Moving Past the Form of Godliness to Claim the Power Thereof

My church rotates among our four main books of scriptures every year, and this year’s focus is the Book of Mormon. To begin this year’s study of the Book of Mormon, I started by reading Joseph Smith’s account of what we now call the first vision. I have read his account many times and always find myself reacting to it in a mixture of ways. Sometimes I am awestruck and find the whole thing so amazingly beautiful. Other times I find myself getting oddly jealous that someone else should be given clarity when I seek for it and find so little. This in turn makes me angry and the whole thing becomes simply too fantastical to be believed.

What most notably struck me this time was his description of what the ministers were doing in his community. He says, “The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.”  This religious fervor had devolved into a prideful contest among the ministers. A battle ground had developed, where their desire to be right and to debate took up everything else. 

It was this fighting, a “war of words and tumult of opinions,” as Joseph calls it, that prompted his own religious and spiritual journey to discover who was right. As the ministers fought over right and wrong doctrine and interpretations of doctrine, this is the mindset Joseph started with. One must be right and all the others wrong. There must be an answer, an undeniable truth beneath it all. Yet, because they all used the Bible to support their own theories and various interpretations, Joseph did not feel that the Bible alone would be able to solve his dilemma. He went and asked God and looked for revelation. He received a revelation and reported that the Lord said to him, “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

Being, myself, in a bit of a tumult lately about what to do, how to be faithful in light of various personal struggles and frustrations, I began to wonder more about the actual power of godliness that differs from having merely the form of it. 

It is not that hard to imagine this contest for converts to one’s own faith as it continues in many circles today. There are many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who still maintain this mindset—that missionary work is a war and the prize converts, or that one merely need to be right in the facts in order to have power. But if all of these ministers quoted the Bible, debated the Bible, and cared so much for the word of God yet received only the form and not the power, how important is it to be right?

If facts are only the form, what is the actual power?  

I was once asked what I gain from religion and after a moment I said, “Confidence.” At the end of the day, I believe religion and spirituality should be empowering. I don’t think facts or truth are unimportant, rather I don’t believe they are important in and of themselves. How important is it to have true doctrines? I think it depends on what you do with the doctrines you have, how you live the values you have chosen to believe in. 

Because I believe God’s purpose is to help me get stronger, that is what I see when I look at my doctrines and it’s how I use them. Because I believe God has the same purpose for everyone, I cannot use doctrines to tear down another. To deny them the power of God is to lose it myself. To use anything I consider a revelation to bolster my pride or to tear down another is to use it for the exact opposite of its actual godly purpose. Truth is empowering when it helps you act with the power of God. And God is love. 

Will of the Father, Will of the Child, Part 1

I prayed constantly for a physical healing for my mother. Many scriptures teach that if you ask in faith you will receive, so I asked. But it never felt right. At first, I thought it was doubt—that I lacked the faith to actually receive the miracle I wanted. I kept praying and trying to increase my faith that God could heal my mother, but my prayers never changed, and I always felt off. Then, I remembered learning about Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He ended His prayer saying, “thy will be done” and my seminary teacher taught us to end our prayers the same way, thus praying with humility and trust in God’s will. I began adding “thy will be done” to the end of my prayers and I felt right. Prayers for my mother brought comfort but I started worrying in a new way.

I prayed constantly for a physical healing for my mother after her cancer diagnosis. I was still young, only 18, and she was the only one that had stayed with me through everything. At that time, the thought of losing her scared me more than anything else ever had before or ever has since.

Many scriptures teach that if you ask in faith you will receive, so I asked. But it never felt right. At first, I thought it was doubt—that I lacked the faith to actually receive the miracle I wanted. I kept praying and trying to increase my faith that God could heal my mother, but my prayers never changed, and I always felt off. Then, I remembered learning about Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He ended His prayer saying, “thy will be done” and my seminary teacher taught us to end our prayers the same way, thus praying with humility and trust in God’s will. I began adding “thy will be done” to the end of my prayers and I felt right. Prayers for my mother brought comfort, but I started worrying in a new way.

If I felt wrong when I prayed for my mother to be healed and right when I prayed for God’s will to be done, was that because it wasn’t God’s will to heal her? Desperate to hold on to hope, I wanted it to be that I simply needed to be more humble. I wanted to submit to God’s will, but I also became obsessed with how to know it. I reasoned that if I knew what His will was, I would have the faith required to receive the miracle He was willing to give or the strength to remain faithful after her death without becoming bitter or depressed. I have always wanted to be in control, and in a situation where I had none, knowing the outcome before hand was the only way I could get some back. 

While I was wondering about how to learn God’s will instead of just praying for it in the abstract, I went to an Institute class and learned about Enos. Even now, decades later, Enos is one of my favorite prophets in the entire Book of Mormon and I consider this Institute lesson a life changing miracle all on its own.

Enos was a prophet that contributed only one chapter to the Book of Mormon, and in that chapter, he prays a mighty prayer all day and all night. While his prayer begins in asking for forgiveness for himself, he extends it to pleading for his friends and then his enemies. He doesn’t simply ask for his enemies to find the gospel in a general way. In the end, he asks for the ending and purpose of the Book of Mormon rather specifically including the destruction of his own people—a rather illogical leap to make on his own. He somehow knew, as God did, what would happen and God’s plan to extend mercy to all his children.

Enos prayed for God’s will as if it was his own. In the Bible Dictionary, under the definition of prayer, there is this descriptor, “Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other.” Throughout the course of the prayer, Enos showed how his spiritual strength grew until he not only felt Christ-like love but also thought in a Godly way. He understood God’s will and wanted it himself. 

After I heard this lesson, I went back to my dorm room and re-read Enos over and over. I wanted to know more of the nuts and bolts. What are the steps, how exactly does one achieve this final outcome in a prayer? Thoughts came to me such that I now say the Spirit taught me how to pray. 

I learned how to slow down such that I could discern my thoughts from spiritual promptings—the difference between my voice and the Lord’s. I no longer rattled off a one sided email, but invited the Lord into a conversation. My prayers changed dramatically and I found, like Enos, that I not only heard the Lord’s voice, felt confident in His love and mercy, felt an increase in my own God-like love for others, but also knew the will of the Lord because it became mine as we worked and talked together. 

This type of praying is difficult and takes a great deal of mental focus. In Michigan, I wanted to pray like this again, but found it too hard with all the pain in my heart. Even now, I’m often too tired and too easily distracted. But when I was in college praying for my mother, I had an intense motivation and my prayers were an incredible source of strength. Learning how to pray in this way and dedicating myself to do so everyday lead to the greatest spiritual experience I have ever had. 

I find myself wondering how to bring this kind of dedication back. Is it through knowing our close connection to God? Is it the desire to hear His voice so regularly? What is it that really holds me back on those nights I’m too tired?  Can I connect my will to God’s even when it’s not as urgent as life and death?

This story is continued in Will of the Father, Will of the Child, part 2