Understanding Prayer from the Sermon on the Mount

Christ teaching

I met Elders Burton and Johnson for the first time outside the chapel around the corner from my home. Since they didn’t have keys to the church, we simply sat on the grass and began my first gospel lesson with a word of prayer. Having been raised in another faith, I found this spontaneous and vocal prayer a bit unusual. I also remember the edifying feeling I had sitting down with these two young men. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was feeling the Spirit. Their humble and heartfelt prayers had summoned promptings from the Holy Ghost.

We covered the first two “discussions” in that one sitting. Although some of the doctrines were new, everything made sense, and it all felt familiar. The next time we met, the elders asked me if I would say the closing prayer. I had never prayed vocally before. I did not respond immediately, and one of the elders quickly explained the steps in offering a prayer (Preach My Gospel, p. 39).

It seemed simple enough, so I uttered my first vocal prayer: thanking Heavenly Father for the opportunity to learn, for the preparations made by the elders, and for the Spirit present during our discussion. I remember the feelings I had before, during and after the prayer. I recall the hesitancy and humility in which I began the prayer and the assurance with which I ended it. Praying aloud brought spiritual power and focus. I was really speaking to Heavenly Father. “I cried unto God with my voice... and he gave ear unto me” (Psalm 77:1).

young boy sees vision

President Spencer W. Kimball said, “Prayer is such a privilege—to speak to our Father in Heaven. It was a prayer, a very special prayer, which opened this dispensation! It began with a young man’s first vocal prayer. I hope that not too many of our prayers are silent, even though when we cannot pray vocally, it is good to offer a silent prayer in our hearts and in our minds” (“We Need a Listening Ear,” Ensign, Nov. 1979).

The Come, Follow Me --For Individuals and Families lesson for February 25 to March 3 covers Matthew 6-7, with the Savior continuing His Sermon on the Mount. The manual suggests that one theme for these chapters is prayer and further suggests that we evaluate our own prayers and look for scriptures that inspire us to improve them. We may improve our prayers after considering and acting upon these questions: How should I pray? For what should I pray? Why is prayer important?

Jesus praying

How Should We Pray?

Elder Richard G. Scott reminds us that to pray “We need no appointment. Our supplication can be brief or can occupy all the time needed. It can be an extended expression of love and gratitude or an urgent plea for help. …Yet you and I can talk with Him personally, and He will ever answer. We pray to our Heavenly Father in the sacred name of His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ.” (“Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer,” Ensign, May 2007)

The Savior counselled, “thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray … that they may be seen of men. … when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:5-6). Pouring our hearts out to our Heavenly Father in personal, private prayer is a key ingredient to spiritual growth and obtaining blessings from heaven.

My wife and I were in a restaurant recently and witnessed a very tender scene. A small family, upon receiving their order, bowed their heads and folded their arms while one of the children offered a whispered blessing upon the food. We had done the same, offering a quiet, unobtrusive prayer. At times I have wondered to what extent this is appropriate. Are we being “hypocrites” who are praying to be seen of men? The New Testament Seminary Teacher Manual Lesson 11 explains, “Public prayer is not wrong simply because it is not done in secret. Prayer and other religious practices can be performed publicly if they are performed with sincerity and devotion.”

family prayer

We are commanded to pray when we rise in the morning and before we retire each night and to let all our “doings be unto the Lord” (Alma 37:36–37). We may pray when we are alone, or we can pray with other people. We can pray at any time and in any place. We may pray silently or vocally. We can keep a prayer in our hearts and literally pray our way through the day.

Jesus teaching

For What Should We Pray?

In “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-15), the Savior teaches us to address Heavenly Father reverently, reminds us to align our will with His, shares the importance of relying on God for spiritual sustenance, and emphasizes the importance of forgiving others so that we may also be forgiven. The Joseph Smith Translation clarifies that the Lord does not “lead … us into temptation,” but we pray—“not to be led into temptation” (Matthew 6:14 JST). Prayer is so important to our welfare and happiness that we are encouraged to pray that we “may conquer Satan” (Doctrine and Covenants 10:5).

In (Matthew 6:7), the Savior cautions, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions...for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. The Come, Follow Me--For Individuals and Families manual suggests, “vain repetitions” means more than using the same words or phrases over and over again: “Using ‘vain repetitions’ in prayer can mean praying without sincere, heartfelt feeling.” The Lord’s declaration against “vain repetitions” is not so much a prohibition but as a warning about prayers that lack faith, depth, and humility.

Whenever we pray, we should be thankful for the many blessings God has extended to us. We should express our gratitude to Him and our love for Him. Then, we should seek His counsel and strength in all we do: “We need to pray for our families and friends, our neighbors …our daily work, and our other activities” (Gospel Principles Chapter 8; see also Alma 34:17–27).

The Importance of Prayer

As parents, my wife and I enjoyed teaching our children to pray. As senior missionaries, we have taught and invited many others to pray. When I shared my first vocal prayer all those years ago, it awakened my heart, mind, and soul to the knowledge that God lives and that Jesus is the Christ. Like me, many people seldom, if ever, utter vocal prayers. Without question, the choicest moments of our mission have come when we have heard the humble, grateful and spirit-filled prayers of those whom we are teaching. We all need to pray often and come to know Him.  

Jesus teaching

At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not...done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:22-23). Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ know and love us.

We are fortunate to have the Joseph Smith Translation in The Joseph Smith Papers of Matthew 7:23 (see New Testament Revision 1) which changes the wording to “Ye never knew me.” Imagine standing before the Savior and hearing the words: “You never knew me.” It is our responsibility to know Jesus. Our sincere prayers are one of the keys for us to learn to know and truly worship our Lord and Savior.