The Prayer of Faith

Last Sunday, I heard someone describe prayer as “a faithless act”.

I was quite surprised by this. Now for some context, it was quite clear that this person was operating under a misunderstanding of President Nelson’s remarks during the last General Conference, about “the difference between a prayer and a priesthood blessing”, and may have been expressing themselves intemperately. President Nelson was speaking of those who did not know that difference, and so gave priesthood blessings as if they were prayers. The individual in my hearing appeared to likewise confuse the two, but to the opposite extreme, arguing that when ministering to someone we should not offer a prayer, but instead offer a blessing, by which he appeared to mean not an actual priesthood ordinance, but giving a prayer as if it were a blessing.

This is mistaken. President Nelson was seeking to dispel any confusion between blessings and prayers, but he wasn’t arguing that the latter were unnecessary or wrong to any degree. Both have a place. In a blessing, if both the one giving the blessing and the one receive it have faith, and if the one giving it is sufficiently in tune, it is an opportunity to reveal and declare the will of God. Essential, the person giving the blessing is acting as a representative of God, speaking in his name (D&C 1:20), towards the one receiving the blessing. In a prayer, however, we are representing ourselves and any for whom we are praying for towards God. In one, there is the opportunity to declare God’s will; in the other, the opportunity to petition God in accordance with it. And both prayers and priesthood blessings are invaluable aids to us here on earth, and when ministering to others both are necessary.

It is particularly this description of prayer as “a faithless act” that I wish to briefly address, however. Now prayer can be a faithless act, if it is not genuine, and done for show or pretence. Likewise, if we pray but have no intention of acting upon any guidance God gives us, that may likewise be described as being without faith.

But genuine prayer is an inherently faithful act. The very act of praying to our Father in Heaven expresses our faith (or at least our willingness to believe) that he is there. By directing our righteous needs and desires towards him, we demonstrate faith in his power to fulfil them. By expressing gratitude, we confess his hand in all things. By asking for forgiveness, we express our faith in his goodness, in the rightness of his commandments, and show faith in the atonement of his son. By asking for direction, we demonstrate faith in his wisdom, humbly acknowledging that he knows better than we do, and show faithfulness by our willingness to act upon his commands.

I’m reminded particularly of a particular quote from the Bible Dictionary. I’ve briefly posted about the BD and other aids before, noting that these are not scripture, and in the words of a man who helped produce them “are aids and helps only”. However, if any part of the Bible Dictionary is genuinely profound, I have long believed it is the entry on prayer. To quote one paragraph:

As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are His children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part (Matt. 7:7–11). Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship. Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. 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.

I think this is a genuinely beautiful (and true) passage, that has a lot to teach about prayer, but what I especially want to pick out on this occasion is the line that prayer is the means by which our will is “brought into correspondence” with Father, and that “the object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure … blessings that God is already willing to grant”. It is fitting that in the Lord’s Prayer, the Saviour includes the phrase “thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven”, for much of the point of prayer is to surrender to his will.

And therefore, at its root, prayer is amongst the most faithful of acts, for it is an act in which we submit ourselves to his will, and where we must have sufficient faith – trust – in him to say as the Saviour did “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 27:39). And the highest expression of faith is not believing that God is there, but – believing or even knowing that he is – to trust his judgement over ours, to be “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us]” (Mosiah 3:19), to say – as Christ did – “thy will be done”.

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3 Nephi 1

star-jesus-birth-154378-tablet

Told you.

So as I mentioned, by pure happenstance I happen to have read the account of the signs of Christ’s birth on Christmas day itself. Since this is Christmas, I’ll keep it brief, but two points of observation from today’s reading:

  1. Christ is often described in scripture – especially in the gospel of John – as both “light” and “life”. Here, this is very literal: Christ’s birth is accompanied by literal light, so that there is a night with no darkness. Likewise, the appearance of the sign literally saves the lives of the believers, who were otherwise to be put to death (v. 9). Christ is also both our light and salvation for our lives, in many different senses: he shows us the way, illuminates our souls, is the source of the grace that will exalt us, and will redeem us from both physical and spiritual death..
  2. God seems to have this habit of letting timing be quite short. The passage doesn’t actually say when the assigned date for killing all the believers was in relation to when the sign appeared, but it was undoubtedly pressing in view of Nephi’s praying all day for those “who were about to be destroyed” (vv. 11-12). And it turned out that that night was the very time for the sign to appear. Likewise, the Israelites were trapped against the Red Sea and the Egyptian armies were upon them before the Lord saved them. The Lord will often test our faith, but redeem us at the very last moment, and I guess what we must do is simply hold on in faith. The example of the believers here is instructive: while they worried “lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass”, “they did watch steadfastly” (vv. 7-8). While they were worried, they did not let those worries stop them from holding on and hoping for the sign. And sure enough, in the Lord’s timing, that hope was justified and all things fulfilled “according to the words of the prophets” (v. 20). Likewise we may worry about the fulfilment of God’s promises to us, and wonder how long we must wait or whether such things will ever happen. Such worries are natural, but I guess the lesson is that we must not let our worries stop us from “watch[ing] steadfastly”, and that – in the Lord’s timing – he will fulfil his promises to us.

Helaman 15

Much of this chapter is a warning for the Nephites, and compares the Lamanites and the Nephites and their prophetic future. It’s typical for those who have not read the Book of Mormon in depth to think that the Book of Mormon is a straightforward account of “good guys” and “bad guys” (such as described by Thomas O’Dea, for instance). I’d wager that most of those who’ve read the book through realise this is not the case, and this chapter is likewise a good instance of that. At first, even while warning the Nephites, it seems to be making that distinction (vv. 3-4):

Yea, wo unto this people who are called the people of Nephi except they shall repent, when they shall see all these signs and wonders which shall be showed unto them; for behold, they have been a chosen people of the Lord; yea, the people of Nephi hath he loved, and also hath he chastened them; yea, in the days of their iniquities hath he chastened them because he loveth them.
But behold my brethren, the Lamanites hath he hated because their deeds have been evil continually, and this because of the iniquity of the tradition of their fathers…

Yet there then comes a significant twist (vv. 4-5, 7):

… But behold, salvation hath come unto them through the preaching of the Nephites; and for this intent hath the Lord prolonged their days.
And I would that ye should behold that the more part of them are in the path of their duty, and they do walk circumspectly before God, and they do observe to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments according to the law of Moses.

And behold, ye do know of yourselves, for ye have witnessed it, that as many of them as are brought to the knowledge of the truth, and to know of the wicked and abominable traditions of their fathers, and are led to believe the holy scriptures, yea, the prophecies of the holy prophets, which are written, which leadeth them to faith on the Lord, and unto repentance, which faith and repentance bringeth a change of heart unto them—

Many of the Lamanites have converted, and not only converted, but have genuinely remained faithful. And because of this, they will be blessed (vv. 10-12):

And now, because of their steadfastness when they do believe in that thing which they do believe, for because of their firmness when they are once enlightened, behold, the Lord shall bless them and prolong their days, notwithstanding their iniquity—
Yea, even if they should dwindle in unbelief the Lord shall prolong their days, until the time shall come which hath been spoken of by our fathers, and also by the prophet Zenos, and many other prophets, concerning the restoration of our brethren, the Lamanites, again to the knowledge of the truth—
Yea, I say unto you, that in the latter times the promises of the Lord have been extended to our brethren, the Lamanites; and notwithstanding the many afflictions which they shall have, and notwithstanding they shall be driven to and fro upon the face of the earth, and be hunted, and shall be smitten and scattered abroad, having no place for refuge, the Lord shall be merciful unto them.

Despite future “dwindl[ing] in unbelief”, and despite the afflictions they will suffer, the Lamanites will ultimately be blessed. Again, it’s been commonplace for scholars to fit the Book of Mormon into the context of common 19th century American beliefs about the USA being the new Israel. But (as I discuss in the 3rd and 5th chapters of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible), the Book of Mormon does not articulate those beliefs: rather it is the descendants of Israel (including the descendants of the Lamanites) who are heirs of the promises attached to Israel, not the Gentile colonists, despite whatever role said colonists may have in being a conduit for the Gospel (much as the Nephites have been here in fact).

So what of the Nephites?

Therefore I say unto you, it shall be better for them than for you except ye repent.
For behold, had the mighty works been shown unto them which have been shown unto you, yea, unto them who have dwindled in unbelief because of the traditions of their fathers, ye can see of yourselves that they never would again have dwindled in unbelief.
Therefore, saith the Lord: I will not utterly destroy them, but I will cause that in the day of my wisdom they shall return again unto me, saith the Lord.
And now behold, saith the Lord, concerning the people of the Nephites: If they will not repent, and observe to do my will, I will utterly destroy them, saith the Lord, because of their unbelief notwithstanding the many mighty works which I have done among them; and as surely as the Lord liveth shall these things be, saith the Lord.

(Helaman 15:14–17)

A fascinating thought struck me while reading this: it seems to suggest that the (future? the “again” seems suggestive) Lamanite “dwindl[ing] in unbelief” could have been outright prevented, had the Lord showed them the same miracles that he did the Nephites. So why didn’t he? Would acting in this way somehow invalidate the purpose of mortal existence (by robbing them of the need to act in faith)? Whatever the answer, however, one thing is very clear, which is that while the Nephites have been favoured, this now turns to their condemnation. The Lamanites would not have gone astray had they been witnessed the same miracles, and when aware of the truth are faithful. The Nephites however have still apostatized. Thus while the Lamanites will be preserved and ultimately blessed, the Nephites face the threat of being “utterly destroy[ed]”.

What brings Miracles

As one does, I happened to come across some meme that was being shared on facebook, one clearly aimed at an LDS audience. There’s lots of them floating out there, usually with some snippet of a talk or some well-meaning sentiment. The ones I tend to notice however are the ones that, while well-meaning, fall short on the “actually right” scale. Those who know me will know my annoyance at things like the “I never said it’d be easy, I only said it’d be worth it” when Christ didn’t actually say that. However, the one I noticed today was, I believe, sufficiently wrong that it is not just a matter of me being crotchety, and worth bringing up here.

I’m not going to reproduce the image, since it’d end up being shared with this blogpost and people would get the wrong idea. However, the text stated: “Obedience brings blessings, but obedience with exactness brings miracles.”

I’m really not sure this is true.

And I think this is important because a lot of people can come to believe this: that they must be absolutely, 100% obedient, before God will intervene. “Obedience with exactness” can become a never-ending standard that only one person ever born on this earth ever met. But it isn’t true. I’ve been blessed to be a witness and a recipient of miracles on a number of occasions – and I’m not simply talking “happy coincidence” level of miracles (sometimes I think we sell such things short with low expectations, but that’s another matter) either – but I certainly haven’t been perfectly obedient. Yet I think this sort of belief can hold people, who are many times more obedient or charitable than I am, from receiving miracles that are otherwise on offer.

There are several scriptures I believe are pertinent when faced with this statement.

Wherefore, beware lest ye are deceived; and that ye may not be deceived seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given;

For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me, that ask and not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts.

(D&C 46:8-9)

Spiritual gifts seem very much a sort of miracle, especially when we consider one gift is the “working of miracles” (D&C 49:21). Here in the verse above we learn that such gifts are for those who love God and keep all his commandments… “and him that seeketh so to do”, a merciful caveat. An important one too. I was fortunate while serving my mission, for example, to be blessed with many miracles. Yet I certainly cannot claim to have been 100% perfectly obedient at all times. I made mistakes, and so does anyone else. But did I want to be obedient? Yes, I certainly did, and I think that made a big difference. God takes our desires into account, not just our “results”.

However, there is one factor in the scriptures, more than any other, that is associated with the occurrence and the working of miracles. And it is not exact obedience:

For if there be no faith among the children of men God can do no miracle among them; wherefore, he showed not himself until after their faith.

Yea, and even all they who wrought miracles wrought them by faith, even those who were before Christ and also those who were after.

(Ether 12:12, 16)

Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.

(Mosiah 8:18)

Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men…

(Moroni 7:37)

He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?

(Galatians 3:5)

And that he manifesteth himself unto all those who believe in him, by the power of the Holy Ghost; yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, working mighty miracles, signs, and wonders, among the children of men according to their faith.

(2 Nephi 26:13)

For I am God, and mine arm is not shortened; and I will show miracles, signs, and wonders, unto all those who believe on my name.

(D&C 35:8)

The fundamental precondition, aside from the will of God, for miracles is faith. Sometimes, it is true, that faith must be trust that even if God chooses not to act, that he knows best anyway. But it must also include a trust that he can and is willing to help and work miracles in the lives of his children, and that he is capable and willing to do so despite our imperfections .The Gospels contain a litany of accounts of the Saviour healing the sick and working mighty miracles, and then calling the recipients to a life of obedience. The entire premise of the Atonement is that God acted without waiting for us to reach some level of perfection: that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And so it is with his miracles. The Lord is not waiting for our perfect obedience to help us, but rather works with us according to our faith and His will, and it is through his help and miracles that we become perfect.

1 Nephi 10

And it came to pass after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a vision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost, which power he received by faith on the Son of God—and the Son of God was the Messiah who should come—I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him, as well in times of old as in the time that he should manifest himself unto the children of men.

For he is the same yesterday, today, and forever; and the way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world, if it so be that they repent and come unto him.

For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round.

Therefore remember, O man, for all thy doings thou shalt be brought into judgment.

1 Nephi 10:17-20

As my thoughts touch on these verses, I wonder if this is simultaneously one of the greatest blessings and greatest responsibilities of the gospel. God, the omnipotent creator of the universe, who gives life and light to all things, is willing to reveal himself to us. And while he may speak especially to chosen prophets and so on, he is willing to reveal himself by means of the Holy Ghost to “all those who diligently seek him”, no matter when or where they live. Each of us, however lowly, may be brought into supernatural communication with our creator.

At the same time, because that opportunity is available, we are accountable for whether we seek it or not. If we truly seek it ‘diligently’ (and from scripture and experience, I believe that must be a full-hearted and not a superficial effort – see James 1:6-7 and the conditions in Moroni 10:3-5), we will in time have that blessing. But if we choose not to seek it, or to seek it with sufficient diligence and faithfulness, we shall ‘be brought into judgment’.

1 Nephi 7

Several parts of this chapter caught my attention today, setting aside the amusing fact that Laman and Lemuel seemed to have far fewer problems with this trip back to Jerusalem, or more seriously the considerable faith Ishmael must have had to believe these ragamuffins from the desert and to take his entire family out into the wilderness with them.

Anyhoo, two bits in particular:

Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him.

1 Nephi 7:12

I feel there’s so much in just this short verse – not just the Lord’s capacity to do anything for us (though ‘according to his will’), but the crucial connection that we somehow seem to miss despite the obvious connection of the words between having faith and being faithful. We show and exercise our faith in God by being loyal to him.

But it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound.

And it came to pass that when I had said these words, behold, the bands were loosed from off my hands and feet, and I stood before my brethren, and I spake unto them again.

1 Nephi 7:17-18

Deliverance can be a funny thing. Sometimes we try to save ourselves by our own efforts, and that often fails. Sometimes God gives us the power to do things beyond our own capacity, and we then do them, much as Nephi prays for here when he asks for the strength to burst his bonds. But in this case, God didn’t actually give him what he asked for: he went one better and freed Nephi by loosing the bands himself. Sometimes God has a better deliverance for us, and sometimes He will simply deliver us by His own power.

Not Luz

There was a man in a land that was not Luz. And the Lord, looking upon the man, saw Satan approaching.

And the Lord said unto Satan, “Whence comest thou?” Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, “From wandering in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.”

And the Lord said, “Consider this man. He has often fallen short, and oft stumbled. Yet he has always put his trust in me, and never denied me.”

“Of course he does!”, replied the Devil. “Does he trust you for naught? You have given him so many assurances of what is to come: of his purpose and meaning, of hopes of love and marriage and family, of your own care for him. Even if he finds them hard to believe, you give him comfort about what is to come, and he knows you can and have told him of these things. Remove them from him, strip him of his hopes and assurances, give him doubt that he can or has ever heard your will, rob him of any knowledge of your love and he will deny you to your face.”

“Behold, he is in thine hand”, said the Lord.

And the man was plunged into thick confusion. He no longer knew whether he could tell the difference between an impression from God and his own thoughts, desires and fears. He no longer knew if he could trust the assurances he had relied on. He feared his labours had been in vain, and that he had spent ten years following a false path. He feared he could not correctly hear the answers to his prayers and that he had been falsely guided, decieved by the devil or his own thoughts. He worried that he was a failure, and that even God misliked him.

And the man was grieved at heart and vexed in spirit. He wished for death, and his mind put forth designs for it. But he prayed unto the Lord:

“Lord, I do not know thy will and I am sick at heart. Please save me from despair, for I am alone! Lord, I know that thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie. I know that thou hast all power, and can tell me of thy will. I know that thou knowest all things, things past and things to come, and so can guide me right. Please guide me now, and help me to know what is true and not be deceived.”

And the man remained despondant and low in spirit. He feared he could not trust any answers for he knew not where it came from. Yet he continued to pray:

“But may thy will be done. For I know that whatever thou willest – even if it be my ill – is right.”

Thus it was that the Devil was confounded, and the Lord was vindicated, and in time the Lord gave the man peace and clarity.