The Odd Thing: Prayer

Prayer is an odd thing. In it we worship God (which is not so strange) and we ask him for what we need (which is the odd thing). After all, he already knows what we need. In fact, he knows better than we do.

So what is the point of asking? Why pray and for what? Clearly we cannot tell our Heavenly Father anything about our situation that he doesn't already know. But it is equally clear that it is important for us to worship him.

We make a mistake if we believe that the point of prayer is the communication of information. Rather than that, as I see it, prayer is a form of confession: we come before God and recognize his glory, his majesty, and his power, on the one hand, and our finitude and powerlessness, on the other. We remember that we are weaklings but we recognize that we are also children of God.

In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin says:

I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel (Mosiah 4:11).

By means of prayer we recognize the things that King Benjamin says are necessary for our salvation: God's greatness and our nothingness, his goodness and long-suffering toward us. In prayer we humble ourselves before God while standing fast in our trust of him.

Of course, Jesus gave us the example of prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, the Lord's Prayer:

After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Here Jesus teaches us how to pray. He begins by calling on our Heavenly Father by name. When we repeat that call in our prayers, we implicitly avow that he is the Creator and the Sovereign of our world, the Father of our Spirits.

When Jesus praises the Father, he uses phrases such as "Hallowed be thy name." I ought also to praise him. And I continue to praise the Father when I offer my thanks to him because I cannot thank him without at least implicitly recognizing his power and my powerlessness, his grace and my unworthiness. I recognize that whatever is good in my life comes from him.

To come before the Lord in prayer and to recognize him as God is to come before him in our need. If we had no need, we would have no need to pray. But it is impossible that any living human being is free of need or problems. Prayer forces us to reflect on our weaknesses and want.

Sometimes we hear that it is inappropriate for us to pray for divine assistance because it is inappropriate for human beings to make demands of God.

Of course we cannot make demands on our Heavenly Father like a child begging for a piece of candy. He is not a rich uncle or genial spirit who satisfies our desires when we importune him. If we think of prayer that way, we are superstitious rather than religious.

But when we imitate Jesus' prayer and ask for our "daily bread," we are not making an insistent demand. We are not being superstitious. Instead, we are confessing that we do not have the power to master even our ordinary, daily difficulties, and we are conceding that God, the Creator and Master of the universe, has all power. With prayer, we place our existence and our well-being in the hands of God, and that changes everything.

Mormon scripture teaches us to pray for our salvation (Enos 1:4), for forgiveness of our sins and for the power to face temptation. Mormon scripture also teaches us to pray for the souls of others (Enos 1:9), for spiritual gifts (Alma 17:3), and for the love that comes through the Holy Spirit (Moroni 8:26).

But scripture teaches us not only to pray for such obviously spiritual things. It also teaches us to pray over more quotidian concerns, such as our work (Alma 34:20, 24-25) and our families (Alma 34:21). Scripture teaches that we can pray about a problem of any kind. It is even possible to pray that our financial situation will be better (Alma 34:25).

12/2/2022 9:09:21 PM
  • Mormon
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  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.