Imagine this scenario. You are newly married. You decide that in order to support this relationship you are going to follow a regular pattern. Every day after both of you have returned home from the day’s activities, you greet your spouse. You let your spouse know that you appreciate him or her. Then you share what you are concerned about at the moment and how your spouse might be able to help you. You then end the conversation and turn your attention to something else. Each day you follow that same pattern.
For a while, this approach might work well. It seems like a helpful habit for insuring the two of you connect every evening. But at some point it’s likely you and your spouse would find this pattern limiting and would wish for more. You would eventually want to find deeper ways to connect. You might like to discuss a wider variety of topics such as your thoughts and activities of the day. After a difficult day you might want to seek encouragement and comfort from your spouse. Perhaps you would want to ask for some advice. Or you might simply hope to have a conversation with the one you love. And, of course, you would want to utilize the conversation to discover what is on your spouse’s mind. On some days you would want to spend quite a bit of time talking. On other days you might be in the midst of an important activity and ask if you can talk more later when you are less distracted.
You probably hope that your conversations together focus on enabling greater connection and closeness in your relationship. Finding ways to connect with your beloved and deepen your relationship would be of far greater importance than emphasizing one particular ritualized pattern day after day.
The Standard Formula for Prayer
In the church we typically teach a standard four-part formula for prayer: call on God, thank, ask, close. This is an excellent initial foundation for prayer. Missionaries teach it to investigators, some of whom have no idea how to approach God. We teach it to our children as they first learn how to talk with Him. It instills in us a sense for respect when addressing our Father, the goodness of practicing gratitude, and the comfort of being able to call upon the Lord for help with our needs.
Yet as we mature and grow, we want something deeper. The most important relationship in our lives is our relationship with our Father in Heaven. We want to ensure that, when we approach Him in prayer, our emphasis is on enabling greater connection and closeness in our relationship with Him. To seek Him. To share our souls with Him. To better align our will with His. To receive His mercy and guidance. To feel His love for us. That is what we yearn for. In order to strive for the relationship we seek, we must ensure that we do not risk ritualizing our conversations with Him or allow those conversations to become tired and routine. While honoring the basic principles we have been taught about approaching Him, we will also use expanded and fresh approaches as our relationship with Him matures.
Learning from Scriptural Patterns
In my life I struggled in earlier years with feeling like a prayer failure. The standard prayer pattern often didn’t work for me. I didn’t feel like I was really connecting with Heaven. I concluded that there must be something wrong with me.
In the midst of my search for better prayers, one of my church teachers counseled all of us to ponder and pray at least 20 minutes each day. I thought it might help. But I confess that my mind wanders. Many times, when I attempted to pray for 20 minutes at a time, my mind would drift to the sale on power tools at Home Depot.
I yearned for a process that was better customized to my personal spiritual concerns. Fortunately, I have been rescued from my feelings of prayer failure by learning from people in scripture who knew how to pray.
Somewhere in midlife I became spiritually desperate. The tidy pretense of being a good person did not hold up to the painful reality of my fallenness. In desperation I called on the familiar words of Alma: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” Much to my surprise, I felt instant comfort. I had expected a heavenly chiding and a few years in hellish time out. Instead Father scooped me up and loved me. What a shock!
It felt not only unexpected but wrong. How could God fellowship a sinner? Finally, I realized: If I make myself humble, He makes me clean. And, when I am clean, I can dwell in His presence.
Learning from Alma may have provided me my biggest prayer breakthrough. I realized that prayer is not a polite beg-a-thon. Nope! It is a lost and confused son in a hostile and foreign land calling Home for directions. My prayers are far more effective when I recognize my desperate need for heavenly help. I must cry out for heavenly mercy if I am to navigate the challenges of life.
In many talks about prayer, we quote Amulek (Alma 34) directing us to pray in our fields, houses, and wilderness and for our crops, flocks, and souls. We are to pray “morning, mid-day, and evening” (v. 21). The part I have never heard anyone quote is the context:
Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save. Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him. (vv. 18-19)
We are not merely instructing the Lord on our requirements; we are throwing ourselves on His mercy. We are recognizing that all good things in every area of our lives come from Him. We are affirming our utter dependence on Him.
Prayer as described by Amulek may also be a continuing conversation. A good friend of mine described her prayers. Her spiritual desperation was of a different nature than mine, so she customized her prayers differently as a continuing conversation. Here is her description:
“I have been single my entire adult life. There is no one in my home I can talk with and process my day with. So, many times in my prayers I will simply talk out loud with Heavenly Father, sharing the events of the day and reflecting upon what I am thinking about—the current issues and concerns in my life. Sometimes I will do this at the end of the evening. Other times I will talk with Him as I am driving in the car or during other moments when I am by myself. It is a form of connection with Him that addresses my aloneness. He fills in that hole in my life. There are other parts to my prayers, but many times sharing my current thoughts and reflections is the most valuable part of our conversations. As I describe the events of my week, I typically begin to view them more from His perspective. Those conversational prayers become a source of insight and comfort. While I sometimes follow the standard four step pattern, many times there is no formula to my prayers. I am simply talking to a wise and loving friend—my best Friend and Father.”
We are often instructed to pray more earnestly. If we understand that to mean that we should beg harder, we will be disappointed. In contrast, if we understand praying more earnestly to mean depending more completely on the merits, mercy, and grace of Him who is mighty to save, we will have productive prayers. This is fully contrary to our cultural conditioning. We are accustomed to stiffening our personal resolves and presenting our demands. In contrast, God invites us to open our hearts to Him.
I have continued to use Alma’s prayer for mercy for years. I still cry out regularly: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:18). That cry has great power. But I have also discovered from the brother of Jared another pattern for approaching the Lord.
The Brother of Jared:
His story is unique in sacred history. He went from a three-hour chastening from the Lord “because he remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord” to entering the divine presence (Ether 2:14) in unprecedented ways (Ether 3:15). What happened between the chastening and the heavenly encounter? That’s a vital question! What happened can teach us essential principles for approaching God.
I have studied his prayer in Ether 3:2-5 with great interest. I think I see a pattern that can guide us when we yearn to connect with heaven.
O Lord, thou hast said that we must be encompassed about by the floods. (v. 2)
Behold, O Lord, thou hast smitten us because of our iniquity, and hast driven us forth, and for these many years we have been in the wilderness; (v. 3)
Thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens (v. 2)
I know, O Lord, that thou hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; (v. 4)
O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually; (v. 2)
Cry for Mercy:
O Lord, look upon me in pity, and turn away thine anger from this thy people, (v. 3)
Plea for Divine Help:
O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires. (v. 2)
thou hast been merciful unto us. (v. 3)
Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men. (v. 5)
We see this extraordinary prayer—and its dramatic effects—in only one place in history. Yet, each of us can use this pattern to approach God earnestly. We can express to Him our profound love and our desperate need for Him. We can commit to be His servants and partners in everything we do. Every day, we will make big messes. And every day, we start again inviting Him to join us in our journeys. We can be wholehearted without being perfect. When I offer this prayer every morning, it is not about asking for a special miracle or manifestation—like seeing the finger of God. For me, it is about turning my heart and my life over to God—so that I see His hand in all I do.
I have tried to tidy the brother of Jared’s prayer and have added my own rejoicing. The result is something like this:
1. Father, Thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens. Thou art glorious beyond description and gracious beyond comprehension. I stand in awe of Thy goodness. I am immeasurably grateful that Thou hast revealed Thyself to us.
2. Because of the fall, my nature has become evil continually. I am a mess and I know I am. I make no pretense of deservingness. I come to Thee in desperation.
3. Look upon me in pity. Turn away Thy wrath. Oh, Lord, have mercy on me! I am desperate for Thy heavenly gift.
4. Grant according to my righteous desires. I want to be useful to Thee and Thy children. Please help me!
The brother of Jared’s pattern is especially useful for turning crisis into revelation. I think I discern a strong correspondence between these four elements and the advanced form of prayer taught in sacred places. In fact I suspect that God chided the Brother of Jared for not praying, not because he neglected prayer altogether, but because, in a time of great need, he had failed to use what God had taught him about powerful prayer in his endowment.
I should acknowledge that the brother of Jared’s prayer may not be appropriate for opening sacrament meetings. But it is appropriate for opening the heavens. I have used this prayer as I’ve walked up flights of steps to work. Now it is the way I begin every day. It is also the prayer with which I approach God when I partake of the sacrament.
There are as many patterns for prayer as there are purposes for prayer. When we recognize that prayer is a way of drawing on heavenly power to address the challenges we face, then we naturally understand that there are many forms of prayer. In some we cry out for redemption. In others we calmly reflect. In all prayers we acknowledge our need for heaven’s grace.
I know that I have grown spiritually as a result of patterning my prayers after scriptural models. I know that there are many other models of prayer from Elijah to Enos to Joseph Smith. I now see prayer as a continuing conversation with my most beloved Friend. The basic pattern we were taught as children can remain a good foundation. At the same time, as our life situations become more varied and our relationship with Him matures and evolves, we should not insist upon limiting ourselves to any one formula. Instead we pursue customized, fulfilling conversations with the Almighty who invites us to come to Him. Checklist approaches are not adequate for such conversations. Instead I approach Him with profound respect. I chat with Him along the way. I plead for heavenly grace. And I listen for His sage counsel.
These are the kinds of prayer that work for me.
Invitation to Gratitude!
This season consider a holiday gift that will help you build the spirit of gratitude in your family and among the people you love. God’s Trophies is a heartwarming children’s tale about Rupert learning gratitude for all of God’s creations. Rupert’s whimsical adventure also teaches children that they are each God’s most beloved creation. Wonderful illustrations accompany the joyful story. This book would make an excellent holiday gift for any special people in your life. For the holiday season, I am offering five copies of God’s Trophies—a $65 value—for $25 with free shipping in the US.
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Parts of this article are adapted from a 2016 Meridian article, Higher Forms of Prayer.