God Answers Prayers

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Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

September 27, 2001
President Mark Willes
President of the Hawaii-Honolulu Mission

My dear brothers and sisters, Aloha! There is nothing wrong with room inspection. In fact, now that Sister Willes has reminded me of that story we are going to have a new practice in the mission.

I am very grateful to be here this morning with President Shumway, whom I have come to know and love and admire. How blessed you are to have such a remarkable leader to be here--to be your steward. You are blessed. I'm also grateful to here with my eternal companion, who has, in fact, been the love of my life, all of my life. I can't imagine what life would be like without her. I'm honored to be here with those who are sitting down here on the floor. I'm grateful they took the time to come. I'm honored by their presence.

I am particularly grateful to be here with all of you. I have given thousands of speeches over my lifetime. And I never worry quite so much about most of them. But when I am asked to speak to students I worry mightily: because you are so important; because who you are and what you are and what you will become will make all the difference in the world in which my children and grandchildren live. So I ask for your faith and prayers that somehow I might say something that is appropriate for the occasion.

There was a stake conference recently in Colorado. Our oldest daughter attended that stake conference and listened to a man speak who was a member of that stake. He stood at the podium in his full dress uniform. He was a military officer. He talked about how he had been at the pentagon on September 11th, was scheduled to visit the portion of the building into which that terrorist plane crashed, and the Spirit whispered to him that he should not go and it saved his life.

In that same stake conference was a young woman whose father-in-law was one of the pilots on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. How can it be that two faithful members of the Church who pray for the safety of themselves and their families, can have such dramatically different results to their prayers. How can it be that a loving Father in heaven will answer one prayer one way and another prayer another way.

As a result of those tragic events, such a short time ago, we have all found ourselves asking fundamental questions once again. Many in the world have asked the question, "Is there in fact a God in heaven?" Thank heavens we know there is. But even those of us who are members of the Church have found ourselves trying to understand, perhaps in a more complete way than we have understood before, "How does God answer prayers?" Why does one person get one answer and somebody else, who appears to be equally deserving, get a completely different answer?

So I'd like to spend a few minutes this morning talking about what we need to understand if we are to understand how God answers prayers; for surely he does. There is, in fact, a God in Heaven. You know that and I know that; because each of us have gotten down on our knees and asked and received confirmation from the spirit that He's there. Therefore it's helpful if we think for a minute about Him and His perspective as we then try to understand how He answers our prayers.

I would like to tell you a story. It's a personal story. It helps explain God's perspective in a way that has been personally compelling to me. And like many lessons we learn in this life, it seems that sometimes it's the most painful lessons that clarify for us the most important lessons we must learn. After I retired from business last year, Sister Willes and I moved to Provo. We expected to teach at the Brigham Young University - Provo Campus. Three weeks after we got there we received this [mission] call, so we knew we weren't going to be teaching too long. A few weeks after that, our second daughter who lives in Utah gave birth to a critically ill little girl. She was unable to move. She was attached to more pieces of medical equipment to sustain her life than I thought even existed.

This little girl's mother and father asked me on two different occasions if I would give her a blessing, which I was grateful to do. And I found myself in those blessings saying something I had never said before. And that was, that after the doctors and nurses had done all that they could do, the Lord would heal her, completely. You can image my surprise and yes, even some confusion, when I would give those blessings and feel so comfortable about them, to then see as the days and weeks went on that she got worse instead of better.

I could not understand. I thought perhaps I had misunderstood the Spirit, that because of my own desire that this sweet granddaughter of ours live and be whole and happy, perhaps I had misunderstood the Spirit. Therefore out of concern, yes even a quiet desperation, I called President Hinckley - the only time I have ever done this. By this time this little girl was in a hospital in Salt Lake City, not far from where he lives. I asked him if there was any way possible that he could come and bless this little girl? With the kindness that you might imagine only the prophet would have, he said, "Of course," and we arranged a time to meet.

You can imagine how thrilled we were as the prophet of the Lord laid his hands, in this case fingers, on her small head, and gave her virtually the identical blessing that I had given her twice before, promising her that after the doctors and nurses had done all that they could do that she would be touched. . .by the finger of God, and healed totally and completely.

You might therefore understand my surprise and concern when shortly thereafter she died. I didn't understand, until, as I was preparing to speak at her funeral, the Spirit led me to the 55th chapter of Isaiah, where the Lord says,

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts."

And then I understood that God has an eternal perspective. He is not bound by the narrow earthly perspective that we so often look from, and make decisions from. And given His heavenly perspective, every blessing that this young girl had been promised had in fact come true.

After the doctors had done all that they could do, a little girl who was never to move in this life, was now able to move freely and happily. A little girl that would have had a very limited earthly life, now had an unlimited eternal life. A little girl who would have faced severe tests all of her earthly life, had now passed the one and only test required of her and was now happily and gloriously back with her Father in Heaven. Oh yes, she had been touched. . .and healed. . .totally and completely, as only God can.

I learnt from this experience to rejoice in His eternal perspective. If we are to understand how God answers prayers it is not sufficient to look from our earthly perspective. We must also look from His eternal perspective if we are to understand how and why He does what He does.

In addition to understanding His Eternal perspective, if we are to understand how He answers prayers, we must remember that there is an ultimate fairness in everything that He does. And therefore, if there is to be an ultimate fairness, if the judgments that we receive are to be totally and completely fair, those judgments must be based on decisions which we have freely made; decisions which we make without excessive influence, by anyone, including our Father in Heaven. That means we must be free to choose, even if our choices harm others.

Consider the story in the 14th chapter of Alma. Faithful members of the Church, men, women and children had been gathered up by evil men and thrown into the fire. Alma and Amulek were forced witnesses to this terror. From their experience we learn a difficult but important principle.

"And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God, which is in us, and save them from the flames.

"But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and He doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which He shall exercise upon them in His wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day" (Alma 14:10-11).

This may seem like a harsh principle or doctrine. It is however, in fact, the principle over which the war in heaven was fought. This principle of free agency, that we are free to decide what we will do, is in fact the centerpiece of God's plan.

We look with horror at the innocent victims that were tragically killed by terrorists and some will say, "How could God let it happen?" We, of all people should understand why He had to let it happen. Just as He had to allow evil men to kill His only begotten Son. The principle of free agency is so central to His plan for us that the plan could not exist without it. Therefore, He gave His only begotten son to preserve and protect that principle of free agency and to free us from the consequences of the poor decisions we will surely make, if we will but repent and rely on the atonement of Jesus Christ to bless us. Oh how I have come to have additional love and appreciation for a Father in Heaven that loves us so much, all of His children, that He allows us to be free.

Now, fortunately, not all stories about prayer seem so serious or so hard. Let me tell you some happy stories about prayer, to show you that, in fact, most of the time when we ask a sincere prayer, in faith, the Lord will answer that prayer exactly as we would have Him do it.

We have a wonderful zone leader in this mission, born and raised in Mexico. As a young boy, he and his siblings were pleading, one day, with his father to take them to a movie. His father said, "No, I don't have time to take you to a movie." They continued to plead and beg, the way only young children could do. Finally out of exasperation his father said, "Well, if it rains, I will take you to a movie." They lived in a very dry portion of Mexico. His father thought he was making a very safe arrangement. But this little boy and his siblings went into their room, knelt down and plead with the Lord for rain. They really wanted to see that movie.

The next morning as they all got up, the father looked out the window and it had rained. Now the Lord didn't care about that movie, but He cared deeply about the faith of one of his future missionaries and He wanted him to know that God does answer prayers. So that young man not only got a movie, but he got a personal testimony of the reality of prayer.

A little closer to home, most of you are students. You worry about studies. You worry about passing your class. Sometimes you ask for help. Now if you've worked as hard as you can and studied as hard as you can and then ask for help, my experience is that the Lord will bless you. If you don't do the first part and you simply ask the Lord to help you, my experience is that he will not bless you.

When I was completing my Ph.D. requirements at Columbia, I had taken all the required course work, and I was preparing for the comprehensive oral exam that all Ph.D. students have to take. I had worked hard and I had studied hard, but I had made one decision as I started my studies, and that is that I wasn't going to study on Sundays. I was going to devote that day to church and my family.

As the day drew closer for me to take the examination, three of my classmates took theirs first and they all flunked. I thought, "Oh my goodness, they even studied on Sunday and they didn't have enough information to pass the test. What is going to happen to me?" I was nervous, I was concerned, but I had done all that I could do or all that I could think that I could do.

Shortly before it was my turn, the stake president, who had also earned a Ph.D. years before, knocked on our door. Now think of it, a stake president who had a large stake to run, knocked on the door of a poor young student and his wife. We opened the door and invited him in and he said, "I won't stay long, I just wanted you to know that I and my family will pray for you as you finish preparing to take your examination." Now he had 10 children, I knew that was a lot of prayer. I was excited that he and his 10 children were going to pray for me. And I was touched by the fact that he would personally come and convey that message and so when we got down to pray that night, there was a little extra urgency, but peace, in our prayer.

We didn't pray to know things we hadn't studied. We just prayed to be able to do the best that we could. The next day I went up and sat in a room with five full professors. Each of whom came into the room, I think, thinking, "Now what can I do to flunk him, we want to keep our record clean."

The very first question they asked, I had no idea what the answer was, I assumed that was what everybody else studied on Sunday. I couldn't even remember reading about it, let alone what the answer was. I thought, "Oh boy, here we go." I said another quick, quiet prayer. All of a sudden a feeling of peace came over me and I said, I don't know the answer to that question but here's how I'd get the answer to that question. Here's the kind of information I'd get. Here's the hypothesis I'd establish. Here's how I'd go about testing the data to see what the answer was.

They then went through another series of questions, and then again they asked me a question I had no idea what the answer was. I responded in the same way. That happened three times. I was having a wonderful time. I thought that it was actually kind of fun. I knew most of the answers, the questions I didn't know I just told them how I would get the answers. It turned out to be a wonderful, pleasant exciting experience and as I walked out the door I thought, "Oh, my goodness, I flunked." You see, the Spirit left me and I thought, "Oh, how can they possibly pass me when I had three questions that I didn't have a clue what the answer was?"

The next day I was in a seminar for other Ph.D. students working on their dissertations. I was a little late getting to class. I guess it just took me a little longer to get myself together the next morning. So I walked into the back of the class and one of the professors who was leading the seminar had been on my examination team and he had seen that I wasn't there so he had started talking about me. He said, "Yesterday we gave an examination to one of your fellow students," and I thought, "Oh boy, here it comes." He said, "He passed with one of the three highest grades we've ever given in the 25 years that I've been administering these examinations." I had to sit down. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. How could it be? I'm not that smart!

It turned out that what they were looking for was not only the answers to specific questions but they wanted to know whether or not I was able to think. Therefore, they purposefully asked questions I couldn't possibly have known the answer to, just to see how I would approach those questions. And because of the power of prayer and the peace that had settled over me and the help of the Holy Ghost to think clearly and rationally, I was able to respond in a way that they found satisfactory.

Oh yes, after we have done all that we can do, the Lord does answer our prayers. How blessed you are to have direct access to the Holy Ghost that will help you remember the things that you have studied. And as you pray and ask for that help, if you have done all you can do, the Lord will then help you be the best that you can be. God does answer prayers. I know, because He has answered mine.

Let me tell you one other quick story. President Shumway mentioned that I was a stake president for nine years. During that time I was also the president of General Mills, so I had access to the corporate airplane. Believe me, the only way to fly is on a corporate airplane. You can't imagine as I stand in line for Hawaiian Air, how much I miss that corporate airplane.

Anyway, I was away on assignment in California on Saturday and needed to be back for a ward conference we were having Sunday morning. So Saturday night I jumped in the plane. We were flying back. We were about two hours outside of Minneapolis and the pilot got on the intercom and said, "I'm sorry, we can't go to Minneapolis, it's fogged in." I ran the four feet up to the cockpit and said, "I can't go any place else but Minneapolis." He said, "We're going to Des Moines, that's the airport that is open." I said, " I can't possibly go to Des Moines, I've got to be in Minneapolis tomorrow morning."

Usually, if you are the president of the company the corporate pilot does what you ask him to do, except if it's unsafe. And he said, "I'm sorry I cannot take you to Minneapolis, it's unsafe, we're going to Des Moines." And I said, "Is there any place closer that we can go?" Thinking I could rent a car and drive. And he brought the things up on his screen and he said, "Well, maybe we can get into Rochester, Minnesota." And I said, "Great, I can rent a car in Rochester and drive to Minneapolis, that would be just perfect."

So we're going through the darkness, and I'm looking out the window and I can't see anything. It is pitch black the clouds are so thick. And we're going down and going down. Usually when you land at an airport you see lights and other sorts of things. It's just pitch black. I see nothing. All of a sudden we slammed down on the runway. We drove over to the terminal. I went into the woman who was working there and said, "Can you give me the phone numbers of the car rental companies, I need to rent a car." She said, "I'm sorry, they're all closed. This is a relatively small town, they close at nine o'clock." I said, "Oh, I'm sure somebody's open, just hand me the list." She handed me the list and I dialed every number and sure enough, they were closed. Nobody was open. I thought, "What can I do?"

Not being fit like all of you here, who I see perform at the Polynesian Cultural Center, I knew I couldn't run or even walk to Minneapolis. So I went off into a little room and I bowed my head and I said, "Heavenly Father, I have done everything I can do. If it is important for me to be in that ward conference tomorrow, I need help, because I'm out of options."

As soon as I said that little prayer, I stood up and one of the pilots came running down the hallway. He said, "You're not going to believe this, but just was a fluke," we would call it inspiration, "We decided to call the Minneapolis airport one last time. They said the wind had come up and blown some of the clouds away, if we take off right now, we can land." We ran to the plane, jumped in, and twenty minutes later we started our descent into Minneapolis. You could look out and see the stars in the sky, it was absolutely clear. We landed, I drove home, it was no problem.

The next day in ward conference I was telling that little story as a way of indicating how grateful I was to be there. One of the members of that ward came up to me after and said, "Do you want to know the rest of that story?" I said, "I'd love to." He said, "I work at the airport, I was there last night. We were fogged in for hours. No planes were going in and out. All of a sudden a little wind came up, the airport was clear for 30 minutes, two private planes landed, one of which was yours, and then the clouds came back together and the airport was closed the rest of the night."

There is a God in heaven, who loves us. We all have clouds in our lives. We all face challenges that seem insurmountable. We all have obstacles to overcome. When we have done all that we can do, the Lord will blow away the clouds in your life, just as He blew away the clouds, that night, in mine.

I know that God lives. I know that Jesus is the Christ. I know that they have given us a perfect plan for living and that if we will embrace that plan we can have peace in this life and eternal life in the life to come. God does answer our prayers in his own way in his own time. And knowing without a doubt that this is true we can have peace and joy in our hearts. Please know how grateful we are to be here. Please know how much we love you. Please know that He will answer every righteous faithful prayer. I so promise and testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.