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 judgment 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”.

1 Nephi 4

Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.

1 Nephi 4:13

There’s lots that could be said about this chapter and Nephi’s killing of Laban. As Elder Holland has pointed out, the fact that this is so near the beginning of the Book of Mormon (as opposed to sandwiched somewhere between 2 Nephi’s Isaiah quotations) suggests that we’re meant to confront this issue early on. It should definitely shape how we read 1 Nephi 3:7 which Elder Holland suggests we sometimes recite all too “casually”.

But I find my mind caught on 1 Nephi 4:13, part of the Spirit’s explanation to Nephi. Because these words are very reminiscent of words found elsewhere:

And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,

Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.

John 11:49-50

While this is by no means an exact quotation, it’s close both in wording (“one man”, “perish”, “nation”) and similar in concept. Which may be a wee bit troubling when we know it’s Caiaphas saying this, about Jesus.

Some people might make a historical issue about this, but as we shall see in 1 Nephi 10 Lehi’s going to openly and explicitly quote someone hundreds of years in the future, God and the Spirit not being bound by such petty things as time. The who and about whom might be more troubling to us. Certainly Caiaphas’ example shows we should be extremely careful about such reasoning. But I do not think this close parallel is portraying Laban as Christ (considering the Book of Mormon’s high Christology – including its aim to convince not just that “Jesus is the Christ” but also that he is “the Eternal God”), or Nephi as Caiaphas.

However, when it comes to Caiaphas, what John says next is very interesting:

And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;

And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the bchildren of God that were scattered abroad.

John 11:51-52

John doesn’t treat Caiaphas words as invalid or merely his own words – John actually treats it as an actual and true prophecy. But while Caiaphas, by virtue of his office, could be the receptacle for such a prophecy, he also could not understand or intend their true meaning (presumably in part due to his wickedness, in contrast to the likes of John and Nephi), and so he conspired against the Christ. The words were true – it is Caiaphas’ intent and actions that are a different matter: “for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matthew 18:7).

2020 Edit:

And I was led by the spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.

I feel this line in verse 6 really deserves more attention. It sometimes seems that in our Church service that we feel very attached to goals and targets and plans, techniques borrowed from our other endeavours. We set numerical goals for things we have very little influence over, targets despite the counsel to avoid such things in works like Preach My Gospel and the earlier Missionary Guide, and complicated plans that may or may not actually get us where we want to go. Now there’s nothing wrong with plans per se: i think one can look at things like the creation and the plan of salvation, and see that God is very fond of them, and certainly when we have a task we should do what is in our power to try and carry them out. But I think we like to feel that we’re in control. We can rely too much on our own plans, believe too much is solely within our own power, and forget how much we don’t know, that God does (and I feel he likes to surprise us), and how much we rely on him. Nephi and his brothers came up with several plans to retrieve the plates, and they all failed. Now I don’t think they would have eventually succeeded had they not made that effort, but the fact also remains that their plans (which actually seem fairly reasonable, and aren’t over-complicated) did not succeed, and eventual success came down to this: Nephi having to rely on the inspiration of the spirit, having no idea of what was going to come next.

I think of many of the other great acts of service within the gospel, such as the missionary endeavours of the sons of Mosiah, and it’s likewise instructive: they didn’t have any overly elaborate plan, other than to preach the gospel, and they did not have any great numerical goals (“we supposed our joy would be full if perhaps we could be the means of saving some”, Alma 26:30). What they had was complete dedication, a willingness to serve without reservation and endure whatever trials they were called to suffer, and the companionship of the spirit to guide them. Likewise, while it’d probably be unwise to abandon any concept of plans, I feel many of us would benefit by realising that there will be times when we, too, will need to follow the guidance of the spirit, and do it without reservation, even though we don’t know where it’s going.

Of course, Nephi’s killing of Laban is the most noticeable feature of this chapter, as I noted when reading it and writing the original post. To elaborate on some of what I alluded to above, I’d come to feel that we have a tendency to quote 1 Nephi 3:7 a bit too easily, not paying attention to 1 Nephi 4 that follows it. I was gratified to learn that I wasn’t alone in these feelings, and that Elder Holland, as I linked to above, has spoken similarly that we quote that verse too casually. He speak’s of Christ’s introduction of himself to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 11, and particularly his statement in 3 Nephi 11:11 that:

And behold, I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning.

Christ thus emphasises his obedience to the Father, but such obedience is not easy or without price: it is “that bitter cup”, and he speaks of having “suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning”. Christ obeyed the Father completely, but we should not forget that such obedience was painful:

…which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink

(D&C 19:18).

We are not called upon to atone for the sins of the world. But Christ does call us and states “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). The path of obedience is one of self-denial, of obedience despite pain and difficulty. Nephi’s statement in 1 Nephi 3:7 is true, but it does not mean that it is as easy as some of those who quote it (and perhaps as Nephi himself felt when first saying it) feel. And Nephi really learns that in 1 Nephi 4:

Nevertheless I went forth, and as I came near unto the house of Laban I beheld a man, and he had fallen to the earth before me, for he was drunken with wine.

And when I came to him I found that it was Laban.

And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.

And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.

(1 Nephi 4:7-10)

It’s interesting at first that Nephi seems to have little idea of what he’s about to be asked to do, so that his attention is first concentrated on admiring the craftsmanship of Laban’s blade. It is then that he first receives the instruction to kill Laban, one that Nephi is very reluctant to follow. Notice how similar the wording is here to Christ’s own feelings about the bitter cup: they “would that I might not” and both “shrink”/”shrunk”. And Nephi has been asked to do what many would see as a shocking thing: to kill, and not only to kill, but to kill a drunken, helpless human being in cold blood. Some have sought to claim that this was an act of self-defence under the Law of Moses, appealing to passages like Exodus 22:2-3, but that passage specifically addresses the matter of those slain while found breaking into people’s own homes at night. Laban may have previously threatened Nephi and his brothers’ lives, and he certainly stole their property, but he’s not presently breaking into Nephi’s own and is at this point unconscious. What Nephi is being asked to do is shocking, and we’re meant to find it shocking, because Nephi finds it shocking too. Nephi, normally so gung-ho about obedience, must in fact be heavily persuaded by the Spirit to carry it out.

We all find some things harder than others. We’re all going to find some commandments more difficult than others, and which ones they are will vary from person to person. But there is one constant, which is that God will test us. As Joseph Smith stated: “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God. . . . God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God”. There may come points at our life where we will be asked by God to act in ways that go against our pre-conceived political, social and religious views, and which we, like Nephi here, find personally challenging. Indeed God seems to have a habit of it. What those areas are will likely be different: some might find killing drunk people a bit too easy for God’s comfort, so they won’t get asked to do that. Instead they will be asked to do something that they find personally challenging, that forces us to make the stark choice between our will, and God’s will.

I have to confess to a measure of speculation about how Nephi managed to remove Laban’s head without getting too much blood on Laban’s clothes that he subsequently wore. Perhaps if the body was on a slope, and the head positioned downward… I’m aware I’ve given this far more thought than most people (and so probably do not have too many drunken corpses in my own future).