Saturday, October 24, 2015

Neat principles in what Alma quotes Zenos about prayer

In this section of verses, Alma goes after the Zoramite mistaken notion that the only place they could worship was in the synagogue.

2 And Alma said unto them: Behold, ye have said that ye could not worship your God because ye are cast out of your synagogues. But behold, I say unto you, if ye suppose that ye cannot worship God, ye do greatly err, and ye ought to search the scriptures; if ye suppose that they have taught you this, ye do not understand them.
3 Do ye remember to have read what Zenos, the prophet of old, has said concerning prayer or worship?
4 For he said: Thou art merciful, O God, for thou hast heard my prayer, even when I was in the wilderness; yea, thou wast merciful when I prayed concerning those who were mine enemies, and thou didst turn them to me.
5 Yea, O God, and thou wast merciful unto me when I did cry unto thee in my field; when I did cry unto thee in my prayer, and thou didst hear me.
6 And again, O God, when I did turn to my house thou didst hear me in my prayer.
7 And when I did turn unto my closet, O Lord, and prayed unto thee, thou didst hear me.
8 Yea, thou art merciful unto thy children when they cry unto thee, to be heard of thee and not of men, and thou wilt hear them.
9 Yea, O God, thou hast been merciful unto me, and heard my cries in the midst of thy congregations.
10 Yea, and thou hast also heard me when I have been cast out and have been despised by mine enemies; yea, thou didst hear my cries, and wast angry with mine enemies, and thou didst visit them in thine anger with speedy destruction.
11 And thou didst hear me because of mine afflictions and my sincerity; and it is because of thy Son that thou hast been thus merciful unto me, therefore I will cry unto thee in all mine afflictions, for in thee is my joy; for thou hast turned thy judgments away from me, because of thy Son. (Alma 33:2-11)

The repeated phrases of this section should stand out. (I marked them here so they become more obvious.)  Count how many times “thou art merciful” and variations are used.  Count how many times “thou didst hear me” and variations are used.  Count how many times “because of thy son” is used. This is the message that Zenos wanted to hammer into the people—“thou didst hear me and thou wast merciful because of thy Son.”

The part of Zenos which Alma quotes is interesting because it is essentially a prayer of realization as Zenos reports to the Lord what he’s learned about prayer from experience. It is interesting this prayer was written down. We usually don’t write down prayers; we usually say them. However, Zenos felt this one important enough to save for himself and others.  It is also possible that Zenos felt the only way he could teach his people about prayer was during a prayer (if they were getting hard-hearted).

Modern instances of prayers written down include temple dedicatory prayers—the Kirtland temple’s dedicatory prayer is in the Doctrine and Covenants—and a few others. When reading the first volume of the Joseph Smith Papers, I was touched to see that many times Joseph Smith recorded his prayers for the cause of Zion and for individuals in the church, even if his prayers were brief. For some years afterward I experimented with writing prayers in my journal concerning different things I recorded.

Back to the above verses.  The first thing Alma does is preface the Zenos quotation with a statement that it teaches worship can be done outside of synagogue or church.  He essentially equates prayer with worship, and this is enlightening. Communication with our Heavenly Father can be considered worship. We usually think of worship as an exalting thing that widens the distance between man and God, but prayer as communication closes that distance, bringing man to God instead of pushing him away and downward. I don’t think prayer is the only means of worship, but it is definitely one aspect.

Another thing we can notice about the Zenos section is Zenos reports his prayers have been heard and answered when offered from a variety of places—in the wilderness, in his field, in his house, in his closet, in the midst of “thy congregations,” or after having been cast out.  It is also implied that Zenos was heard even in sin, since he says the Lord turned judgments away from him. Clearly anyplace is a good place for prayer.

Something I notice is that only a few of those prayers are declared to have visible effects that involve other people, and yet Zenos says multiple times, “thou didst hear me.” A question we can ask ourselves is, “Do we feel the Lord hearing us even if we don’t yet see a change in our circumstances?”

I can testify that I have felt the Lord hear my prayers. I don’t know if I can describe it, but it is like a silent message felt in my core—“I hear you. I’m listening.”  Something feels different about the air, like someone loving, caring, and interested is there.  Like there could be invisible beings listening.  You probably have had this same experience.

Another neat thing is how this all answers the Zoramite questions. If you remember, after Alma got finished comparing the word to a seed that could be planted and nourished, part of what the Zoramites wanted to know next was HOW they should begin to exercise their faith.  The simple, short answer of Alma 33 is just three easy things: 1) pray 2) read the scriptures 3) believe Christ can save you in any predicament. 

Doesn’t that sound like the perfect way to begin building faith? I must be very slow because I never connected that together until when I started studying this chapter more closely, and I think it is SO COOL!!   If any time we feel lacking in faith or feeling unstable in the gospel, if we go back to those three basic practices – and it takes practice—we will start building our faith more.  No longer do we need to flop around helplessly, flailing in our doubts, seeking refuge in worldly things.  Just go straight to prayer, scripture study, and belief in Christ’s salvation.

Verse 8 tells us there can’t be any pretense in our prayers. “Thou art merciful unto thy children when they cry unto thee, to be heard of thee and not of men.” Heavenly Father knows us inside and out. He knows if we’re just praying for other people to admire us. He knows when we’re just making a public performance out of it solely for our own prestige. 

In Zenos’ prayer he says over and over that he did “cry” unto God.  When we are in deep distress there can certainly be tears involved, but I think he mostly means he raised his voice loudly in his prayers. It may be hard to imagine praying like this. Usually we think of prayers as being silent or quiet reverent things. Zenos shows us that Heavenly Father hears us even when we are loud.

I have personal experience with praying loudly. Usually my prayers get loud when I am frustrated. I feel most comfortable with loud prayers when I’m alone. It feels odd at first, but it has become more natural, and I know the Lord has heard me. I have complained, I have vented when my weaknesses have messed things up, I have railed against my ignorance, I have thrashed in uncertainty about what I should do, I have ranted about overwhelm and fear.  Heavenly Father has heard my cries, and I’ve felt that.

Another cool thing about Zenos’ prayer is it shows us different ways the Lord can help us deal with enemies when we pray. Verse 4 tells how Zenos prayed about his enemies and the Lord turned his enemies so they became friends. Verse 10 tells us that after Zenos had been cast out and despised by other enemies, the Lord was angry with his enemies and destroyed them.  (We also get another possible response from Nephi, who prayed about his brothers who were his enemies and he was directed to leave them.)   In passing, I have to note that the possibility that the Lord would punish the enemies of the righteous who are cast out and despised foreshadows how the poor Zoramites would be cast out and how the wicked Zoramites would eventually destroy themselves in battling the Nephites. 

The Zenos mentions his prayers are heard and mercy is given “because of thy Son,” which shows us that there was knowledge among the Jews during Old Testament times that there was a Father and a Son who would come. Our Old Testament only speaks of Jehovah, so Zeno’s knowledge (and also Zenock’s later in the chapter) shows us that by some means that knowledge of Father and Son had been suppressed.

In verse 11, there is something else to give us faith to pray, which I’ve touched on a little before. “for thou hast turned thy judgments away from me, because of thy Son.”  Zenox learned he could pray for forgiveness and he would still be heard in his sinful state. This lets us know we are not stuck in some radio silence away from heaven because of our sins and weaknesses.  We can reach out. Zenos also knew when he was forgiven. He knew judgments had been turned away from him. He could feel it.  I believe we can look for that too as we pray for forgiveness.

Verse 11 gives us another truth—“thou didst hear me because of mine afflictions and my sincerity; and it is because of thy Son that thou hast been thus merciful unto me.”  Zenos knew Heavenly Father could hear his prayers, but he didn’t get confused about how Christ’s atonement fit into that. He knew that without the atonement, Heavenly Father would still hear prayers, but would be unable to show mercy because of our fallen state.  Prayers are mercifully answered specifically because of the atonement of Christ.  If we ever wondered why prayer has power, now we know why. Our prayers use the atonement. 

So, let’s see if we can pull together a list of principles from this prayer of Zenos.

·      God mercifully answers our prayers because of Christ.
·      We are heard when we pray for forgiveness. We will know judgments have been turned away.
·      The Father and the Son were known in the Old Testament.
·      We can pray about our enemies.
·      We can cry to the Lord. We can know He has heard us.
·      Pretentious prayer is bad, so we should pray to be heard by God.
·      Prayer is a way for us to begin to exercise our faith.
·      The Lord will hear our prayers anywhere.
·      Prayer can be written and recorded.

Today let’s try to make our prayers more meaningful and concentrate on hearing and feeling responses from the Lord.