It’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.