The Merciful Doctrine of Unanswered Prayers

G. Nathan Nakken, “The Merciful Doctrine of Unanswered Prayers,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium, 2004 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 131–141.

The Merciful Doctrine of Unanswered Prayers

G. Nathan Nakken

I recall as a small child traveling some fifty-six-plus miles between St. George and Cedar City. On that clear night, I looked up into a starry sky and offered a child’s prayer. I begged Father to grant the innermost petition of my heart—to have power, to be magic if possible. In those quiet moments while my parent’s 196 Ford Aerostar minivan pushed its way toward Cedar City, I contemplated an Eternal Father in Heaven with power to create worlds beyond number. In my childish way, I desired—even pleaded with Father—that somehow He would put a magic wand under my pillow. Much to my dismay, on the morning following our return home, there was no magic wand. I felt confused and wondered why Father would not grant such an innocent child’s desire. I often wondered why so many of my pure childhood prayers went seemingly unanswered. Didn’t He love me? Surely He didn’t need the wand. From these childhood moments when the heavens were seemingly closed, I began to learn the merciful doctrine of unanswered prayers.

In His mortal ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ once said, “What man among you, having a son, and he shall be standing out, and shall say, Father, open thy house that I may come in and sup with thee, will not say, Come in, my son; for mine is thine, and thine is mine?” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 7:17).

A superficial reading of this verse would seem to indicate that my childhood request should have been granted. Why then does Heavenly Father not grant certain desires? Why do certain prayers go “unnoticed”? Why pray if I am not heard? To examine these questions we must first understand the answers to the following doctrinal questions:

What is expedient in my prayers?

How do I humbly submit to the will of God in my prayers?

What is the true significance of ending my prayers in the name of Jesus Christ?

The Doctrine of Expediency

We can define “expediency” as tending to promote a purpose, proper or suitable to time and place. [1] Concerning expediency, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “Whatsoever ye ask the Father [in the name of Christ] it shall be given unto you . . . “ (D&C :64). But Joseph didn’t end there. To completely understand the doctrine he was teaching, note closely the ending clause: “that is expedient for you” (D&C :64; emphasis added here and in subsequent references). With our mortal myopia we are often seven feet shortsighted of the true vision of answered prayers.

The natural man feeds so naturally off the thought that God will grant every desire. And so we stop with the words “it shall be given unto you.” But carefully consider the next verse; “and if ye ask anything that is not expedient for you, it shall turn unto your condemnation” (D&C :65). Doctrinal literacy subsequently leads one to desire a distinction between the “expedient” and the “unexpedient.”

No one wants to be condemned for asking for that which is not expedient. Now lest one decided to cease his course of supplication and prayer, thinking somehow he would avoid a crash course in Condemnation 101, may I offer the following insight into the doctrine of expediency?

In so doing, return to the example of the star-gazing boy who hoped God would give him a magic wand. Keep in mind our definition of expediency: tending to promote a purpose, proper or suitable to time and place. If the powers of the universe were wound up into a magic wand and given to a young boy who had not yet mastered the complexities of second-grade recess, would this have promoted his eternal salvation? After all, ascending to the top of the slide did present quite a problem for the aspiring magician still lacking the motor skills to control his own body. Sure, why not let him control the universe? Could such a gift ever be suitable to the time and place of the barely eight-year-old boy who had scarcely slid through the gates of accountability?

The fact of the matter is if Heavenly Father were to grant such an unprecedented request and the young magician were to wield his newfound power inappropriately, the result would ultimately be disastrous. He would bring not only condemnation on himself but a lot of pain and suffering to a lot of people innocently affected by his uneducated yet universe-altering flicks of that wand. Even though his Star A teacher had barely taught him the mysteries of the Primary colors, our superhero second-grader would find himself with a life sentence, locked behind nine inches of steel, and his precious wand would be eternally incarcerated in a crystal case. This illustration helps us understand the expediency of learning expediency.

It is easy to see in this comical example that this particular request was not expedient, but put yourself in the shoes of our second-grader, who saw his unanswered prayer as anything but comical. This is not entirely unlike the request of a twenty-year-old begging for the recovery of her dying mother. Or the father who stands, with hands stretched heavenward, wondering if the prodigal will ever return. My heart goes out to those who in silent, painful moments suffer because of inexpediency.

May I offer the following suggestion to align your heart with the doctrine of expediency? The Lord has promised, “The Holy Ghost [shall manifest] all things which are expedient unto the children of men” (D&C 1:1). If we live in tune with the promptings of the Holy Ghost, He will literally tell us those things that are expedient for us. Then we can “ask the Father . . . in faith believing that [we] shall receive” (D&C 1:1).

To illustrate the doctrine of expediency, consider the prophet Nephi. As his brothers Laman and Lemuel plotted his destruction and bound him with strong cords, Nephi “prayed unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound” (1 Nephi 7:17). While it was certainly expedient to be delivered from the hands of those who would murder him, such an impressive display of band-bursting power was inexpedient to boost the ego of the man who was already “large in stature” (1 Nephi 4:31).

Watch how the Lord personifies expediency in the verse following Nephi’s plea: “and it came to pass when I had said these words, behold, the bands were loosed from off my hands and feet . . .” (1 Nephi 7:1). I have wondered how often Heavenly Father smiles at our requests, then mercifully answers the “expedient prayer” we should have offered, leaving the original one “unanswered.”

The Doctrine of Humble Submission

Be thou humble in thy weakness,

And the Lord thy God shall lead thee,

Shall lead thee by the hand

And give thee answer to thy prayers. [2]

The greatest display of humble submission that will last through the eternities was engraved on the records of the courts in heaven as one man slowly walked through a silent and secluded garden spot just outside the walls of Jerusalem. “It was [there] in the Garden of Gethsemane, on that last night in mortality, that Jesus left His Apostles and descended alone into the depth of agony that would be His atoning sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. Moving slowly, kneeling, falling forward on His face, He cried, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” [3]

Having begun to drink the dregs of that most bitter cup, Christ willed that if there be any other way that salvation might come upon the children of men that this cup should pass, which caused Him to be “exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matthew 26:3). But in the ultimate display of humility and submission, Christ added the clause, “not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39).

The prophet Alma writes, “And now I would that ye should be humble, and be submissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; . . . asking for whatsoever things ye stand in need, both spiritual and temporal; always returning thanks unto God for whatsoever things ye do receive” (Alma 7:23). Christ’s supernal sacrifice was crowned with honor as He quietly and humbly submitted His will to that of His Father in Heaven.

To the doctrinally immature, a glance of Christ’s plea in Gethsemane looks like an unanswered prayer. The truth is exactly opposite. For only in this act of absolute submission could the prayer of Christ be heard and answered according to the will of God. “If my people . . . shall humble themselves, and pray . . . then will I hear from heaven . . . and mine ears attent unto [their] prayer” (2 Chronicles 7:14–15). True “prayer is a form of work.” It is “the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves . . . blessings that God is already willing to grant” (Bible Dictionary, “prayer,” 752).

These blessings are conditional upon our humbly submitting to the mind and will of God. Therefore, it is left to us to put off the “natural man” and become a “saint through the atonement of Christ,” to become as a little “child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

In addition to humbly seeking the gifts that God already seeks to give us, true submission requires the child to say, Thy will and Thy timing be done. Unfortunately, we live in a microwave society. We kneel down, popping our request in the Master’s microwave, punch 30 seconds, and stand, hands open, waiting to receive the instantaneous blessing. Many times the Lord’s answers to key prayers come rotisserie style—slow roasted to perfection. Therefore, even this becomes an opportunity for us to align our will with the will of the Father. Then we will be, like the Christ, willing to submit and say, “Not only Thy will but Thy timing be done.”

Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “The issue for us is trusting God enough to trust also His timing. If we can truly believe He has our welfare at heart, may we not let His plans unfold as He thinks best? The same is true with the Second Coming and with all those matters wherein our faith needs to include faith in the Lord’s timing for us personally, not just in His overall plans and purposes.” [4] Occasionally, even the Exactor of Expediency must give way to the Taskmaster of Timing. Remember that the Lord does things “in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will” (D&C :6).

If our prayers are ever to enter the ears of the “Lord of Sabaoth” (D&C 9:2), we must become like Christ and humbly submit to the will and timetable of a loving Heavenly Father, and praying with “real intent” will help facilitate such humble submission.

Elder Gene R. Cook teaches us how to pray in this manner: “When we pray with fervency we pray with real intent. We pray from the heart. We really mean what we say, and we say what we feel. This brings an added humility, an increased power to our prayers that we never have when we pray in a surface manner only, perhaps only speaking words.” [5]

Moroni warns that if a man “prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent, it profiteth him nothing” (Moroni 7:6). He further reiterates that “if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; . . . it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such” (Moroni 7:9). Part of our humbly submitting our will to God is praying as He would have us pray.

James E. Faust “once heard of a Primary teacher who asked a little boy if he said his prayers every night. ‘Yes,’ he replied.

‘And do you always say them in the morning, too?’ the Primary teacher asked.

‘No,’ the boy replied. ‘I ain’t scared in the daytime.’” [6]

Fear, while certainly bringing real intent, should not be the only factor motivating our prayers. We must submit to the commandment of God to “pray always” (D&C 10:5). Only then can the Lord “lead [you] by the hand, and give [you] answer to [your] prayers” (D&C 112:10). Otherwise, our supplications will forever remain as seemingly unanswered prayers.

The Doctrine of Praying in Christ’s Name

Picture in your mind the frequent experience of racing to the close of a prayer. Without a single breath, often blue in the face, we rush as though we were pushing towards the finish line of our twenty-yard dash prayer and superficially sprint across the finish line labeled “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” As we wipe the perspiration from our face and jump back into the tasks of the day, we leave the innocent bystander asking, “Was that last phrase even in English?” There is doctrinal significance to that phrase that we sometimes punch like the shutdown button of a computer. In Hebrew, the phrase is rendered in the name belonging to Joshua, the Messiah, amen. What’s in a name? What is the significance of a prayer literally being offered “in the name of Jesus Christ”?

As a child I take upon myself the surname of my father. This symbol signifies that I belong to him. Scandinavian family history yields another helpful insight. Take for example the surname “Hanson.” It indicates that this person is Hans’s son. That is, he belongs to Hans. My future wife will one day take upon herself my surname. This teaches an even higher law relative to the symbolism of names. Taking upon you the name of another denotes unity or oneness. Husband and wife are to “leave [their] father and . . . mother” and become “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Their lives merge, bringing unity of purpose, hopes, dreams, and desires. So it is with us when we pray. We literally take upon ourselves “the name belonging to Joshua, the Messiah” and become one with Him—our words become His words; our thoughts, His thoughts; and our prayer becomes as though it were His prayer offered in our behalf. Perhaps, we should slow down and ponder our petitions and carefully close with those most sacred words, “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” Christ Himself teaches the importance of this doctrine, stating, “If ye call upon the Father . . . in my name the Father will hear you” (3 Nephi 27:9).

Elder L. Edward Brown made the point that Christ was insistent that “ye must always pray . . . in my name.” [7] There is “no other name given . . . whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17). Additionally, the Lord declared to Moses, “Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name” (Moses 1:3). What a comfort it is to know that He who is “lending you breath” from day to day and “supporting you from one moment to another” (Mosiah 2:21) does not require an additional twenty-five-cent deposit after the first ten minutes of our prayer’s conclusion has elapsed. Truly when our prayers are concluded in the name of that “Endless Being,” we need not worry that Alzheimer’s will ever affect the Almighty or that the answers to our prayers will ever be abandoned to the discretion of absentmindedness. Elder Brown further taught, “When we use these sacred words, ‘in the name of Jesus Christ,’ they are much more than a way to get out of a prayer or out of a testimony or out of a talk. We are on holy ground, brothers and sisters. We are using a name most sublime, most holy, and most wonderful—the very name of the Son of God. We are now able to come unto the Father through His Beloved Son. What power and reassurance and peace come when we really pray in His name. This conclusion to the prayer may, in many ways, be the most important part of the prayer. We can appeal to the Father through His victorious Son with confidence that our prayers will be heard. We can ask and receive, we can seek and find and subsequently find the open door.” [8] If our prayers are insincere, our fast-hand forgery will in no way represent the name, mind, and will of Christ. Our petition thereby will forever remain a so-called unanswered prayer.

Conclusion

So yes, my young Merlin of the second grade, God does grant your innocent child’s desires and He does love you. “Your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament—the Lord hath sworn and decreed that they shall be granted” (D&C 9:2).

Listen closely, my young friend, to the words of God’s promise in the following verse: “He giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled” (D&C 9:3). Note the phrase “immutable covenant.” God covenants with an unchanging promise that your righteous petitions shall be granted.

So why then does Heavenly Father not grant certain desires? Why do certain prayers go “unnoticed”? Why pray if it appears that I am not heard? As we come to better understand the questions associated with the doctrine of unanswered prayers, we find that our prayers must include the elements of expediency, humbly submitting to the will and timing of God, and praying in the name of Christ.

As we follow these three principles, we come to understand the mercy of an unanswered prayer. Then we may testify with Nephi, saying, “I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen” (2 Nephi 4:35).

Pray on, dream on, hope on, and hold on, for your prayers “shall be granted” (D&C 9:2). But remember, “it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will” (D&C :6). This is the doctrine of expediency, the doctrine of humbly submitting to the will and timing of the Lord, and the doctrine of literally praying “in the name of Jesus Christ.” And in those moments of waiting, thinking your prayers will never be answered, take comfort in the compassion shown forth by our Father, who “knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him” (Matthew 6:), who kindly circumvents our requests that would cause our condemnation. So, my maturing Merlin, when the answer seems to never come, pause, and prayerfully utter, “Thy will and thy timing be done,” and then thank God for the mercy of unanswered prayers.

Notes

[1] See Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, electronic edition, cited in GospeLink 2001, s.v. “expediency.”

[2] “Be Thou Humble,” Hymns (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 130.

[3] Jeffrey R. Holland, in “Special Witnesses of Christ,” Ensign, April 2001, 13–14.

[4] Neal A. Maxwell, Even As I Am (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 93.

[5] Gene R. Cook, Receiving Answers to Our Prayers (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1996), 54.

[6] James E. Faust, “The Lifeline of Prayer,” Ensign, May 2002, 61.

[7] L. Edward Brown, “‘Pray unto the Father in My Name,’” Ensign, May 1997, 78.

[8] Brown, “‘Pray unto the Father,’” 78.