Pray About It? Not Always

When faced with the choice whether to accept the word of Joseph Smith or the word of the Nicene Church (all those who believe the Nicene Creed = Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox), we are urged in Moroni 10:4 to ask God in prayer whether Joseph’s word is true, and we are assured that God will show us that it is true.

I do not by any means wish to minimize the importance of prayer, but when God has clearly spoken on issues like the ones on which the LDS and Nicene Christianity disagree, prayer becomes an evasion. It can also lead to self-deception. Feelings are notoriously unreliable. (Proverbs 14:12 = 16:25) Ask John Kennedy Jr., whose feelings told him he was flying on the level, while in reality his instruments could have told him that he and his passengers were plunging downward to their death.

When Satan tempted Jesus, Jesus didn't pray about what he should do; he went straight to God's word. When seeking God's will on homosexuality or unmarried cohabitation or recreational marijuana, the answer is not to pray about it, but to search the scriptures for faithful answers to those who question God's word. (For some of my thoughts on homosexuality, I refer you to my Patheos article on the subject.)

When the Corinthians doubted whether the dead are raised, Paul didn't give them Moroni 10:4, Paul gave them the best evidence he had for those who lived 1000 miles from where it happened. Jesus' very appearances when he rose from the dead were to give his followers more than prayer on which to base their faith, as we see particularly in the case of Thomas. How thankful I am that we have far more than a feeling in our bosom on which to base my faith in Jesus’ resurrection!

When the eleven apostles recognized the need to replace Judas in their number, Luke (the author of Acts) clearly states that they went straight to prayer, after narrowing down the field of potential candidates, because they had no other guidance from God. Luke even records what they prayed. But this same Luke gives us no mention of prayer at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, when the Church had to decide whether Gentiles had to become Jews to follow Jesus.

There was no word from Jesus on this question of whether Gentile converts had to be circumcised. (The Gospel of Thomas quotes Jesus as saying that if circumcision were necessary, men would have been born that way! If that saying had been genuine, the issue would have been settled.) But notice how the decision was made. Several times Luke tells us that it was by “apostles and elders.” There is no one named as a prophet leading this meeting. Jesus seems to designate Peter as leader (but never calls him “Prophet”), whereas here James the brother of Jesus seems to be in charge (in 15:19, he wraps up by saying “KrinĊ” = “I judge”), although we have no record of Jesus’ brother being named an apostle.

In the end, Luke never speaks of prayer at this meeting, although it probably did take place, and Luke records plenty of prayer by the Church. It was the Hebrew Bible that led James to his verdict, and the Holy Ghost who led the Church to spell out what Gentiles needed to do so that observant Jewish Christians could fellowship with them (avoid idolatry, sexual immorality, roadkill, and blood). The only prophets named (Judas and Silas,15:22,32) are merely deputized to deliver the decision in an age before satellite downlinks.

What to do with the kosher food laws was a huge issue for the Church, because to set them aside appeared to be a contradiction of God’s word. The situation called for more than prayer. In Acts 10, when God sends Peter to preach to Sergeant Cornelius, God sends Peter both a vision and a voice from heaven: “What God has cleansed, you must not call profane.” And God confirms the vision and voice by sending the Holy Ghost on his audience. But looking back a few years later, the Church realized that Jesus had “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), which Paul echoes when he says, “I know and have been persuaded in the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14) and “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). It takes a lot more than prayer to come to such a conclusion.

Prayer was not the primary means of discernment when deciding what books belonged in God’s word. The Jews stored their selection of holy books in the Temple before it was destroyed, and Josephus tells us they were the list of books affirmed by Protestants and LDS. For the genuine words of Jesus, the early church did not rely on prayer alone, but asked those who knew Jesus, “Did he really say this?” For discerning whether Peter or Paul really wrote the books attributed to them, they did not rely on prayer alone, but they studied the language used in those letters, scoured the church memory banks, and consulted the opinions of the entire Church.

Our present canon was determined, not by a top-down decision, but by a grassroots effort over time. In LDS terms, it was sustained by a three-century-long General Conference. And there is no hard evidence to substantiate that any “plain and precious” books or teachings were left out, as I have discussed in chapter 10 of my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith (www.historicaljoseph.org).

The decision made by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that Jesus was “of one substance with the Father” was made by church leaders after considerable Biblical debate, not by praying and then voting. But that vote was not the last word. It was challenged, and the vote swung back and forth in subsequent meetings over the next 120 years before the Church united around this creed.

Where prayer for wisdom is most necessary is in cases where God does not spell out what we should do, particularly where we must apply Biblical principles to specific cases we encounter in life. Should we call this pastor? Should we start this business? Where should we put our money? Should we marry this person?

James 1:5 says that if anyone “lacks” wisdom, they should ask God for it. In areas where God has not told us what to do, asking for such wisdom becomes indispensable. But where God has already given us wisdom, we must not go back to God, hoping to beseech God into giving us a different opinion.