Prayer has been a part of religious worship for as far back as we have records. The frequency of prayer and the form may vary, but it continues to be an important part of religion. Even those unaffiliated with any religion may make prayer part of their life.
Prayer is the means by which we communicate with God. It is a vehicle for expressions of gratitude, acknowledgment of blessings, and sharing of fears, concerns and sorrow. It is also the means by which we seek forgiveness, guidance and particular blessings.
When we have sought God in prayer, asking for confirmation of a proposed course of action, or seeking guidance, how does he answer us?
Revelation or inspiration is the way that God communicates with man.
That may sound simple, but just as there are various ways and reasons for prayer, so the answers come in different ways and in different times. In the scriptures there are many accounts of God answering prayers. Especially in the Old Testament.
The ones we read about were pretty dramatic. Daniel in the lions’ den, Moses and the burning bush, Joshua at Jericho, and Christ turning water to wine are only a few. But those are not the usual responses to prayer (their circumstances were a bit different than ours).
David A. Bednar, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke recently about ways that God communicates with his children. Elder Bednar described two basic patterns of revelation.
The first, he said, is quick and dramatic, much like a light being turned on in a dark room. Such sudden clarity is not common.
More usual is the second type, which he likened to the rising of the sun. Not a sudden, bright light, but a gradual increase in brightness. Rather like a foggy day when there is just enough light to know that it is day and to continue walking slowly forward.
Such inspiration may be very subtle and we need to stay focused on the light to keep us going in the right direction.
Sometimes we feel a strong impression that something is correct or that we should take particular action. But it may be difficult to recognize as inspiration, and we wonder whether it was an answer to prayer or just our own thoughts.
Oliver Cowdery, who acted as scribe to Joseph Smith while he was translating the Book of Mormon, asked to be able to translate also. In response he was granted that gift. Oliver had difficulty translating, so he returned to acting as scribe.
By revelation through Joseph Smith, God educated Oliver on the process of receiving revelation.
“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your own mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
“But if it be not right, you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought. ...” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9)
Some people describe a warm peaceful feeling after they have prayed about a problem or course of action. Others report feeling a strong prompting to do something they not only had no intention of doing, but which made no sense to them. They later realized that following the prompting protected them or was the answer to their prayer, though they may not have recognized it at the time.
Many times answers to prayers come through someone else. That other person may have followed a feeling that they needed to call someone, or go to their home or offer some service. When they heeded the prompting, despite feeling a bit awkward, the action helped someone in need.
Learning to recognize and trust spiritual promptings, whether for our own benefit or those of others, is how we receive God’s communication to us. By listening to the spirit we may be led not only to answers to our prayers, but also the prayers of others.
Glenna M. Christensen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.