It’s a penalty shootout in the 2013 MLS Cup final. Real Salt Lake are battling Sporting Kansas City for their second championship.
I sit at Buffalo Wild Wings with my fellow Real Salt Lake fans. We’ve been there for hours. I’ve bitten my nails down to nubs. I’m sweating bullets. It’s embarrassing, it’s desperate, but I look heavenward and say a silent prayer. Yes, literally.
The final Real Salt Lake player steps up to the spot…
…and clatters his penalty kick against the crossbar. My team loses. My prayer goes unanswered.
There’s a commandment that we’re supposed to “pray always” and there are plenty of great resources for times and places to pray. And as we seek for more personal and direct things to pray for, we can sometimes fall into the trap of praying for things we can’t get.
Having prayers unanswered may be damaging to faith. But maybe our prayers aren’t going unanswered—maybe they’re unanswerable in their present form. Here are some tips on praying for tricky stuff in an answerable way.
Can I pray for sports or other competitions?
This one’s tough. When there’s something you care about deeply, you’ll certainly want to pray about it. Praying for a win, though, is where things get dicey. Who’s to say that the other team, group or individual isn’t praying for a win just as faithfully as you are? Whom will Heavenly Father answer?
A New Era article from 1992 gives several suggestions of what to pray for when you pray before a sporting event:
- Pray for Unity
- Pray for Sportsmanship
- Pray for Safety
- Pray to Say Thank You
“In the end, the Lord … will care a great deal about how you treated others and how you represented the gospel you believe in.”
Can I pray for people to change their minds?
This is another tricky territory, and it’s an area that is ripe for potential disappointment. When we have someone we care about who we want to accept the gospel, we often pray that they will have a change of heart.
Definitely a righteous desire. Definitely worth praying about. The danger here, though, comes from hoping that our Heavenly Father will take away someone’s agency to any degree. As the hymn says,
“Know this, that ev’ry soul is free. To choose his life and what he’ll be;. For this eternal truth is giv’n: That God will force no man to heav’n.”
It’s heartbreaking, but we’re not left comfortless—or without instruction. In 1993, Sister Chieko Okazaki told the story of her husband’s conversion to the Church.
She explains the complicated role of prayer in the conversion process and points out several superior approaches to simply praying that someone will join the Church:
-Letting the Spirit guide prayers
-Serving others (particularly those we want to join the Church)
-Dealing with the limitations of reality.
Can we pray that someone will join the Church? Sure. Should we also be praying for a greater capacity to serve and for more opportunities to follow the Spirit? Absolutely.
Can I pray for justice?
There are plenty of times when it seems like people have gotten away with wickedness. Custody battles, political scandals, court cases and business dealings can leave us feeling like the good guys lost.
Is it inappropriate to pray for God’s justice upon the people who have wronged us? While it feels justified, prayers of revenge or comeuppance may go unanswered. It’s an unfortunate reality of this life that while we all want to be Samuel the Lamanite, sometimes we’re Abinadi.
Instead of praying for justice or praying that some equivalent misfortune would fall on our enemies, President James E. Faust offered an alternative path:
“We can find all manner of reasons for postponing forgiveness. One of these reasons is waiting for the wrongdoers to repent before we forgive them. Yet such a delay causes us to forfeit the peace and happiness that could be ours…A sister who had been through a painful divorce received some sound advice from her bishop: ‘Keep a place in your heart for forgiveness, and when it comes, welcome it in.’”
Can we pray for a sense of justice? We can. But there is a higher way, one that will be answered as we align ourselves with Heavenly Father’s plan—praying that we, ourselves, can change.
In the end, Romans 8:26 gives us the best advice regarding what we ought to pray for:
“Likewise the Spirit also 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.”
As much as I groaned at Buffalo Wild Wings on that disappointing afternoon years ago, there’s a more important voice I should be listening to: the voice of the Spirit. His guidance and perspective can let us know more than just what we should do. He will also tell us when we ask “Can I pray for that?”