Thoughts on Prayer #2 : What Is Prayer For?

As a child (I’ve been contrary my entire life) I often thought that there was little point in praying. On the one hand, I was taught that God knows everything, including what we need and want. Prayer was supposed to be an expression of faith allowing God to give us what we pray for. But since God knew better then we did, often we would not get what we wanted or felt we needed because God knew better and the answer was “No.” So if God knew better then I did, and if my prayers made no difference in what happened to me, what was the point?

This is the way I remember prayer being taught, and is still the way I see prayer being taught. We are told that God answers prayers, but sometimes the answer is no. I really struggle with this explanation of God; a God who listens to prayers (if we have enough faith and if we’re doing it right), but who doesn’t react to what we say. For most of my life I felt like I was flipping a coin or asking Santa Claus for a present when I prayed. I was asking the supreme being to help me, but I had no control over the outcome. I just had to send my letter out into space and hope that on Christmas morning what I needed was under the tree. This created a God I couldn’t communicate with and didn’t like all that much.

This problem was exacerbated by the concept of “Thy will be done.” We are taught to incorporate the idea of “Thy will be done’ in our prayers, which claims to explain why we don’t always get what we pray for. I’ve seen this destroy faith; people pray for loved ones to be healed, or to find a job, or for children and their prayers are not answered. The idea that God hears and answers all prayers sends the message that God does not want a loved one to live, or want you to be employed, or want you to have children. The worst example I can think of for this is a prayer for safety, followed by an act of violence, like a rape or mugging. I pray for safely and am met with violence. Since God’s will is the answer to our prayers, He must have wanted this violence to happen to me; He might have even been responsible for it. That is not a God I can believe in.

My analysis may seem simplistic, partially because I”m trying to to go on forever (fail, sorry), and partially because my mind works a certain way. I find that the pattern that has been set up pushes me away from God, because it creates for me an arbitrary God who does not listen to what we feel we need, and who may be responsible for terrible things happening. If my prayers do nothing to change what happens to me, and if they make me feel desperate and hopeless, why on earth should I keep praying?

A few weeks ago, I found an answer that works for me. Prayer was described not as petitioning God to change things, but as a way of communicating with someone so you do not feel alone. I read a story of a man whose wife was ill. He felt useless because he could not help her. He was advised to pray, but didn’t see the point for similar reasons as I’ve described above. But when he took the advice, he felt that in being able to express his fear he was able to be there for his wife, because he did not feel that he was dealing with the pain alone. We pray because we feel joy or sorrow or anger and God is there to share it, to let us know that someone understands us. God is not responsible for the horrible things that happen to us; life just runs that way. But God knows our pain, and weeps or rejoices with us in a way that no one else can.

I realize that this interpretation will not be helpful to everyone, that many find comfort in seeing God’s hand in the good things that happen to them. I don’t wish to harm that view; find God wherever you can! But I have found great comfort, great relief, and a new relationship with God in the idea that God does not “answer” prayers in the since of giving us, or not giving us, what we are asking for. God answers prayers by listening, by being present, by helping us know we are not alone. As someone who often feels misunderstood, voiceless and powerless, the fact that there is someone who weeps, rages or rejoices with me is life-altering. To feel that someone shares my anger has given me the courage to act to change things I see as wrong. It has given me hope in times when I feel that nothing will change. This courage and hope has given my life a meaning I never thought I would find.

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. Thank you for writing this and sharing your insights. I’ve often felt the same way, not knowing really why we pray if God is more than likely just going to give us silence as an answer. And why do we ask for things in a row (health, safety, blessings) like we’re crossing things off a list and covering our bases, so that God can’t find a loophole (“Oh! Forgot to bless the dinner. Food poisoning!”) I love your idea of prayer simply being a time where God listens to us, especially our uglier emotions. At times I’ve felt that we shouldn’t show such strong emotions in our prayers because it isn’t respectful. But how can we create a real relationship with God if we’re only exchanging niceties? I love this idea of Him simply listening to us, and being there for us. Because in my struggles with this church, I’d much rather have someone who will just listen to me, really listen, than an all powerful but distant being who is compelled to act because I remembered my all my “please bless this”.

  2. Great post! My most intense experiences with God have been when I have poured out my thoughts, sorrows, fears, worries, and concerns out to God and allowed Him to succor me. No one else understands us or loves us the way God does, and we can truly cast our cares on Him, for He cares for us.

  3. I am going to pass this along to my SIL who lost two babies in the last two years. I think she has always struggled with the idea of feeling emotion and not not acting proper with God.

    I have felt in the last year that I need to focus on improving my prayers. I think that this makes me want to pray even more so that I can feel love and not check things off the list. I think we do ourselves in the Church a disservice when we think that prayer in a list of thou and thee.

  4. In relation to Jessica and Katie’s comments, there’s a line from A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle that has always stuck with me. It says, “God can handle your anger.” I believe that respect doesn’t need to mean hiding how we feel. I love and respect my family and friends, yet still express anger to, or at, them.

    • I like that idea, and I like to do something similar. It can be therapeutic to just process through things internally, regardless of who is or isn’t listening. Just thinking deeply through ideas or things that are happening is extremely helpful to me.

  5. Thank you for this post. Our brains must work similarly as I’ve gone through that exact sequence of thoughts regarding prayer. I think I’m better at keeping a prayer in my heart always than I am at formal speak-out-loud prayer. I’ve also thought of praying for answers to questions to be problematic because although I’ve felt feelings of comfort when praying I’ve never received an answer to any kind of prayer question like “Is the Book of Mormon true?” or “is the LDS church true”? (And lest anyone respond, I know it’s not going to come in a clear voice telling me yes or no). For a long time it was enough for me that I simply wanted it to be true, and that everyone around me said it was true. It didn’t matter as much that I hadn’t received a definitive answer, I just chalked it up to me not being good enough or faithful enough. That formula also seems problematic to me. As an adult I can see that I was good enough and faithful enough. What’s a reasonable time to allow for that answer? Because I’m starting to think that the answers are right in front of me and all around me in the form of recorded journals and history and it’s not coming up “yes”. Sorry, I’m being more rhetorical than anything.

    • Annie, I relate to your feelings and experiences waiting for an answer to my questions, re “is this church true”, etc. Many many years of such prayers asking to know and receive a testimony that Joseph Smith was a true prophet seemed to fall into outerspace. I had actually given up asking as I assumed I just wasn’t and never could be faithful enough to have my prayer answered or worse I didn’t have enough faith to “listen” and “hear.” Then one day in sacrament meeting, a plain ordinary meeting, we sang the hymn Praise to the Man. I felt the warmest feeling come over me as if arms were encircling me with a blanket straight out of the hospital blanket warming oven. I am a nurse, so “straight out of the warming oven” is what I relate to. But that is what if felt like. My heart began to pound and I felt the “burning in my bosom” that always seemed so foreign sounding to me. I have to say that this absolutely was in answer to my prayers. I can’t explain why then and not when I had asked. I won’t say it was because God finally felt I was ready or that I was finally able to “listen.” But it happened. And as Joseph Smith once said. I cannot deny that it happened and never shall I dare deny that it happened.
      Best of luck in your spiritual journey. Mine was very very long indeed.

  6. This is a great post. You’re right about the cause-effect aspect of prayer being problematic. I’ve borrowed a phrase (and forgotten from where) that I use in Relief Society regularly. “God is not a vending machine for the righteous.” People tend to agree when I say it like that, but there’s still a lot of scriptures and GA quotes that back up the idea that when we’re righteous, God answers our prayers.

    I’ve been burned out on prayer for a while, but this (and Jana Reiss’s book Flunking Sainthood) is giving me a reason to reconsider.

    I love the idea of God as a friend to listen and mourn/comfort/succor me in my moments of weakness (that is to say, all the time). My experience teaches me that I find inspiration in prayer to help me move past difficulties and into comfort.
    What’s been holding me back for so long, though, is thinking that somehow God is the source of my pain. It’s hard not to, when the church causes me pain, patriarchy causes me pain, and they all point to God as their originator. Sigh. So I’ve got to rediscover God again, and see what’s the deal.

    • I loved Flunking Sainthood! So fantastic!

      I know how you feel as far as connecting God and pain. Often when I’m angry at the church and patriarchy, it’s too hard to pray. Sometimes I just kind of blast rage upward, and sometimes part of my rage is at God. My concept of a Divine Feminine has helped. So has yelling things like, “This is not right! Why did you do this?!” at God. I almost have two gods in my head, the patriarchal one I scream at and the couple, the God who weeps with me. It’s so difficult to get past the connection between God and patriarchy/pain! Good luck, and let me know what works for you!

  7. I don’t think I’ll be able to get prayer to work for me unless I can learn to do it like Course Correction said–to see it as a form of meditation. I’m hopeful now that she mentioned that, actually, because until now I’ve been pretty frustrated with every other approach toward it. I always used to pray for comfort; in my teen years, and in college, it was more like desperate begging, not for anything in my life to change, but to just feel comforted and supported, like I wasn’t alone. It never, ever worked. I’ve never felt any kind of response to a prayer, no matter how sincere or pained. So I don’t see any of the “prayer as communication” models working for me. Prayer as meditation, though… That might just work.

  8. Excellent post. Thanks.

    I’ve grown to think of prayer like a sending a letter home to my parents. I can pour into it my joys and frustrations, my hopes and my fears. Answers, direction, comfort, come when they come, almost like an answer through a quick text message. Sometimes there is nothing, like a parent trying to encourage their child to work it out or simply move forward without additional direction. Feeling answers seems to be different for everyone, but the most important thing, like you expressed in the post, is talk to the parents who are always listening.

    Oh, and to me, prayer is not always formal. That is part of how we manage the direction to have a prayer always in our heart – we keep ourselves in a place where we can “check in” with our parents whenever we feel the desire or need.

  9. After thinking about it some more and reading comments I realized another issue I have with how I was taught that prayer worked. A lot of emphasis was put into praying for guidance and making sure that your choices and life direction are in line with God’s will. I can look back and know that I really tried to do that as a teenager, but my parents often retracted my choice when they thought I should be doing something different, even when it was a choice between two good things, like a choice between going to EFY or going to youth conference, or between wearing something modest, or something even more modest. It basically robbed me of my confidence to make a good choice for myself. I eventually found myself looking to my dad, conference talks, and LDS doctrine for an answer to everything just so I could be as exact as possible because obviously the guidance I was receiving in answer to my prayers was not cutting it.

    • I had similar experiences, but largely with things that went against the culture. I’ve known my whole life that I don’t want kids, but spent years trying to correct that feeling because it was wrong in the eyes of many in the church. Or I felt guilty for going to rehearsal rather then mutual, even though I liked and felt better about theatre. It’s a problem to teach prayer, then not allow people to act on their answers. This is even more problematic when people feel like leaving the church, or believing different things, or making choices that the church says are wrong. Answers to prayer seem to only be respected when they are the answers people want you to get.

  10. Awesome post, DefyGravity! I wish we could remember the other reasons we pray besides showing our gratitude and asking for things. Most of the time, for me, it’s only about talking to someone who understands what I’m struggling with.

  11. I have had two recent experiences in which I have prayed for guidance regarding helping a struggling child/teenager. In both instances, I chose to allow something that, in the minds of many members, runs contrary to prophetic counsel. I took my decisions to the lord and felt at peace. One situation led to a strengthening of a child’s testimony. The other led to some difficulty and heartbreak for the child. I was asked by a close friend after the difficult situation what I could/should have done differently in that situation. My answer was that I still felt confident in the decisions I made. God does not guarantee outcomes where the agency of others is involved. And clearly, god often let’s nature take its course, or no loved ones would die, and so many disasters would be avoided. I believe, however, that when the agency of others harms us, or nature takes its course unhampered by gods hand, He will step in, and as a response to prayers (whether spoken or simply in your heart), throw you some sort of life line, whether it be a simple feeling of being listened to, or a greater understanding, or more empathy, love, or strength than you might have thought you had in you. God allows our lives to happen, and in my opinion only intervenes dramatically when an actual mountain or some such needs to be moved for purposes only He understands. The rest if the time I think we are blessed in ways that might be easy to overlook, but are there nonetheless. And if he seems silent, as I know he often does, I think he’s watching with love as we do with our children, hurting with us, but wisely allowing us to live our lives.

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