Thoughts on Prayer #1: Why is There a Pattern for Prayer?

I’ve been pondering prayer, so my next few posts will likely be on this topic.

I’ve always struggled with the LDS concept of prayer. I love the idea of expressing myself to God, but even as a kid I wasn’t comfortable with the prescribed process of prayer. The heightened language, finding a place to pray out loud, the “script” of giving thanks then asking for what we need felt like it separated me from God rather then bringing me closer to my Parents. My prayers tend be thoughts directed towards my concept of God, and tend to be more conversation then following the pattern.

My practice of thinking conversations at God works well for me, but then I go to church and am told that I’m doing to wrong. I worry if I’m using “vain repetitions,” that I don’t use formal language, that I don’t vocalize. There was a quote in the most recent General Conference that many people posted on Facebook: “Prayer only works if used as prescribed.” Clearly this was inspiration for many, but I found it depressing. If I don’t pray in the prescribed way, does that mean my prayers aren’t heard? That they are less important? If we accept the idea that we have Heavenly Parents, my parents don’t just listen to me when I talk in a certain way. They listen to me on the phone, in email, in person. They listen when I yell, when I cry, when I’m excited. They listen to my words, my body language, my mood. So why can I only communicate with my Heavenly Parents in one way?

I realize and appreciate that the LDS mode works for many people. I’m just not one of them. I pray differently and feel heard, but when I pray in the way I’m “supposed” to, I feel uncomfortable and it’s hard for me to express myself. So while God is listening, I can’t feel it because I’m not feeling like myself. So my questions are, why is it so important to pray out loud, with heightened language, etc., and are my prayers not heard, and will they not work, because I’m not “praying as prescribed?”

I'm a graduate from BYU in theatre education and history teaching, currently living in Utah and working at a library company. I've been married since 2009. I love to read essentially anything. I'm an earring fanatic, Anglophile and Shakespeare lover.


  1. I totally empathize with you on this. When I follow the prescription for prayer, I feel fake. I can’t make a connection like that. These days, it’s hard enough for me to feel like I’m making a connection, so I toss out the prescription and do what works for me. In the past, I felt like I was doing something wrong, but now I don’t even care anymore. Basically, I’m going to do it the way it works for me or not at all.

  2. I got something totally different from the context of that quote from General Conference. I don’t think Elder Cornish was at all suggesting that we can’t speak to God however we feel the need to express our thoughts, gratitude, and desires. While he did use the Lord’s Prayer as an outline or example in that talk, mostly he emphasized that we should take action in addition to praying for our needs to be met. Here’s the whole paragraph:
    “We must not imagine that any kind of prayer, no matter how sincere, will be very effective if all we do is to say the prayer. We must not only say our prayers; we must also live them. The Lord is much more pleased with the person who prays and then goes to work than with the person who only prays. Much like medicine, prayer works only when we use it as directed.”

    I think what you’re describing is as close as it gets to what Amulek called having “your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually…” (Alma 34:27), so it’s not like it doesn’t have a scriptural basis, too. IMO, your personal communication with God is just that: your personal communication. If it’s working for you, don’t sweat the conventions others use that work for them.

  3. I’ve often struggled with the elevated language of prayer–and have been in many a Sunday School/RS/Sharing Time/YW lesson where the teacher effusively extols the virtues of this heightened language because of the respect we have for a Supreme Being. For me, it can create a feeling of implied displacement from God–and isn’t that contrary to the purpose of prayer?

    Yet, in many other languages (I first encountered this when I was learning to speak Italian), they use the informal verb tense for prayer–implying a familiarity and a closeness (even a oneness!) with God. I find this to be more “my style” and wish it was more acceptable in the English-speaking LDS church.

    • Thou and thy, etc. are informal. They seem “elevated because they are archaic. The only relatively recent users of these forms that I can think of are Quakers, and they are used to show greater equality and intimacy.

  4. The whole informal vs. formal thing about prayer really bugs me. Why is it appropriate to use the informal when praying in other languages, but those speaking English must use an archaic and frankly awkward form of address? What’s funny is that the “thou, thine, etc” used to be informal, the equal to “tu” in Latin-based languages. This drives me nuts.

    Anyway, that’s really more of an aside. My main point is that I can see where prescriptive prayer language could be helpful. I know that I have a difficult time addressing God. God is both supreme creator and intimate confidant. That’s why the parent metaphor can be helpful; it represents a close and yet respectful relationship. If someone doesn’t know how to talk to God or how to strike the balance between reverence and intimacy, the Mormon way of prayer is a good starting point.

    I’m currently trying to find my own way of prayer because the parent metaphor just doesn’t work for me (I don’t have great relationships with my parents, and I have a hard time understanding the kind of respect children are supposed to have for their parents). I don’t like praying to a Father or to a Mother. I prefer just to address “God”, whoever she/he/it/they might be. I even do that in church, which might sound strange to everyone else, but I don’t really care. I also use the “you” form instead of “thou” because not only is “you” personal but it’s also plural.

    I know when my prayers are efficacious because I feel closer to God. I would hope that if the prescriptive way is not working for someone that they would be wise enough to discover what does work for them.

    • I’ve had a similar problem addressing a Mother in Heaven because of negative personal feelings about motherhood. I use God and Parents, but I like God because it can mean whatever you want. And not praying vocally means I don’t have to worry about how to address God. Thanks for pointing out that “you” is plural; I hadn’t thought of that!

  5. This has got me thinking about the word “dear.” It’s not in the Lord’s prayer. Yet we start all our prayers like that. When did that start? I’m inclined to guess in the late teen centuries. Maybe that could be modernized?

    • I think that may be a regional thing. Where I am I mostly hear “Our Father in Heaven” or just “heavenly Father”, though there are a couple of people who start with “dear”.

      It’s interesting how we pick up patterns of speech and adopt them without thinking about it.

      Curious I googled “dear Father in Heaven” and found that it’s common in many other denominations too.

    • The “dear” always remind me of Anne of Green Gables. When Anne is praying for the first time and Marila said it sounded like she is writing a letter to God and she ends the prayer with a very nice fancy ending.

  6. When you teach something new to someone young or new to the experience it is common practice to divide it into steps and keep it simple. Later you bring in the nuances, depth and personal meaning. So people teach “the 4 steps of repentance” even though repentance is way more profound and deeply personal and life changing than four steps. And missionaries teach “the 4 steps of prayer” (address, thank, ask, close) even though prayer can be way more profound and deeply personal and life changing than four steps. And people quote “the three-fold mission of the church” even though the work of the church, if it’s done well, should be way more profound and deeply personal and life changing than three to-dos on a list.

    If someone (or unconsciously you yourself) is accusing you of failing to pray or repent or do church work because they can’t see how it falls into their concept of one of the “steps”, or the basic mode in which it’s been described to them then it just means that they are using the steps stage of understanding. That’s fine. Different minds perceive principles differently. Some people like structures more than others and God understands that and hears those prayers. Some people need more passion in their experience and God understands that and hears their prayers. Some people feel confident, others shy, some love to create long exquisite accurate descriptions of what they are thinking, others like just to stick with the basic words and communicate their feelings to God silently. And God understands that too and hears and answers those prayers too. The list could go on and on.

    Personally, the 4 steps help me to remember to thank if I start leaning towards ungratefulness, and the honorific language reminds me of my grandfather who used it and his respect for God and I’m comfortable with it but I’m fine if someone else uses vernacular. I don’t take the admonition to use honorific speech as anything more than an appeal to be respectful in prayer, clothed in the language of the traditions of the speaker. When I pray in Spanish I use the second person singular form of pronouns and verbs. Both are fine.

    I tend to pray silently in my thoughts because I’m shy about expressing myself to God but I make myself pray out loud sometimes when I’m alone because I find that it helps me articulate better exactly what I am talking about. And articulating the problems I need help with helps me to feel and hear counsel from God better.

    And the admonishment to avoid vain repetitions makes me think twice before I say “nourish and strengthen our bodies”, “arrive home safely”, or “harm or accidents” or any of the other overly familiar phrases we hear a lot.

    Finally, on another note, my experience is that General Conference talks are most often, like the word of wisdom, aimed at the basics so that it is accessible to all, including those who are “the weakest” or newest to the concepts being discussed. So yes, you will hear the basic elements and “steps” to many principles there. And if you wish to do more and build on that, more power to you.

  7. Prayer is so personal, I don’t think it can be prescribed. I tend to talk to Him as I pray, but I like starting out listing the things I am grateful for, simply because it is a personal exercise for me in pointing out the positive. It is similr to when I worked a really hard/people skills job once– at the weekly meetings, the director had us all tell a joke first, then we each went around and said 3 positives, then one negative. Made the job seem fun, even though it was very stressful. So starting a prayer on things I am grateful for sets my mind in a place of peace, so I think I hear the spirit more when I get to the long section of pouring out my endless problems…

    That being said, I was told once that satan can hear our prayers if we say them out loud and it scared me…. I thought satan would hear me ask for stuff then would try to rob me of it. Funny how advice about praying can be traumatic.

  8. I agree with some of the other comments suggesting that the actual wording probably doesn’t matter. At least, I don’t think it does, though I’ve certainly heard quite a few members get very up-tight about the details, and proper words.

    I’m German. My daughters are being raised bilingual, and so they use (as mentioned) the informal tone of the German language. When they pray in English, they basically just translate, and so it’s informal as well. I could not care less. Actually, I really hate all the ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ crap. Nobody even really knows how to use them properly, and as much as I’m ok with making prayer a sacred matter, nobody is formal with their parents like this these days. I don’t think it helps people to really connect to their Heavenly Parents, and so I think it’s pointless.

    I personally perceive the pattern for prayer as simply a starting point, a way to learn about how you COULD pray, or things you could say if you just don’t know how to start. It’s one way to build up the connection and get going, but I really don’t think it has to be the one and only way.

    From your OP it sounds like you have a beautiful, intimate connection and communication with your Heavenly Parents. Stick with it. Obviously it works, and I doubt that it matters at all that you’re not following script.

    Actually, I just had to think of a prayer in my home ward in Germany that opened Sacrament Meeting. They guy started off with “Hello Heavenly Father, it’s us, your children from the Hannover ward.” It continued very much along these slightly untypical and personal lines of prayer. The guy wasn’t a new member or anything. It’s just how he wanted to pray. I loved it. And no one else seemed particularly bothered. Maybe we just need to deviate from the script often enough to help people get comfortable with the idea.

  9. The language has never bothered me, but I really hate kneeling to pray. I find it the most uncomfortable position and when I’m in it, I often rush through my prayers so I can lay down. Sometimes I write down my prayers instead and other times I just pray lying down. I know the position is symbolic of humility and I can appreciate that, but I think God would rather I be sincere and take my time than force myself to be uncomfortable.

    I also don’t like the “pray morning and night” admonishment. I have never been able to get into the habit of praying in the morning and I pray at night when I feel I need to, which is not every night.

    • That reminds me- when I was a kid, I thought it was weird to bow our heads. You look at someone when you talk to them, so it felt like I was looking down on God or praying to Satan (who was in hell and underneath me). It didn’t seem respectful AT ALL.

      I like Tivye’s prayers in Fiddler on the Roof: just look up and talk to God.

    • Yeah, I’m no good with morning pray either. I do better praying when I feel like it, not just doong it because this is when I’m supposed to.

      TopHat, I’m with you about Fiddler on the Roof. Love the way he prays, as he’s doing and thinking about things. He just talks without pretense. So awesome!

  10. Its important to make a distinction between the superficial aspects of prayer and the deeper aspect of it. The superficial can be prescribed but the deeper part of it is personal and I don’t think there is any one approved way to pray. Its all about us developing our relationship with deity and about us building up our own resolve to live and think about the world. We thank God in prayers, to develop humility and the ability to see God in our lives.

    If God knows what we are praying for it would give the impression that we don’t really need to pray for his benefit, its for us. God doesn’t learn anything from us praying, nor does he really need us to thank him for it. It is all about us.

    What makes me concerned about trying to force any one way of praying on other people is that it is dictating the way in which people can have a relationship with God. It is trying to force them to think about God and the world in a certain way through regulating how they communicate with God. It is this that makes me struggle with any idea that there is one true way to pray.

  11. I have always believed that the “formal” language & steps for prayer were for group prayers, Church, family, etc. I had a blessing during a really difficult time in my life. I was told to tell Heavenly Father how I felt, that he wants to hear from my heart … to talk to him like He is right there with me. He wants to hear all about the good, the bad, and the ugly. I feel much closer to Him pouring out my real thoughts & feelings instead of worrying about language.

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