When Prayers Feel Unanswered – Now What?
A friend of mine recently told me that she was praying and praying, and while she was certain she knew God loved her, she didn’t feel like she was getting answers to this specific request/question she was praying about. This is a woman who I know to be good and faithful, who does know how to pray. My heart ached with her when she expressed some dismay about feeling that she wasn’t being heard by the heavens.
The thing is, there is no easy answer to this question. While I certainly do not claim to have all the answers, or even one great one, there were three scriptural examples that immediately came to my mind: Oliver Cowdery, Laman and Lemuel, and Joseph Smith. These examples may seem far removed from our own individual circumstances, but there may be one or two things you can glean from a deeper dive.
Example 1: Oliver Cowdery
Oliver Cowdery desired to translate the Book of Mormon. Up to that point he had been acting as scribe for Joseph Smith, but the Lord had also promised him that he would be allowed to actually translate. Oliver was severely disappointed when this didn’t happen. The Lord gently chastised him by saying it’s not enough to just ask, you have to work for it also. (See Doctrine and Covenants 9:7.)
James E. Faust said, “…in times of great personal hurt or need, more may be required than mere asking. Blessings sought through prayer sometimes require work, effort, and diligence on our part.” (2002–A:59, James E. Faust, “The Lifeline of Prayer.“)
Example 2: Laman & Lemuel
From Nephi’s experience with his brothers, we learn a valuable lesson on how to ask questions. Lehi has recently shared his vision of the tree of life with his sons and family. Nephi’s immediate response is to seek his own personal revelation about what it means. He goes armed to the Lord with a very specific set of questions, then asks those questions.
After that experience, he comes back to his brothers, probably excited to share his own testimony about the things he’s learned. Instead, he encounters two unbelieving brothers who cannot understand why Nephi should have gotten answers when they didn’t.
In 1 Nephi 15:7-11 we read the exchange. Enjoy some very liberal paraphrasing by me.
And they (Laman and Lemuel) said: Dad’s been talking about some crazy vision he had, and we do not understand what it means. It’s like, so full of symbolism and stuff, we have no idea what to think about it.
So I, Nephi said unto them: I’ve got an idea – did you ask God what it means? That’s what I’ve just been doing.
And they said unto me: Nope! Why should we ask when we already know God won’t tell us? He hasn’t told us what it means before this; why should we think He will now? The Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.
So I, Nephi, took a deep breath to remind myself to be patient and said unto them: Guys, I know this seems like basic stuff you learned in Primary, but it still applies to all of us. Remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.
Notice the keys that Nephi gives to his brothers about receiving answers to prayer. We must:
- Approach the issue with an open heart;
- Ask in faith;
- Believe that you’re going to receive an answer; and
- Be diligent in keeping the commandments.
“To … all of us, if you ‘have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?’ (Alma 5:26). If you do not feel it now, you can feel it again, but consider Nephi’s counsel. Be obedient, remember the times when you have felt the Spirit in the past, and ask in faith. Your answer will come, and you will feel the love and peace of the Savior. It may not come as quickly or in the format you desire, but the answer will come. Do not give up! Never give up!” (2015–O:58, James B. Martino, “Turn to Him and Answers Will Come.”)
Example 3: Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith spent a considerable amount of time in the ironically named Liberty Jail. The walls were four feet thick, built of solid stone. The ceiling was no higher than six feet, and the living conditions were generally miserable. Tainted food made Joseph and his companions ill, forcing them to starve rather than eat. When they did try to eat, the food poisoned them to the point of vomiting. In the dungeon of this facility, the smell was sickening, conditions were damp, the light was dim, and time passed as slowly as a snail moves. (See https://history.lds.org/article/doctrine-and-covenants-liberty-jail?lang=eng.)
It was in this miserable situation that Joseph desperately turned to the Lord in prayer. “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (D&C 121:1.) You can hear the anguish in his voice. Here is the Lord’s prophet, chosen to open the dispensation of the latter days, and he is being held in conditions not even fit for animals. He is lonely and misses his family. When he will be released is unknown, and he is certainly concerned for the welfare of the Saints.
We have all felt those moments of desperation, certain that Heavenly Father has better things to do with His time, because it’s obvious He is not paying any attention to us!
I’m just going to quote Elder Eyring here instead of trying to wax eloquent on my own. He says it perfectly.
“In the depths of his anguish in Liberty Jail, the Prophet Joseph Smith cried out: O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? Many of us, in moments of personal anguish, feel that God is far from us. The pavilion that seems to intercept divine aid does not cover God but occasionally covers us. God is never hidden, yet sometimes we are, covered by a pavilion of motivations that draw us away from God and make Him seem distant and inaccessible. Our own desires, rather than a feeling of Thy will be done, create the feeling of a pavilion blocking God. God is not unable to see us or communicate with us, but we may be unwilling to listen or submit to His will and His time.
The Wrestle Is Real
From the excellent talk given by Sheri Dew last year at BYU-I, she talks about a personal, modern, and relevant struggle she recently went through. In her own words:
I recently engaged in a wrestle. When the policy was announced that the children of gay parents might not be eligible for baptism at age eight, I was confused. I did not question the Brethren or doubt their inspiration, but neither did I understand the doctrinal basis for the policy. So I asked the Lord to teach me. I prayed, searched the scriptures, studied the teachings of prophets, and pondered my question in the temple. This went on for several months. Then one day a colleague made a statement that sparked a new thought for me, and in that moment the Spirit illuminated the doctrine in my heart and mind. I consider that answer personal revelation …
…when questions arise or when blessings you’ve been pleading for remain unfulfilled, they are not an indication that you don’t have a testimony or that the gospel isn’t true. They are an invitation for you to grow spiritually.
I repeat, once you have received a spiritual witness of the truths that form a testimony, even your thorniest questions about our doctrine, history, positions on sensitive issues, or the aching desires of your hearts, are about personal growth. They are opportunities for you to receive personal revelation and increase your faith.
We don’t have to have answers to every question in order to receive a witness, bear witness, and stand as a witness.
But questions, especially the tough ones, propel us to engage in a spiritual wrestle so that the Lord can lead us along. Without plain old spiritual work, even God can’t make us grow-or at least, He won’t.
Seekers have certain habits that are key to learning to communicate with God. For starters, they engage in the wrestle, meaning they work at it. They immerse themselves regularly in the scriptures, because the scriptures are the textbook for the Lord’s language. They also work to be increasingly pure-pure in their heart and thoughts, pure in what they say, watch, read, and listen to. Purity invites the Spirit. And then, pure seekers listen. One of my former institute students periodically turns everything electronic off. TV off. Music off. Phone off. Computer off. She says, “I like to let the Lord know I’m listening.” (“Will You Engage In the Wrestle?” Sheri L. Dew, BYU-I devotional, May 17, 2016.)
That’s Fine, But What About Me?
Yep, you’re right. I’ve given three examples from scripture and one modern-day instance of a person who has also struggled. They are relevant. These are real people, with real issues. It doesn’t matter that their stories are told from the delicate pages of scripture, musty books of history, or over a pulpit to a student body. Their stories are your stories. And they all give us valuable insight into how we can receive answers to our own prayers.
- First, pray! You can’t get an answer if you don’t ask.
- Hope, even with the smallest shred of faith, that you will receive an answer.
- Trust that God loves you and wants to answer you. Truly. Believe this.
- Turn off all the noise. When Sister Dew says to “turn everything off,” that includes the voices of doubt in our own minds. “I like to let the Lord know I’m listening.” Are you listening? With no preconceived notions? Willing to hear what the Lord would say to you?
- Listen, feel, trust.
- Wash, rinse, repeat. If you feel like it’s “not working,” don’t give up. Try and try again. Remember what Heavenly Father said to Oliver Cowdery: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:22-23). You have received answers before; you will receive them again. Keep going.
Coming soon – how to recognize answers when they do come.