If we can remember that the purpose of prayer is to…
Yes, I left you hanging. Because I want you to ponder as you read this blog not actually on the stages of prayer, but the purpose of prayer…which is manifested in each and every stage of learning to pray. Ask yourself this question for the rest of this blog, “What do I feel the purpose of prayer is? What is the actual purpose of prayer? Am I prepared to accept the purpose of prayer?”
Learning to Pray
I grew up in a home where parents taught me to pray. We prayed as a family over food and as a way to sort of end the day. We tried to pray as a family in the mornings, but I can’t remember, honestly, if we did it consistently. I feel certain we were consistent enough in the evenings that it was daily. We prayed extra sometimes when family members needed it. We fasted and prayed on fast Sundays, and at times did so outside of fast Sundays because we were concerned about family members and health needs.
I don’t remember exactly when I started saying my own, personal prayers. I think because we prayed so often as a family, that like many Christians, I developed a sort of “inner prayer” that was offered at will without the usual prayer formalities. No pretense, just immediate pleas to God. “Help me get home safely,” while walking home from school. “Help me get through this…” if I was having a tough, lonely, or persecuted day. “Help me…Save me…” which is often the most common, informal prayer we all offer. But, I do know I’ve been praying at least once daily since I was 13 or 14.
I do remember the first time I got on my knees to pray to know the Book of Mormon was true. I remember it, because I wasn’t sure if I would get a direct answer. I wasn’t sure how the answer would feel or how it would come. I also remember one very important night at the age of 15 where I knew that if I didn’t say my prayers that I would go down a path in my life that was not what God wanted for me. I said my prayers that night and it changed the course of my life—that I know with certainty.
And you see, prayer is like that. Sometimes it is the thing that changes you. Sometimes it’s the thing you do because you’re supposed to. Sometimes you wonder if it’s doing any good. Sometimes you know for certain that it has saved you, blessed another, guided you, and so forth. The key word here is “sometimes.” But, it doesn’t have to always be sometimes…as I have at last learned.
Stages of Prayer
I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about prayer…other than what I have learned from personal experience. And, I’m still learning. So, in two days, two months, two years, or even two decades, I might add more to this. But, for me, I’ve found that I’ve progressed through what I call “stages” of praying.
- Rote prayer
- Rote prayer with additions
- Formulaic prayer
- Formulaic prayer with additions
- Heartfelt prayer
- Honest prayer
As a child of a religious family, I was taught the basic words of prayer. Now, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don’t actually learn “wrote prayers.” We don’t read from cards or recite directly from the sermon on the mount. But, we learn how to: address God, thank Him for the day, bless us to…, help us to…, close the prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
We are often also encouraged to use respectful and sacred personal and possessive pronouns for God, such as: thee, thou, and thy. But, we believe that all sincere prayer is acceptable to God, though we try to learn to use these to remove the casual nature from prayer and raise it up to a loving and respectful address to the Almighty God, our Father in Heaven. We tend to learn, in our religious culture, names for deity such as I’ve already listed: Dear Heavenly Father, Father in Heaven, Gracious Father, Celestial Father, and so forth, which we offer in an attempt to show God love, respect, humility, and honor for His station, as well as to show our personal feelings toward Him.
This is what I mean by rote prayer. This is what I mean by basic prayer. It’s getting the idea of it down. It is not a lesser form of prayer except in its power to effect changes in us. It has beginning power, but not a fullness of power.
Rote Prayer With Additions
Then, as I got older I learned to add in my own variations. I started taking liberty with what blessings I asked for and what help I asked for. But, much of it was still repetitive and wrote, if basically full of good intent. Thus, my prayer began to become more personal. I stopped asking for the same things I’d been hearing others ask for, time and again, and started thinking about what I really hoped for, needed, and wanted. Sometimes in family prayers my parents would whisper suggestions (since I was praying on behalf of the family) to me to ensure I remembered an ill grandparent or a needy ward member.
This is a big step for all of us in the process of getting to an honest prayer. We must begin to consider what is truly in our own hearts. I started thinking about what would effect change in my life. Unfortunately, I was not yet to the stage where I was thinking about what changes God wanted. But, I was thinking about what I wanted and no longer just going about generalities. So, it was a step toward increasing the power of prayer to effect change in me, because I had graduated to thinking deeper.
At some point in praying, we all begin to realize that we don’t have to do things exactly how others do them. We begin to personalize our lives and our relationship with God. So, in time, while I realized I always began my prayers with, “Dear Heavenly Father,” I noticed that some people said things like, “Dearest Father,” or “Gracious Father in Heaven,” and so forth. It was at that time that I realized that it was important that I begin prayer by addressing God, but that I didn’t have to address Him the same all the time or in the same way others did. I began to ponder “how I saw God,” and wondered just how did I really want to address Him?
I did this with all aspects of prayer. I began to address God how I felt comfortable addressing Him. I tried to thank Him for the things I was grateful for and in the way I wanted instead of using all the same ideas and terms others used, or that were easy to default to. I began pondering exactly what things I needed to ask forgiveness for. The ending of prayer is doctrinal, “In the name of Jesus Christ,” because He is the mediator through whose grace and mercy we access God our Father. So, I didn’t change that. But, I did decide to keep it simple—for myself—as others tended to elongate the name of Christ in dramatic ways. “In the name of Thy Beloved Son, even Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer… amen,” and other lengthy details. Few times did I feel the elongations were necessary. And sometimes I even felt people said them fairly sincerely, but also in a subconscious show of dramatism. This is not to say people can’t do that, I just felt that for me I was satisfied with saying Christ’s name simply. For me that was less dramatic and more true to me, and keeping Christ’s name sacred.
Thus, I had graduated from wrote prayer with additions to a formulaic prayer, where I began to ponder God and my relationship with Him. I began to think about Christ. I began to think about how my prayer reflected what I felt and knew. This was a huge step in increasing the power of prayer in my life; increasing its ability to strengthen my relationship with God and its power to effect change in me—godly change.
Yet, I was still stuck within a formula. Not a bad thing. But, my prayers followed the formula and were limited to that formula: address, thank, seek forgiveness, ask, and end. I found that while praying I often worried about ticking off every box within the formula (to be faithful, of course, and get my blessings) and nearly always used up time trying to thank God sufficiently, ask for forgiveness sufficiently, and remember everyone on my internal list that I needed to pray for, that I was really limited in my prayers. I wasn’t improving at great lengths anymore. I began to feel like I was coasting in my relationship with God and I didn’t know how to reignite my own spiritual progression in this area.
It was time to become doubtful and agnostic about prayer or to graduate to the next stage.
Formulaic Prayer with Additions
From the beginning of my Christian life as a young Mormon, I had learned to follow a formula. And, the problem with a formula is not the formula itself, but how it is understood and applied. As I had become stuck in the doldrums of prayer, it was because I had not yet learned to abandon the formula and to apply what I had learned from following it.
As a writer, you learn that there are rules of style and grammar, etc. But, you also get to a point when you learn enough that you know when to break the rules, when to deviate from the rules of grammar, when to break the rules in the right way because you understand why the rules were given. We must also do this with prayer.
I remember the night I got on my knees in 2007 and was too tired, exhausted, fatigued, depressed, crushed, and barely surviving (emotionally and spiritually) to do the formula. I began with the address and tried to thank God for a few things, and then I simply quit. I didn’t have the energy to follow some ridiculous formula…not that night. I’d had true heartfelt prayers before, or at least pieces of them. But I had always kept to the formula, always reprimanding myself internally, “I can’t just ask, I’ve got to thank first.” “Oops, I forgot to ask forgiveness for…something…I guess I’d better get back on my knees and start again…” and other such thoughts.
That night in 2007 I said nothing, or very little. I began, in my mind, with “Dear Heavenly Father,” and then simply cried straight, sobbing for at least a solid ten minutes. During those minutes of crying desires, needs, hopes, disappointments, and more washed across my mind in waves. I couldn’t verbalize them. I could only think them.
It was during that ten minutes of sobbing, of deviating from the formula, that I had the first, truly deep spiritual guidance from God on what to say in my prayer. I felt His love, but I felt strongly that though I was living a righteous life that I had always lived it in my way and in the order I felt was right. I felt lovingly that I had not ever taken the time to listen to the steps God wanted me to take.
I suppose I could have felt chastised, but I didn’t feel it in the way we tend to feel chastisement from earthly people. It was during the silence following my sobbing that I was inspired to say to God, “Whatever path you want my life to take, that’s the one I’ll take. I’ll do whatever you want me to do. Just show me. Lead me. I’m ready to follow.”
It’s a long story. But God has spent every second since that prayer tearing apart the life I had planned so carefully (and it was a righteous life!) and reconstructing the life He wants for me. His deconstruction process was painful, I admit. But, feeling that I’m in the reconstruction stages, I can testify His dream plan for me is far beyond what I could have ever created for myself.
Now, I’m sure I had said those words in various ways before in many prayers, but I had never meant them the way I did that night. I had never been inspired by the Spirit to say them so purposefully in my prayer. They are the only words I prayed that night. I’m not even sure if I ended, “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” Yet, I know God heard and guided that prayer.
I wish I could say, thereafter, that I deviated from the prayer formula and was guided by the Spirit every time I got on my knees. It didn’t happen that way. And, it was because of me. Though that was the closest I’d ever come to God in prayer, I somehow considered it an exception. “Still gotta do that formula, ‘cause that’s how it’s done,” my mind kept telling me.
So, I did do the formula. But, slowly, I began to shorten my wrote lists and try to listen and feel more in my prayers. Nothing really happened when I did. I’d wait for minutes, trying to keep my mind clear and open. Nothing. No grand experiences. But, I kept trying.
I kept trying because I had been given a taste of how powerful prayer could be in changing me, in giving me pure heavenly direction, in literally altering my eternal spirit in a matter of minutes. Now, that’s power. I’d felt it and I was trying to find a way to recreate it.
As my life has progressed, it has been spiritual exhaustion and mental and emotional exhaustion that has led me more and more often, to my knees, with no energy for prayer formulas. I can still say a good formulaic prayer even when I’m physically tired; but sap my spiritual, mental, and emotional strength, and the formula flies out the window. I have to abandon it because my own spirit is so depleted that I simply cannot offer generalities and lists with much sincere intent.
It was during another series of crying, wordless prayers, that it finally occurred to me how ridiculous it was that I thought God wanted my lists instead of my heart. I realized how absurd it was that I thought that God wanted my formula instead of me.
“How would I feel,” I thought, “if all of my family and friends spoke to me in a formula every time they visited and they couldn’t be persuaded to another topic until they’d canvassed a certain one?” “How would my family and friends feel,” I thought, “if all of my own conversation was limited to a certain order; if I had to thank them for at least five things before I could move on to asking their forgiveness on at least five things.” The ridiculous nature of my prayers continued to impact me.
Now, my prayers were not ridiculous, but the way I was offering them was silly. Does God want my thanks? Yes. But, if it comes at the end instead of the beginning and if I focus on one thing I’m truly feeling deeply grateful for that day instead of twenty others that I think I should thank Him for, so much the better. Does God want my repentance? Sure. But He doesn’t want me to grovel and repent of things by beating myself up for issues He already knows I’m working on. He doesn’t want me to tear my day apart and berate myself for every weakness and misstep. I think He’s far more pleased when I ponder in silence for a moment and ask Him, “What could I have truly done better today? What lack I yet in becoming like Thee?” and then letting the loving impressions that come to me be my focus rather than a pre-written, inked piece of sackcloth still dusty with ashes that I howl and mourn with before His throne.
Brace yourself, it was at this time that I began to rearrange the prayer formula. I began with the part that was first in my heart when I hit my knees. I even sometimes didn’t tick off every box. I would end my prayer—sometimes still a little worried—but I would end it when I felt I had said all I had to say and tried not to guilt myself for the pieces I’d skipped.
This was an experiment, see. I was daring to “be me” more and more and stop pretending. And, I began to feel better and better about my prayers. I began to see myself in glimpses and have life-changing thoughts and feelings again. I was beginning to be honest with myself and God and the power of my prayers to effect change in me and bring me closer to God began to grow again. It was more slowly and consistent and for myself, the purpose of prayer finally began to sink deep into my heart. I began to understand.
So often we make life, the gospel, scripture study, service (good works), etc. and especially prayer so complex. But, the purpose of all these things is the same purpose for which we are here on this earth.
We didn’t leave heaven to have a vacation. We didn’t come to this earth because God kicked us out. We didn’t come to this earth to figure out if we’re basically good. We didn’t even come here, solely, to get a body (though that was a big part of becoming like God as He has a glorified, resurrected, and perfected body). We certainly didn’t come to live it up.
We came to learn to be godly.
We came to earth to see if we truly wanted to become like God. We came to develop Christlike attributes to a greater extent than we had before, because we had them. We came to overcome personality issues, weaknesses, imperfections, and incorrect lines of thinking that we could not conquer in the heavens. This life, if we choose to allow it, will make us godly (as much as we are capable of in a mortal state). The purpose of prayer is to help us become like God.
- We don’t pray to change God’s will. We pray to seek God’s will. We pray understand God’s will. We pray for strength to accept God’s will. We pray for help to apply God’s will.
- We don’t pray to get what we think we want. We pray to learn what it is that will make us most happy. We pray to understand how to find the best that God has to offer us. We pray to align our wants with God’s. We pray to want godly things.
- We don’t pray to tell God about our day. We pray to review our day with God so that He may inspire, guide, chastise, forgive, and comfort us regarding our day. We pray to better understand our day. We pray for eternal perspective on our day. We pray to learn from our day and understand what God would have us embrace on the morrow to continue the mortal process of learning to become like Him.
- We don’t pray simply because it’s a commandment (although that’s a good start). We pray to receive grace to change us into godly creatures as we practice being godly by keeping the commandments. We pray for the power of grace to help us keep the commandments and to understand how they help us gain godly attributes. We pray for grace to remove the guilt for our mistakes that we may press forward keeping the commandments with hope and faith. We pray for grace to plan and practice overcoming sins and weaknesses until grace removes the temptations and desires for those sins from us. We pray for power to become godly.
There are so many reasons we pray. But, most of them are not powerful enough to help us to have the kind of experiences we wish to have. Most of them lack the power to bring us closer to God. It is not so much what we pray for but how and why we pray for it.
We are commanded to pray about everything (Alma 34:18-28). We are commanded to pray unceasingly and always (Doctrine and Covenants 10:5 |Doctrine and Covenants 19:38). God wants us talking to Him always. But, not because we can tell Him anything new or that He doesn’t already understand and know. He wants us to pray always that we may come closer to Him through the personal revelation He gives us as we ponder all that we pray about.
The purpose of prayer is to be honest with ourselves. To see ourselves as God sees us. To see our lives as God sees them. To see our future and potential and missions as God sees them. The purpose of prayer is to effect godly change in our lives on a daily basis. When we pray with this as our purpose, then our prayers at last become completely honest.
Formulas and Lists are Training Wheels to be Abandoned for Honesty
Let’s revisit my lists and prayer formulas. As long as I was checking items off a list, I didn’t think about what I was really grateful for. Without thinking, I wasn’t evil, I simply wasn’t open for personal revelation. As long as I was checking items off I thought I was praying with real intent. I wasn’t insincere, but my intent was low on the scale of its power to help me to be honest with myself and God.
In Matthew 6:5-13 Christ gives a formula for prayer. It was never meant to be typed on a card and repeated vainly, and memorized as the perfect prayer. It was never meant to be a fixed element that if we deviated from we were not praying as God intended. It was meant as an example of things we should pray for. It was meant to give us guidance as we pondered our own lives and sought honesty with ourselves.
If we break down “The Lord’s Prayer” into topics of honesty in prayer, it could look something like this:
- How do you feel about God? Is His name hallowed to you? When you address Him, do you think about your true feelings for Him?
- Do you want God’s will to run your life, or your own? Do you feel your will is “close enough” to God’s that He should simply let you keep on, keeping on? Do you believe God’s will has the potential to grant you the greatest amount of happiness? Or, do you want to grab all the happiness you feel you deserve in your way and time frame before you give yourself over to God’s will…just in case His will falls short of giving you the happiness you feel you are entitled to?
- Which of your sins do you feel most prompted to change? Which of your sins do you ignore the most, setting it aside because it’s the one you feel entitled to, or that at the minimum you want to be the last one to let go? Which sins are your favorite, which you believe give you happiness, and you are afraid to trade for God’s plan for you?
- Who do you struggle to forgive? Why do you struggle to forgive them? Do you really feel that you are entitled to not forgive them while you seek forgiveness of your own sins? What will happen if you honestly let go of worrying about them coming to justice? What will happen to them if you let go of worrying about them coming to justice and giving it over to God?
- What is your daily bread? What do you do for a living? Is it the job you want? It is the job you think you need to be successful? Is it the job God wants for you? Have you asked God what He wants you to do with your time? Have you sought God’s will on the best way for you to earn your income and still serve Him? Are you willing to make changes in your work to do God’s will and trust Him to “clothe you as He does the lilies of the field?”
- Do you pretend to not be tempted by something? Do you own up to your faults, weaknesses, and mistakes? Are you able to admit when you’re wrong? Are you able to apologize sincerely to others? What are you tempted by the most? Why does it tempt you? Are you honest with yourself about your possible psychological struggles, issues, and needs? Have you sought ways to meet your needs in a godly way? Do you seek God’s will to help remove and overcome the temptations you have?
- What talents do you have? What experiences have given you strength? What gifts and blessings have you received over the years? How have you used these talents, experiences, strengths, gifts, and blessings to build up God’s kingdom? Do you feel that your life is a part of His kingdom? Or do you see your life as a separate thing from God’s plan and His kingdom? Where does your life fit in God’s plan, according to you?
If you pondered all of these questions and prayer topics before ever getting on your knees (or while on your knees)
how would your prayer look differently?
would you choose to review with God one or two of these areas rather than all?
would you avoid reviewing a topic for a specific reason?
would it be difficult to honestly talk to God about some of these feelings?
would you be afraid to get on your knees knowing the result would require you to change, and you’re afraid of change?
The stages of prayer are all about us personally discovering the purpose of prayer.
The purpose of prayer is to be honest with ourselves. To see ourselves as God sees us. To see our life as God sees it. To see our future and potential and mission as God sees it. The purpose of prayer is to effect godly change in our lives on a daily basis—honest change. When we pray with this as our purpose, then our prayers at last become completely honest. To me, thus far in my life, honest prayer is the best prayer.