Pragmatic Prayer

While reading some comments on social media concerning prayer, I’ve found that too many of my fellow believers and non-believers have sorely lost sight of the function of prayer.

Before discussing prayer, I’d like to address agency. In Mormonism, agency is "…the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and to act for ourselves. Agency is essential in the plan of salvation."

We are granted agency to act as autonomous individuals. Agency allows us to govern ourselves and allows for optimal growth and development in our endeavors to become compassionate creators. With agency also comes the risk of suffering.

2 Nephi 2:27 reads, "Wherefore, men are free according to their flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself."

Along with articulating the risks and rewards of agency, Nephi offers a warning that Satan desires us to be miserable. As the narrative goes, "One primary issue in the conflict between God and Satan is agency. Agency is a precious gift from God; it is essential to His plan for His children. In Satan’s rebellion against God, Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man" (Moses 4:3). He said: "I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost," (Moses 4:1).

Accordingly, God will not intervene on humanity’s agency as it would be in direct conflict with the purpose of our existence. Intervention was Satan’s plan — the plan of misery. If one believes that God is in control then God has relinquished that power in allowing us ultimate governance and stewardship.

For the Strength of the Youth manual speaks on agency and accountability, "You are responsible for the choices you make. … While you are free to choose your course of action, you are not free to choose the consequences. Whether for good or bad, consequences follow as a natural result of the choices you make. Righteous choices lead to lasting happiness and eternal life."

As autonomous agents, we are at risk for grand consequences — positive and negative consequences that we cannot escape. If we decide to build weapons of mass destruction to annihilate each other, God will not intervene (and has not intervened) on our agency. We will kill each other. We may find ourselves asking, why would any loving God allow so much suffering, pain, and death in this world? Why do children painfully starve to death? Why does cancer have to exist? What about racism, slavery, sexism, heterosexism, violence, war, global warming, or terrorism? Doesn’t God hear our prayers?

Suffering is an inescapable consequence when each of us is endowed with the power of agency. We can use that power to create or destroy. When we hurt and destroy, when we are idle and useless, when we are apathetic and careless, we will suffer, as will those around us.

In Nephi we read, “there is an opposition in all things”. Can we ever experience joy without sadness? Can we know peace without anger? Can we feel strength without weakness? One without the other becomes meaningless. This life is full of undeniable opposition. However, God doesn’t intervene and stop our suffering any more than God would intervene and stop our joy. To intervene would be to hinder our evolutionary progress.

What a terrifying, yet beautifully empowering idea to comprehend ourselves as individual agents. We are responsible and accountable not just for ourselves, but for one another through the consequences of agency. We are our brother’s keeper.

But some of you may ask yourselves, what is the point of prayer if God won’t intervene? Is prayer useful even if we omit God from the equation?

Prayer is practical and useful when carried out with real intent. I must admit, I recently commented to one of my atheist friends that even in times when I have been apathetic toward the existence of God, I have continued the ritual of prayer. There are simply far too many benefits, even if I am the only one hearing them.

One benefit of prayer is the verbal expression of gratitude. As Paul noted to the Colossians, “Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving.” Prayer is a time to reflect on the grand and vast abundance of life in the spirit of appreciation. Even if you are disinclined to acknowledge God, the daily ritual of prayerful gratitude can increase your mental health and well-being.

Prayer is also a ritual of empathy that causes us to reflect on how to better improve humanity by receiving inspiration when pondering the concerns and needs of others. When we pray and meditate, our minds can access inspired opportunities to serve one another.

Moroni 7: 9 states, “And likewise also is it counted evil unto man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.” But what does Moroni mean when he says to pray “with real intent”?

To understand prayer with “real intent”, I am reminded of the words of Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, "When our wagon gets stuck in the mud, God is much more likely to assist the man who gets out to push than the man who merely raises his voice in prayer—no matter how eloquent the oration." We should not pray and passively wait. We should pray and get to work. When prayers are said with genuine intent, our works will reflect our intentions. Our prayers are far more valuable and effective when coupled with action.

Unfortunately, prayer can be mistakenly used as an idle stool people passively sit upon while waiting for God’s interventions. If you are praying in repetitious vanity for supernatural answers then you are sorely misinterpreting the function of prayer. We cannot insensibly pray and expect God to do the work when we are endowed with the power of agency. I’m inclined to believe that “the power of our prayers depends on us”.

Too many make the mistake of waiting on God to answer our prayers when surely it is God who is waiting on us!

I deeply value the influence of prayer in my life as an expression of gratitude, recognition of empathy, and ritual of inspiration.

My husband and I encountered many difficulties in having our three children. During the pregnancy of our daughter, I was faced with life-threatening risks. Before my scheduled c-section, I prayed with a genuine desire that my daughter and I would survive. I wanted nothing more than to be her mother.

Coupled with my prayer were my efforts. I researched the risks of my pregnancy, equipped myself with the best available physicians, and took advantage of the latest medical technologies — which, I’ll admit, were a product of my affluent privilege. But even with my works and privilege I was still unable to safely deliver my baby alone.

The answer to my prayer came in the form of compassionate physicians, technologists, and specialists. They not only saved my daughter, but they saved me. God did not compel these people to be saviors. God did not part the skies and safely place my daughter in my arms. No, individual agents did. Humanity, God’s children, took it upon themselves to use their agency to be the body of Christ. They became the answers to prayers they had never heard.

How many times in your life have you had another person be an answer to a humble prayer or desire in your heart? Perhaps it was a parent or a friend? Perhaps it was a spiritual leader or a teacher? Or maybe even a child? Did you take the time to notice?

Whose prayers will you answer? Whose lives will you touch? How will you use your agency? How will you use your privilege? How many missed opportunities have idly gone by while waiting on God to intervene on our agency?

Too often I hear, “Why doesn’t God answer the prayers of the starving children?” When what we should be asking ourselves, “How can we answer the prayers of the starving children?"

They ask, “Why does God not save the dying woman from cancer?” When we should be asking, "How can we save the dying woman from cancer?"

You don’t have to hear a prayer to become the solution. If you simply lack the inspiration, pray. You may find the answer in becoming the answer. The power of prayer doesn’t lie in mysticism nor should the power of prayer be dismissed with cynicism. The power of prayer lies within our agency when we use and create technologies that empower us to act.