Editor’s Note: Beloved author Ted Gibbons recently passed away after a battle with cancer. We will continue to share his wonderful insights here periodically.
People who pray learn that the correlation between prayers and answers is not easy to understand. Even people who have experienced dramatic, life-changing answers may encounter times in their lives when they plead for divine help for days, or weeks, or months—sometimes even for years—without getting needed answers. Such experiences may cause even the best of people to wonder what is wrong. Scriptures, parents, and Church leaders have testified so often and so clearly about the commandment to pray and the promises of answers that what we perceive as a lack of needed responses may erode our confidence in the process.
In the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord made this important promise to his disciples: “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:38)
We must believe that affirmation. Enos did, for he wrote: “I, Enos, knew that God could not lie” (Enos 1:6). The Brother of Jared also knew. This is his testimony: “Thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie” (Ether 3:12). God has promised to hear and answer our prayers.
I would like to point out six true principles that may help those who pray with great faith and great need, and feel as though those prayers have gone unheard and unanswered.
Principle #1: God hears and answers every prayer, either in the way we want or in a better way.
God has promised, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
On one occasion, after Jesus had prayed, his disciples came to him with this request: “Lord, teach us to pray . . .” (Luke 11:1). He did, of course, with Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. Then he taught them a remarkable principle associated with prayer:
“Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth…
“If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:5-12).
God will give good gifts to those who ask for them. You will never pray for bread and receive stones. God will never give you something worse than you asked for. He may not always give you what you thought you needed. He will often offer you something better.
President David O. McKay taught this principle: “It is true that the answers to our prayers may not always come as direct and at the time, nor in the manner, we anticipate; but they do come, and at a time and in a manner best for the interests of him who offers the supplication” (Conference Report, Apr. 1969, 153).
Alma quoted Zenos, who taught a beautiful lesson about his faith in God’s promises to hear our prayers.
“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 them. 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 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 33:4-11).
The scriptures and the prophets have spoken frequently about our Father’s willingness to hear and answer us.
“Your heavenly Father will not fail to give unto you whatsoever ye ask of him” (Luke 11:5; JST)
“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give good gifts, through the Holy Spirit, to them who ask him” (Luke 11:14, JST).
“I recognize that, on occasion, some of our most fervent prayers may seem to go unanswered. We wonder, “Why?” I know that feeling! I know the fears and tears of such moments. But I also know that our prayers are never ignored” (Russell M. Nelson: “Jesus Christ–The Master Healer,” Ensign, Nov. 2005, 86).
“He has created numberless cosmos and populated them with worlds, yet you and I can talk with Him personally, and He will ever answer” (Richard G. Scott: Ensign, Nov.2007, p.8).
“I want you to know that I 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” (H. Burke Peterson, “Prayer—Try Again,” Ensign, June 1981, 72,73).
“Go quietly into the world. Go quietly about your affairs, and learn that in the still, small hours of the morning the Lord will speak to you. He will never fail to answer your prayers” [Boyd K. Packer: Commencement Address, 17 December 2005, BYU Hawaii].
Principle #2: God’s clock and ours are not usually synchronized
In the Standard Works, the Lord promises to get his work done in his own “due time” in thirty verses. It would be a mistake to assume that the phrase “in mine own due time” means “when I get around to it.” The Father’s intent is not to see how long our knees will hold out. What he means with this phrase is “When the timing is right.” He means to teach us with this instruction that we must not expect him to act instantly each time we submit a request. We do expect him to listen and to care, but we must leave the timing with him and not require answers according to our own schedules.
Think of the time Abraham waited for the birth of the promised son. Think of the prayers of Zacharias and Elisabeth for a child—a child that did not come until they were “well-stricken with years” (Luke 1:7). The three Hebrew youths were not rescued until they were in the furnace. Joseph Smith was not rescued from the satanic assault in the Sacred Grove until he was nearly ready to “abandon [him]self to destruction” (JSH 1:16).
There may be another reason for the Lord’s determination to respond to our prayers in his own due time: we need to learn patience. I am certain that patience is not an elective course in the school of mortality; it is required for graduation.
Elder Maxwell said, “Patience is tied very closely to faith in our Heavenly Father. Actually, when we are unduly impatient, we are suggesting that we know what is best—better than does God. Or at least we are asserting that our timetable is better than his. Either way, we are questioning the reality of God’s omniscience . . .” (“Patience,” Ensign, October 19810, 28).
Principle #3: God sees things we cannot see
One of the reasons that our Heavenly Father acts on his own schedule rather than ours is this one:
“Thus saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, the Great I AM, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the same which looked upon the wide expanse of eternity, and all the seraphic hosts of heaven, before the world was made; The same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes . . .” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:1-2).
We cannot expect God, who sees the end from the beginning, to always act at once on our requests made with “eyes [that] cannot see afar off” (Moses 6:27).
A story in the October 1981 New Era describes this situation in an interesting way. A young man, making his first solo airplane flight, watched in horror as a car on one side of a steep hill pulled out to pass slower cars above him. The pilot could see clearly from his lofty position that a vehicle ascending the other side of the hill was on an inevitable collision course with the passing car (see Lee Dalton, “View from Above, pp. 9, 10).
So it is with our Father in Heaven. His limitless perspective will frequently cause him do delay or amend or even refrain from answering us for a time because of things we cannot see “with our natural eyes” (D&C 58:3).
However, even as time passes and the answers do not come, we must remember this apostolic promise: “Your Father in Heaven and His Beloved Son love you perfectly. They would not require you to experience a moment more of difficulty than is absolutely needed for your personal benefit or for that of those you love” (Richard G. Scott, “Trust in the Lord,” Ensign, November 1995, 17).
As those quiet prayerful hours pass at the side of your bed, or in “in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness” (Alma 34:26), you must remember “that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9).
Principle #4: Many of God’s children have prayed for a long time before needed answers came
In preparation for choosing his apostles, Jesus “went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12, emphasis added). Consider the implications. The Savior of the world, that perfect, sinless Son, prayed all night for needed answers. Nephi prayed all day for the welfare of his people who were about to be destroyed because of their faith in the coming of Christ (see 3 Nephi 1:11). Enos prayed all day and into the night for a remission of his sins (see Enos 1:4). He also prayed with “many long strugglings” (see Enos 1:11) for the Lamanites.
Speaking of Enos, Elder Harold B. Lee once said:
“I once read that scripture to a woman who laughed and said, ‘Imagine anybody praying all night and all day.’ I replied, “’My dear sister, I hope you never have to come to a time where you have a problem so great that you have to so humble yourself. I have; I have prayed all day and all night and all day the next day and all night the next night, not always on my knees but praying constantly for a blessing that I needed most’” (The Improvement Era, October 1966, p. 898).
Jesus began the parable of the unjust judge with these words: “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint . . . (Luke 18:1). The injunction not to faint means that we must not give up because answers do not come quickly. After the Lord had responded to the cries of the Brother of Jared by not confounding his language nor the language of his brother and his friends, and had given them America as a land of promise, he said, “And thus I will do unto thee because this long time ye have cried unto me” (Ether 1:43).
One evening years ago I knelt by my bed pleading with the Lord to grant the gift of parenthood to a son and his wife. I had offered this prayer in the silent longings of my own heart, and hand in hand with my wife, for four years. Others had been praying with us and with them. That night as I reached out and wondered, it seemed to me that our petitions had gone unheard and unanswered. How wrong I was. In retrospect, as I interact with this son and his four wonderful, adopted children, I can see that the Lord was always at work, preparing the way for a parade of miracles that involved not only my son and his wife, but other troubled children and families as well.
Principle #5: What we ask for must be right
Because God is unwilling, and perhaps unable, to encourage a reliance on incorrect principles, he will not generally grant petitions that will damage our perception of him and his eternal truths. Thus, when Jesus visited the Nephites after his resurrection, he told them, “And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you” (3 Nephi 18:20, emphasis added).
Even when we are certain that our requests are righteous, God may see with his exalted and eternal perspective that there are events ahead that would make it wrong to give us what we have desired of him.
When my aged mother was left a widow in a distant city, my wife and I applied for a transfer so that we could care for her. There were openings available and leaders willing to have us come and work with them, but we were not permitted to move. The rejection came after much prayer and fasting and after visits to the temple. We were devastated and confused by the circumstances. But only a few months later, my mother moved to our own city and made her home with a sister less than half a mile away. Then that sister and her husband were called to preside over a mission, and my mother moved in with us for three years. God knew what we could not know. The thing we had requested of him was not right.
The request of Joseph Smith to allow Martin Harris to take the partially finished manuscript of the Book of Mormon in an attempt to convince his wife of the significance of the work he was doing was turned down again and again. Finally the Lord relented in order to teach a powerful and much-needed lesson. This illustration brings us to the next principle.
Principle #6: We must be right
The word right in the heading above means we must be believing, faithful, and striving to be obedient and righteous. In D&C 101:6,7, the Lord illustrated this principle as follows: “Behold, I say unto you, there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them; therefore by these things they polluted their inheritances. They were slow to hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God; therefore, the Lord their God is slow to hearken unto their prayers, to answer them in the day of their trouble” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:6-7).
Martin Harris, mentioned above, teaches us a great lesson about the need for us to be right. After the loss of the 116 pages of the manuscript of the Book of Mormon, the Lord had some frightening things to say about Martin Harris. He was called a “wicked man.” (D&C 10:1,7), one who had sought to destroy Joseph (see D&C 10:6), and to take away his gift and the things with which he had been entrusted (see D&C 10: 7). In a revelation given several months later, the Lord said that Martin exalted himself and did not humble himself (see D&C 5:24).
However, when the Savior announced that three men would be assigned to stand with Joseph as witnesses of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, Martin pled with the Lord for the privilege to be one of them. This Christ refused to allow unless Martin 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” (Doctrine and Covenants 5:28).
I suggested to my wife that we get a cell phone for one of my sons. He is a fine young man who never gave us much cause for concern, and who loved the Lord and the gospel and tried to do what was right. But he sometimes wandered without giving us needed information, and we felt that it was important for him to be able to reach us, and for us to be able to contact him. We considered a cell phone. When he called we would answer and listen, and when we spoke to him, he would listen.
You have a connection with a God that is much more reliable than any cell phone. Batteries never die. Service is never interrupted. There is no call waiting. There are no dropped calls. You will never be put on hold. When you call, he listens. When the timing is right, and the request is right, and you are right, he answers. He always answers.
“Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks; Waiting patiently on the Lord, for your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament—the Lord hath sworn and decreed that they shall be granted. Therefore, he giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled; and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good, and to my name’s glory, saith the Lord” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:1-3).