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”.

“According to the foreknowledge of God”

The Interpreter has published an article, in which the author suggests a new interpretation for Alma 13, particularly verse 3:

And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.

(Alma 13:3)

This has often been taken as referring to the foreordination of those ordained to the priesthood, on account of faith and good works in the pre-existence. The author (A. Keith Thompson), challenges this on three grounds:

  1. That this teaching would not have served Alma’s rhetorical purposes in encouraging them to repent, since it would have suggest their unworthiness was a continuation of their state before mortality, and that “unbelieving Ammonihahites were unworthy to receive the priesthood from before the foundation of the world”.
  2. He claims that it was the “worthiness standard” that was foreordained, rather than individuals. He argues further that the manner of ordination is “intended to offer an example of how those on earth should live to qualify for redemption by the Son of God”.
  3. He states: “to interpret this passage any other way is to return to the ideology that underlay LDS practice before 1978 that denied the priesthood to some men on account of their race or ethnic origin.”

As it happens, I think it’s quite likely that Alma is not referring to the pre-existence when he talks about ‘their exceeding faith and good works’ (Alma 13:3). At the same time, I still consider it very likely that its referring to foreordination, and I don’t think the essay adequately deals with the context of what Alma is speaking about, the rest of Alma’s statement in Alma 13:3 nor this issue of priesthood bars. I, alas, do not have large reserves of time at present to fully engage with this in detail, but will outline some points below:

Alma’s intent

Thompson states:

It is submitted that it is much more likely that Alma2 was explaining that the people of the city of Ammonihah could qualify for ordination to the holy priesthood after the order of the Son of God as had the people of the city of Melchizedek before them.

And further:

he intended them to contemplate how they could repent and live worthy mortal lives so that they could also qualify for the privilege of ordination to the Priesthood in mortality

I believe this both misunderstands how the priesthood worked in Alma’s context, and Alma’s intent on bringing up the topic here.

Firstly, it should be recognised that the modern LDS practice of ordaining every worthy male is just that: modern (albeit directed by revelation). Priests were a minority of the men in the Church in Alma’s time. His father, for example, ordained one priest to every fifty members (Mosiah 18:18), and there’s nothing to suggest that practice changed. Likewise in Alma 13, there is nothing to say that Melchizedek’s people, after repenting, had qualified for or received ordination to the priesthood. The sole mention of them is that they  wicked (Alma 13:17) and then repented at Melchizedek’s teaching (v.18). I suspect here that there may be a projection back of current LDS practice (something I believe I’ve seen with approaches to the Temple too), so that such ordinations are being inferred. But they are not there in the text. There is nothing here necessarily encouraging qualification for ordination, since such general ordination for all worthy males is not on offer (even Alma 13:4, with its suggestion that if some had not been unfaithful “they might have had as great privilege as their brethren” has the crucially qualifier “might”).

Such, therefore, is not Alma’s intent. So what is it? I believe Thompson is right to recognise that a lot of importance is being placed on the “manner” in which the ordinances are given, and right that this is not referring to the physical means or things like sacrifice. I think his mistake is to conclude that the primary intent is that these high priests and the manner after which they were ordained were a type of the believer, “of how anyone might qualify to receive blessings or privileges from God”. Yet it is not Melchizedek who the the people of Ammonihah are being compared to, but rather explicitly his people, of which nothing has been spoken concerning priesthood: “yea, humble yourselves even as the people in the days of Melchizedek, who was a high priest after this same order which I have spoken” (Alma 13:14). That Alma happens to be high priest over the Church suggests *he* is the one to be compared to Melchizedek, who is preaching and offering repentance. Alma, like the high priests of verse 6, is called and ordained “to teach his commandments unto the children of men”.

Alma goes further though:

Now these ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a type of his order, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord.

(Alma 13:16)

Thompson interprets this as saying “that the manner in which men are ordained to the Priesthood demonstrates, to those who observe their example, how to prepare for and benefit by the Son of God’s atonement”. But it is not clearly saying this. It is saying that the priesthood is a type of Christ’s order (and is his order), and so its ordinances are given in a way so that people might “look forward on the Son of God”. “Look forward” is repeated twice here, something hardly likely to be coincidental when a major theme of Alma and Amulek’s teaching in Ammonihah, and Alma’s teachings in Zarahemla and Gideon, is the future coming of the Son of God. “Look forward is also used in verse 2, again so that the people “might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption”. It is “types”, amongst other things, that allow one to look forward to their antitype, or fulfilment. What I suggest Alma is saying here is that the priesthood is a type of *Christ*, not the believer. Thus the manner in which the priesthood is ordained is intended to allow people to “look forward” towards the coming of Christ. That Melchizedek is promptly referred to as “the prince of peace” (Alma 13:18, deriving said title being the point of referring to him as king of Salem and reigning under his father) emphasises this by making Melchizedek personally a type of Christ. It is no accident that Alma moves decisively back to the topic of Christ’s coming in verse 21 onwards.

I suspect that there are many ways in which this is the case, and many things which could be considered (and should be). However, one pertinent way in which the manner the priesthood were ordained, under a more classical reading, points forward to Christ is that he too (as Thompson readily admits) was foreordained before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20). Knowing that Christ has already been chosen and selected, and will carry out his mission as others who have been chosen and selected have done so, provides one powerful way that the priesthood and the manner of its ordination is a type of Christ.

Alma 13:3

Perhaps a minor quibble before moving on to Alma 13:3 proper. Thompson suggests that Alma 13:1’s reference to “the time the Lord gave these commandments unto his children” and “ordained priests” is a reference to the Exodus and the giving of the Ten Commandments, something he supports by noting the reference to “the first provocation” in Alma 12:36. However, while “the provocation… in the wilderness” in Psalm 95:8-11, Hebrews 3:8-11 and Jacob 1:7 are all clearly referring to the Exodus (indeed the latter two passages are quoting Psalm 95), Alma 12:36 refers to “the first provocation” (my emphasis). Moreover, throughout Alma 12 (from v.22 onwards) Alma has been speaking of primordial times following the fall. Thus he specific reference in 12:31:

Wherefore, he gave commandments unto men, they having first transgressed the first commandments as to things which were temporal, and becoming as gods,knowing good from evil, placing themselves in a state to act, or being placed in a state to act according to their wills and pleasures, whether to do evil or to do good—

While the quotation of 12:33-35 closely resembles Psalms 95:8-11//Hebrews 3:8-11, it is also clearly set – unlike the biblical passages, and Jacob 1:7 – in primordial times. Alma 12:37, furthermore, closely follows Alma’s remarks about the first provocation by appealing for his audience to repent so “we provoke not the Lord our God to pull down his wrath upon us in these his second commandments which he has given unto us” (my emphasis). The term “second” clearly sets these apposite the “first commandments” mentioned in 12:31, namely the commandments given prior to the fall. In Alma 12:36, then, it is the fall that constitutes the “first provocation”.

Onto Alma 13:3:

And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.

(Alma 13:3)

Thompson suggests that “being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God” is a parenthetical statement, that refers to the manner (which he interprets as “the worthiness standard”), as opposed to individuals, being called and prepared from the foundation of the world. Yet there are problems here. While Alma 13 is a complicated text, the Book of Mormon tends to be much more overt about such parenthetical statements. Furthermore, as he himself admits, “being called” is an odd description of a manner, and while he appeals to verses 4, 5, 6, 8, and 11, stating they refer to an ordination in mortality, it doesn’t change the fact that every one those verses is referring to people being called. It is much more likely that it is “they” who “were ordained” are the object of being called.

It is furthermore difficult to see why “the worthiness standard” would require the foreknowledge of God. It is clear, however, what would when these clauses are not taken as a parenthetical statement, for in this case the verse states that this calling and preparation according to God’s foreknowledge was because of “their exceeding faith and good works”. God’s action in calling and preparing is because of his foreknowledge of the faith and works of those called.

Now, one point where I feel Thompson is right: such foreknowledge also cannot be referring to acts done in the pre-mortal existence. God would not require foreknowledge about those either. This faith and works must then referring to acts in mortality, which God foreknows, and upon which he acts. I agree with Thompson that other verses, such as verse 8, are largely referring to ordinations in mortality. Yet once again the appeal is to God’s “foreknowledge of all things” (v.7). That these ordinations are done in mortality, however, and based on God’s foreknowledge of mortal acts, does not undo the fact that he is acting on his foreknowledge, and that people were foreordained. This isn’t accepting Calvinist predestination, as Latter-day Saints have always sharply distinguished between foreordination and such Calvinist concepts (which is clearly what Joseph Smith is referring to when he speaks of rejecting God ‘foreordaining everything’: God knows, but does not necessarily will everything that happens and certainly everything we do in life. But that is no rejection of God foreordaining people to callings). God’s foreknowledge of how people will act using their agency – and his response in turn, even if chronologically prior – does not deprive men of their agency. Since Thompson freely accepts God’s foreknowledge, he presumably recognises this.

Likewise, that verse 9 is referring to ordination on earth by which they “become high priests forever” does not diminish that those ordinations were foreordained according to God’s foreknowledge. Thompson presumably recognises this, as he admits that at least some have been foreordained to certain callings in mortality, and presumably recognises that the fact that some of those on his list were likewise ordained in mortality doesn’t mean they weren’t foreordained to those callings. Likewise a foreordination does not mean that there isn’t a need for ordination on earth. A proper reading of this passage, then, can easily accommodate both being called and prepared from the foundation of the world (though on account of what God foresees, rather than pre-mortal acts), and being ordained in mortality.

So Thompson is, in my opinion, likely right to question the idea that faithfulness in the pre-existence is the primary basis Alma 13 gives for foreordination. However, I believe close reading of this passage must reject the notion that it’s not speaking of foreordination at all.

Priesthood bans

A final comment about Thompson’s views regarding the pre-1978 priesthood ban. Thompson rightly notes that certain explanations – such as the notion that some were barred because of lack of faithfulness in the pre-mortal life – were disavowed (indeed, his quotes indicate that even some holding to them – such as Joseph Fielding Smith – recognised them clearly as “not the official position of the Church, [and is] merely the opinion of men”). However, Thompson himself appears to go further. He suggests that there is no reason that “believed any of God’s mortal sons could not qualify themselves to receive the priesthood according to the foreordained worthiness requirement” and that “to interpret this passage any other way is to return to the ideology that underlay LDS practice before 1978 that denied the priesthood to some men on account of their race or ethnic origin”.

Thompson’s views are unclear, but he seems to be suggesting that concepts of foreordination motivated such a ban (or the continuation of it, since historically speaking this explanation emerged some time after the restriction was in place), and even more that this ban – or any such ban – was wrong.

The various reasons (and they vary, and are in some cases contradictory) that have been given for the pre-1978 restriction have been disavowed. But a false inference based on ideas of foreordination does not in itself show foreordination is incorrect (especially since Thompson accepts it for some things). Furthermore, while the circumstances for its initiation are unclear, the restriction itself for its time has not. The letter of June 8, 1978, quoted in OD 2, makes reference to ‘the long-promised day’, a concept that loses considerable coherence if such a restriction is held to be entirely due to the faulty understanding of men. Furthermore, setting the pre-1978 restriction aside, scripturally there have been other examples of the priesthood being restricted on grounds other than worthiness. As mention, in Alma’s time priests would have constituted a small minority of the Church. Under the law of Moses, only Levites bore the priesthood. And in the Book of Abraham, Pharaoh “is of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood”, even though (unlike his successors) he himself is “a righteous man” who “judged his people wisely and justly all his days”. For whatever reason in God’s wisdom, and despite his personal righteousness, this man was prohibited from having the priesthood on other grounds. I highly doubt that this man, or non-Levites, or non-priesthood holding males in the Church at Alma’s time, were barred from salvation.

There is no reason to reject the idea, taught clearly in scripture, that God does foreordain people, or to reject the notion that in Alma 13 Alma is discussing those called to the priesthood as “called and prepared from the foundation of the world” (remembering, perhaps, that not all those called are chosen). There is good reason to reject any easy assumptions that such foreordinations, or any of our earthly circumstances, can be directly and easily traced from our pre-mortal conduct which we can easily infer. And Thompson is likely right that in any case Alma 13 is not talking of pre-mortal conduct. But there is no reason to throw out the foreordination with the bathwater.

As it happens, I suspect our circumstances in the pre-mortal life do have a great effect on the circumstances in which God has placed us; however, I suspect that they are so personalised that we have absolutely no way of knowing, from our own mortal perspective, what that connection is. The same circumstance or blessings or deprivations may be influenced by very different factors. But whatever God has in store for us, and whatever he’s based that on, our role of having faith in Christ, repenting and obeying remains the same, knowing that in the eternities nothing will be withheld from the righteous. God, the author of our plan of salvation for each of us, knows us each so thoroughly, both in pre-mortality and in his knowledge and foreknowledge of our mortality, that he is capable of acting in ways that are beyond us, and yet are best suited to personally propel us along the path that leads to eternal life.