I Didn’t Ask for This

From the steps of my apartment 21 March 2015

From the steps of my apartment
21 March 2015

Hast thou not seen
How all thou needest hath been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
— Joachim Neander (trans. Catherine Winkworth)
“Praise to the Lord the Almighty,” LDS Hymns #72

For forty days I didn’t ask for anything in prayer.

That’s theologically ridiculous, and I know it. In the scriptures, prophets repeatedly urge us to ask God “for whatsoever things [we] stand in need” (Alma 7:23). Jesus Himself even set the example when He asked God for “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), and for His disciples’ salvation (John 17:24), and for the bitter cup to pass (Matthew 26:39). Asking is a part of prayer. It’s a sanctioned, encouraged, even commanded aspect of the line that links us to Heaven.

But on Ash Wednesday (18 February) I sat on an upholstered seat, scrawling Russian notes-to-self in the upper margin of my notebook, sorta-halfway-not-exactly paying attention to the lecture in my religion course. As the professor expounded principles in the Doctrine and Covenants, I racked my brain for Lent ideas; I still hadn’t decided what sacrifice to make that year in preparation for Easter.

I wanted it to be good—real good. Not my typical abstinence from sweets for forty days. That’s fine and all, but this year needed to be different. It needed to mean something more than self-control.

It needed to mean healing.

I’d been grumping more than usual, and that’s saying something coming from an inborn grump. Things had been rough—with academics, social situations, family, physical conditions. Everything. You name it. It was rotting or dissolving or falling victim to my clumsy no-good wreckingness. And I failed at masking my inner disillusionment with life right then. My attitude soured, my speech increased in sarcasm, and I worked my tear ducts like a 1900s sweatshop master.

Clawing to escape despair, I concluded that this year’s Lenten fast would need to be a last-ditch fight to shake off the Greer I saw myself becoming—the wretch who burdened parents, roommates, and teachers with perpetual reminders of the soul sores she was nursing. It’s gotta stretch me, I resolved, staring at the spiral-bound notebook on my lap. It’s gotta help me chip away at all this nasty outlook.

Cutting into my moment of reflection, my religion professor called on a student to read a verse out loud. “Section 98,” Dr. Fredricksen clarified, “starting at the top.”

A baritone voice from one of the rows behind me sounded out the words that snapped my private musings into line with the class discussion:

“Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks; Waiting patiently on the Lord . . . ” (D&C 98:1-2).

For just a moment I let my mind replay the phrase “in everything give thanks.” In everything give thanks. In everything—even in the crummy times when life is going wrong.

A surprise flicked from neuron to neuron, gaining mass until the thought had meaning and could settle, discernible, with all the other bits of light that lodge inside my brain from time to time. It was clear and Spirit-led, and so I wrote it down, solidifying my commitment with the black ink of my BIC pen: For Lent this year, only pray in gratitude.

I promised God that, until Easter, I’d fast from asking Him for things.

And—crazy as it sounded—I felt really good about the decision.

The purpose of the Prayer Challenge seemed clear to me at first. I wanted to increase in gratitude. It was a logical choice, considering what scriptures and modern prophets and social scientists have said about the correlation between thanksgiving and contentment—and, conversely, between ingratitude and bitterness. President Thomas S. Monson once said: “We can lift ourselves, and others as well, when we refuse to remain in the realm of negative thought and [instead] cultivate within our hearts an attitude of gratitude.”[1] President James E. Faust called gratitude “a saving principle.”[2] Both prophets referenced in their talks the Lord’s reminders to His children that ingratitude is really the sole foundation for offense to God. Ingratitude begets every other sin. It shows a disrespect for all the Father’s given us.

So gratitude, I thought, could cure me from the funk I wallowed in. Of all the virtues I could learn and study, surely thankfulness—in spite of lousy circumstances—was the one I needed at that moment in my life.

But as the forty days progressed, I discerned God’s Hand at work in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I first resolved to put a bit more thought into my prayers, censoring out requests in place of thanks.

The lesson came as I continued to face situations that tried and tested me. The hardships didn’t disappear the moment I committed to learn gratitude. In fact, sometimes it seemed they doubled.

In the days leading from Ash Wednesday to Easter I faced challenges in which I’d normally beg God for help. Like the violent stomach flu that hit me the day before a midterm. Or the first 10K I ran. Or the stabbing sear in my left ankle that meant I damaged something during that 10K. Or the papers, conference presentation, social awkwardness, family tensions, impending unemployment, prep for graduation, uncertainty, disappointment, failure, envy, anger, pride.

The crumminess of life continued, even as I worked on learning thanks.

But in every situation, although I didn’t ask for help, the Lord still pulled me through. Which shocked me into a new self-realization.

I think I cling too much to the idea that everything hinges on my actions, work, desires. Too often when I kneel next to my mattress late at night, pressing my palms against my face, I talk to God as if I need to prove my faith by begging Him for blessings. If I really mean it, my spiritual subconscious seems to think, if I can get my heart to yearn just that much more, if I can sense His will and yank my own in line with it—then everything will turn out fine. He’ll make it all work out.

The “pray hard for blessings, otherwise you don’t deserve to have them” line of thought.

But by silencing my requests for forty days, I learned the truth of what Christ taught when He reminded His mountaineering disciples:

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not: and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass . . . how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? . . . [B]e ye not of doubtful mind . . . [for] your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.” (Luke 12:27-30; see also Matthew 6:25-32)

Perhaps sometimes my prayers show fear more than faith. Perhaps they show a prideful it’s-in-my-hands-and-I’d-better-not-muff-it kind of scramble to secure the things I think I need.

Perhaps they show a focus on self, rather than a glory in God’s grace.

God always gives us blessings we don’t ask for or deserve. I never once asked Him to make the sun come up, to accompany its rising with pink and orange and yellow streaks, to cue the birds to sing, the buds to open, the breeze to whisper that it’s morning. I didn’t ask for mountains or rivers. Or for a heart that pushes oxygenated blood throughout a web of veins. Or for the bumpy-smooth texture of cherry tree bark. I didn’t ask for constellations, or for a dad who taught me how they got their names and stories. I can’t remember praying for hot chocolate after sledding, or for the instinct to laugh at puns, or for a tingling in my cheek when I lie down on a cool pillow.

For joints and nerves that function. For emotions that react. For creativity. Tenacity. Historical heroes. My niece’s dimples. Shining specks in quartz. Eyelids that blink. Taste buds that savor. Aspen leaves that rustle in the northwest corner of my family’s backyard.

I never asked for any of these things. Yet God knew that I’d need them—or at least that life just wouldn’t be the same if they were absent.

If there’s one thing my forty-day Prayer Challenge hammered into my attention, it’s that I need to trust the Father for the things I need. I’m learning to ask in faith rather than in fear of what will happen if I don’t ask hard enough. I’m learning to believe that God can unveil to my soul what to ask for, and what He gives without my asking. It’s a trust that’s building up between a frightened, failing, striving girl and her patient, loving Father.

And that trust—wrapped up in gratitude—is starting to heal me bit by bit and pain by pain.

God is good. And He’s omniscient. He knows our wants and needs and hurts and hopes and fears and overcomings. He lets us pray to ask for things, and gives us what will mean the most. Even if we don’t know just what that is. Even if we don’t know just what to ask for or expect.

He knows that we have need of things to pull us through the aches of imperfection.

And if we wait on Him, remembering to voice our thanks, He’ll wrap us up in the grace that makes mortality as beautiful as the lilies of the field.

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[1] Thomas S. Monson, “An Attitude of Gratitude,” April 1992 General Conference. See https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/04/an-attitude-of-gratitude?lang=eng

[2] James E. Faust, “Gratitude as a Saving Principle,” April 1990 General Conference. See https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1990/04/gratitude-as-a-saving-principle?lang=eng.

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