The Purpose of Prayer

Albrecht Dürer - Praying Hands, 1508 - Google Art ProjectA few days ago John S. Harvey sent the M* editors a question regarding the purpose of prayer. John particularly wondered what the M* community thinks about praying for the leaders of countries throughout the world.

I’m curious *what* we should pray for?  I assume God has a plan in mind and that my asking him to change any aspect of that plan isn’t going to change the plan.  And likewise if I happen to pray in ways that are consistent with His plan I don’t think it would increase the efficacy of the plan in any way.  I assume that God is already trying to prompt leaders to do what is right (obviously many don’t).

If I pray that hearts will be changed/softened that sounds nice, but wouldn’t God already be trying to get them to do what is right?  I know we have been commanded to pray that the opportunities for missionary work around the world will increase.  And so I do that.

“At the end of the day I’m left with the question of what should I be praying for with respect to leaders of countries throughout the world?  It seems like almost any prayer is either asking for the leader’s agency to be taken away, or for God’s plan to be changed given that God would already be trying to get them to do what is right already.”

John said that praying for Church leaders is different for him. “In the case of Church leaders much of what I am praying for is to bring my will into harmony with God’s will and for the leaders to be able to understand and accomplish God’s will.  That seems to be a very different set of motivations than any of the leader’s of countries I can think of.”

What think ye? How do you envision that prayers for world leaders work?

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the LDS church for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

19 thoughts on “The Purpose of Prayer

  1. I think of the story of Alma the Younger and his father.

    It is certainly difficult for humans to quantify the role of prayer. Praying for leaders with full purpose of heart certainly has the effect of making the person doing the prayer more sensitive to the HG in his/her own life.

  2. Meg,
    This brings to mind what happened at William Tyndale’s execution, when he prayed out loud, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” History shows that that is exactly what shortly happened, and private ownership of scripture was allowed. I want to remember God’s power to soften the hearts of nations’ leaders. I want to be willing to pray for them, something like Tyndale did. I feels hugely better than pining for a president’s downfall.
    God bless,

  3. I believe C. S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm went into some detail about the efficacy of prayers. In essence, we pray for others out of Christian regard for our fellow brothers and sisters, even our enemies. We do this not necessarily to change external factors, but to change the internal factors *within us*: the act of prayer is a form of worship and hence makes us better children of God.

    It’s really meant for us, not the folks that we are worried about, although if they receive blessings as a result of our faith, all to the good.

  4. I have a co-worker not interested in the gospel. God wants his soul. What can I do to help? He loves my co-worker as much as he loves me and is surely already doing what he can. Actually, he could send an angel, but he doesn’t. Why not?

    Maybe he can’t. He respects our agency. It is sacred to him. So what can God do and still respect man’s agency? There is no question but that he does stuff. He uses his power to influence man. But what determines how he uses that power? We are told by Mormon that it is based on man’s faith (Moroni 7). So, how can my faith influence how God uses his power to help my co-worker (world leader).

    If I pray and ask God to bless them, to touch their heart by the Holy Ghost, does that ‘free his hands’ so to speak, to do something? When under the microscope and the adversary asks: ‘Why did you do that? It’s not fair!’ God can then answer: ‘Because my servant prayed with faith that I would.’ (instead of the catch all: ‘Because of the covenant which I made with Adam, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, etc)

    That’s why it is fair that he sent an Angel to some and not to others. And why it’s so important to have faith, and pray. The future is not set. It is influenced by mans faith, and his prayers. God certainly has his plans and the prophecies will be fulfilled. But whether my co-worker has a spiritual experience that changes his future, or even whether I continue to have faith and pray, is not determined. It will be determined by my own will, choosing between the evil enticing of Satan and the loving influence of God, which is in turn is influenced by the faith and prayers of those who love me.

    He knows what we need, even the very thoughts and desires of our hearts, but still asks/commands us to pray.

  5. I pray for civic leaders to have the humility to seek wise counsel (including the Lord’s), the wisdom to recognize it, and the courage to act on it. That way it’s still left to their agency.

  6. I sometimes fear that I take the efficacy of prayer for granted. I could provide numerous examples of answers to prayer both immediate and long term, but the importance of agency is paramount. We can pray for others with miraculous results, but often there is a cost. Sometimes hearts must be awakened by pain. Alma provides many examples, but the suffering of Alma the younger after his encounter with the angel is instructive. Sometimes we must be willing to place our own comfort, wealth or health on the altar.

  7. @JSH, I had the same question. I found this helpful, from the Bible Dictionary entry on prayer (emphasis mine):

    “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. Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings.”

    My opinion is that as a church, we sometimes/kinda need to reach a certain threshhold of pray-ors (ie, # of people praying) to meet those aforementioned “conditions”. IE, we shouldn’t be like the children of Israel in Moses day, and tell our prophet/apostles “Hey, you guys go talk to God for us.” The Lord didn’t seem to like that back then. On the contrary, today, like then, the Lord and His prophets want _all_ of us to prepare and literally go into His presence.

    Moses literally did want the children of Israel to see the Lord face to face, and so did Joseph Smith in regard to his contemporaries.

    And it seems that part of, or a step in the process of, coming into God’s presence like the prophets did/do, is to _pray_ like the prophets did/do.

  8. My dreams and visions, relatively useless as they have been for “practical” purposes, persuade me to think that God does know the future in relatively precise detail. This differs from the understanding I have heard others express, that God only knows the future in a statistical or probabilistic sense.

    The Greeks came up with the idea of the Fates measuring out the lives of mankind like spun yarn, cutting when a life was to end. Orson Scott Card borrowed that in his weaver character in the Alvin Maker stories, where the cloth composed of each major culture was maintained by a person with a gift of perceiving what was occurring.

    In the fact of God’s foreknowledge and free will, what can prayer do?

    I am instructed by a story I heard in Italy while there on a mission. Elder Lorenzo Snow and others were proselytizing amongst the Valdesi, protestant Christians who had taken refuge in the inhospitable mountains of Italy. One of the boys became deathly ill, and Elder Snow prayed for the boy to be healed. But there appeared to be divine resistance to that plea. Elder Snow persisted, arguing that if they could miraculously heal the boy, the Valdesi would be receptive to the gospel. After a long period of such pleading prayer, the boy was healed. And Elder Snow wrote to his sister about the healing. Eliza Snow, for her part, had been sitting next to Lorenzo’s wife when the wife died suddenly. According to Eliza, Lorenzo’s wife died at the same time that the Valdesi boy was healed.

    Now there may not have been any metaphysical link between the healing of the Valdesi child and the death of Lorenzo’s wife, but apparently Eliza and Lorenzo thought there was. Thus we have an instance of the idea that there is a cost associated with demanding that from God which was not God’s will.

    God’s will appears wholly aligned with bringing to pass the eternal salvation of mankind. It does not appear to be particularly aligned with bringing to pass the creature comfort of any individual member of the family of mankind. Sometimes the thing we need in order to turn to God is analogous to being “well chased after,” as occurred in the case of the kangaroo and the yellow dog dingo in the Just So Story about how the kangaroo got it’s tail.

    So, is it God’s job to “already be trying to get them to do what is right?” I submit that it is not God’s job or will to divinely plead with leaders to “do what is right.” If that were His job, He surely would have wanted to prevent various atrocities throughout history. Rather, His will appears to be to allow us to know that we are free agents and responsible for the consequences of our actions, including atrocity.

    When we, as free agents, apply our pleadings and actions to saving mankind (in the many different ways that mankind can be saved), then God’s will resonates with our pleadings and actions. And He can and does inspire individuals in ways that defy natural explanation.

    The hymn “Know This, That Every Man is Free” is useful to contemplate. Emma Smith included it in the first LDS hymnal. Verse 2 is most germane to this discussion:

    [God will] call, persuade, direct aright,
    And bless with wisdom, love, and light,
    In nameless ways be good and kind,
    But never force the human mind.

    So in my way of thinking, when we pray for secular leaders, we are requesting that God provide even more instances for those leaders to be called, persuaded, directed correctly, blessed with wisdom, love for their followers, and the light of God. At the same time, I suspect that when we pray for leaders, we lend ourselves to be called, persuaded, directed, etc. to act in ways that will help effect God’s will.

  9. Meg, are you also aware of those who don’t believe God’s foreknowledge is absolute? It changes how you think about these things. Here is a link to a Faulconer essay. I fall into the 2nd category.

    In the same way we qualify Omnipresence with knowing God has a body. Or Omnipotence with certain limitations (can’t lie, can’t create matter or intelligence, can’t deny justice, etc.) I qualify Omniscience to “knowing” what can be know. The future is not yet set and man has agency.

    I know there are some very influential opinions to the contrary, and some heavy reasoning to explain it all. Regardless, I believe his foreknowledge is not absolute regarding the future, because it is unknowable. I can still have faith because of his omnipotence, and fully expect that my actions and prayers will influence him and how he uses his power in my life and all of ours.

    I’m sorry if this changes the subject from prayer, but I find no answer for how God can “know” the future and still use his power in the present. Per “the butterfly” effect, each time he uses that power, knowing the inevitable outcome, he is causing that outcome.

    Lorenzo and Eliza might have had a little different understanding and opinion. I still love them. And you too.

  10. It sure does, bf. It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”

  11. So does that make zero words best of all?

    I once decided that I would try to only give thanks and not ask for things and prayers. That worked for few weeks but you really do have to ask for things at times.

    I found that using specific words is very helpful. There are times when I feel like the answer to a prayer I didn’t even know I have came to me by the words that I was inspired to say in the prayer.

  12. “So does that make zero words best of all?”

    Hello Megness! Well, I think what we’re getting at is that some might think that they have to somehow invoke God’s attention by long, wordy, flowery prayers. For me, I’ve noticed that the Spirit steps off from me a little when I have tried to impress Him with paragraphs of word froth. I find that God does not need to hear me rattle on; He would rather I did more listening. I love a quote from François Fénelon: “How rare it is to find a soul quiet enough to hear God speak.”

  13. Something else comes to mind: our temptation to intellectualize things. I would say, we can just talk to God. And then get quiet and just listen.

  14. I once read that “every time you open an oven door, the temperature drops 25 degrees.” So in all my Megness, I joke that if you open an oven door often enough, you can get to absolute zero.

    My husband represents one who in the past would argue that God couldn’t possible actually know the detailed future. So I am aware that good people can think that. I still return to the question of how I could have had a dream in 1994 that would accurately capture a scene that occurred in 2002, which aligned with the intervening death of my son, the autism of my next daughter, and the not-autistic normalcy of my subsequent daughter. There were a whole slew of butterfly-esque events that should have made such a future impossible to foresee.

    I once calculated the likelihood that dream could have accidentally gotten things right. It’s pretty astronomical.

    We are like the blind men attempting to describe our interactions with the elephant. But if enough of us describe how prayer works for us, we may help someone who might have had a perspective that hadn’t previously allowed them to access the fuller power of prayer.

  15. What is the purpose of life? To become like God our Father. How do we do that? By following his Son. Why do we pray? Because He did.

    The purpose of prayer is to help us on the journey to become like God.

  16. Thanks all. As I mentioned in my letter to the MStar Editors I wanted to read the collective thoughts on the topic of praying for the leaders of countries throughout the world (not prayer per se, but that specific practice). I appreciate your willingness to comment. While I don’t always see eye-to-eye with some here I do find the discussions useful in terms of sparking new thoughts and ideas.

  17. Speaking of praying for leaders of countries, a colleague stopped by to mention that apparently hired folks to protest Friday’s inauguration. Apparently some who infiltrated planning for this “protest” report that these protesters plan to set off gas bombs (e.g., stink bombs) during events.

    At the least, that’s a nuisance. Even if only stink bombs, this could cause panic that causes injury or death. And if someone switched out the “stink” component for something less innocuous, then the possibility of injury could get upgraded to a probability of injury.

    So I think it’s legitimate to pray that malicious actors be deterred or discovered. And when we pray for the welfare of those in our nation or other nations, I have prayed both that righteous leaders be supported in their wise actions and that where leadership is damaging the people that others be raised up who can successfully become the leaders.

    One other note is that we come to love those for whom we work. Prayer is work. And so when we pray for countries that their leaders might provide rightly, we come to love those countries.

    I suppose I might pray for an individual leader if I thought they were wholly aligned with God’s will. Otherwise, I think it’s more germane to pray for the people, that they might have the leaders that will permit/provoke faith and salvation.

  18. Prayer is a demonstration of our faith, especially when we pray for people that are outside our control or influence.

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