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Monday, November 5, 2012

Discerning Answers to Prayer, Part 1 - When Silence is the Answer to Your Prayers

Making Sense of the Silence of Prayer

Knowing how to recognize when God is speaking to us is an essential part of spiritual development.  Without that knowledge, we miss the intimations of the still, small voice and blow opportunities to aim higher, reach farther and attain greater.

There are times in our lives when it’s not the heavens that have reached down to us, but instead, we reach to the heavens for answers.  Most often, this is done in silent or vocal prayer.

Unfortunately, even in prayer, we may be trying our best to listen to God, and we hear nothing back.  You receive no response – not in your head, not in your heart. No where.

You begin to think, “What did I do?”, “God, I’m talking to you.  Why aren’t you speaking to me?” and try to make sense out of the silence.

Are the heavens truly silent?

I think that perception depends, in large part, on us.

Take John 14:18 for example.  Here, the Lord says “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.”  When read in the original Greek, “comfortless” is actually (ὀρφανούς), which literally means bereft, orphaned, little esteemed, neglected, obliged to wander about in obscurity and darkness (  Furthermore, those who take the Sacrament prayer seriously will note they are promised “that they may always have his Spirit to be with them” (Moroni 4:3; emphasis mine).  To me, “always” means “At all times; For all time; At any time” (

Then again, we’re told in D&C 1:31–33 that the “Spirit shall not always strive with man”.

So, how do we reconcile “always” with “not always”?

Pres. Henry B. Eyring once said:

“You have the right and the obligation to choose for yourselves. You can search the scriptures or not. You can choose to work hard enough, to ponder, and to obey His commandments, so that the Holy Ghost can be your companion. Then you will come to know the Savior better and better and your heart will swell with love for Him, or you can choose to delay. You can choose to drift, deciding past efforts will be enough.

We are promised that if we always remember Him and keep His commandments we will have His Spirit to be with us. That light to our feet will grow dim if we choose to delay or to drift” (“Always”, BYU Fireside, Jan. 3, 1999;

Six Barriers That May Interfere with Your Ability to Receive Answers to Prayers

Sometimes, the reason or reasons why we can’t discern the will of the Lord in prayer is our own fault.

There are legitimate barriers that might interfere with our ability to receive personal revelation.  Here’s a brief summary (all based on LaNae Valentine’s BYU Devotional, “Discerning the Will of the Lord for Me”, June 29, 2004;

1. We haven’t “studied it out in our mind”.

Sometimes, we expect the Lord to do all the work and reveal things to us that we haven’t bothered to study out in our own minds beforehand.  In addition to D&C 9:7-9, here’s another example, given by Elder Merrill C. Oaks:

“Some years ago while I was serving as a bishop of a Brigham Young University ward, a young woman came to me for counsel concerning a marriage proposal. She really liked the young man but was strongly committed to not taking a step as important as marriage without receiving inspiration that it was right. She had been praying about whether to marry him and had received no answer. I assured her that the Lord would surely answer her prayers and that she should keep on praying.

The following Sunday she asked to see me again. She felt she was receiving no answer. I interviewed her and established that she was worthy. I again assured her that the Lord does hear and answer prayers and that she should continue praying.

The young man was really pressing her to make a decision. He loved her but felt she was stalling because she probably did not love him. He was approaching the time he might terminate the relationship. She was very concerned but felt she could not marry him without an answer from the Lord. I was very troubled by this. I knew the Lord answered prayers. I knew this young woman was worthy to receive answers to her prayers. Why was she not receiving an answer?

The key came to me in a moment of clear enlightenment. I told her she was expecting the Lord to completely make the decision for her, but He would not do that. Even a decision as important as marriage requires us to exercise our own agency...

Like Oliver Cowdery, she had taken no thought except to keep asking the Lord. I told her she must exercise her own agency by studying it out in her mind, making a tentative decision, and then asking the Lord for a confirmation of her decision. . . .

[The young lady in this story eventually] received her answer. She explained, . . . “I just began to feel [more and more positive and] good about getting married, and I knew that my prayers were being answered.” (Merrill C. Oaks, “How to Get an Answer,” New Era, August 2001, 47)

2. We haven’t learned how to listen – we are more focused on the static and noise of life, than waiting attentively for the still, small voice of the Spirit to speak to us.

“We each could ask ourselves: What could I turn off, turn down, or tune out in order to hear the voice of the Spirit in my life? Am I doing anything in my life that is offensive to the Spirit and preventing the Holy Ghost from being my constant companion? Is there anything I could eliminate from my busy life so that I would have more time to be still, to study scriptures, ponder, and pray?” (Valentine)

3. We’re too intent on wanting what we want.

Sometimes answers to prayers are not recognized because we are too intent on wanting a confirmation of our own desires. We fail to see that the Lord would have us do something else. In some cases the answers require us to stretch and grow and to leave the comfort of what is familiar to us. At other times we may want to move forward or act when the answer is to wait. Often waiting can be as difficult and require as much faith as acting. When we seek the will of the Lord, we must be willing to be obedient to it.  Ideally, we should go to the Lord with a humble spirit and ask Him to write His will upon our hearts, rather than go to Him determined to carry out our own will. Elder Henry B. Eyring said, ‘I have had prayers answered. Those answers were most clear when what I wanted was silenced by an overpowering need to know what God wanted. It is then that the answer from a loving Heavenly Father can be spoken to the mind by the still, small voice and can be written on the heart’ (Henry B. Eyring, “Write upon My Heart,” Ensign, November 2000, 86).

How submissive am I to the will of the Lord in my life right now? How often do I try to counsel the Lord, rather than take counsel from Him? (see Jacob 4:10)” (Valentine).

4. Our hearts are not prepared to receive His answers – mainly because we fear what the answer might be, or because sin blocks our ability to adequately receive the Lord’s signals.

“As we go through life, we ofttimes build a rock wall between ourselves and heaven. This wall is built by our unrepented sins. For example, in our wall there may be stones of many different sizes and shapes. There could be stones because we have been unkind to someone. Criticism of leaders or teachers may add another stone. A lack of forgiveness may add another. Vulgar thoughts and actions may add some rather large stones in this wall.” (H. Burke Peterson, “Prayer—Try Again,” Ensign, June 1981, 73).

“In spite of the wall we build in front of us, when we cry out, the Lord in His mercy still sends His messages from heaven; but instead of being able to penetrate our heart, they hit the wall that we have built up and bounce off. When His messages don’t penetrate so easily, we say, “He doesn’t hear,” or “He doesn’t answer.” It is our challenge and responsibility to destroy this wall, to repent and cleanse ourselves so that we can be in tune with the Spirit. Revelation is the reward of repentance, obedience, and righteousness.

Is there a sin or habit in my life for which I need to repent? Is there anyone in my life that I need to forgive?” (Valentine)

5. We lack faith or confidence in Heavenly Father – we don’t have a testimony that He loves us, and wants what’s best for us.

“Often this lack of faith is manifested by a lack of confidence in ourselves and in our ability to get answers. We struggle with feelings of unworthiness and do not feel that we are important to the Lord. We might think that others can approach the Lord and receive instruction from Him, but we cannot. The truth is we can build our faith by knowing that God lives, that He knows us, that He loves us, and that He has a plan for us” (Valentine).

President Benson stated, “Nothing is going to startle us more when we pass through the veil to the other side than to realize how well we know our Father and how familiar his face is to us” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” Speeches of the Year [Provo: BYU, 1974], 313). Perhaps when we pray, we can picture Him as a loving, kind, wise, understanding Father who wants us to succeed. The Savior teaches of the pure love our Heavenly Father has for us, “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? (Luke 11:11).

“When answers . . . don’t seem to come” or they don’t come in the way we expect, we can remember that when we explain a problem and a proposed solution [or come to Him with a decision we have made], sometimes He answers yes, sometimes no. Often He withholds an answer, not for lack of concern, but because He loves us—perfectly. He wants us to apply truths He has given us. For us to grow, we need to trust in our ability to make correct decisions. We need to do what we feel is right. In time, He will answer. He will not fail us” (Elder Richard G. Scott, “Learning to Recognize Answers to Prayer,” Ensign, November 1989, 30–31; emphasis in original).

6. We don’t recognize answers when they come.

“Sometimes we’ve already received the answer, and we don’t realize it. In Section 6 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord had to remind Oliver Cowdery that he had already received many answers concerning the veracity of the Church and the course he was to take. To teach Oliver, the Lord said:

‘Behold, thou knowest that thou has inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth. . . .

Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter?’ [D&C 6: 15, 23]

If we feel that our prayers are not being answered, we, like Oliver, may need to review the scriptures about how God speaks to us.

Ask yourself: Is there evidence in my life that Heavenly Father has already answered me concerning a given issue or problem? Do I pay attention to the Lord when He whispers to me on seemingly insignificant things? Do I write down and act on impressions and promptings from the Lord?” (Valentine)

But Even Then...

However, sometimes, we have studied an issue out in our mind.  We have learned how to listen.  We're not too intent on wanting what we want.  Our hearts are prepared to receive His answers.  And we have faith or confidence in Heavenly Father.

And still...nothing. No answers are forthcoming.

Could the silence actually be an answer from the Lord?   


Stay tuned…


  1. Thank you! Great insights. I especially relate with #6. It's all just a process of learning the Lord's ways isn't it?

  2. Thank you for this post. It came early in a morning designed especially for me to read it. I am most grateful for it.