Since our priesthood lesson a couple of weeks ago, I've thought about prayer a little more.
I've been a member of the church since I was nearly nine years old (my parents and siblings and I are converts), and I prayed with my parents as long as I can remember. Prior to our joining the church, blessings on the food were common in our home, and at night we'd say The Lord's Prayer and / or "Now I lay me down to sleep…" After joining the church, blessings on the food continued and we had regular family prayers, and we were encouraged at home (and of course at church) to pray individually, too.
A favorite childhood memory was trying to say prayer after some family nights. My mom played piano, and after FHE, we'd gather round the Steinway in the living room and sing hymns. Dad kept asking for one more and one more. We'd sing and then become remarkably silly (not sure why), and by the time we'd kneel for prayer it was nearly impossible for everyone to keep a straight face. On more than one occasion, Dad suggested we simply allow Heavenly Father in on the joke so we could get through the prayer.
Around age 13 I was called as deacons quorum president. I was told to go home and pray about whom to call as counselors. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I knew how to pray. So I knelt by my bed several nights and asked who I should call. One name kept coming to me, so I assumed that was the right choice. (It wasn't like there were a lot of alternatives; we were a typical small quorum of five or six boys.) I recommended him and the bishop approved. That was likely my first "answer" to prayer that I recognized as such.
Over the years, I took to heart the counsel in Alma 34 that we ought to pray about everything in our life, and ask for blessings. As a young man I typically felt that my prayers for others were more readily answered than prayers for myself, or at least more directly. I learned from the example of a great district leader on my mission to pray for our investigators by name. When he prayed in our district meetings, he mentioned each investigator and often something particular about where they were in the lessons or what question they were trying to answer at the time. I've been fortunate to see positive answers to my prayers on behalf of family members, friends and those I home teach.
As I've entertained gospel questions through the years – probably beginning in my late high school years when I really started to wake up to a desire to know more than I did – I've found that I rarely got burning answers during my prayers. Instead my prayers have framed my study, and answers have come later as I've read or listened to others. Even so, I've been able to link those answers to specific prayers enough that I see the relationship in my life.
I've relied on prayer in my callings where I've had responsibility to minister to others or to handle matters of administration such as extending callings, staffing organizations, organizing meetings. In some cases, like when I was a deacon, names have come clearly to me in prayer. In other cases, I've felt the warm confirming spirit as others have recommended names to me to consider.
I remember a lesson taught me by a loving stake president who once told me he couldn't explain to me why a particular name I'd recommended had not been approved. He said simply, "The spirit tells me yes or no, not why."
Several years ago, because of some challenges in our family, I had been in the habit of giving the Lord my laundry list of wants in prayer, expecting that if I had enough faith, and if I were righteous enough, these "desires of my heart" would be granted. They were righteous desires: safety for my children, and healing for some who were in desperate need. Sometimes I'd remember a perfunctory "Thy will be done" at the end of my prayers, though probably not always (and not often enough to actually demonstrate my faith in His will).
I had a rather large epiphany along the way. Thanks to a variety of sources converging on me at the same time, it occurred to me that I might have it wrong. Yes, I was concerned about specific things, and yes I hoped for specific outcomes. But those outcomes were out of my control. And I believed that my Heavenly Father loved all the players involved. And my prayers changed. I moved from praying for a specific outcome – my desired outcome – to praying for understanding of what I should do, how I should respond.
I have found much more peace in this approach. While previously I worried how things would end up, and I cringed each time it seemed things were going awry, now I know that the Lord is at the helm, and all I need to do is seek to understand His will for me (and do the best I can), and trust that He'll do the rest. In this way, I've been able to lay my burden at His feet.
I read Alma 34 now and think about my new understanding (after all these years). Surely it is good to seek the Lord's blessing in every aspect of our lives as Amulek recommends. In so doing, we learn humility, for when those blessings come we can recognize they are the Lord's blessings and not only the results of our labor.
But I believe it is also good to seek the Lord's will for us. Elder Eyring said in October General Conference in 2005, "We can pray every day to know what God would have us do. We can commit to start to do it quickly when the answer comes. My experience is that He always answers such petitions" ("Spiritual Preparedness: Start Early and Be Steady," Ensign, November 2005).
Seeking to understand the Lord's will for me is one way in which I can say with my whole heart, "Thy will be done." And that attitude allows me from time to time also to pray for specific outcomes, but with the faith that His will supersedes mine every time.