I remember a time when there was something that I really wanted to have happen in my life. I felt it was good, but when it wasn’t working out, I got discouraged and didn’t understand why praying for something with such faith wasn’t allowing it to work out. What I didn’t recognize, however, was that the way I understood prayer and God’s will was different from the way God understood it. So what is the purpose of prayer and how do we figure out God’s will for us?
An Example from Our History
When we think about praying to change God’s will, one story from Church history in particular comes to mind: Joseph Smith and the 116 pages. Most of us are familiar with Martin Harris’s part of this story. But this experience was just as much Joseph’s as it was Martin’s. Joseph asked the Lord three times if Martin could take the manuscript pages, and the Lord finally told him, “Okay, but . . .” It was a big request. Did Joseph’s prayer change God’s will? God granted his petition even though He said “no” the first few times.
There are examples from the Book of Mormon as well. Consider the prayers of Enos. He asked a big request of the Lord: that the Nephite records be preserved. And the prophet Nephi in the Book of Helaman requested that the Lord send a famine and then rain, which He did. Why did the Lord grant these significant petitions? Because they were in line with God’s will, or because these brothers were more faithful than we are? What is God’s will, and how do we find it out?
What Is the Will of God?
I was sitting in a stake conference meeting the other day where we were talking about “God’s will.” I thought, “What is a ‘will’?” After a bit of research, I found out that a “will” is a desire or a hope. So let’s rephrase our questions: “What is God’s desire or hope?” I believe that God’s desire or hope is that we will be happy and return to Him having proved our loyalty and faithfulness and come out better and stronger (see Moses 1:39). To me, that means we already always know God’s will for us—for us to be happy and learn. Elder Christofferson puts it this way:
"It is God’s will that we be free men and women enabled to rise to our full potential both temporally and spiritually, that we be free from the humiliating limitations of poverty and the bondage of sin, that we enjoy self-respect and independence, that we be prepared in all things to join Him in His celestial kingdom."
Perhaps this would cut down on our frustration about not receiving an answer, about not being able to decide if it's our own thoughts or the Spirit, and our inability to move forward when we feel like we don't know what God wants for us. In fact, this might revolutionize how and why we pray.
Why Do We Pray?
Prayer is not a wish list. It’s not a place to rant or list faults, even if we sometimes treat it that way. It should be a conversation—a time to align our will with God’s and ask Him our questions. We know this.
However, many of us are also familiar with the scripture in 2 Nephi 4:35, which says, "Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss . . ."
Hold on, so not only do I need to figure out God's will, but He will only give me the things that I ask for that He wanted for me in the first place? That's confusing. But if we look a little closer at the purpose of prayer, perhaps we can understand better why prayer is a gift and how it fits with God's will. Elder J. Devn Cornish in the October 2011 conference said,
"Little children, young people, and adults alike, please believe how very much your loving Heavenly Father wants to bless you. But because He will not infringe upon our agency, we must ask for His help. This is generally done through prayer. Prayer is one of the most precious gifts of God to man."
President Eyring added in April 2015:
"It is easier to get the proper feeling of reverence when you are kneeling or bowing your head, but it is possible to feel that you are approaching your Heavenly Father in less formal and even in silent prayer, as you will often need to do in your priesthood service. There will be noise and people around you most of your waking day. God hears your silent prayers, but you may have to learn to shut out the distractions because the moment you need the connection with God may not come in quiet times."
President [Joseph F.] Smith suggested that you will need to pray that God will recognize your call to serve Him. He already knows about your call in complete detail. He called you, and by praying to Him about your call, He will reveal more for you to know."
According to these quotes, prayer is an opportunity for us to talk with God and learn to trust Him and recognize our need for His vision and guidance. A big part of that is to learn how to ask God to show us the path that He sees and we cannot. He always wants our happiness and progression, so perhaps when we pray, instead of asking, “What do you want me to do?” maybe we can exercise more of our agency by making a decision and then ask, “Will this decision make me happy?” We can ask Him to confirm gospel principles to our hearts and make more efforts outside of our prayers to learn about the gospel path—more naturally aligning our desires with God's.
Looking Back at Joseph, Enos, and Nephi
How does all this apply to our examples in the beginning? While Joseph may have had a desire to give his friend Martin thanks or provide proof of the Book of Mormon, God’s desire was not to reward or prove His gospel. It was to teach faith and endurance—skills that would ultimately bring Joseph and Martin closer to God and help them learn to find joy in their faithfulness. God knew the quickest way to do that was by not loaning out the manuscript. But He also values agency, and so gave permission for Joseph to follow through with Joseph's own will. He didn’t change His will, but when we aren't willing to listen to it, sometimes He lets us learn through our own exercise of agency what will bring us happiness or misery.
On the other hand, with the examples of Enos and Nephi, both had the same root desire as their Heavenly Father: to bring the people closer to God and remind them of His omniscience. They asked for things that they knew would encourage righteousness and obedience to God and did not "ask amiss" for things that would selfishly gratify clouded "natural man" desires.
We can’t change God’s will, nor do we actually want to. By learning to think of the bigger picture our Father in Heaven has in mind and beginning to recognize that He knows what will lead to our growth, happiness, and exaltation, our own desires will slowly change to match His, and the things that we pray for will change too. Which means we might just find our prayers being answered the way we envisioned more often as we do not ask amiss.
"Prayer is a supernal gift of our Father in Heaven to every soul. Think of it: the absolute Supreme Being, the most all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful personage, encourages you and me, as insignificant as we are, to converse with Him as our Father. Actually, because He knows how desperately we need His guidance, He commands, “Thou shalt pray vocally as well as in thy heart; yea, before the world as well as in secret, in public as well as in private." — Richard G. Scott