"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
August 30, 2013
Teaching People Not to Pray
by Jeff Lindsay

Sometimes we create our own barriers to spiritual experiences.

Many people, including some Latter-day Saints, struggle with the notion that God would or could answer individual prayers, especially those dealing with seemingly trivial topics like a lost object or getting food when we are hungry.

Influential circles of intellectuals spread waves of mockery when someone dares to share an experience involving a small blessing in which they felt that God helped them find food or car keys or some other thing they needed, for such alleged miracles are insulting to the collective intelligence of the Wise and Cynical Ones.

These Wise and Cynical Ones (I will resist the temptation to use the abbreviation, WaCOs) point their fingers at the Big Problems of the world, all the suffering, war, hunger, climate change, and poverty, and find their collective intelligence insulted to think that God would ignore their list of issues while reaching down to help some individual Christian widow find her cat or help a hungry Mormon student find a quarter to buy some chicken.  

How can God answer these petty personal prayers and provide trivial miracles when there are gaping global needs still unmet? The appeal to cynicism is draped in robes of justice: How can a just God ignore the big problems and provide little miracles to some random individual?

To even share such a story in their mind is to suggest that the recipient of the miracle is somehow more important than all the victims of social injustice and other wrongs seemingly ignored by Deity. Burdened with such radical expectations and marvelously opaque blinders, the Wise and Cynical Ones not only cannot see the many evidences for a loving, personal God in the midst of the pains of mortality, they recoil with anger at those who bear witness of His mercy and kindness, especially when it involves personal answer to prayer and small miracles of help.

A recent classic example of this involves the story from Elder J. Devn Cornish in which he shared how the Lord helped him at a hungry time in his life to find a quarter in order to buy some chicken. When one is involved so deeply in service and professional demands that finding opportunities to eat enough becomes a challenge, and when one’s personal hunger becomes a barrier to effectiveness, the prayer “give us this day our daily bread” becomes a meaningful plea for truly needed help, and a prayer for means to continue to be effective in one’s personal ministry.

How he approached the problem and how the Lord kindly helped him should give us food for thought. However, howling and mockery were the result among some so-called intellectuals, even among some good LDS people, who felt that the story was insulting and inconsiderate of all those who starve and suffer in poverty.

Elder Cornish, contrary to the accusations of the cynical, is a genuine intellectual acquainted with the realities of life and death. He is one of the world's great innovators in rescuing premature infants, and has dealt with the life and death struggles of these precious beings and the tears of their families for decades. He is as nuanced in the brutal realities of life as anyone I have ever met.

He was my bishop when I lived in Atlanta, where I served first as a Young Men president and then a first counselor in the bishopric with him. He is one of the most inspiring and intellectual men I know. The mocking of the antis and of some of the Saints regarding his story of the chicken is simply pathetic. It's a story that can teach us much, and is nothing to be ashamed of.

May we all have the faith and the humility to recognize the willingness of the Lord to help us even in the small things, and to recognize His hand and thank Him for those blessings, even when they are as small and simple as giving us this day our daily bread, or chicken.

The skeptical attitude that mocks or at least reflexively questions specific minor miracles like the one reported by Elder Cornish seems reasonable, but its effect may be to cast a critical light at personal prayer, to trivialize it, and ultimately to teach a man "that he must not pray" (2 Nephi 32:8), a teaching which the Book of Mormon identifies as one of the Adversary's main doctrines.

The Lord, on the other hand, implores us to turn to Him daily and to cry unto Him not just about the big things like war and world peace, but also over the small things in our lives. The Lord's prayer teaches us to make our daily, personal needs part of our prayers: "Give us this day our daily bread."

That helps us recognize that we are dependent on God and His blessings, even His miracles, for our sustenance. Do we recognize what a miracle and blessing a good slice of bread is? Are we grateful for this and see it as a blessing from Him, even when we appear to have earned the money that purchased it?

The Book of Mormon also teaches us to make our daily personal issues a subject for prayer, as we read in Alma 34:

24 Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them.

25 Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.

26 But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness. 

27 Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.

It is in such small things that some of the clearest miracles occur, where we encounter the tender and personal mercies of the Lord. We must not let the existence of big problems crush our faith in the Lord and in His willingness to guide us in small things.

Do not give in to the mocking attitude of the cynics. Let us see the hand of the Lord in all things and be grateful for each blessing, even the small trivial things that He may choose to help us with if we will let Him.

Yes, there is suffering, and we need to do more to abate it. We need to be more prayerful for those in need, more generous, more proactive, more loving, etc., and that is clearly God's will.

But do not let all those unmet needs out there cause us to abandon faith in God, or in our ability to make a difference with His help. Nor should we let it stop us from asking for help each day in our lives, and having a heart full of gratitude for the small helps and even small miracles we may encounter.

Related resource: “Do Big Tragedies Negate Small Miracles?” at Mormanity.blogspot.com.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.

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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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