Doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes the understanding that God answers prayers in one of three ways: Yes, No, and Not Yet. Our faith teaches that God will answer the prayer in the way that is best. He evaluates the situation with a longer view than we can possibly have, balancing our desires against what we will need in the near and distant future, and how our request will affect others. We learn to pray that God’s will, not our own, be done.
Letting God choose isn’t the same as not praying — you don’t get the same results. When you don’t pray at all, you don’t invite God into the process. You do all the research, make all the plans, make all the decisions, and then carry them out alone. You also accept the full responsibility for the results, which may affect others, and may include unintended consequences. Eventually, we have to answer to God for the choices we make. Wouldn’t it be better to run them by Him to begin with?
When faced with a problem that doesn’t involve a decision, such as a serious illness, we can also choose to let nature take its course if we want to, or we can ask God to step in and do what’s best. We have agency, we can choose whether or not to seek and receive help.
Praying allows us to do several things. First, when you have to make a choice, you often consult with an expert. For instance, if you’re having trouble getting your toddler to nap, you go to your favorite message board, the experienced mom next door, or your most dependable parenting book. This might be enough when an experiment or two won’t really hurt anything, but often, the choices we need to make are much larger than that. They can change our entire lives, or the lives of others. In those cases, there is only one possible source of advice.
Sometimes a decision may not seem critical, but in the long run, the choice you make can have unexpected consequences or rewards. For instance, when my husband wanted to move here, closer to his job, I balked. I liked it where I was and didn’t want to go. Finally, I took it to God and was told very clearly to go. Now that I’m here, I know why. I’ve had opportunities here that I’ve needed and couldn’t have gotten if I’d stayed put. There was no possible way to foresee those opportunities, however, on my own. I could have stayed, and maybe nothing awful would have happened, but later on, when a need arose, I wouldn’t be ready for it because I’d lack some skills I needed.
Sometimes our requests involve the agency of others, and God can only plant ideas in their hearts, but can’t take away their agency. It is still worth praying over, because we do want those ideas planted if they’re what’s best and we’ll know we did the best we could, even if praying was all we could do when the problem concerned the choices of others.
Another purpose in prayer is to give us regular feedback on our choices. We need to learn how to make wise choices for our lives. Sometimes the results of our choices are obvious, but often they aren’t. When we make decisions about parenting, for instance, the results may not be known for decades. Parenting fads change often and by the time we find out what would have been best, it’s too late. When we regularly go to God for help with our daily choices, we can watch for patterns in His answers, and after a while, our ability to make decisions He approves of improves.
When we put things into God’s hands, we avoid the randomness of the natural world. We have a feeling of peace and security because we know the best choices are being made, even if we can’t possibly understand why God made the choice He did.
We have agency, the right to choose. God won’t force us to turn our problems over to Him. We can choose to do everything ourselves, hoping for the best and trusting our own wisdom, which is limited and usually self-centered, or we can opt to turn our problems and needs over to God and let Him show us the path. The results of either choice —going it alone or turning it over to God — will be very different in most cases, but the choice is yours.
This article was originally published in February 2009. Minor updates and changes have been made.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.