Author Ted Gibbons passed away after a long battle with cancer. In honor of his memory and the wonderful insights he shared here on Meridian, we will continue to publish his work periodically.
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the hypocrites do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking (Matthew 6:7.)
“The First Principle of the Gospel”
Joseph Smith spoke a great deal about effective prayer. On one occasion he made this observation:
“It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another…” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 345.)
That the Prophet Joseph should place on this knowledge so high a priority tells us much about the importance of our personal communication with the Father. But knowing is not enough. There are obstacles between knowing and doing. Perhaps no other gospel activity is so easily mismanaged. My prayers are not unlike my golf swing. A huge variety of things can, and without careful attention, do go wrong. Consider the following stories.
The first comes from Daniel V. McArthur who remembered having lunch with Joseph Smith.
When noon came we were all called to dinner at Joseph’s house. The table was loaded down with cornmeal mush and milk, and at the bidding of Joseph we all stepped forward to our places around the table, standing on our feet. Joseph asked Joshua Holman, who was one of the wood haulers, to ask a blessing upon the food. He went at his duty with all his soul. As he had been a Methodist exhorter before joining the Church, he commenced to call upon the great and mighty God who sat upon the top of a topless throne, to look down and bless the food and asked many other blessings to rest upon the Prophet, etc.
As soon as he closed Brother Joseph said, “Brother Joshua, don’t let me ever hear you ask another such a blessing;” and then before we took our seats he stated his reasons for making this remark, and showed us how inconsistent such ideas were, and told us many things about God and who He was. (Backman, Milton V. Jr., and Keith W. Perkins, ed. Writings of Early Latter-day Saints and Their Contemporaries, A Database Collection. Excerpts. 2nd ed., rev. and enlarged. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1996.)
Joshua Holman found himself receiving instruction from the Prophet because something was wrong with the way he prayed. Clearly the obstacles to effective prayer are not to be solved by eloquence alone.
Elder George A. Smith shared the following:
I recollect a gentleman who came from Canada, and who had been a Methodist, and had always been in the habit of praying to a God who had no ears, and as a matter of course had to shout and halloo pretty loud to make him hear. Father Johnson asked him to pray in their family worship in the evening, and he got on such a high key, and hallooed so loud that he alarmed the whole village. Among others, Joseph came running out, saying, “What is the matter? I thought by the noise that the heavens and the earth were coming together,” and said to the man, “that he ought not to give way to such an enthusiastic spirit, and bray so much like a jackass.” Because Joseph said that, the poor man put back to Canada, and apostatized; he thought he would not pray to a God who did not want to be screamed at with all one’s might. (Journal of Discourses, Vol. II, p. 214.)
Again the Prophet gave instruction. The obstacles to communication with the Father through prayer are not overcome by praying loudly.
I began to experience some of these obstacles when I was a child. A lovely Sunday School teacher spoke to my class about vain repetitions. I resolved to do something about my prayers. I had a memorized sequence and memorized words. That night my dad asked me to take the lead in the family prayer. I thought for a moment of my resolve and then consciously made a change in the prayer I had offered so often. After the “Amen,” I sat at the table, well-pleased with myself. An older brother, who seemed to know my prayer as well as I did, eyed me a moment and then asked, “How come you left out the part about the missionaries?”
“A Man Highly Favored”
What names come to mind when you contemplate the personalities in the scriptures and ask, “Who really knew how to pray?” Abraham? Nephi, the grandson of Helaman? Enos? Alma the younger? Joseph Smith? In any such list the name of Mahonri Moriancumer, the brother of Jared, would be prominent.
Consider the record. In Ether 1, when the languages of the earth began to be confounded, Jared came to his brother and said to him, “Cry unto the Lord, that he will not confound us that we may not understand our words.” (Ether 1:34.) Jared himself was a man of spiritual depth. He believed in God and knew that God answered prayers. He acknowledged the hand of God in the terrifying affairs then transpiring in the world. No doubt he prayed himself. But when he perceived a need that required the direct intervention of the Lord, he asked his brother to make the request. One is led to wonder what events that had occurred in this family to create such an awareness.
Whatever the reasons, Jared knew that his brother was “a man highly favored of the Lord” (Ether 1:34), a man who got answers. The brother of Jared called upon the Lord for Jared and for the blessing he had requested, and “the Lord had compassion upon Jared; therefore he did not confound the language of Jared . . . and his brother.” (Ether 1:35.)
Jared was back shortly with another request to be channeled through his brother to the Lord. He asked his sibling to plead with the Lord again for “their friends, that [the Lord] confound not their language.” The brother of Jared prayed for these friends, and “they were not confounded.” (Ether 1:36, 37.)
The Lord had also sworn that people should be scattered all over the world. (Ether 1:33.) Jared, knowing this, made yet another request of his brother: “Go and inquire of the Lord whether he will drive us out of the land, and if he will drive us out of the land, cry unto him whither we shall go.” (Ether 1:38.)
In response to this appeal, the Lord promised to “go before [them] into a land which is choice above all the lands of the earth.” (Ether 1:42.)
Responding to the further supplications of Mahonri Moriancumer the Lord provided plans for the building of transoceanic barges with a ventilation system. (Ether 2:16, 20.) He touched the stones prepared by the brother of Jared to light the barges (Ether 3:6), and then, because of the faith of this amazing man, the brother of Jared was permitted to see the spirit body of Christ. (Ether 3:13.)
Saying Prayers or Praying?
In all of Holy Writ there are few if any whose petitions to the Throne of Grace were so blessed. And yet the brother of Jared did not pray. No form of the word “pray” can be found anywhere in the account of this man’s communications with God. In fact, in the entire book of Ether, a derivative of the word “pray” appears only once, as Moroni, who abridged the book of Ether, talks about a personal experience. (Ether 12:36.) This is not coincidence. In his own writings, comprising 12 chapters, Moroni used some form of the word pray eighteen times, but he never used it in his descriptions of the brother of Jared nor in his abridgement of the Jaredite record. From that abridgement we learn that Mahonri Moriancumer cried to the Lord (Ether 1:35, 37, 39, etc), called upon the name of the Lord (Ether 2:15), inquired of the Lord (Ether 1:38), and received marvelous answers. But he never prayed.
We go through the formalities of prayer so often that there is danger of our falling into the snare of using vain repetitions. The Savior cautioned against this kind of praying–praying with the attitude that God will hear and answer us simply because of our “much speaking” (3 Nephi 13:7) or our much eloquence, or our much noise.
Moroni clarified the issue: “And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.” (Moroni 7:9.)
Perhaps in our personal and family worship we should remember the brother of Jared and consider a change in terminology. It is possible that if we change the way we talk about prayer, we can change the way we feel about it, and then the way we do it. Years ago, after a reading of the book of Ether and discovering that the Brother of Jared did not pray, I tried some different words as my family knelt for family prayer. I said, “Joshua, will you say ‘Good Morning’ to our Father in Heaven for us?”
A moment of silence followed. Then my fourteen-year-old said, “What?”
“Will you say ‘Good Morning’ to our Father in Heaven for us and share with him our family’s needs and thanks?” I urged.
“You mean ‘say the prayer.’ Right, Dad?”
“Yes, son. That’s what I mean.”
“Well then, why don’t you say so?” he asked. He muttered something under his breath and offered our family prayer, using the phrases that have become so commonplace, so repetitive (dare I say ‘vain’?) in our family.
A Place Called Moriancumer
Perhaps even the brother of Jared started “saying prayers” (even though he called them something else) rather than “praying.” Following an arduous journey through the wilderness, the Jaredites made a seashore camp in a place they called Moriancumer. (Ether 2:14.)
The seashore must have been a lovely respite from the trials of travel through unknown lands, transporting flocks, fowls, fish, and bees crossing uninhabited lands, and many waters with barges they had to build themselves. (Ether 2:1-3,5,6.)
The scriptures suggest that Moriancumer was a lovely place. The circumstances may have been delightful enough to cause even the brother of Jared to forget (or postpone) his quest for the most choice of all lands on earth. The record refers to mountains and trees, and there must have been fertile soil and vegetation, and an abundance of food for men and animals. (Ether 6:4.)
Moroni tells us in the Book of Ether of the Lord’s insistence in the wilderness that this colony not stop when they found a nice place but continue their trip to the Promised Land (Ether 2:7); he then editorializes about that land. (See Ether 2:8-12.) When he returns to his narrative, he tells us that upon their arrival at the seashore, the Jaredites did the very thing they had been forbidden to do in the wilderness. They stopped. (Ether 2:13.)
They knew they were to go on. The fact that they spent four years in tents “upon the seashore” (Ether 2:13) indicates their awareness of a journey that must one day continue. But they made no effort to cross, or even to learn how to cross, the ocean. At the end of that time the Lord came again to the brother of Jared and talked with him for three hours. He “chastened him because he remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord.” (Ether 3:14.) A repentant Mahonri Moriancumer called upon the Lord then, and was told to “Go to work . . .” (Ether 2:15,16) and cross the ocean.
It does not seem reasonable that the brother of Jared stopped praying, although such a thing is possible. It is more likely that he stopped crying and calling. He stopped conversing. In the absence of great needs and problems, no necessity existed for great answers and so there were no great prayers. Life was simple. Everything was fine.
How much like that we are! We have food on the table, a roof over our heads. The doctor is a phone call away. We have money in the bank, and two cars in the garage. When the crises come, we become intense, our prayers nearly volcanic in their intensity. But in the absence of trouble, we are satisfied with a few warm whispers. Perhaps we, like the brother of Jared, need a three-hour session with the Lord.
Joseph Smith gave a superb example of how we ought to pray. We are indebted to Daniel Tyler for this account.
At the time William Smith and others rebelled against the Prophet at Kirtland, I attended a meeting . . . 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. There was no ostentation, no raising of the voice as by enthusiasm, but a plain conversational tone, as a man would address a present friend. 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. (In Hyrum and Helen Mae Andrus, They Knew the Prophet, pp. 51-52.)
How often do we kneel at the table or the bed and speak from habit rather than from our hearts? How often do we engage in a ritual rather than a conversation with our Father? How often do we say our prayers rather than converse with the Lord?
Knowing that we, like the Jaredites, are all involved in a journey to a “far better land of promise” (Alma 37:45), and that we must cross not the ocean but “an everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked” (Helaman 3:30), how crucial it is that we never stop communicating, that we never stop praying with real intent, but that we “converse with him as one man converses with another” as we seek the Lord’s help in traveling “a strait and narrow course . . .” until we can “land [our] souls, yea, [our] immortal souls, at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven . . . to go no more out.” (Helaman 3: 29, 30.)
(This article is adapted from the author’s book, Put off Thy Shoes. That book and other materials are available by following the link at tedgibbons.com)