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Monday, November 19, 2012

The Three Degrees of Prayer

One of my favorite movies is August Rush.

It's a fictional story of a boy who was turned over to an orphanage at birth, the son of a rock-singing father and symphonic mother.  A musical prodigy, he grows up hearing music others could not hear.  At a young, tender age, he composes a rhapsody which is breathtaking and eventually leads to the uniting of this little family.  The last line of the movie is a wonderful truth:

"The music is all around us.  All you have to listen."

So it is with God's communication with us.  Every second which goes by in your life, God is communicating to you how much He loves you, how special you are to Him, how desperately He wants you to succeed and how badly He wants you back in His arms.

I believe one of the most valuable lessons we can ever learn is how to listen to God. In the midst of our complex and hectic lives, nothing is more urgent, nothing more necessary, nothing more rewarding than hearing what God has to say. And the scriptures are explicit: God speaks to us just as powerfully today as in the days in which the Bible and Book of Mormon were written.

His voice wants to be heard, and having heard it, we are launched into the greatest, most exciting adventure we could ever imagine.

Perhaps the most common, most effective way we have to communicate with Him, to truly hear his voice, is in formal prayer.

As you read in a previous blog post, there are a lot of threes in our lives.  It is also true that praying three times a day can yield significant blessings.  So it is with the Kingdom of God; for example, there are three kingdoms -- Telestial, Terrestrial and Celestial.  

The same also holds true with prayer.  In fact, when I was in the MTC, my mission president taught us missionaries that there are three degrees of prayer: Telestial, Terrestrial and Celestial.

Let me elaborate on each of these.

Telestial (mechanical) prayers

Telestial prayers are given by those who pray in vain repetition or don't even think or ponder before and during prayer.  They utter the same types of words with no sincerity day after day.  Because sincerity is a major component of effective prayer, insincere telestial prayer barely penetrates the heavens because it lacks the light of sincerity, love and sacrifice.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell once said,
"One can pray and yet not really pray. Prayers can be routinized and made very superficial. When this happens, there is very little communication and very little growth. Yet, given the times in which we live, improving our prayers should be one of the deepest desires if we are genuinely serious about growing spiritually" (Neal A. Maxwell, "All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience", p. 91).
Comparatively speaking, telestial prayer is like a dim star next to the full moon or the blazing sun.

Terrestrial (meaningful, one-way, heartfelt) prayer

This kind of prayer is much better and more holy.  It has fervency and is filled with true desire, a wish to do one's duty in the kingdom and to be obedient.  It is sincere and comes from the heart.  Symbolically, it has the brightness of the moon. 

As Elder David A. Bednar stated,
"We are promised that if we pray sincerely for that which is right and good and in accordance with God’s will, we can be blessed, protected, and directed (see 3 Nephi 18:20; D&C 19:38)" (Elder David A. Bednar, "Pray Always", October 2008 General Conference).
However, telestial prayer still lacks an essential ingredient: the Holy Ghost's influence. 

Celestial (genuine, two-way communicative) prayer

Let's face it -- we imperfect mortals do not have a perfect understanding of many things.  In it's commentary on Romans 8:26, Barnes' Notes on the Bible surmises that:
"The reasons why Christians do not know what to pray for may be:

(1) That they do not know what would be really best for them.
(2) They do not know what God might be willing to grant them.
(3) They are to a great extent ignorant of the character of God, the reason of his dealings, the principles of his government, and their own real needs.
(4) They are often in real, deep perplexity. They are encompassed with trials, exposed to temptations, feeble by disease, and subject to calamities. In these circumstances, if left alone, they would neither be able to bear their trials, nor know what to ask at the hand of God" (
The apostle Paul had a remedy for this situation.  In his epistle to the Romans, he said the Spirit "helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered" (Romans 8:26; emphasis mine).

Upon closer examination of this verse, we find the not-so secret ingredient of this kind of prayer is the word "intercession": 
"The word used here ὑπερεντυνγχάνει (huperentungchanei) occurs no where else in the New Testament. The word ἐντυνγχάνω (entungchano), however, is used several times. It means properly to be present with anyone for the purpose of aiding, as an advocate does in a court of justice; hence, to intercede for anyone, or to aid or assist in any manner. In this place it simply means that the Holy Spirit greatly assists or aids us; not by praying for us, but in our prayers and infirmities" (
Elder Bruce R. McConkie had a special term to describe this type of prayer -- "perfect prayer":
"Perfect prayers are those which are inspired, in which the Spirit reveals the words which should be used" (Mormon Doctrine, p. 586).
In a seminary devotional in 1972, President Harold B. Lee counseled:
"The most important thing you can do is to learn to talk to God.  Talk to Him as you would talk to your father, for He is your Father, and He wants you to talk to Him.  He wants you to cultivate ears to listen, when He gives you the impressions of the Spirit to tell you what to do" ("Pres. Lee Gives Solemn Witness," Church News, 3 March 1973, p. 3).
Perfect, celestial prayers also come with sacrifice - the sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit [acknowledging ones weaknesses and repenting of them].  The late Stephen R. Covey once said,
"Some people miss the joys of inquiring of the Lord because they pray in private by emulating what they hear in public prayers.  In public prayers, we do not ask specific personal questions that need revealed answers.  We do not confess our personal sins, share the inner desires of our hearts, or seek the will of God in all things in our lives.  In contrast, personal prayers should be more in the spirit of two-way conversations with the Lord" (Stephen R. and Sandra Covey, "Teaching Our Children to Pray," Ensign, Jan. 1976).
Because of these characteristics -- they are sincere, inspired and offered with sacrifice -- celestial prayers engage us in true, two-way communication with God. 

The ancient Nephites were aware of this kind of prayer.  We read in 3 Nephi 19:24:
"And it came to pass that when Jesus had thus prayed unto the Father, he came unto his disciples, and behold, they did still continue, without ceasing, to pray unto him; and they did not multiply many words, for it was given unto them what they should pray, and they were filled with desire."
Now look at the Savior's reaction to their engagement in perfect prayer:
"And it came to pass that Jesus blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus; and behold the whiteness thereof did exceed all the whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof" (3 Nephi 19:25).
One reason why Jesus may have smiled is because he knew that "He that asketh in the Spirit asketh according to the will of God; wherefore it is done even as he asketh" (D&C 46:30).  He undoubtedly knew, as did Elder Neal A. Maxwell, that those who engage in perfect, celestial prayer exhibit "a significant milestone in discipleship" (A Time To Choose, p. 29–30).

Not only that, but:
"Proper sincere prayer to a living Father in heaven, through a living Savior and Mediator, is essential for protection from the power and evil influence of the devil" (Elder Bernard P. Brockbank, Conference Report, Apr. 1974, 166; Ensign, May 1974, p. 115).
The interesting thing is,
"We can pray as did the Nephites in the presence of the Savior: 'They did not multiply many words, for it was given unto them what they should pray, and they were filled with desire' (3 Nephi 19:24).  The Spirit leads us in what to say, and our desires turn from the mundane to the glory of God as our souls reach toward our Father" (Gaylen Hinton, "I Have a Question," Ensign, Oct. 1993, 61; emphasis mine).
It is my testimony to you that by living worthy to receive -- and heeding -- the still, small voice of the Holy Ghost, we can become familiar with the Spirit's intercessions in our prayers.  I'll admit that it takes some getting used to shedding "the natural man" in prayer and totally surrendering your will during it.  However, you, too, will learn that the gift of celestial prayer puts you in harmony with God, and upon hearing His harmonic celestial symphonies, you learn more than you expected: you ask different questions, you ask for different blessings and you hear promises and blessings that you ordinarily wouldn't have considered. 

You'll be elevated to a higher degree of understanding, communion and love for our Father.

His voice, His words to you are all around you.

All you have to listen.

In my next blog post, we'll discuss the first step that's necessary in engaging in celestial prayer.


  1. This is wonderful and so true. I've found many blessings and mysteries unfolded to me on days when I've given my day to the Lord, praying even up to once an hour to help keep myself on track to his purpose for me that day. One week I experimented further, praying hourly to ask for greater understanding as to how Christ would think, act, etc. if He were living my life. I learned so much about Christ that week and His love for all creatures. Prayer, and our understanding of it's power, is key to our progress. So many times we drastically underestimate it's roll.

  2. Thank you. Beautifully said. I think "mighty prayer" must fit in the celestial category of prayer. :)

  3. I'm really working on this right now. Good insights, thanks.

  4. Thanks. Always inspiring and instructional. I appreciate the time you take to post these messages.

    Elder Stroud

  5. I wish I could do this every day. I have had some great experiences with prayer in the past. I am struggling to make this happen more often. Thanks for all your great insight and willingness to share with us.

  6. This is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for taking the time to share all this. Indeed, and unexpected answer to prayer.

  7. What a great collection of inspired thoughts and scripture on praying. This is something that I'm being tutored to do more meaningfully lately and this blog post has been helpful in that effort. I think I'll always have new things to learn in this lifetime regarding prayer but I'm grateful to have read your blog post.