We all have times when answers come easily. We have times when answers come clearly and distinctly. And we all have times when we really pray about something and seemingly receive no answer. On some such occasions, we may feel that we've conscientiously followed the instructions in Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9. We have studied the issue out in our minds, prayed about it (perhaps we even fasted), and asked the Lord if our decision or understanding is right. But after all that, we still do not feel we have received a burning in the bosom—or a stupor of thought—and thus it appears we are left to our own resources to try to solve the problem. Or we may be certain we have received an answer—but then things don't work out the way we thought they would.
When these kinds of situations arise, it presents an even greater spiritual opportunity to exercise our faith and to persist—and thus, in the process, to truly increase our faith, perhaps more than when answers come easily, directly, clearly, or distinctly.
Some Saints, when they have faced situations like this, lose faith in prayer, or determine the Lord doesn't always answer prayer, or decide it is not a surefire means of receiving help. What can we do to persist and not lose faith when answers don't come quickly?
First of all, I earnestly believe in the Lord's great love for his children. As I mention elsewhere in this book, I believe there never was a sincere prayer offered since the days of Adam, by anyone, member or nonmember alike, that was not answered by the Lord. When one truly knows the great love the Lord has for his children, he will know with a certainty that the Lord does answer all sincere prayers.
The key, then, is for us to discern how those answers come. We must not judge the Lord, nor should we harden our hearts when seemingly an answer has not come. Instead, we need to trust the Lord and know he is answering our prayers in his own way and by his own means. As Isaiah taught us:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9.)
I bear my testimony that this is true. Therefore, we cannot judge the Lord—but we can trust him.
Let's look at some of the circumstances where prayers may seem to be unanswered—and how we might understand them.
1. Know That Answers May Come in Unexpected Ways
One kind of seemingly unanswered prayer comes when the Lord does not answer our prayers in the way we expect. If we are more open to the different ways that answers come, we will recognize the Lord's hand in our lives more—and that, in turn, will build our faith so we can receive more answers . . .
2. Be Prepared for Increased Opposition from Satan
If you're praying for something that really matters, you can count on the fact that the devil will get involved. He's eager to do what he can to thwart you. He will do his best to dissuade you from going forward. He'll give you such thoughts as "You can't do it. You're not worthy enough. Your family's got too many problems. You can't do what the Lord requires." He'll engineer whatever he can to try to make you doubt. So you may as well know up front that he is going to tempt you.
When you attract the devil's attention and he starts to give you more opposition than you normally have, that's a great sign that you're on a course that pleases God and displeases Satan.
I've found that when you begin to pray for something that really matters, many times things get worse, not better. Often the cause is Satan and his helpers, who are doing their best to make sure you don't succeed. That ought to be a signal to a man or woman of faith: "I'm on the right track. I'm doing something that's making a difference and I will now double my faith." If you can increase your faith in that moment, you will have won most of the battle.
3. Be Prepared for the Lord to Test Your Faith
When we're seeking answers to prayers, the Lord will surely test us. He wants us to see if we will serve and love him at any cost. He wants us to see if we will continue in faith even if we don't receive the answer we had hoped for.
The blessing often comes after a trial of our faith (see Ether 12:6), and we have to persevere even through difficult times if we want to come to the answer we seek . . .
4. Sometimes the Answer Comes Later
Prayers for the Redemption of Zion. The redemption of Zion gives us a good example of this principle. How many prayers do you think were offered for the redemption of Zion in Missouri in the early part of this dispensation? Once the Latter-day Saints learned they were to build a Zion in Independence, Missouri, don't you suppose that thousands of people would have offered thousands of prayers that they would indeed be able to inherit Zion? Yet, if we judge from the vantage point of those people who were driven out of Missouri, we would have to say that their prayers were not answered.
Yet, because the Lord does things in his own way and in his own time, all of those prayers, in my judgment, have been and will be answered upon the heads of the faithful Latter-day Saints. It is true that they did not appear to be answered then, but that is no reason to assume they are not going to be answered at all. They will be answered, and they will be consecrated for the good of the Saints who offered them . . .
5. Sometimes the Answer Is Unclear
When I was younger and prayed fervently for answers to prayers, sometimes I didn't feel I received an answer—and then I wondered if the Lord really did love me. I had prayed earnestly and put my trust in the Lord, exercised faith, fasted, and seemingly received no response from the heavens.
I have realized in later years that in many instances the Lord does not give a direct answer to our prayers, since that would destroy our opportunity to exercise faith. Sometimes he knows an unclear answer or a delayed answer is exactly what we need, for a time, so we will learn to exercise greater faith.
But my experience has been that, even if an answer doesn't seem to come, the Lord will still communicate with you. I believe that if you will watch carefully, he will somehow express his love to you, telling you that you are okay in some other way, independent perhaps of that for which you are praying. In this way he will give you comfort and yet not defeat his purpose of causing you to have more faith. Because of his love, he may not respond directly on the issue you're praying about, but some way, somehow, perhaps through some other means or some other issue in your life, he will whisper into your heart the assurance that he does love you, that he is working with you, and that you are okay.
6. Sometimes the Answer We Desire Is Not Granted
Let me share with you a similar story that didn't work out so well. When we were in Uruguay presiding over a mission, we were having another baby. My wife was overdue, and the doctor said that they would induce labor by Monday morning if the labor pains didn't start on their own. We didn't feel like inducing labor was the thing to do—we had a great desire for the baby to come naturally. We decided to ask the missionaries in the office staff to fast and pray with us that the baby would come before Monday.
My wife and I walked more in the next three or four days than we had in the whole month previous, trying to help things along. But the days came and went, and still no baby. On Sunday night we prayed extra fervently, and we continued to pray until 9:30 a.m. on Monday, when the nurse inserted the needle that started the labor.
This experience in prayer seemed to be one of failure, but it really was a success, and it helps to illustrate an important principle of power in prayer.
When our prayers are not answered the way we'd hoped, how do we respond? Do we turn our backs on the Lord in frustration or anger? Do we doubt the process? Do we doubt ourselves? Or do we learn from the experience and continue with increased faith the next time?
I believe that no exercise of faith and prayer is wasted, even if the desired result is not obtained. Every such exercise helps us to grow and develop in most important spiritual ways, and we thereby become more prepared to seek and receive answers to prayers on future occasions.
Of course, all sincere prayers are answered. But remember that sometimes the answer will be no; or yes, but later; or yes, but with alterations; or some other response.
As I conclude this experience, there is one more key observation I feel I should make. Some months later we joined the missionaries in exercising faith, seeking the Lord's blessings in regard to a challenge the mission was having. Suddenly I realized that our earlier efforts to exercise faith (for the natural birth) were now bearing fruit. Because we had tried to double our faith when we had "failed" to avoid the inducing of labor, the Lord had truly increased our faith. This earlier, "easy" experience had helped to prepare us to have sufficient faith to face the difficult challenge the mission was now facing.
When you face "failure" in prayer, if you will respond by praying more, loving the Lord more, trusting more, asking again, and refusing to give up, your faith will be rewarded.
7. The Lord Will Do What Is Best for You
It seems many times that the Lord will not reveal his total will to us so that he might give us an opportunity to truly exercise faith. I have a testimony that the Lord will always do that which is good or right for us. I am impressed with these words in Moses 6:32:
And the Lord said unto Enoch: Go forth and do as I have commanded thee, and no man shall pierce thee. Open thy mouth, and it shall be filled, and I will give thee utterance, for all flesh is in my hands, and I will do as seemeth me good.
It is evident to me that the Lord will treat all men in such a way; he will always do that which is for their best good. We find that same concept taught regarding the families of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, who had been away from their families for a period of time preaching the gospel. The Lord said to them:
Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you, my friends Sidney and Joseph, your families are well; they are in mine hands, and I will do with them as seemeth me good; for in me there is all power.
Therefore, follow me, and listen to the counsel which I shall give unto you. (D&C 100:1-2.)
The Lord often says, "I will do that which seemeth me good." But since we know that he does only that which will benefit mankind, we can also be confident that he will do only that which is best for us. At the same time, it's also clear that he does not reveal to us the totality of his will. He does this so that we can go forward in faith, believing. We are not always certain what he will do or what he will not do, but we know we can trust him to do that which will be the greatest blessing to us.
In Receiving Answers to Our Prayers, Elder Cook examines some of the most important principles and practices of prayer, which the Lord has taught us through scripture and through living prophets. By illustrating those principles through examples and many true-life stories, he shows that the Lord does answer prayers and suggests ways we can become more receptive to the answers the Lord sends. Elder Cook focuses on the difficult question of why answers do not always come in ways we expect and what we can do then to increase our faith.