The Power of Personal Prayer
Devotional or Speech given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii
May 17, 2011
Kevin W. Pearson
First Counselor, Pacific Area Presidency
I humbly invite the Holy Ghost to be with us as we consider the principle of personal prayer. My objective is to help each of us understand this powerful principle and the reality that God really does hear and answer our prayers.
I wish to state at the outset of our discussion that I have absolute evidence in my own life that God is our loving Heavenly Father and does in fact hear and answer our prayers. I have personal knowledge that this is true. I am a witness of this reality. I will therefore speak to you from personal knowledge and experience.
The divine invitation to pray unto the Father in the name of Christ is the single most mentioned commandment in all recorded scripture and is the most basic form of personal worship. Yet, many of us struggle in our attempts to make personal prayer meaningful and revelatory.
How is it possible that Latter-day Saints, of all people, struggle so much with something so basic and fundamental? I am convinced that personal prayer is one of the most significant challenges facing members of the Church, particularly youth and young adults. Because they struggle with prayer, they struggle spiritually.
I have always found the words of Nephi very helpful:
Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.
Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do. . . .
. . . It grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. 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.
But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul. (2 Nephi 32:3-5, 8-9.)
I bear solemn testimony to the truth of that scripture. This is a divine pattern. If you will study the scriptures every day, every day, every day, the Savior's teachings "will tell you all things what ye should do." You will have a greater measure of the influence of the Holy Ghost."The Holy Ghost will show you all things what ye should do." President Packer often teaches that the Holy Ghost will never allow us to make a mistake without first warning us. It will always teach us that we must pray."So, when life gets dark and dreary, don't forget to pray." ("Did You Think to Pray?" Hymns #140.)
Let's explore the principle of prayer by addressing three basic questions:
- What is the principle of personal prayer?
- Why is personal prayer essential?
- How can we make our personal prayers more effective and meaningful?
What is the principle of personal prayer?
Soon after Adam and Eve departed the Garden of Eden, they were commanded by an angel to "do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore" (Moses 5:8). Since that time, men have been commanded to follow this divine pattern.
To pray is to speak with God, the Eternal Father of our spirits: not at Him but with Him. He loves each of us unconditionally and is full of mercy and perfect understanding. He knows everything about us. He knows what we need, even when we can only see what we want. He has infinite power and capacity to sustain and guide us. He is always willing to forgive us and to help us in all things, both temporal and spiritual.
We can speak with Him vocally or by forming thoughts and expressions in our minds and hearts. Personal prayers should be solemn, sacred expressions of praise and gratitude; heartfelt petitions for specific needs and desires; humble, contrite confessions and requests for cleansing forgiveness; pleadings for comfort, direction, and revelation. These expressions often cause us to pour out our very souls to our loving Heavenly Father.
Prayer is often a brief communication, but it can be an open and continuous dialog all throughout the day and night."Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you" (Alma 34:27). This type of continuous prayer has been, and continues to be, the pattern for revelation in my personal life and ministry. This is beautifully captured by the hymn, "I Need Thee Every Hour" (Hymns, #98).
I need thee ev'ry hour,
Most gracious Lord.
No tender voice like thine
Can peace afford.
I need thee, oh, I need thee;
Ev'ry hour I need thee!
Oh, bless me now, my Savior;
I come to thee!
"Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. 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" (Bible Dictionary: Prayer, p. 752-753).
Prayer is not a negotiation process. It is an alignment process. We don't move God to our point of view. Prayer is less about changing our circumstances and more about changing us. It is about seeking His will and asking for His help to do what we need to do. When we align our will with Heavenly Father's will, answers and spiritual power will flow more freely. Following this pattern allows us to pray with faith.
The Savior repeatedly commanded that we "must pray unto the Father in his name." What does it mean to pray in the name of Christ?
"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. 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" (Bible Dictionary: Prayer, p. 753). Prayers that follow this pattern represent vain hope not faith.
Our personal prayers are a barometer of our spiritual strength and an indicator of our spiritual wellbeing. I have learned as a father, priesthood leader, and mission president that listening carefully to another's prayers can reveal much about their relationship with God.
What would listening to your personal prayers reveal about you and your relationship with Heavenly Father? When was the last time you listened carefully to your own personal prayers to assess your own spiritual wellbeing? Something to think about.
Why is personal prayer essential?
In the divine plan of our Heavenly Father, physical and spiritual separation from His presence are absolutely necessary. Here on earth, we are fully exposed to the consequences of our own choices and to the choices of others. We are also physically exposed to the laws and forces of nature inherent to our mortal existence. We are spiritually exposed to the power of Satan and the influence he exerts through others. All these are purposeful and necessary elements and conditions in the Father's plan.
It is our Heavenly Father's will that these human conditions in mortality be bridged by prayer. However, our mortal existence is neither random cosmic chaos. The poet Emily D***inson wrote:
This world is not conclusion;
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.
Prayer is an essential and enabling spiritual link between God and man. Without prayer, there is no possible return to the Father. Without prayer, repentance, forgiveness and the cleansing power of the Atonement are unattainable. Without prayer, sufficient faith to understand and keep the commandments is impossible. Without prayer, the necessary spiritual power to avoid temptation and overcome trials and adversity would be unavailable. With the power of personal prayer, all things are possible. That is the divine pattern.
Prayers enable personal revelation and spiritual gifts through the Holy Ghost. It is the spiritual channel made available to all of God's children giving us constant access to our Eternal Father, His Beloved Son, and the Holy Ghost."So, when life gets dark and dreary, don't forget to pray." ("Did You Think to Pray?" Hymns #140.)
Prayer is powerful and compelling evidence of the reality of God the Eternal Father."As soon as we learn [and understand] the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are his children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part. Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship" (Bible Dictionary: Prayer, p. 752).
Understanding our divine identity and the true nature of God are indispensable to powerful personal prayer. Personal prayer is indispensable to understanding God and our divine identity. I will forever be grateful for Joseph Smith. Without the revealed knowledge and understanding of the nature of God from the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants, I never could have learned the power of personal prayer. Without prayer, I never could have received a testimony of the Restored Gospel, the Book of Mormon, and the Prophet Joseph Smith. Nor would I understand my own divine identity.
How can we make our personal prayers more effective and meaningful?
President Packer often teaches that, "True doctrine understood changes attitudes and behavior." What aspect of personal prayer, if better understood, would help your personal prayers become more meaningful and revelatory?
We have already identified several obstacles that prevent us from having meaningful personal prayer:
- Misunderstanding or sometimes forgetting our divine identity and the true nature of our Eternal Father in Heaven.
- Misunderstanding the object of prayer and attempting to use it to change Heavenly Father's will or to negotiate what we want.
- Not correctly praying in the name of the Savior but rather out of selfish and self-centered desires.
May I suggest three other obstacles:
- Physical, mental, and emotional fatigue.
- Disobedience, personal unworthiness, and pride.
- Lack of focus and purpose.
Physical, mental, and emotional fatigue:
Often our personal prayers take place first thing in the morning before we are fully awake and alert or late at night when we are too tired to pray effectively. Our physical, mental, and emotional fatigue can prevent us from meaningful prayer. Speaking at God is not the same as speaking with Him.
Meaningful prayer requires effort. It is spiritual work preceded by mental and spiritual preparation. If we don't take the time to humble ourselves and carefully consider that we are about to call upon God the Eternal Father in the name of Christ, we will miss the very essence of the divine pattern established to bless us.
May I suggest finding a time and place where you can carefully ponder your life and your needs. Reflect on your divine identity and relationship to God. Strive to visualize Heavenly Father as you prepare to speak with Him. Think of the Savior in whose name you will be praying. Doing so will help you focus and prepare to pray with a humble and grateful heart.
Schedule sufficient time to carefully and humbly communicate the deepest desires of your heart with Heavenly Father. Invite the Holy Ghost to help you know what to pray for. Praying vocally helps me to focus my prayers and to listen to myself without wandering mentally.
Disobedience, personal unworthiness, and pride:
Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion. (D&C 121:45-46.)
My young friends, we cannot be confident in our Heavenly Father's presence if we are not morally clean. Pornography, sexual transgressions, entertainment of any kind that mocks virtue, promotes immorality, destroys our confidence in prayer, and prevents us from spiritual promptings. Remember, however, Satan will be the only one who tells you that you cannot or should not pray. The Holy Ghost always encourages us to pray, even if we are struggling with obedience and personal worthiness.
Lack of focus and purpose:
Personal prayer is meant to be a revelatory process. We need to be able to receive answers and knowledge through our prayers. One reason we may not feel we are getting answers is because we are not asking appropriate questions. Revelation generally comes in response to a question. The process of revelation requires us to search the scriptures, ponder them, and apply them to our lives. As we do so, the Holy Ghost helps us form inspired questions.
Prayer is a channel for addressing questions to Heavenly Father. Through the Holy Ghost, our minds are enlightened with knowledge, understanding, and promptings. These feelings and impressions are also confirmed in our hearts. Often answers come in the form of peace or a settling feeling of comfort and clarity. When we need to be warned, the Holy Ghost will leave us feeling unsettled, uncomfortable, unsure, and unclear. This is also an answer and is often referred to as a stupor of thought.
Prayer is essential to the process of revelation. Inspired questions bring greater focus, purpose, and meaning to our prayers. If you want to receive more personal revelation through your prayers, you may want to think about what questions you are asking.
May I share a personal experience that helped me learn many of these principles. Nearly nineteen years ago, our fifth son Benjamin was born. The day he was born, my parents left to begin serving a mission in Oakland, California. They left somewhat reluctantly because they had been called to serve as a mission office couple. Of all the possible assignments for missionary couples, they were not the least bit interested in working in a mission office. But they decided to accept the call and serve.
My professional career was exciting and promising. I was working for a growing, dynamic company. I had an important calling in our ward. Life was challenging and exciting. I was on top of my little world. Three months later, the world changed abruptly.
My wife had been increasingly concerned about Benjamin's eyes. She sensed that something wasn't right. On Thanksgiving Day, we became alarmed to discover Benjamin did not appear to have sight in one eye. We immediately consulted a close friend and retinal specialist in our ward. He confirmed our concerns and three days later diagnosed Benjamin's condition as retinal blastoma, a rare form of cancer of the eye. The news was devastating.
Over the next ten days, a team of people helped us canvas the entire world to identify and locate the most preeminent medical experts on this rare condition. We found two, one of which was located in San Francisco, California. It became clear why my parents had been called to serve a mission in nearby Oakland. They would be close by to help in the difficult months ahead. My Heavenly Father knew that long before I did.
A week later, Benjamin was to have the first of many surgical treatments. Prior to the operation we met with the surgeon. I explained to him that we believed in the power of prayer. I told him about priesthood blessings and that Benjamin has been blessed that he would be healed. With complete confidence, I told the doctor we believed that when he got into the operation he would find that Benjamin's eye would be healed and not need to be removed. Our entire family and many ward members were fasting and praying for our son, and we had great faith.
His reply stunned me. Leaning forward, he defiantly responded: "Mr. Pearson, I am a surgeon and an expert on your son's condition. I do not operate on faith or prayers or any of your other religious practices. When I get into the operating room, I am going to confirm that your son needs to have his eye removed. And when I do, we are either going to immediately move forward and take it out or we are not going in at all. But there isn't going to be any more prayers or any more waiting around for miracles. Do you understand me?"
An hour later, he returned to the nursing station and confirmed that Benjamin's eye had been destroyed by the tumor cells and that his other eye also had several serious tumors that needed immediate treatment. This was the worst possible scenario. We were devastated. I was speechless. He returned to the operating room, and we returned to my anxious parents in the waiting area. Completely overcome with grief and disbelief, I walked out of the hospital into the dark damp San Francisco morning and began to walk and weep bitterly.
I had done everything I had been taught to do. We had prayed and received a strong impression to select this doctor. We had fasted and prayed and felt certain that our infant son would be healed through faith and through the power of the priesthood. The outcome could not have been worse. There had been no blessing, and clearly the Lord had not intervened. Our faith it seems had been no more than vain hope. My faith was shattered. I began to question everything I had ever believed. As I walked, I felt betrayed and angry. I was overcome with pain.
I am not proud of the conversation I had with Heavenly Father as I walked and wept that morning. After a time, I got a hold of myself emotionally. I remember the words of a children's Primary song coming into my mind."Heavenly Father, are you really there? And do you hear and answer every child's prayer?" Because you clearly haven't been listening to mine or maybe you just don't really care about me and my son. ("A Child's Prayer," Children's Songbook, #12.)
In that moment, a tender mercy came. In my mind and heart, I felt these words: "Kevin, he is my son too." The clarity of the prompting was unmistakable. I realized in that moment that I had not understood the purpose of prayer at all. I had assumed that, just because I had a righteous cause, I could use the priesthood and fasting and prayer to change the will of God.
For the first time in my life, I fully realized that I was not in charge. I knew that I needed to submit to Heavenly Father's will. I couldn't have what I wanted when and how I wanted it just because I was keeping the commandments. The purpose of prayer was not to tell Heavenly Father what to do, rather to find out what He would have me do and learn. I needed to align my will with His.
That moment has made a deep and profound impact on my life. We would face another six years of serious challenges as we battled our little son's condition to save his other eye and his life. But I now knew that Heavenly Father was aware and in charge. And no matter how things ultimately worked out, He had heard and answered my prayer. Of that there was no longer any doubt.
My young brothers and sisters, I leave you with my witness that God is our loving Heavenly Father. I have come to know through this experience and countless others since that He does in fact "hear and answer every child's prayer." I have learned that there is great power in personal prayer. I have learned to accept answers that are contrary to what I want, trusting that Heavenly Father knows what I need. I have learned that my children are His children and He loves them more than I possibly can. Through prayer, I have received forgiveness and comfort, direction and revelation.
I plead with you to pray always and to be believing. As you continue to learn and understand the divine principle of personal prayer as the Savior taught it, prayer will become a source of great spiritual power and revelation in your life. Of this I bear personal witness, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Photo by Monique Saenz.