In a previous post, “Prayer: A Troubleshooting Guide,” I offered five “troubleshooting questions” to ask ourselves when we feel like our prayers are failing to get results:
- Are we praying with faith? Do we truly expect to receive an answer?
- Are we putting in the mighty and consistent effort that some answers require?
- Do we need to forgive anyone before approaching God?
- Are we in an emotional state of humility and peace, or are we plagued by feelings of fear, worry, or pride?
- Are we trying to manipulate God into giving in to our will or timetable?
This post explores four more self-assessment questions for when our petitions seem to be going unanswered.
1. Are we asking for the wrong things?
The Lord has made clear that we will only be granted requests if they are right:
And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you. (3 Nephi 18:20, emphasis added)
Mormon, referencing this same passage, employs slightly different wording:
And as surely as Christ liveth he spake these words unto our fathers, saying: Whatsoever thing ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is good, in faith believing that ye shall receive, behold, it shall be done unto you. (Moroni 7:26, emphasis added)
Mary Ellen Edmunds, a member of the Relief Society general board from 1986 to 1997, quoted the above verses and then taught the following:
We need to ask for that which is right and which is good. No wonder prayer is a form of work. We have to think it through: “Is this right? Is this good?” And no wonder prophets sometimes pray about what to pray for.1
And, of course, what may seem good and right to us may not be what the Lord knows is best for our eternal welfare. “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” He says (Isaiah 59:8), and prophets have reminded us that “our needed conversions are often achieved more readily by suffering and adversity than by comfort and tranquility.”2
2. Are we asking for the wrong reasons?
Sometimes we fail to receive answers because our motive is impure. James warns us:
Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. (James 4:3, KJV)
A newer translation renders this passage as follows:
You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions. (James 4:3, NET)
If the reason we are asking for a favor or an answer is to make our lives more convenient or easy, to spare us work, to fuel our pride or ambitions, or to bring us temporal pleasure, the Lord will probably not grant our request.
Likewise, we must avoid requesting “shortcuts,” or offloading our agency or decision-making duties onto the Lord. Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught:
It is not, never has been, and never will be the design and purpose of the Lord—however much we seek him in prayer—to answer all our problems and concerns without struggle and effort on our part. This mortality is a probationary estate. In it we have our agency. We are being tested to see how we will respond in various situations; how we will decide issues; what course we will pursue while we are here walking, not by sight, but by faith. Hence, we are to solve our own problems and then to counsel with the Lord in prayer and receive a spiritual confirmation that our decisions are correct.3
So sometimes God will withhold direction because He wants us to figure out how to act on our own. Perhaps He may give us a spiritual confirmation of our decision. But what if we struggle to feel even that? In a recent Face to Face broadcast, a young man asked this question to Elder David A. Bednar, who responded thus:
How do we know in our lives what God’s will is? The covenant path. . . . God’s will for us is that we exercise our moral agency to learn about each of the covenants of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and the associated priesthood ordinance. . . . God’s will for us is that we learn about, strive to understand, worthily receive, live, remember, and honor the covenants and associated ordinances. If we’re doing that to the best of our ability—not perfectly, because we cannot do it perfectly, but to the best of our ability—that’s what He would have us do.
Now, all kinds of other things enter into our lives. . . . and we have to kind of [ask], “can that be God’s will?” . . . As long as you are pressing forward on the covenant path, from ordinance and covenant to ordinance and covenant, you are doing God’s will.4
Elder Bednar’s counsel is the key to moving forward when we feel like we aren’t receiving any direction from heaven. God has already clearly delineated the path we are to follow. He has given us commandments, standards, the scriptures, and more opportunities to mourn with those that mourn, stand as witnesses of Christ, and consecrate our time and energy to God’s kingdom than we could ever exhaust.
3. Do we need to reevaluate our expectations?
President Dallin H. Oaks has recounted how once he received a letter from a young man, a returned missionary long active in the Church, who said he had never received an irrefutable revelation that God exists. President Oaks’ reply included the following:
I wonder what you expect as an answer to your prayers? . . . Perhaps your prayers have been answered again and again, but you have had your expectations fixed on a sign so grand or a voice so loud that you think you have had no answer.5
President Oaks then listed several examples of quieter but no less valid manifestations from the Spirit:
- “A still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12)
- “Speak[ing] peace to your mind” (Doctrine and Covenants 6:23)
- “Pure intelligence flowing unto you”6
- “Sudden strokes of ideas”7
Our expectations must be open enough to recognize the ways the Lord wants to communicate, not how we insist He must communicate.
It’s very possible that the Holy Ghost can communicate with us without us even realizing we’re being influenced by the Holy Ghost. The Lamanites taught by Nephi and Lehi “were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not” (3 Nephi 9:20). If someone unexperienced with the workings of the Spirit felt a “sudden stroke of ideas” or “pure intelligence flowing” unto them, would they think it was the Spirit? Probably not—they’d probably just think it was their own mind working exceptionally clearly.
4. Are we praying in the name of Jesus Christ?
The scriptures are clear: Everything we do in relation to God must be administered in the name of Jesus Christ:
See that ye do all things in worthiness, and do it in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. (Mormon 9:29)
Whatsoever thing ye shall ask in faith, believing that ye shall receive in the name of Christ, ye shall receive it. (Enos 1:15)
And again, I saw unto you, all things must be done in the name of Christ, whatsoever you do in the Spirit. (Doctrine and Covenants 46:31)
All men must repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and worship the Father in his name, and endure in faith on his name to the end, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God. (Doctrine and Covenants 20:29)
Giv[e] thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:20)
Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion. Will I accept of an offering, saith the Lord, that is not made in my name? (Doctrine and Covenants 132:8–9)8
I think this means more than mumbling “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen” by rote at the end of our prayers. It means seeing Jesus Christ as our mediator, our advocate presenting our petition before the throne of God. It means acknowledging Jesus as the fountain of all good things, the source of all light and truth in our lives. It means grounding our petitions in our conversion to Christ and our covenant to take His name upon us and be counted among His disciples.
My challenge to you is to truly pray in and through the name of Jesus Christ—with your heart and your thoughts, not just your words. Ask for the blessings and the answers that are truly expedient for your eternal wellbeing—and ask them because you care about your eternal wellbeing. And be willing to accept a stiller and smaller response than perhaps you would like.
When we feel that our petitions and questions to God are going unanswered, here are 4 more questions to ask ourselves: Are we asking for things that aren’t expedient for our eternal progression? Are we asking to satisfy our pride or offload our decision-making onto God? Do we need to reevaluate our expectations of how we may receive an answer? And are we truly presenting our prayers in and through the name of Jesus Christ?
Points to Ponder
- What if we don’t know if what we’re asking for is good? What if we think it’s good but we don’t get an answer?
- When we ask God questions in prayer but don’t receive answers, how do we know if it’s because (a) God wants us to proceed on our own, (b) we’re not asking with the faith/effort/understanding/patience/technique required to get an answer, or (c) we’re not recognizing the answer God is giving to us? In other words, how do we discern which of these nine troubleshooting questions is applicable in a given scenario?
- Why do some people seem to receive spiritual communication much more readily than others, even when both are striving to live righteous and sanctified lives?
1. Mary Ellen Edmunds, “Prayer, the Soul’s Sincere Desire,” in Prayer (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 42; emphasis in the original.
4. David A. Bednar, “Face to Face with Elder and Sister Bednar: Ask, Seek, Knock,,” September 12, 2021, section entitled “What Can We Do to Understand God’s Will for Us?” Emphasis added.
5. Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections, 115–116. He is quoting from a letter he wrote in October 1986.
6. Joseph Smith, Jr., “Discourse, between circa 26 June and circa 2 July 1839, as reported by Willard Richards,” p. 21, The Joseph Smith Papers.
8. Emphasis added to all verses. See also Acts 4:10; 2 Nephi 32:9; Mosiah 3:17; Moroni 2:2; Moroni 7:26; Moroni 9:21; Moroni 10:4; Doctrine and Covenants 20:70; Doctrine and Covenants 59:5; and Moses 6:52.