My heart hurt.
One of our close family friends had been battling cancer valiantly. We were keeping in touch long-distance via texts, phone calls, and occasional visits. I was at another friend's house picking up my son when I received a text: a text telling me that the doctors told this family there was nothing more they could do. This dear friend was going on hospice care. I held it together until we got in the car. Then I broke down. Tears streamed as I imagined their three little kids without their Daddy. My heart ached as I thought of my sweet friend a widow at our age. I cried for our friend's physical pain and all that he had done to fight this cancer that was taking over his body.
Then from the back seat I heard, "Mommy, what's wrong?" I told my son what was happening. My sweet four-year-old then replied, "But Mommy, why didn't the prayer work?"
My heart broke anew. We had been offering prayers for this family for a long time, as had friends and family across the nation. Why hadn't the prayer worked? Why wasn't this saintly soul (and they are both of them saintly souls) going to be healed?
I answered the best I could. "Heavenly Father has a plan for each of us. Sometimes that plan is not what we hope for, but we need to trust the Lord that it actually is what's best for us. Our friend may still receive a miracle, but he might not. We trust Heavenly Father."
At that moment, that was enough for my little guy. He nodded, looked out the window, and went on with his own thoughts.
But my adult mind kept thinking. I fully believe everything I told my son. I do have faith in the Lord's plan for me and for each of us. I have faith in an afterlife where families are together forever and seeming injustices are made right. However, my mind wandered to the next question that my son hasn't asked yet but that he may ask someday: If the Lord's plan is going to happen anyway, why do we even pray? Why pray if you're not going to get what you ask for?
Why pray for healing if the afflicted may die anyway? Why pray for a loved one gone astray if that loved one has agency and may not change at all? Why pray for a child if we are destined to remain infertile? Why pray for world peace if the Lord doesn't feel right about overpowering millions of people's choices right now to accomplish that peace? Why pray at all?
Why pray if you're not going to get what you ask for?
As I have pondered and studied possible answers to this question over the last few weeks, insights have flooded my mind and feelings have filled my heart teaching me. I am learning that while we do not know everything, and while we need to continue to live by faith, there are some answers that feel right.
The Command to Pray
Through time, God has commanded His people to pray. And people have heeded that command. Spend a day with Muslims, Jews, Mormons, or Protestants and you will see them pray. The prayers may look or sound differently, but they are prayers to God. Athletes pray before games, legislators pray before session, and kids pray before meals. God would have a prayerful people, and something in our human hearts loves to pray.
God Gives Commandments Out of Love
Some people see commandments as ways for churches to control their people. Others see commandments as restricting, set about to limit fun and ruin lives. (Sound familiar to any parents of teenagers?) However, a story told recently demonstrates why I believe commandments are given.
A man was surfing at a beach where he was on vacation. Some young surfers around him were complaining about a barrier that didn't allow them to go out to deeper water and bigger waves. As the protests continued, an older man listening nearby finally spoke up. He explained a truth to the disgruntled surfers. "'Don't be too critical of the barrier,' he said. 'It's the only thing that's keeping you from being devoured.'" From their vantage point, the vacationer and young surfers could not see the sharks just beyond the barrier, but someone else's wisdom set the boundaries, protecting and preserving them.
Commandments are given for our own good.
The commandment to pray is not given in order to waste our time or to buff up the ego of a self-centered God. No, the commandment to pray is given for our own good.
Prayers Are Answered
Sometimes prayers are answered exactly as we hope. Isn't that amazing? Sometimes miraculous healings occur, jobs are obtained, or those lost keys are found. Some blessings are conditional upon our asking for them. I cannot count the times I have felt my prayers answered in simple and profound ways.
Sometimes the answer to prayer is seen immediately. Like when my daughter prayed to find her shoes last night and immediately when exiting the room, thought she should look under the bed. There the shoes sat. How happy she was to see her prayer answered! Often, however, the answer to prayer is seen after the dust has settled and we reflect upon life's happenings or after we have waited longer than we planned.
Sometimes answers to prayer take a form different than we imagined. The Lord always knows better than us. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). If we pray to get this new job so that we will be able to better provide for our family, the bigger hope is really providing. Perhaps being turned down for this job allows us to interview for the second job (or third or eighth) that will fill our needs better than the first and beyond what we imagined. Garth Brooks sings a similar message: "Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."
Thy Will Be Done
I am also beginning to see that there is a miracle of prayer that occurs when our prayers do not seem to be answered at all. The miracle occurs when our chronic illness continues, we fail the big test, we lose our home, or we never receive an answer to our questions. The miracle occurs when the one we've prayed for is going to die of cancer.
The miracle of prayer is much bigger than homes, jobs, or even health. The true miracle of prayer happens in our hearts.
True prayer is fervent communication with an actual being. It feels like we are talking to our closest friend, because we are. We empty our load and seek guidance. Prayer is the perfect, Divine equivalent of counseling. We pour out our hearts in gratitude and pleading. As we pour our hearts out in prayer, it allows the Lord to fill them up. A heart filled by God is a heart at peace.
We will notice the miracle of prayer become even stronger and more evident in our lives when we pray as the Savior did, when we can say with all sincerity, "Thy will be done." The miracle of prayer will increase when we start believing that God really does love us and that He really can help us be happier than we can be on our own.
We do not pray in order to change God's mind. We pray in order to allow God to change our hearts.
"But Son, the Prayer Did Work."
Our friend passed away peacefully last week, and we were able to attend his memorial. At the end of the services, my friend, now a widow, stood to share her message. Through tears she said, "My husband would want me to tell you that there were miracles and prayers were answered."
If we were to go back and my son asked his question again, I believe I would start my answer with, "But Son, the prayer did work."
There is a power in prayer. I invite each of us, no matter how long it has been or even if we never have before, to open our hearts to the Lord in prayer. He will answer.
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