Prayer: A Troubleshooting Guide
(Getting Answers, Part 2)
6 February 2021
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In my last post, I likened receiving revelation to learning an instrument, a sport, or a language. I offered some thoughts about proper “technique” when asking questions of the Lord and a suitable training plan for building our ability to ask questions, listen to answers, and follow through.
But what if it doesn’t work? What if you are doing all these things, and still not hearing the voice of the Spirit in your life?
In this post, I offer a “troubleshooting guide” where I propose five possible reasons you may not be receiving revelation. Just as with a troubleshooting guide for a dishwasher or computer, not all of these may be an issue; in fact, none of them might be. But they are common enough pitfalls that they deserve some attention.
(In my next two posts, I will explore some more troubleshooting questions and then debunk some wrong explanations that Satan would have us think about why we sometimes fail to get answers to prayer.)
1. Are we praying with faith?
The scriptures are clear that we must pray with faith and belief:
Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. (Mark 11:24)
But what does it mean to “believe [we will] receive them”? How do we really know if we’re praying with faith?
The author of the epistle of Hebrew gives us a clue:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1, NIV; emphasis added1)
When we have faith that something will happen, we are confident it will happen. In other words, we expect it to happen.
What do I mean by “expect”?
Imagine it’s the middle of the night, and you walk into your kitchen, reach out your hand, and flick the light switch. You expect the light switch to be there, even though you don’t see it. You also expect the electricity to work and the lights to come on. You don’t know for sure that they will—perhaps the power has gone out, or a light bulb has blown, or someone has sneaked into the house and uninstalled the light switch—but you expect it to happen.
So it is with faith. Those who pray with faith expect God to hear them and to respond. They may not know what action He will take, what answer He may give, or when He will give it. But they expect it. And when the answers (or even miracles) come, they are not caught by surprise.
How do we build that expectation? It’s easy for those with many prior experiences with revelation to expect it in the future. But what about newbies?
Luckily, we have the benefit of (1) the scriptures, which give us promises and examples from the past, and (2) friends and role models, who give us examples from every-day life. By choosing to “believe on their words” (Doctrine and Covenants 46:14) and by immersing ourselves in the word of God, we can build up the confidence that God does, indeed, answer the prayers of His children.
2. Are we putting in sufficient effort?
Revelation is sacred. It is priceless. And especially for the weightier questions, we need to put in the time and energy—the spiritual and mental effort—that God requires.
Here are some examples of the effort required of people from the scriptures (emphasis added throughout):
I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins. . . . My soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens (Enos 1:2, 4; see also 3 Nephi 1:11–12).
The sons of Mosiah:
They had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God. But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation (Alma 17:2–3; see also Alma 5:46).
The early Christian Saints:
Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him. (Acts 12:5.)
The Savior Himself:
And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).2
For some types of aid, we must put in sincere, heartfelt, and consistent effort. I experienced this firsthand the other night, when I knelt down and prayed about some friends that I was concerned about, seeking revelation to know how to help them. The answer I felt from the Lord was, “Pray about them consistently for several days. Then I will begin to give you answers.”
We must also exert study and forethought before asking our questions. For example, Joseph Smith’s prayer in the Sacred Grove was more than a spontaneous, off-the-cuff question. It was the result of months of intense study and reflection (see Joseph Smith—History 1:8–13; see also Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–8).
3. Do we need to forgive anyone?
The Savior taught the importance of being reconciled with our neighbors before approaching Him:
If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. (Matthew 5:23–24; see also Mark 11:25)
Referencing this verse, Mark E. Peterson (a member of the Quorum of the Twelve from 1944 to 1984) taught,
With this in mind can we assume that our worship is acceptable to God if we have ill feelings toward others or if we have dealt unfairly with anyone?3
4. Are we in the right emotional state?
Our attitude, or emotional state, can greatly affect our receptivity to spiritual things.
We are unlikely to receive answers if we are pridefully trusting in our own righteousness (see Luke 18:9–14). The Lord has said, “be thou humble, and the Lord thy God shall . . . give thee answer to thy prayers” (Doctrine and Covenants 112:10).
Nor will we be receptive if we are “angry [or] confused,” or praying “either in an attitude of stubborn self-will or whimpering self-pity.”4 Pride, fear, and doubt are anathema to faith and love, and so any emotional state based in those negative emotions will cut us off from the frequency on which the Spirit speaks.
5. Are we trying to manipulate God?
Often, people go to God for answers when a Church doctrine, principle, policy, or practice upsets them. But when we approach God in an attitude of anger, frustration, or indignation, demanding that God “fix” the problem or explain Himself, is it any wonder that He deigns not to answer?
Sometimes we try to bully God into giving us what we want. When I was in the MTC, my companion struggled mightily to learn Spanish, and I quickly became frustrated as well. About two weeks into my time there, I resolved to fast that God would help my companion learn the language. That night, after already fasting several hours, I vowed in my journal, “I will continue to fast until God makes manifest to me His power,” meaning until I could see visible improvement in my companion’s language skills.
The next day, the Spirit came to me and chastened me for my approach. That night I wrote the following:
[Around mid-morning] I realized that I was fasting more out of rebellion than faith—an attempt to force God’s hand and rush His appointed timing. So I repented and broke my fast at lunch.
God will not be strong-armed into doing what we want, on our timetable. He is God, after all.
Just as we will troubleshoot appliances or software on occasion, so we will all face times where we must troubleshoot our prayers. If you feel like your petitions to God have been less effective lately, I invite you to evaluate your prayers this week and identify if one or more of the issues covered above is holding you back from receiving the answers God wants to send you.
When we find ourselves struggling to receive answers to prayer, many impeding factors might be at play. We can benefit by asking some “troubleshooting” questions. (1) Are we praying with faith? Do we truly expect to receive an answer? (2) Are we putting in the mighty and consistent effort that some answers require? (3) Do we need to forgive anyone before approaching God? (4) Are we in an emotional state of humility and peace, or are we plagued by feelings of fear, worry, or pride? (5) Are we trying to manipulate God into giving in to our will or timetable?
Points to Ponder
- Do any of these troubleshooting questions apply to you?
- How can you improve your prayers this week?
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1. I used the NIV here because I feel the word choice is clearer. The King James Version reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Note that in the Inspired Version, Joseph Smith changed “substance” to “assurance.”)
2. See also Luke 5:16 (“And he withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed), Matthew 14:23 (“And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone”), and Mark 1:35 (“And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed”).
3. Mark E. Petersen, “Believers and Doers,” Ensign, November, 1982.
4. “Step 11: Personal Revelation,” from Addiction Recovery Program: A Guide to Addiction Recovery and Healing, 2005.
What obstacles have you overcome in your prayers? What would you add to this troubleshooting guide?
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