Two Prayers

I’m a believer in the power of prayer. It’s not only a way to meditate and focus our internal energies, but I have faith that it is also a means of communing with God and of learning His will.

Two moments come to mind when I think of how prayer has worked in my life. Both prayers were uttered in moments of true desperation: during law exams.

The first prayer was made during one of my first law school exams: Civil Procedure, with Prof. Greenberg. Civ Pro basically covers the technical aspects of lawsuits: subpeonas, juries, motions, and all that good Law & Order gobbledegook. It’s a class I enjoyed immensely, with a nice complexity of rules. But with the exam in front of me, I choked. The problems seemed familiar, but none of them clicked. It was as if I was reading a vaguely familiar foreign language. I read and re-read but to no avail, and as the minutes ticked by, I began to panic. I shut my eyes and whispered a quick prayer, that God would help me find the answers to the test and that I would do well.

A response came to me, very clearly, perhaps the clearest answer to a prayer I’ve ever experienced: “You got yourself into this mess, Evans. Why just involve me now? Get yourself out of it.”

Confused, I fuddled my way through the test and went home. That night I ate at Tom’s with some friends, bewildered at the experience and convinced that I’d completely failed the test. I had little hope for my future following the complete clusterbomb I’d accomplished during Civ Pro.

I got an A. I still don’t know how!

The second prayer is more recent. After moving to Seattle in January, I was required to take the Washington State bar exam in order to qualify. Lawyers that practice long enough can just apply for reciprocal treatment, but I was about 6 months shy. So I got to re-experience the joys of bar exam preparation courses, and the sheer monotony of practice exams, flash cards and outline after outline. It turns you into a zombie. The night before my first day’s exam I said my nightly prayers, asking that I have the chance during the next days’ exams to see God’s hand at work, that I could remember Him, even during the crazy pace of the bar exam. I didn’t ask – though perhaps I should have – that I do well on the exam or that God somehow intervene with the bar examiners.

The next day, during the exam, I found myself occasionally taking a moment to think about Jesus: his sacrifice, his death on the cross. I thought about the great things God has done for people in the past. The exam was still tricky, and my hand still cramped after days of solid writing. In a way, the bar exam faded behind me and was replaced with a sense of myself before God. Revisiting the questions in my mind, I know that I made mistakes on the exam, and I doubt my test will be used as model answers for future generations. I get the results in May.

When discussions turn to prayer and how God can influence our lives, I think of these two different prayers. Which one was more sincere? Which one was answered? I don’t have answers to questions of theodicy, and I don’t know enough about God to tell how or why some requests are granted and others refused. All I can do is look at my own brushes with the divine, and witness that God does answer prayers, without knowing why or how.

I don’t like arguing that one of these prayers is superior to the other, or that one was answered more fully than the other. I also don’t like discouraging or speaking out against prayers like the first one, because I don’t think it is ever wrong to turn to God. I see both as desperate reachings out to God; both are selfish attempts to connect with Heavenly Father when I needed him. In my mind, all efforts at prayer are worthy if we are sincere. Is this true? Why do we pray?

Comments

  1. I also don’t like discouraging or speaking out against prayers like the first one, because I don’t think it is ever wrong to turn to God.

    I very much agree. When I think about the plight of the majority of the World’s population, just about anything I can ask God is ludicrous in comparison. Like you, it is not theodicy that I think we can approach. Despite the disparity in situtation, I have to believe that God still wants me to pray for the stuff in my life.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I look at it the same way. I realize that, on an intellectual level, it seems ridiculous for me to pray to be able to find my lost keys when there are so many millions of other, more dire prayers (people starving, for example) that apparently go unheeded.

    So I just figure this is one of those things I don’t understand and pray for help finding my lost keys anyway.

  3. Prayer, intellectually, is very complex for me. In practice I do it more as a meditation when things are going well, a kind of conversation with the universe that floats in and out of directed thoughts, praise, requests, pleas. When in moments of desparation, it’s pretty direct, and always with a caveat–God, there are those more deserving, but I’m asking this anyway, with apologies, and some guilt.

    I’m reminded of a rabbinical story, no doubt loosely translated. Two rabbis walk into town to be greeted with the news that a house has burned to the ground. Rabbi 1 prays: “Lord, please let that not be my house.” Rabbi 2 says: “Who’s do you want it to have been?”

  4. Christina says:

    Great question, Steve, and something I think about a lot. I have long grappled with the idea of prayer as a request, as I find my own problems and struggles (so many related to being a silly lawyer!) to be pretty trifling compared to the dire situation of most of the world’s population. As a result, I find I often don’t ask the Lord for help for my own life, as it just feels downright selfish and self centered. I feel okay when I am praying for guidance in helping others, but not too great (or like I deserve a response) when praying for myself.

    And yet, that can’t be the reaction our Father wants.

    I haven’t resolved this in my own life, but maybe one of the reasons we need to pray for our own welfare is to understand the great love God has for us. No matter how minor my concerns are, perhaps I need to understand that they matter to a God who loves me. This in turn can help me comprehend the love that God has for us all.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Part of the ‘problem’ is the scriptural injunction to pray over our flocks, etc. There are indications in scripture that we are to go to the Lord with some of these material things — otherwise I’d be tempted just to make my prayers all about apologies, guilt and musings. The influence of the real-world on our praying is interesting.

  6. Christina says:

    Other reasons for why we need to pray for our own selves and households include for faith and humility. This plays out in two ways. First, when we are seeking to accomplish something, a request for assistance is an acknowledgment of God’s hand in our lives, which acknowledgment requires both an act of faith in that possibility and a recognition of our own inability to control every aspect of the outcome.

    Second, when, for example, we pray for advancement in some way in this world, whether in our careers or material gain or health, it is like tithing: a tangible reminder that all the blessings and possessions we have are ultimately not our own- they come from and through a loving God and ought to be used for the best purposes available.

  7. A response came to me, very clearly, perhaps the clearest answer to a prayer I’ve ever experienced:

    I love this part of your story Steve. This exemplifies the best part of being Christian and more specifically of being Mormons. I’ve harped on this idea a ton at my blog but I believe that the restoration means we Mormons should get more real revelation than any other people in the world and that if we aren’t we are wasting our Mormonism (specifically we are wasting the special benefits associated with the Gift of the Holy Ghost).

    I have prayed for a lot of seemingly trivial or ridiculous things in my life. The shocking part is how many of those prayers have been answered/granted. But when I consider how many of the petitions my I grant to my little children I better understand my experience with God.

    In my mind, here is the grand (although probably too generalized) key: If it is truly important to them it is important to me. Likewise, if something is truly important to us, it is important to God.

  8. So what happens, Steve, if you fail the WA bar exam? Will the experience still be worth it because of your contemplation of God? Or will it be a let down?

    In a punch of individual cynicism last year, I decided I had absolutely no real evidence of ‘ask and you shall receive’. Not me, not people I knew, not the Church on a larger scale and definitely not world-wide. So I decided that my prayer would consist of attempts to get to know God (John 17:3) and have him get to know me. So I would pray and just talk about whatever. My feelings, my issues, events, other people–is that gossip? and then I would just sit and be quiet. But I didn’t ask for anything. No found keys, no end to HIV/AIDS, no help for a friend. I just talked.

    And it was good. I felt like I was growing closer to God and myself and as I became more comfortable in those relationships I found requests just coming out. I had a dear friend who just couldn’t get some experiments to work in lab, so I begged for them to succeed. I was doing research on HIV and I begged for people to be inspired with solutions and empowered with goodness. I prayed for direction in relationships, I prayed to find my way home one night when I was lost. They all sort of spontaneously came out of me even though I had firmly decided that prayer was not about the asking but the relationship.

    I still don’t have much evidence of the ask and receive principle, I value it because it springs right out of me.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Amri, GREAT question. If I don’t pass the bar, I think I have realized that the contemplative exercise was worth it. I mean, yes, it will SUCK if I don’t pass — no question! But there was value in the experience on its own.

  10. I think all of your reasons for prayer are valid. I would offer that an important aspect of prayer that you might have omitted, one that I think we all forget about, is a prayer of thanks. A few years ago when my grandaughter was born I had an experience that I won’t forget. There were some concerns with the progress of my daughter-in-laws labor. My wife quickly packed a bag and left for Richmond to be with the young family. On my way to work later that morning I realized that we forgot to pray before my wife left and so I said a silent prayer in the car and then again when I arrived at my office. It was only a few minutes later that part of my prayer was answered when my wife called to say that she had arrived in Richmond without harm. Then about noon she called again to say that my granddaughter had been born fat and healthy. It was some time later that day that I realized that I had neglected to give thanks for the blessings in my life and so there in my office I said a prayer of thanksgiving. When we acknowledge God’s hand in our lives on both ends of the blessing our faith and our relationship will grow stronger.

  11. cj douglass says:

    I believe that the restoration means we Mormons should get more real revelation than any other people in the world and that if we aren’t we are wasting our Mormonism (specifically we are wasting the special benefits associated with the Gift of the Holy Ghost).

    I certainly agree with Geoff and myself need to take more advantage of the Gift of the Holy Ghost. To add another layer, I think that because prayer is a privilage to all of God’s children, we are really missing out on the most fundamental way to cultivate a realtionship with Him when we do not pray. As a result of this gift to all humans there are many people of all faiths who have real and personal relationships with Him while knowing little of His restored truth. I have also known members of the church who are active in the gospel but admit they rarely pray personally. I love prayer because it is so personal. In the past I have recieved answers that weren’t popular even among my mormon friends and family. In those moments, my relationship with God was tested but ultimately strengthened my faith in Him and His will for me.

  12. Eric Russell says:

    Steve, I like how God responded to you by your last name.

    I think it’s interesting how we translate our promptings into a language we understand. And by that I don’t just mean English, but in words that speak to us – our own personal language of sorts. I’ve received impressions that I’ve second guessed because I thought, “God wouldn’t say it like that.” But later I realized, why not? When God speaks to us, he’s also speaking through us.

  13. Costanza says:

    Your post reminds me of one of my favorite passages from the Doctrine and Covenants, received in December 1833 after everything had gone to hell in a handbasket in Jackson county. To the saints wondering how God could have “done this to them,” the Lord said “In the day of their peace they esteemed lightly my counsel; but in the day of their trouble, of necessity they feel after me.” Ouch! But the revelation continues that “notwithstanding their sins, my bowels are filled with compassion towards them ” (D&C 101:8-9). I think we all basically find ourselves in that position from time to time.

  14. I personally like praying out loud especially when I am alone. I feel like I’m really talking with him when I speak out loud to him. My mind works too fast to get out the fellings that I really want to express. I know that you can’t always have a situation when you want to pray that you can do it out loud, like in an exam. But I have had more answers to prayers when I talk to him out loud. The first time was when I was a boy scout down on my knees in a farm field at scout camp, asking him to take me to my home due to some terrible experiences I was having. It happened so fast, I hardly had time to pack.

  15. I love this post and it resonates with me. I think both of your prayers were sincere and both were answered. I think all prayer is valid, from the doing-well-on-a-test-prayer, to the finding-your-keys-prayer, to the inspiring-me-to-do-thy-will prayer. I hope I don’t sound sacriligious in the least by comparing my lowly self to that of our HF, but as a parent and a teacher I feel I can really identify! When a student or my child asks me a question, I answer it. Sometimes my kids wear me down by asking for something over and over, and I’ll change my answer from a “no” to a “go ahead and see for yourself.” I’ve had this direct experience with HF answering my prayers when I’ve been given an answer, didn’t like it, and kept praying about the same thing over and over again.

    Sometimes when my students ask me questions before a test my response is to just assure them that if they’ve been paying attention, they’ll do fine. Sometimes HF has assured me in this way too.

    I love prayer. I pray all the time – mostly informally (quietly to myself), and perhaps this in some way takes aways part of the sacredness of the act of prayer; perhaps it’s a little too casual. But it works and I’ve had prayers answered in my life that were so clear and immediate that I will forever have the testimony of prayer in my life. (Or maybe I’m just hearing voices in my head? :-) )

    One final thought: awhile back I was living in a mountain region in the middle east and my husband and I had to have a driver drive us down the escarpment to the coast to fly in and out of the country. The road was terrifying, and our driver was maniacal. I kept praying and praying over and over the whole way down, because I thought we were going to die! My non-praying husband asked me, “why don’t you have enough faith that God will answer your prayer the first time?” I’m not sure what this means, but it made me feel taken aback. Has anyone had this experience? Why don’t we have enough faith that one prayer will do it? As a church, couldn’t we all just get together with one mighty prayer and ask for those cures for cancer and HIV? Does pestering HF help him know we’re sincere, and that we “mean it”?

  16. Costanza says:

    “As a church, couldn’t we all just get together with one mighty prayer and ask for those cures for cancer and HIV?” We could try, but the fact is that mortality is designed to be difficult and to include disease and death. I always think of a quote from President Kimball when this question comes up. “Should all prayers be immediately answered then there would be little or no suffering, sorrow, disappointment, or even death, and if these were not, there would also be no joy, success, resurrection, nor eternal life and godhood.” Faith Precedes the Miracle, 97.

  17. Both your prayer forms seem good. For me the most difficult prayer requests come in the form of advantage over another–get the contract, make the deal, win the race, or, in my case, help my children win the race. I can’t do that anymore. The concept of brotherhood and sisterhood seems increasingly important in this troubled world. Even when my daughter raced in the last Olympics, I could only ask that she and her teammates could do their very best. They got second and I only wondered for a minute if I bore any responsibility for the loss.
    Steve, I am sure God wants you to pass the bar exam, quit memorizing and start serving fully.

  18. Steve Evans says:

    BTW, for those curious, I passed the Washington State Bar.

  19. Wahoo! Prayers really are answered. Good work. And I mean that to God and not you. heh.

  20. Nate T. says:

    So many good posts. (Good luck on the bar BTW)

    I have been struggleing with this issue alot in my life lately. My problems revolve around three events.

    When I was an undergrad I wanted to become a Professor. I did as the brother of Jared did and how it talks about in the Doctrine and Convnants. I worked as hard as I could to learn about becoming a Prof., went to God with my plan and got a definate answer. Yes.

    Four years later, I am sitting in my advisor’s office talking about writing and it comes clearly to me. I need to leave the program. This was not easy for me, but I prayed and thought alot about it, and it was the right move for me.

    Just after that I had to decide what I would do. I took a look at my options, researching them diligently. I made a decsion on a job, took it to the lord and got a definate yes answer and that He would help me in the process. Well, I did not get the job.

    I don’t know why these things happened. I think the lord wanted me to learn something in the process, but I still have not figured out what it is.

    My prayers have since changed. I pray less for what I want, and more for God to lead me to what He wants for me. I can’t say much has happed except I am applying for some new things and feel His hand on me more than ever before. I know this is what he wanted me to pray for and to do.

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