The Transforming Power of Prayer

hands-clasped-prayer-830749-wallpaperIt’s easy to think of prayer as a transaction. We address our Father in Heaven, thank Him for some of the good things that He has given us, ask Him for some more things that we need, and then close. When we see our prayers answered—and they surely are answered—the cause-effect relationship of “ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (3 Nephi 27:29) gets confirmed by our experience. However, if we only think of prayer as a means of submitting work orders to heaven, we can miss the true power of prayer, a power beyond getting the help we need—a power that can change our very natures and draw us closer to God.

Speaking of that true power of prayer, David E. Sorensen taught: “While the blessings we ask for and receive through prayer are undeniably magnificent, the greatest blessing and benefit is not the physical or spiritual blessings that may come as answers to our prayers but in the changes to our soul that come as we learn to be dependent on our Heavenly Father for strength.” Thus, the object of prayer is not getting but becoming.

If we are to pray—truly communing with God—we cannot help but be changed. This is because, in Elder David A. Bednar’s words, “meaningful prayer requires both holy communication and consecrated work.… We press forward and persevere in the consecrated work of prayer, after we say ‘amen,’ by acting upon the things we have expressed to Heavenly Father.” In this sense, we miss the power of prayer when our prayers revolve around particular outcomes (e.g. praying to pass a test) rather than on the development of our character (e.g. praying for help in preparing for a test). A prayer that isn’t confirmed by our actions is a mere wish expressed in heaven’s direction rather than a real supplication for heavenly assistance. As Elder Bednar put it, we should “pray with the expectation to act and not just to express.”

That combination of sincere supplication and then diligent action has real power to transform our circumstances and our perspectives. Just recently, for example, I was overwhelmed by the task of applying to PhD programs. As a result, I prayed frequently and fervently throughout the process of preparing my application materials. With tender kindness, God responded by giving me insights that helped me to articulate my strengths and qualifications persuasively. However, I did not use prayer to abdicate my own responsibility to work: I sacrificed hours of sleep each morning in order to have time to work, and I met regularly with professors to get their help with the work that I was doing. As I prayed and worked, I sought not only God’s help to secure the desired outcome (a blessing which is unfolding even now) but also His guidance to do the work that I had to do in His way. As flashes of inspiration came to me as I wrote, as I caught tiny errors that I might otherwise have missed, as I made plans that helped me to use time more efficiently, I saw that God’s hand could be involved in every aspect of my life and at any stage. I also learned things that have since helped me to live more effectively beyond working on my applications (including new strategies for planning out and managing my time).

In a very real way, the process of prayer has influenced my development for the better. Beyond securing particular outcomes, the process of prayer has helped me to recognize God’s fatherly care, to recognize the blessings that come from depending on His strength rather than my own, and to recognize ways in which I can live more fully in accordance with His will in order to improve myself and my life. “The reason our Heavenly Father asks us to pray,” Elder Sorensen explained, “cannot be that we are able to tell Him something He does not already know. Rather, the reason He asks us to pray is that the process of learning to communicate effectively with Him will shape and change our lives.” Praying and learning to communicate with my Father in Heaven is shaping and changing my life. And, surely, sincere faithful prayer can shape and change anyone’s life, improving it  by bringing it more in harmony with the loving will of our Heavenly Father.

 

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That Spirit which Leadeth to Do Good

snowflake-1093941-wallpaperLatter-day Saints often speak of revelation. Whether the church-guiding revelation that comes through the prophet or the daily, personal revelation that helps us navigate through this complicated mortality, revelation is fundamental to both our institutional practices and individual devotion. Simply put, revelation is any communication from God to His children. That communication typically comes through the Holy Ghost, who, as Jay E. Jensen explained, “is the third member of the Godhead, and with the Father and the Son, He knows all things. He has several important roles; foremost among them is to teach and testify of the Father and the Son. Other roles are that He reveals the truth of all things and He leads to do good.”

Of course, revelation is more than a flow of information—it is also a demonstration of God’s love for us and of His desire to be involved in the details of our lives. I have been continually grateful for the divine guidance that has come to me through the influence of the Holy Ghost. My experience has taught me that the promise made in the Book of Mormon, that “by the power of the Holy Ghost [we] may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5), is still in force. As I’ve asked for and sought heavenly wisdom, I’ve been led by the Holy Ghost through missionary service, personal relationships, work assignments, and graduate school applications among other things. These experiences have taught me not only that God knows, for example, how to plan a lesson on the research process—but that He also cares enough about me that He will help me to find success even in my secular pursuits.

Surely, the Holy Ghost can guide us in any aspect of our lives, as He has guided me in various aspects of mine, but I haven’t always been able to recognize the voice of the Holy Ghost as readily as I do now. And, even still, I certainly don’t recognize it is often as I would like to. However, a couple of principles have helped me to develop my ability to recognize and respond to the promptings of the Holy Ghost.

First, the Holy Ghost speaks quietly. The prophet Elijah, as the Bible describes, went out on a mountain to speak with the Lord. While there, he witnessed a “great and strong wind,” “an earthquake,” and “a fire,” but the Lord’s voice was not in any of those things. Instead, Elijah heard the Lord in “a still small voice” (I Kings 19:11-12). The Lord does not speak in earthquakes—He speaks through the still small voice of the Holy Ghost. As a result, if we refuse to acknolwedge God in anything quieter than an earthquake, we’re likely to miss His messages.

Second, the fruits of the Holy Ghost are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22). We can recognize the influence of the Holy Ghost by its fruits. In my experience, guidance from the Holy Ghost has always been accompanied by at least one of these positive feelings. The Holy Ghost will never make us feel bad but will instead always and exclusively build us up. I have been warned from danger by the Holy Ghost, but even then, the warning came as a firm and reassuring feeling, not as a feeling of dread or anxiety. Dread and anxiety are not fruits of the Holy Ghost.

Third, the Holy Ghost leads us to do good. Often, I’ve asked God to guide me to do the right thing. I’ve expected revelation to come with a schematic diagram that tells me exactly what things to do and at exactly what times I should do them. In my experience, though, revelation rarely works that way. Instead of telling me the one right thing that I should do, the Holy Ghost prompts me to do a good thing followed by another good thing and so forth. Often, the Holy Ghost leads us a step at a time, from one good thing to the next. If we follow along faithfully, the Holy Ghost will get us wherever we need to be. In a revelation given through Joseph Smith, the Lord counseled, “put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously” (Doctrine and Covenants 11:12). This standard has helped me to recognize and follow the Holy Ghost more consistently in my life. Now, rather than worry about whether I’m being inspired to do the one right thing, I can go forward with the confidence that I’m doing a good thing that will get me at least one step to closer to whatever righteous objective I may have at the moment.

Surely, the divine guidance that comes through the Holy Ghost is a sign that God knows and loves His children. Through the Holy Ghost, I’ve come to understand truth, have been guided through the various stages of my life, and have felt of God’s love—blessings that are available to each and every one of God’s children that will seek Him out.

Life: A Sacred Stewardship

seedling-growing-in-ashes-stoker-773732-wallpaperSituating our current lifetime within God’s eternal plan, President Thomas S. Monson described this mortal life as “an opportunity to prove ourselves in order to qualify for all that God has prepared for us to receive.” Because of the understanding of God’s plan that has come through modern revelation, Latter-day Saints see our time on the earth as an intermediate step between the time we spent with God before our births and the time we hope to spend with Him again after our deaths. As such, we see these brief decades of life as a time to prepare ourselves to return to God’s presence, a time to develop the kind of character that will qualify us to enjoy the glory of an eternity with our Heavenly Father. Indeed, this life is the time to “prepare to meet God” (Alma 34:32). As the late Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin put it: “Our Heavenly Father wants us to use this mortal probation to ‘fully develop’ ourselves, to make the most of our talents and abilities.”

When I think of this life as a time for me to develop and prepare myself to return to my heavenly home. I can’t help but reflect on one of the parables Jesus told to His disciples. In the parable, Jesus says that a certain wealthy man left his affairs in the hands of three servants, giving each a sum of money and the charge to administer it wisely. To one servant, the wealthy man gave five talents; to the second, he gave two; and, to the third, he gave one. While the wealthy man was away, the five-talent servant put his money in the exchanges and gained five additional talents. The two-talent servant did likewise and gained two additional talents. The third, however, afraid to lose the money entrusted to him, buried it in the ground and garnered no return on his master’s investment.

It’s interesting to me to note that, upon his return, the wealthy man made no distinction between the servant who had gained five talents and the one who had gained two. To both of them, he said “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25:21, 23). The wealthy  man, a stand-in for our Father in Heaven, wasn’t concerned about the absolute achievement of each servant—success wasn’t measured in total number of talents. Instead, the wealthy man was concerned with the relative improvement of each servant’s allotment. The first two doubled their shares—and that doubling qualified them both for equal rewards. Only the servant who did nothing at all to improve what he had received was subject to his master’s ire.

I take great comfort in the lesson of that New Testament parable. To me, it says that, though the standard is ultimately perfection (Matthew 5:48), God is much more concerned with progress at this phase of my eternal journey. The parable of the talents, in effect, teaches me that, regardless of where we’ve started out or ended up in life, God only expects us to make ourselves, our lives, and the lives of those around us better, not perfect. Whether we are five-talent, two-talent, or even one-talent servants, the reward is the same so long as we continually improve. To borrow Elder Jeffry R. Holland’s words: “[W]e can improve, and the great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying, even if we don’t always succeed.”

Because our performance on the test of mortality is measured by progress and not perfection, we really do get credit for trying. But we must really try so that we aren’t like the faithless one-talent servant of the parable who was cast “into outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30). Ultimately, we are free to make of our lives whatever we wish, but, since our lives are gifts from God, we have a sacred responsibility to make the most of them that we can. Spencer W. Kimball put it this way: “Your life is your own, to develop or to destroy. You can blame others little and yourself almost totally if that life is not a productive, worthy, full, and abundant one. Others can assist or hinder you, but the responsibility is yours and you can make it great, mediocre, or a failure.” Happily, with the knowledge of the gospel, the strength of the Savior, and the encouraging realization that progress is our goal, we can take charge of our lives and press forward with confidence and faith as we live towards eternal greatness.

The Inspiring Creation

green-leaves-water-droplets-844202-wallpaperI remember hearing, a few years ago, about a big debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. The debate was billed as a great confrontation between rational scientific facts and the absurdities of creationist notions. In the midst of all the publicity and discussion, I remember thinking that the whole premise of the debate was a little nonsensical: never in my life had I considered that scientific data and religious belief were mutually exclusive. Beyond that, though, I thought the debate really only served to further misapprehensions about faith and the Creation. By putting Nye and Ham in opposite corners, the debate implicitly suggested that to accept the Creation is to repudiate scientific understanding and that to accept scientific data is to reject faith. But what a false binary—to believe in creation is not to reject facts but is, rather, to accept an interpretation of those facts, one that can infuse our lives with a new sense of purpose and potential.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” a declaration that resonates with the Book of Mormon teaching that “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44). To those who are willing to see it that way, all of creation is evidence of the Creator and of His generous love for His children.

Think of it—having planned for His children to pass through a mortal experience and learn how to use the gift of agency, our Father in Heaven could have put us anywhere in the cosmos. By His design and through His Son Jesus Christ, He created a temperate planet with clear water, blue skies, lush vegetation, and useful and delightful animals. Of course, I’ve heard some people suggest that to take such a view is humanity’s greatest hubris. But is it hubris to be grateful to a God who provided an excellent place for us to live? Or is it hubris to assert that only the things that we can measure are real? I could fall back on humanity’s measurements and see the world as merely an improbable and fortuitous accumulation of physical and chemical facts—but then what meaning would any of it have?

Bishop Gérald Caussé taught: “To marvel at the wonders of the gospel [and, I might add, of the Creation] is a sign of faith. It is to recognize the hand of the Lord in our lives and in everything around us. Our amazement also produces spiritual strength. It gives us the energy to remain anchored in our faith and to engage ourselves in the work of salvation.” If the planet is just rocks and I am just a complicated chemical reactor, then nothing I do really matters: anything I do is just the random motion of the universe. If, however, I see the world with the wonder that Bishop Caussé describes, my actions take on meaning and have real consequences. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught, “Creating and being compassionate are two objectives that contribute to our Heavenly Father’s perfect happiness. Creating and being compassionate are two activities that we as His spirit children can and should emulate.”

Thus, to accept the Creation and to choose belief is not to stand in opposition to facts or reason. Rather, to accept the scriptural account of the Creation on faith is to accept an interpretation of the bare facts which gives me real purpose and motivation to be my very best. “As you take the normal opportunities of your daily life and create something of beauty and helpfulness,” President Uchtdorf said,  “you improve not only the world around you but also the world within you.” In that sense, acknowledging the Creator comes with the recognition that we can be apprentice creators to Him, making positive and meaningful contributions in the world around us.