Unanswered Prayers

Tragedy is everywhere.  It affects us as communities and individuals.  It is the result of natural catastrophes and mankind’s wickedness.  But in every case the first instinct many of us have is to turn to our Heavenly Father for help and comfort.  In other words, we pray.  Sometimes our prayers are answered in obvious and miraculous ways and sometimes they aren’t.  

In order to better understand prayer I’d like you to imagine a park filled with children.  Sitting on a bench is a line of fathers watching their kids.  As is often the case when children play, issues begin to arise.  Here a boy falls and cuts his knee, there a girl cries because she is left out of a game.  An argument breaks out between a group of children playing tag while another child sits alone wishing for a friend.  

Each of the dads reacts in a different way.  The first father, let’s call him Indulgent Dad, jumps in immediately every time his daughter cries for help.  He pushes her on a swing, heals every bump or bruise, protects her from any possible conflict with other children, and gives her only the best toys.

Meanwhile, the Uncaring Dad does absolutely nothing.  He sits on the bench idly playing on his phone while his son races around the playground.  He doesn’t look up when his child shouts for joy or cries in pain.  Nothing his son does interests him in the slightest.

Sitting next to the Uncaring Dad is the Incompetent Dad.  When his son falls down, the Incompetent Dad races into action.  Unfortunately, as his name implies he is unable to complete even the slightest action successfully.  While running to help his son out of a mud puddle he trips over his own shoe laces.  When his son is taunted by another child, the Incompetent Dad comes to the rescue only to find that he is too late to make a difference.

Finally we have the Vengeful Dad.  A stickler for the rules of the park, he immediately intervenes whenever someone commits even the slightest transgression.  Cutting in line at the slide – immediate expulsion from the park.  Arguing on the soccer field – a permanent ban from the game for everyone involved.  When his daughter is stung by a bee he goes so far as to rain down immediate destruction on the offending insect.

Now each of us as earthly fathers have fallen into one or more of these roles at various times in our lives.  But where does our Heavenly Father fit into this story?  Obviously, He is not any of the fathers mentioned.  With perfect love and infinite power, He watches over all of the children on the playground.

He is the Father who wasn’t seen.  Always close behind each of His children, He stays just out of their sight.  When they fall He does not immediately lift them up.  When they argue, He often allows it.  When they feel alone He does not always intervene.  He does all of this not because he doesn’t love His children or because He doesn’t have the power to help them, but because he knows that the only way for them to grow is to face these challenges.  He knows that this playground is just the beginning and they must learn to work together and help one another.

Sometimes His children need help.  A daughter falls off the monkey bars and scrapes her knee.  She cries in pain and wonders why her Father doesn’t help her.  Of course, He is standing nearby and hears her cries.  What she doesn’t see is that He is holding up the monkey bars, preventing the rickety structure from falling over on her and causing far more pain and harm.  

Nearby a lonely boy looks on with sadness as the other children play together.  He wishes that he could take part in their game.  He looks for his Father, hoping for comfort.  Instead the Father gently prompts another child to go to the boy’s side.  Even when the children misbehave and even curse their Father, thinking He is not present or wishing that He could be like the other dads on the playground, He stands quietly nearby doing only what is best for each and every one of His children.

We, of course, are the children at the park.  As we go through this mortal life we laugh and we cry, we feel joy and pain.  We pray for help, we pray for comfort, we pray for healing, we pray to know our Heavenly Father is there.  So why do some of our prayers go unanswered?  In order to understand this we must first understand the purpose of prayer.  The Bible Dictionary tells us “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.”

The first reason our prayers go unanswered is that we pray for the wrong things.  The Bible Dictionary continues, “We pray in Christ’s name when our mind is the mind of Christ, and our wishes the wishes of Christ—when His words abide in us (John 15:7). We then ask for things it is possible for God to grant. Many prayers remain unanswered because they are not in Christ’s name at all; they in no way represent His mind but spring out of the selfishness of man’s heart.”

Sometimes we want answers and blessings but aren’t willing to put in the necessary work.  Again from the Bible Dictionary, “Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings.”  The prophet Joseph Smith revealed that, “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—  And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:20-21).

Other times we are forced to wait for an answer to our prayers in consequence of our own previous disobedience.  The early Saints of this dispensation were chastened for their transgressions.  “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.  In the day of their peace they esteemed lightly my counsel; but, in the day of their trouble, of necessity they feel after me.  Verily I say unto you, notwithstanding their sins, my bowels are filled with compassion towards them. I will not utterly cast them off; and in the day of wrath I will remember mercy” (D&C 101:7-9).

Sometimes our lack of answers to prayers is simply a matter of timing.  Our Heavenly Father knows perfectly not only what we need, but when we need it.  He also trusts us enough to make our own decisions and knows that immediately confirming every choice we make would not develop the faith He wants us to have.

And sometimes He does not answer our prayers or remove our hardships because they are a result of our own actions.  Like a child at a park foolishly playing near a beehive, He allows us to feel the sting of conscience or consequence for two reasons: to help us learn to avoid evil and to encourage us to warn others of the danger.  Without these early warnings we would be left to kick against the pricks in a self-destructive journey to taste the rancid sweetness of the poisoned honey of iniquity.

The previous reasons for unanswered prayers are simple and straightforward.  But what of the times when we are living worthily, when our desires are righteous and our motives are pure?  Why then do the heavens remain silent?

Perhaps we must undergo a trial of our faith.  If all righteous prayers were answered immediately and in the affirmative the need for faith would be done away.  In the furnace of our own afflictions, we must stand alongside Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, believing that God will deliver us, “but if not” then we must still be faithful.  (Dan. 3:17-18)

And the “but if not” moments seem to come far too frequently than we would choose.  Although Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were miraculously saved, the three virtuous young women we read about in the book of Abraham were not (Abr. 1:11).  They too were righteous.  They too refused to bow before idols.  And I am sure that their prayers for release were just as fervent.  And yet God did not preserve their lives, instead He chose to bring them home to Him.  Although the scriptural account does not preserve the names of these righteous young women, their example of truly enduring to the end inspires us as we go through our own trials.

Seeing our own prayers go unanswered is difficult enough, but seeing those we love pour out their souls without apparent heavenly aid is heartbreaking.  This pain is compounded when we watch as the Lord answers the prayers of others, sometimes in miraculous ways.  With healing in His wings He swoops in to lift their burdens.  We are left to wonder why we are not part of that celestial flight plan.  Other times we see the woman of faith who needed but to touch His clothes to be healed while we are pushed back by the crowd, praying for longer arms that we too might touch the hem of his robe (Mark 5:25-34).

We may not understand why our Heavenly Father does all that He does, but we should take comfort knowing that He loves us perfectly.  We can say, as did Nephi, that although we do not know the meaning of all things, we “know that he loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17) and that “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world” (2 Nephi 26:24).

Although the knowledge of His love brings comfort it does not alleviate all suffering.  Oftentimes the hidden pains are those that hurt the most and yet take the longest to heal.  Those who have struggled with depression or mental illness have faced those nights of seemingly unanswered prayer.  Those endless hours in which hope weakens.  When healing seems impossible and we pray that He who told the man with the palsy to “take up thy bed, and walk” will simply give us the strength to get out of bed and struggle through another day (Mark 2:9).

And yet when we feel thoroughly trampled underfoot we are in the company of the Holy One (1 Nephi 19:7).  These moments should remind us not only to reach out to those feeling the same, but also to be more careful where we place our own feet.

Counterintuitively, the times we feel most abandoned, when we feel unheard and unloved, those are the times we approach our Savior the closest.  For he was abandoned and denied by His friends and betrayed by those closest to Him.  During the darkest moment of His pain-filled life – at a time when He was mocked by those who should have knelt before Him in humble worship – Jesus Christ cried out for His Father.  In this moment of agony He too felt forsaken.  There are no words more heart wrenching in all of history than those uttered by our Savior in that moment, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  (Matt. 27:46).

He who committed no sin had to go through a moment of feeling forsaken – a moment though short in duration, yet infinite in intensity.  And if Christ had to endure it, then why not us?  (D&C 122:8)

In His great intercessory prayer, Christ said “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).  If we are to have eternal life, we must know Him.  And the only way to truly know Him is to walk a mile in His shoes and to kneel an hour alongside Him in our own Garden of Gethsemane.

As we become like Him we become better equipped to help others.  If the Son of God needed to bear all infirmities in order to know how to succor His people then we too need the spiritual tutoring that suffering can bring (Alma 7:11-12).  In fact, the Apostle Paul teaches us that Christ learned “obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).  How could a loving Heavenly Father answer a prayer requesting the removal of the very suffering that will teach us the obedience necessary to achieve celestial glory and eternal happiness?

Although we may understand His reasons for not immediately answering our heartfelt prayers, it does not always ease the burdens we carry.  It is at these moments that we feel crushed by care that we have a choice.  We can sit in our rooms calling for help – and it will come, in the Lord’s time and in His manner.  He who notes the fall of every sparrow is more than willing to make house calls.

But if we truly want to see the Master Healer in action we should go to work at His clinic.  There we begin to understand the perplexing paradox that we must lose our life if we wish to find it (Matt. 10:39).  We learn that we should help others when we ourselves need help.  As we busy our hands healing others we see His hands at work, quietly binding up our own wounds while we tend to those of others.  Only then do we realize that He is answering the prayers of others through us.  Only then will we understand that not only is He really there, but that He truly hears and answers every child’s prayer (Children’s Songbook, pg. 12).

Treasures and Testimony

My kids and I recently built a safe.  It’s not exactly the most secure safe, given that it’s made of wood, but it was a lot of fun to build.  The kit gave clear instructions and allowed us to put it together in just a few hours.

The best part about it was that it gave me a look into how a combination lock works.  A combination lock is one of those amazing devices that everyone has used, but that most people don’t really think about.  In the case of our lock we have three tumblers, each with a notch in one specific part of the wheel.  Only when all three tumblers are perfectly aligned does the lock disengage and allow you to open the door.

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(In this photo the safe is empty as we hadn’t yet filled it with assorted candy treasure)

Once we had built the safe my kids immediately tried to open it.  Considering that they didn’t know the combination you can probably imagine their frustration.  Even after I had given them the combination they weren’t able to open it immediately.  I had to explain that you had to turn the dial counterclockwise several times before stopping at the first number and then turn it clockwise past the second number before stopping on the second number…. and so forth.  Any junior high kid who has struggled with their locker door knows how frustrating it can be to try to learn how to use a combination lock.

I tried to explain how the tumblers worked and why the lock has to be operated a certain way, but eventually I just had to show my kids that it works by simply showing them how to do it.

This got me thinking about how this is similar to testimony.  As I teach my children about gospel principles, such as faith and prayer – I sometimes get bogged down in over-explaining things.  It’s important for them to understand the principles, but it’s so much more powerful for them to see the principles in action.  Once they know that the principle works they are better able to focus on how it works.  Instead of talking about how service blesses our lives and the lives of others, it’s much better to show them service in action.  Once they try it for themselves they begin to build their own testimony about the principle.

I guess that’s why the Savior always invited to act rather than simply asking his followers to listen.  “Come follow me” rather than “Sit still while I talk to you about the gospel.”

Puzzle Balls and Prayer

One of the great things about living in New England is the never-ending list of awesome museums nearby.  My family and I love the Peabody Essex Museum with its amazing art and cultural displays.  My favorite display contains and intricately carved Chinese puzzle ball – a series of concentric spheres carved from stone.

After seeing it for the first time I had to go online and get one for myself.  It’s much smaller and less intricate than the one in the museum, but it’s a lot of fun to look at the carved spheres and imagine the amount of skill and patience it would take to carve them, one inside the other.

On a completely separate note (which may or may not tie in later), my family and I set a goal last year to read the entire Book of Mormon.  We finished on Christmas Day.  We had a lot of special moments throughout the year, but the one that hit me the hardest was when we read Moroni 8:3.  In a letter to his son Mormon says, “I am mindful of you always in my prayers, continually praying unto God the Father in the name of his Holy Child, Jesus, that he, through his infinite goodness and grace, will keep you through the endurance of faith on his name to the end.”

It’s a beautiful verse and one that I’ve read many times before.  The difference this time was that we were reading from a copy of the Book of Mormon that was owned by my grandmother.  Next to the verse, in her elegant cursive handwriting, was my name and a date – 9/29/00.

I was serving as a full-time missionary in McAllen, Texas on that date.  It amazed me that even with all of the other things going on in my grandmother’s life she was thinking of me and kept me in her prayers.

Just like the puzzle ball, my grandma’s love and kindness had so many layers.  As a missionary I could always count on her wonderful letters and her fabulous care packages.  My mouth still waters at the thought of her banana chocolate chip cookies.  She was always thinking of me, the missionaries I was working with, and the families we were teaching.  But at the core of it all were her constant prayers for me.

I’m certainly not perfect, but her example inspires me to be a little better each day.