? Why pray?  

Prayer as Our Invitation to Open the Lines of Communication

A principle that is unique to the restored Gospel among Christian churches, is our belief in the reality and power of continuing revelation that is available to everyone according to their stewardship. We believe that we can literally have divine direction through the gift of the Holy Spirit to navigate the storms of our lives, which is an incredible blessing. But that flow of clarity and truth and guidance can only be accessed if we are willing to open up our side of the lines of communication and kneel down in acknowledgment of our dependence, not on our own strength, but on the power of the Lord. 

What’s more, we are in a fallen state and can receive only as much revelation as we are capable of understanding and implementing before we can expect more. For prayer to be an ongoing conversation with a dearly beloved Father in Heaven, it must be an ongoing practice. As Richard G. Scott put it in his address, “Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer”:

Often when we pray for help with a significant matter, Heavenly Father will give us gentle promptings that require us to think, exercise faith, work, at times struggle, then act. It is a step-by-step process that enables us to discern inspired answers.

I have discovered that what sometimes seems an impenetrable barrier to communication is a giant step to be taken in trust. Seldom will you receive a complete response all at once. It will come a piece at a time, in packets, so that you will grow in capacity. As each piece is followed in faith, you will be led to other portions until you have the whole answer. That pattern requires you to exercise faith in our Father’s capacity to respond. While sometimes it’s very hard, it results in significant personal growth.

The fact that the full power of prayer can not be gleaned from a single experience with it shouldn’t deter us. It means that if you don’t have all the inspiration and revelation you need, there’s more to be had. So don’t be discouraged and cut off your own opportunity to receive it. Imagine telling someone that you had access to the guidance of an unconditionally loving, divine, and omniscient being but you “don’t really talk to him that much.”

Prayer as a Way to Understand the Lord’s Character and His Will For Us

It is through a practice of ongoing communication with the Lord and study of His words in the scriptures and in modern revelation that we begin to understand His character. As we see things the way He does, we can also begin to better understand His will. It’s important though, that we don’t misunderstand how He implements that will. 

God is not going to thrust his will on us regardless of our prayers as though our most desperate entreaties were hitting an invisible barrier around him and bouncing off without being acknowledged or heard. He has great desires for us and He knows how to make the circumstances of our lives come together for our benefit, but He will never override our agency or the agency of others. Agency was so important to Him, He lost a third part of his children over it. He’s not about to reach in, give us the brush-off, and start controlling it all now.

Inherent in the original question asked is the idea that every single thing that happens on this planet is God’s will, but this is a world where all are free to choose and those choices come with natural consequences. The Lord’s overarching plans will not be frustrated, but people in our lives make choices all the time that bring us struggle and sorrow and those disappointments are not the result of God’s will, they are the result of God being so invested in having children that surrender their hearts to Him willingly, that He’s ready to accept that sometimes they won’t.

And those that turn their backs on Him are ultimately cheating themselves the most, closing the doors to the blessings and the guidance and the belonging that is waiting if they would but ask for it.

As Elder J. Devn Cornish said in his 2011 address, “The Privilege of Prayer”: 

Little children, young people, and adults alike, please believe how very much your loving Heavenly Father wants to bless you. But because He will not infringe upon our agency, we must ask for His help. This is generally done through prayer. Prayer is one of the most precious gifts of God to man. 

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” (Bible Dictionary, “Prayer”).

His will is to bring to pass our immortality, eternal life and our greatest joy. Often it is us that have the barrier up with His blessings bouncing off because we did not have the faith to ask for, see, or receive them. 

There are actually surprising and compelling examples in the scriptures of times when the Lord did appear to change His mind or had something more happen than He planned. This was not because His original decision was imperfect, but because those around Him were able to exercise their faith as a principle of action and power and take down the barriers that might otherwise stop those blessings—that the Lord always has and always desires to grant to us—from flowing. 

Take for example the tender moment during Christ’s visit to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 17 when Jesus declares that his “time is at hand”, He tells the people to go into their homes and ponder on the things He had taught them and tells them that He has other work to do. 

“And it came to pass that when Jesus had thus spoken, he cast his eyes round about again on the multitude, and beheld they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him, as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them.

“And he said unto them: Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you.

“Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither.”

Jesus declared that it was His time to depart, and then decided to stay instead. And because of how many people it says He was ministering to, He probably stayed for several hours more. And why did he change course? Not only because He had compassion for them, but because He saw that “their faith [was] sufficient that [he] should heal [them]” (3 Nephi 17:8). 

Faith is a principle of action and power. It isn’t just what we use to give a positive spin on things when nothing went how we hoped it would. Our faith and our prayers can actually make a difference, not in changing the Lord’s will—the Lord’s will is always to bless us in our righteous desires—but in changing our access to the blessings that He has waiting for us. 

Remember, there were no heavenly beings in the grove until Joseph walked in and asked a question in faith. 

Take another example from the life of Christ: there was a woman who had had an issue of blood for twelve years. She spent all that she had on physicians, but rather than getting any better, she got worse. When she heard about this Jesus, she came seeking him. She pressed through a thronging crowd, believing that if she could just touch the hem of his garment, she could be made whole. 

And when she did, “straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague” (Mark 5:29).

And Christ immediately knew “that virtue had gone out of him.” He turned about and asked who had touched his clothes. His disciples were surprised at this, he was making his way through a crowded street, probably being jostled and bumped on every side and he was asking who touched him. The woman was scared, but knowing that she had been healed came and revealed herself and told him “all the truth”. 

“And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole…” (Mark 5:34). 

This was not a woman that Christ picked out of a crowd to minister to, this was someone who reached out in faith and that faith made her whole. Again, she was not changing the will of the Lord concerning her, she was exercising the faith necessary to access the blessings that were available to her from Him.

Likewise, the brother of Jared came to the Lord in faith, with the stones he had molten out of rock and asked that the Lord would touch them that they might be a source of light in the barges of his people as they crossed the waters of the great deep. And when the Lord stretched forth his finger to touch the stones, the veil was taken off from the eyes of the brother of Jared and he saw the finger of the Lord (Ether 3). I love that it says, “the veil was taken from off of the eyes of the brother of Jared.” The veil itself was not rent, the laws of the God didn’t change. One individual merely changed his own access through his faith. 

The brother of Jared fell down in fear and the Lord asked him why, not because the Lord didn’t know what had happened, but because it was an opportunity for the brother of Jared to verbalize his own understanding as he was given the chance to explore and explain what was before Him. 

Which brings us to another crucial reason that we must be a people that pray always. 

Prayer as a Means to Better Understand Ourselves and Our Desires 

Sometimes I feel silly praying out loud in front of people, even in family prayer with my husband, I secretly prefer that it be eternally “his turn”. I don’t know why this is, I am not proud of it and I’m trying to improve. But one night as I was resisting taking my turn, my husband said, “please pray, I want to hear what matters to you.” 

What an interesting interpretation of what we are learning when we pray, not only about what matters to the Lord, but about what matters to ourselves as we endeavor to lay our hearts open and raw and vulnerable before Him. 

We have only known ourselves in this life for a few decades, the Lord has known us for millennia. Prayer is not for us to bend the Lord to our will, but nor is it for Him to bend us to His will; again, agency is a-third-part-of-the-hosts-of-heaven important to Him. Prayer is an opportunity for Him to introduce us to ourselves and remind us our own deep, ancient spirits and the power we have inside ourselves if we would but endeavor to cast off the natural man and listen to the whisperings he is sending to us through the Spirit.

In reality, who we are becoming through our ongoing association with a loving and powerful Father in Heaven is the most important part of prayer. He is offering us the chance to truly get to know Him, but also the chance to get to know our better selves; and to draw strength from both. 

His will for us is not an overriding will. He is not someone who yearns to yank the reigns away while we sit back disappointed at where this journey is taking us. He wants us to hold our own reigns and welcome His direction as He helps us steer towards the wonderful things He has in store for us; not in place of our greatest desires, but in full acknowledgement of them. 

Faith is a principle of power and action and it can affect outcomes, but even with heaps of it, we won’t be able to smooth over every one of life’s obstacles and make ours a path of perfect ease. But that’s not why we came here. It would be a disappointing end to our mortal experience to find that, because all the challenges had been cleared from our path, we had come back never having developed the strength or understanding or problem solving or faith that we came here to specifically to get. 

The types of tragedies that Darla was talking about in her article are not trite in the eyes of the Lord. Even with His eternal perspective, He cares when we are hurting. If He didn’t, Jesus wouldn’t have wept for the grief of Lazarus’ sisters while knowing that He was about to raise their brother from the dead again. 

Even with the faith to move mountains, we may not be able to alter every outcome. Though we must continue to trust that through the power of our faith, some miracles can be brought about. But the Lord will not override anyone’s agency. In the end, we pray, not to fix everything and ultimately live out a perfect life, but to become a perfected person. We pray not to control things, but to open ourselves to the blessings of peace, understanding, insight, confidence and strength that the Lord is ready and willing to grant so that we will move forward better able to navigate the next curveball that life—and not necessarily the Lord—throws at us. 

In the end, what we will have to show for all our life’s prayers will not be an epic memoir of times when we called down the powers of heaven to solve everything problem simply, but nor will it be a tale of how we were dragged along by the Lord’s will regardless of what we asked of Him. In the end, what we will have to show for all those prayers will be ourselves; with hearts mightily changed, greater faith than we could’ve imagined, and His image in our countenances. 

I welcome any thoughts others have on this difficult question and I’m sure our commenter would be interested in hearing them also.