Over the years, I have had many conversations where friends or family members have expressed their frustration with the revelatory process. They pray, they seek, they read their scriptures. They seem to be doing everything they should—but they aren’t receiving the promptings and the clear-cut answers that have been promised.
These are committed, faithful, seasoned members of the Church. They are putting in the desire, faith, and effort. Why do the heavens seem closed? I believe the answer lies with the concept of technique.
The Importance of Proper Technique
Personal revelation is a skill. As with other skills—such as playing a sport or a musical instrument—the more we practice it, the better we get. Right?
Not exactly. Rather, the more we practice correctly, the better we get. But if we practice sloppily, we stay sloppy. On the piano, if I sit down and try to play a complex piece at full speed all the way through, even if I try it dozens of times, I will not make much progress. Instead, I need to slow down, practice one line at a time, and make sure I am playing the right notes with the right fingers. Only once I have the proper technique can I build up speed and become truly proficient.
So it is with prayer. We must practice correctly, with the proper technique. We must ensure that we’re going about our communication with God in the right way.
In this post, I will focus on three essential techniques of prayer: asking, listening, and following through. In an upcoming post, I will offer a “troubleshooting guide” for correcting other poor habits of technique that may be preventing us from receiving answers.
I fear that too often, our prayers go something like this:
Heavenly Father, you know that I’ve been wondering which schools to apply to. You know that this is an important decision and that I’m stressed about it. Father, please help me know what I should do and which college I should go to.
On the surface, this may seem like a really good prayer. But contrast it with this one:
Heavenly Father, which college would you like me to go to?
Or this one:
Heavenly Father, I’ve written down the pros and cons of East State University, and I’ve compared it with other options. Do you want me to go to East State?
The first example never actually asked a question. It beat around the bush. Too often, our prayers are like that. We think we’re asking God a question, but really we’re just telling God that we have a question and it would mean a lot to us if we got an answer.
Our prayers are more likely to be answered if (1) we actually voice a question, phrased as a question, and (2) the question is as specific as possible.
Receiving spiritual answers requires that we pay careful attention to our thoughts, feelings, and impressions. But for most of us, this is incredibly hard. In our fast-paced lives, our brains are conditioned to jump rapidly from thought to thought and subject to subject. We may ask a question in prayer, but before the Spirit can plant the answer in our mind, we may already be thinking about work or school or a funny video we watched earlier that day.
One way to train your mind to focus is to employ a “revelation journal.” Before you ask a question in prayer, open your journal and write the date and the question you’re going to ask. This “primes the pump;” it gets your thoughts centered on what you’re about to ask, and it ensures that you won’t lose time after your prayer finding a pencil or a blank page.
Then ask your question, and listen. For 10 to 60 seconds, seek to clear your mind of unrelated thoughts. Pay attention to the ideas, feelings, and impressions that come. Write those impressions down. Then ask, “What else?” and write down the next thought or impression that comes.
The act of writing keeps our minds focused. As we transfer a thought to a permanent medium, we give our minds permission to move on to the next related thought. Thus our minds will jump from thought to thought in a chain of revelation that would not occur otherwise.
I also recommend turning to the scriptures after asking a question. Open to a random location, a place where you’ve been reading, or a scripture passage that has bearing on your question. Then begin to read, slowly, pondering and applying each verse to yourself. As thoughts and ideas come, write those down as well. I find that turning to the scriptures is especially useful for gaining specific answers to open-ended questions.
After you’ve received an answer and written it down, do you act on it?
All communication, including heavenly communication, is built on trust. If we have broken God’s trust in the past, God will be much less likely to give us the answers we seek today. I believe the primary reason we fail to receive answers to our prayers is because we have consistently failed to act on answers in the past. For our own good, to spare us greater condemnation, God will rarely give us an answer that He knows we won’t act upon.
The good news, though, is that God is a god of mercy. He is always willing to give us another chance to earn His trust. But we have to regain trust on His terms. We must be patient and diligent until we ask a question that He decides to immediately answer, and then we must act on that answer as quickly and thoroughly as we can. As we do, we will rebuild our relationship of trust with Him and qualify for more revelation.
Focus on the Easy Questions First
While learning a musical instrument, some pieces are easier than others. So, too, some answers are easier to receive than others. I fear that too many of us try to pursue the hardest questions first, questions like “Who should I marry?” or “Why was the priesthood withheld from people of African descent for so long?” Getting answers to these types of questions requires a significant degree of spiritual maturity and experience. Often, asking such questions before we’re ready will only lead to frustration.
Instead, I recommend starting out by asking the easy questions:
- What is the most important thing I should do today?
- Who can I help today?
- What do I need to repent of?
These questions are “easy” to get answers to for two reasons. First, these are the questions that the Lord always wants to answer right away. While He might withhold the answer to a major life decision from you to test your patience and faith, He never wants you to delay repentance or service. Second, these are the questions that your conscience is equipped to answer, even without help from the Lord. This means you will always get an answer. Don’t worry if the answer is from your conscience or from the Holy Ghost—your conscience operates through the Light of Christ, so either way the answer is from God.
Challenge: Practice the Technique of Prayer
If you struggle to receive personal revelation in your prayers, may I suggest the following experiment:
- Near the beginning of your day, find 5 minutes and a quiet place free of distractions.
- On a journal or notepad, write the date and one of the three “easy” questions listed above.
- In a short, simple, and vocal prayer, ask God the question.
- Write down the impressions that come to mind.
- Act on those impressions during the course of the day: the sooner the better.
- Record your experience or share it with a trusted friend.
- Repeat every day for one week.
What are you doing? You’re practicing! Like learning an instrument or a language, you’re drilling the most basic skills, slowly gaining fluency. You’re learning to ask questions. You’re learning to listen. And you’re learning to follow through. As you record or share your experiences, you will begin to recognize the ways that the Spirit most readily speaks to you.
This experiment, repeated daily, will set you on the path that President Russel M. Nelson has outlined for mastering the art of personal revelation:
Pray in the name of Jesus Christ about your concerns, your fears, your weaknesses—yes, the very longings of your heart. And then listen! Write the thoughts that come to your mind. Record your feelings and follow through with actions that you are prompted to take. As you repeat this process day after day, month after month, year after year, you will “grow into the principle of revelation.” (“Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives, Liahona, May 2018.)
Like learning to play a sport or a musical instrument, we must employ the proper technique in our prayers as we practice gaining personal revelation. We must ask sincere, direct, and straightforward questions. We must listen by training our minds to avoid distracting thoughts and by writing down impressions and ideas as they come. And we must follow through by quickly and consistently acting on our impressions. As we learn the language of revelation, we should beware of tackling questions that are too advanced. Instead, we should begin by asking “easy” questions that God (or our conscience) will readily answer, such as “What is the most important thing I should do today?” or “What should I repent of?”
Points to Ponder
- When have you received a definite answer to a prayer? How did the answer come?
- What questions have you been pondering or struggling with?
- What distractions in your life right now may be inhibiting the Spirit from being heard clearly?
- Larry R. Lawrence, “What Lack I Yet?” Liahona, November 2015.