Does God answer prayers?

Over 14 years ago while I was a missionary in Santa Barbara, California, I was invited to dinner at the house of a member of our church that had not attended in quite some time.  He was an older gentleman, probably in his early 80’s, and he lived in an amazing mansion in Montecito.  He was such a kind man and I remember how engaging he was with us the three or four times we went over to his house.  The interesting thing about this good brother, was that he was a scientist and a professor emeritus from UCLA and was a leader in his field for most of his life.  As we learned about his life it became clear that he believed that God existed and that he hadn’t drifted from church beliefs (despite his concurrent scientific belief and knowledge), just from active involvement due to his failing health.

On the second or third visit, he posed a question to us about how we thought the world became billions of years old, all the while Adam and Eve were fairly recent to the earth, and our thoughts on the Garden of Eden.  I couldn’t really tell whether he was testing us or truly interested in what we thought.  Fortunately, I had been thinking, studying, and praying about this since our initial meeting with him, so I was able to present my thoughts in a fairly organized manner.  We went back and forth, and as we conversed the answers to his (and my) questions became clear to me.  After a while, he asked me if I would be willing to write down my thoughts on the subject and send them to him.  I said that I would.  I spent the next few days writing down the things we had discussed, and as I wrote them down, the spirit confirmed and helped me create the finished product.  Almost like my own revelation and scripture from the Lord.  I sent it to him, and it was later published in an article that he was writing in a science and religion magazine.  He thanked me for participation, and I could tell it really meant a lot to him.

Although I don’t want to go into detail in this post regarding the particulars of my thoughts on the creation, I will simply say that my answer was in part that God was the author of whatever processes that created the universe and life on earth (potentially Big Bang, Evolution, etc.) and that whether our understanding of those processes are 100% accurate or not isn’t as relevant as that he set things in motion and is in control of things.  There was far more to it than that, but the thing I want to talk about more is why many of us believers feel so uneasy when a scientific truth, personal experience, or even teachings of prophets seem to be in conflict with the teachings found in scriptures or teachings of other prophets.

The answer, at least to me, is that we don’t understand revelation all that well.  Which is no surprise since God has told us “His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways.”  In an effort to help us all connect with God and receive answers to our prayers I would like to discuss 2 common fallacies that sometimes impede our ability to receive answers to prayers and then 3 steps we can take that I believe can help us receive answers more regularly.


FALLACY #1 –  God’s revelations are the same past, present, and future.

“For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.” 2 Nephi 31:3

The first point of revelation is that it is spoken unto men according to their own language, and unto their [current] understanding in plainness.  Many times in an effort to make sense of things in the scriptures that don’t fit our understanding of life we try to “wrest the scriptures” to our own ideas.  Or in other words, we interpret them to mean something they clearly do not.  I believe this is an error.  A better approach is to understand the intended audience and try to find out what God wanted them to see and then apply those same principles to our own time and seek inspiration from God for how to act and live now.  In interpreting these scriptures I begin by trying to fall back on the plainest and simplest message contained therein and go from there.

Back to the creation example, we must first understand that God wasn’t speaking to a group of scientists, or people who had any care for the workings of the universe, the cosmos, or the laws of nature.  He was speaking to an ancient people who saw the earth as the provider of life and sustenance for them.  God was making clear that he was the creator of those things that brought them life and function (Night and Day, Waters in the heavens and on the earth that brought them life, plants and vegetation that fed them and the animals, etc.) but most importantly he was revealing to them that he was their Father and they were created in his image and that they were different from his other creations in that way (For more on Creation see reading list below).

The point I am trying to make is that we cannot always apply someone else’s revelations that were in their language and their understanding, in a literal way to our language and understanding now.  This is not only true over millennia like the ancient Israelites and us, but it is also true with our own diverse experiences in this life today.  Revelation is meant to be a form of communication with God that we participate in as individuals and groups of individuals during eras/times when that revelation most benefits us.  It shouldn’t be a surprise to Latter Day Saints when revelations change, and our interpretations of revelation change, as the world around us changes.

“We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Article of Faith 9

Sometimes this idea that God reveals different things at different times to different people makes people feel uneasy, and some of that comes from the idea that “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  For some reason, this has turned into the belief that God can’t tell people different stuff even if the different stuff is what they need to accomplish His real purpose.  His purpose and His character are what remain the same, but methodology was never written into His sameness as far as I can tell.  He has made his purpose clear to us in our day:

“For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Moses 1:39

Even a half-hearted search of the scriptures will show that God is more than willing to reveal Himself to people in differing ways at different times, and say different things.  Some of that difference is found in the interpretations of the people who receive his inspiration, but some is just different revelation altogether.  What remains constant about God is his purpose of bringing all of us immortality and Eternal Life.  The great thing about having scriptures, or the experiences these amazing people have had with God, is that we can search them and ponder them, and pray to God to understand how the doctrines and principles that are being taught and expounded apply to us now.  In that process God can reveal himself to us now.  There is no other idea in Mormonism so amazing and meaningful as the idea that God still speaks to us now.  He speaks to us individually and he speaks to apostles and prophets who are trying to be watchmen on the tower and help us maneuver the world we live in.

When we go about thinking that God has only said things a certain way and that there is no more to be said or learned, we make God a very impersonal and rigid task master, not a benevolent guide through our journey.  God is willing to speak and guide us each individually, and collectively through our journey, but it requires us to believe he actually has more to say to us and to the church collectively.  I believe He does.  Nearly every church organization and system was started by local leaders seeking revelation, and then as the success of the organization played out the church as a whole adopted those practices to what we have now.  God has more to reveal and we have to have open minds about what that might be both collectively and individually.


FALLACY #2 – God only speaks to us when we are at the height of worthiness

One of the things that opponents of religion often critique religion for is the use of hell and heaven as a control mechanism for their members.  I find the critique to be a little over the top, but it is founded in some truth.  The other day at my Uncle’s funeral, I was speaking to my Aunt, and she was expressing how when she grew up she felt terrified of the idea of this line of demarcation between heaven and hell.  Whenever someone dies she is scared about whether they would go to hell or heaven, and it made her feel so hopeless.  It is sad that so many people probably feel the same way.  I think, even though the marvelous revelations of the restoration teach otherwise, we fall into this same trap as a church.

In our efforts to help our people live in a way that is most in harmony with the gospel plan we start to use phraseology and colloquialisms that infer, or blatantly state, that God will abandon you if you are not righteous, or he will not answer your prayers unless your vessel is clean, etc.  In my opinion these huge jumps are misinterpretations of the scriptures, and cause much more harm than good in our efforts to receive answers to our prayers (although they may be useful in keeping our youth from going astray, or maybe not).  While it is true that if “we draw near to God, he will draw near to us”, this does not mean that if we sin or even if we are sinners, that he will not draw near to us until we are highly righteous, it means that as we draw near to him in any degree, he will begin to draw near to us.  Most of us are not “rebelling willfully against God” when we are making mistakes that are a part of life.

The direction we are taking is what determines our increasing or decreasing association with God.  When we receive answers, or revelation, and we reject it we have a choice to come back to Christ and continue line upon line in receiving revelation, or we can embrace our rejection of Christ and fall into the control and power of the adversary.  It takes this form of rebellion against God to separate ourselves from him to the point that he won’t communicate with us, and even with that rebellion, Jesus Christ has atoned for all sins, and even the smallest act of faith and repentance (drawing near to Him) will bring us back to His arms and then we can hear Him and learn from Him again. The problem most of us face is a lack of faith when we are making mistakes but are not rebelling, because we have the erroneous assumption that we need to be too righteous to receive revelation and so we quit praying altogether.  In our darkest and most sinful moments even the mere act of praying is a form of repentance, and the voice telling us we cannot pray is evil:

“For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray, ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.” 2 Nephi 32:8

When we pray in those moments we are starting over our path to the arms of safety:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

We would all do well to understand not only from a personal standpoint, but from a global church perspective, that we all make mistakes and everyone is sinful save Jesus Christ.  Some mistakes are worse than others, and some hurt others more, but we all need to be granted grace; our church leaders, our parents, our friends, and especially ourselves if we want to receive revelation.  I believe what makes someone more able to receive revelation has more to do with their faith in Christ and their desire to improve line upon line, than it does with the amount of bad things they avoid.


Suggestions to getting those Answers

STEP #1 – Love God (Be Grateful)

“But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9

Often times when one hears the term Keep the Commandments it can invoke an overwhelming sense of impossibility.  As King Benjamin said,

“And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them.” Mosiah 4:29

However, we must face two important things in order to love God.  First, we cannot keep all the commandments, but we can have Faith that Jesus will save us and make us better:

“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” Ether 12:27

Second, we must want to repent and want to love the things of God.  We cannot just keep the commandments for the sake of keeping the commandments, or pretend to be engaged at church because it is the socially acceptable way to live and expect to receive revelations.  It is true that we can come to love God by keeping the commandments out of duty, but only if we make the connection in learning to love God and the things of God (most specifically his children).  Without some form of humility and desire to love our God it can be difficult to truly connect with Him.  Being grateful to God for what we have, finding his hand in our lives, and documenting the times when he has helped us from our past and now are all ways that can help us find that humility and love for God.  Also, just like any healthy relationship, we must spend time with Him, which leads to step #2.

STEP #2 – Find a place, time, and pattern for being alone with God

“I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me.” Proverbs 8:17

Every Prophet of the modern era has done at least one thing the same.  They have arisen early in the morning for their meditation, prayer, and scripture study.  They all say, and the scriptures confirm, that in the morning hours is when it is easiest to find God and receive revelation.  Regardless of whether you wake up at 4:30 in the morning like David O. McKay, or not, it is imperative if you want to receive answers to your prayers that you make communion with God a priority and you find a place, time, and pattern for learning from him.

I recommend 4 things that have helped me a lot in my “learning sessions”:

  1. Find an Isolated Room, or place (David O. McKay would often go to his Cabin), where you can be alone without distraction.  This also means don’t look at your phone first and put distractions in your mind before you even start.
  2. Pray for guidance, for answers, and for revelation as you study and ponder.
  3. Spend time thinking about and what I call “daydreaming” about the things you are praying for or about.  Often it is a dialogue between me and another person where I am able to formulate my thoughts and what I would say and what I think.
  4. Translate the Scriptures for yourself.  When you study the scriptures, go deeper, look to what the people are saying, who they are saying it to, why they are saying it, and try to see what that means now.  Don’t just idly try to impose the exact words to our time, try to think what God would say to you from that prophet if he were here.  What are the lessons to be learned, and most importantly write all of your thoughts down even things you aren’t positive about.  Then you will have ideas, new ideas, unique ideas, and guidance.

This is my process, I am certain it won’t work perfectly for you, but it can be a start and I believe if you try it and keep trying you will find your process that makes you comfortable in communing with God regularly.  Committing this time and effort is important, but as Step 3 will explain we have a hard time doing this if it just for ourselves.

STEP #3 – Love your Neighbor

“Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.  The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” D&C 121:45-46

The key to revelation in my opinion is found in the selflessness of blessing the lives of others.  If all of our thoughts are based on what we need, what we want, what we don’t have, it will be a harder path to connect with God.  If our thoughts are on how we can help others, or how we can teach them, or how we need the words to help them in their need and in their doubts, then I believe God will come through and commune with us.

“Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth? Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.” D&C 50:21-22

Fasting is an example of power that comes to us by sacrificing for someone else.  Isaiah’s words are better than mine in explaining this:

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rearward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought…” Isaiah 58:6-11

In my life I have had many amazing experiences that have confirmed the step of loving others and wanting to help them commune with God (fasting, priesthood blessings, teaching, kindness, any kind of service, or just conversations) will inspire you in ways, helping yourself cannot.  We are on this earth together and we are meant to help each other, so it is no surprise that in the act of desperately wanting to help others (our children, our friends, our family, etc.) that we find the commitment to study and seek God, we find the desire to repent and want to be better people, and we find the Lord as we seek to bless his children.

“A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.” Joseph Smith Jr.

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