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Prayer, the Trinity, and the Nature of God

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Prayer, the Trinity, and the Nature of God

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

 A. A Heritage of Christian Prayer

"'We should pray to God and to no one else. We do not pray to any other being or to anything made by man or God' ...This statement, which is correct in and of itself, raises an important question about the LDS view of prayer."

Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers itself the only true church on the earth today, it does share some beliefs and practices in common with more traditional Christian churches. We can see this, for example, in much of what Mormons believe about prayer. Mormons correctly understand prayer as talking to God. (This may seem obvious, but some people today think of prayer as communing with nature or tapping into a higher power.) They regard prayer as a means to “draw closer to God” (Gospel Principles, 35). They pray to resist the temptations of Satan, to confess their sins to God and request forgiveness, to intercede for others, and to thank God for all of the good things he provides (35-36). Mormons properly believe that we may pray silently or audibly, at “any time of the day or night,” alone or with others, regardless of how we feel (36-37). They rightly acknowledge that God’s answers to prayer may be yes, no, or wait (37). In these and other ways, LDS beliefs and attitudes about prayer are very similar to those of orthodox Christians.

Functions of Prayer

Some Biblical References

Relationship with God

Psalm 42:1-2; Matthew 6:9; Luke 6:12; Romans 8:15

Giving thanks

Psalm 136:1-3; Ephesians 5:20; Hebrews 13:15

Giving honor, worship

Psalm 150; Matthew 6:9-10; John 4:20-24

Making requests

Matthew 6:11; 7:7-11; Philippians 4:6; 1 John 5:14-15

Receiving forgiveness

Matthew 6:12; Hebrews 4:16; James 4:8; 1 John 1:9

Resisting temptation

Matthew 6:13; Luke 22:40, 46; 1 Corinthians 10:13

Interceding for others

1 Samuel 12:23; Matthew 5:44; Acts 12:5; James 5:16


Perhaps most significantly, the LDS Church rightly teaches, “We should pray to God and to no one else. We do not pray to any other being or to anything made by man or God” (35). However, this statement, which is correct in and of itself, raises an important question about the LDS view of prayer.

B. No Prayer to Jesus?

The LDS Church teaches that Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost comprise “the Godhead,” a group of three Gods responsible for this world, with Heavenly Father as the head or preeminent God. Since they regard the Son as a separate and subordinate God under the Father, they teach that Christians should direct prayer and worship to Heavenly Father alone, not to Jesus. The only exception would be those occasions in which Jesus appears visibly to human beings; on those occasions, it is permissible to pray to him. So, for example, commenting on Acts 7:59-60, where Stephen “called upon” the Lord Jesus in prayer, LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie explains:

To whom did Stephen pray? Sectarian commentators say he prayed to Jesus and not to the Father, and they accordingly claim this instance as justification for the apostate practice of addressing prayers to the Son. From the day of Adam, through all ages, however, the true order of prayer has been to “call upon God in the name of the Son.” (Moses 5:8.) The only scriptural instances in which prayers were addressed directly to the Son were when—and because!—that Holy Being, as a resurrected personage, was standing before the petitioners. (3 Ne. 19:18-36.) (McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 2:78)

In other words, it was only because Stephen saw Jesus that it was acceptable for Stephen to address his prayer directly to Jesus.

The New Testament does not agree. It is not true that we should limit prayers to Jesus only to occasions in which the believer can physically see Him. For example, Jesus offers a standing invitation to his disciples to ask him for things in prayer: “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14 ESV). The word “me” here (which just happens to be me in Greek) is in the oldest, best Greek manuscripts, which is why most modern translations include it, but even without this word, Jesus promises that he will answer the prayer! John also affirms in his epistle that if we ask him (Jesus, the Son of God) anything according to his will he will answer us (1 John 5:13-15). The apostles addressed their prayer to the Lord Jesus when asking him to choose someone to replace Judas Iscariot as apostle (Acts 1:21-26). The New Testament describes Christians as those who “call on the name” of Jesus Christ for salvation (Acts 9:14, 21; 22:16; Romans 10:9-14; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:22). Note that to “call on the name” of a supernatural being meant to petition him in prayer. Paul prayed three times to the Lord Jesus asking him to remove his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). The earliest Christians apparently even prayed to Christ in corporate worship, as is reflected in the prayer at the very end of the book of Revelation, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). A parallel example of this same prayer in Aramaic (the native language of Jesus’ first Jewish followers) appears at the very end of 1 Corinthians: Maranatha (1 Corinthians 16:22), which means “Come, Lord” or “Our Lord, come.”

Whether Jesus is the proper object of prayer is not merely an abstract theological question. The New Testament teaches us to “call on the name” of the Lord Jesus to be saved: “For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:12-13). This does not mean simply acknowledging Jesus to be the Savior. It means asking Jesus to save us. The doctrine that one must never pray to Jesus, sadly, discourages people from turning in prayer to the One who died to be our Savior and who will save us if we call on him. Significantly, the Gospel Principles chapter on prayer does not discuss this function of prayer. While it mentions praying for forgiveness, it does not put this aspect of prayer in the context of our need of the salvation that Jesus came to bring. The Bible is clear: the gospel offers forgiveness of sins to those who turn to Jesus Christ in faith and appeal to him in prayer to save them (Acts 2:21, 38; 4:12; 5:31; 22:16; Romans 10:12-13).

C. To Worship or Not to Worship?

There is some confusion in LDS sources about whether Christians should worship Jesus Christ. In a BYU speech dated November 14, 1967, Theodore M. Burton made these statements: “But we worship Jesus Christ as our God, the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh, our living Advocate with the Father…. there are no more ardent worshipers of Jesus Christ, the Lord, than the so-called Mormons” (“We Worship Jesus Christ,” in Outstanding Stories by General Authorities, ed. Leon R. Hartshorn, 3:50). According to Stephen Robinson, “Though all the world may say that Latter-day Saints do not know or love or worship Jesus Christ, I know that we do” (Are Mormons Christians? [Bookcraft, 1991], 114).

Despite these clear statements, other LDS sources deny that Mormons worship Jesus Christ. Charles W. Penrose, president of the LDS Church, made the following statement in General Conference in April 1915:

There need not be any confusion in our minds regarding these important things. It is important that we should know something about the Being whom we worship—the Father, for it is the Father whom we worship. We do not pray to the Son nor to the Holy Ghost; we pray to the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son, under the influence and guidance of the Holy Ghost.

Also reflecting this confusion are contradictory statements by Bruce McConkie. On the one hand, he stated:

Worship consists in paying divine honors to a deity. This religious reverence and homage falls into two categories—true worship and false worship, the one based on gospel truth and leading to salvation, the other consisting of an intermixture of truth and error and leading to damnation. The Father and the Son are the objects of all true worship…. No one can worship the Father without also worshiping the Son” (Mormon Doctrine [2d ed., 1966], 848).

On the other hand, in a notorious speech in 1982 McConkie adamantly denied that Mormons worship Jesus.

We worship the Father and him only and no one else. We do not worship the Son and we do not worship the Holy Ghost…. Our prayers are addressed to the Father, and to him only. They do not go through Christ, or the Blessed Virgin, or St. Genevieve or along the beads of a rosary” (Bruce R. McConkie, “Our Relationship with the Lord” [BYU Devotional, March 2, 1982], 5, 20, emphasis in original).

McConkie argued that any “worship” of Jesus would be in a different, lesser sense: “I know perfectly well what the scriptures say about worshipping Christ and Jehovah, but they are speaking in an entirely different sense—the sense of standing in awe and being reverentially grateful to Him who has redeemed us. Worship in the true and saving sense is reserved for God the first, the Creator” (5).

The root of the problem here is that LDS doctrine views Jesus as “a God” and as one of three Gods who are members of the “Godhead,” but not as God. Christ, according to LDS doctrine, is our elder spirit brother, who simply became a God ahead of us. Furthermore, the LDS Church teaches that Jesus during Old Testament times was Jehovah, the God of Israel—and the Old Testament is very clear in teaching that the people should worship only Jehovah, the Lord God (Deuteronomy 6:13; Psalm 2:11). So it is difficult for the LDS Church to deny that Jesus is the proper object of worship. At the same time, affirming the worship of the Father and the Son leads, in the context of LDS theology, to the implication of polytheism, or the worship of a plurality of Gods, since they view the Father and the Son as two separate Gods. This tension explains why Mormon leaders have not always given the same answer to the question about worshipping Jesus.

The New Testament neither denies that we should worship Jesus Christ nor attempts to split hairs between the type of worship we give the Father and the type we give the Son. Jesus himself said that all are to “honor the Son just as they honor the Father” (John 5:23). When the disciples saw Jesus after his resurrection, “they worshipped him” (Matthew 28:17). All of God’s angels worship the Son (Hebrews 1:6), and in the heavenly kingdom all creatures will worship God and the Lamb, that is, both the Father and the Son (Revelation 5:9-14). Paul likewise affirmed that in the end, every knee will bow throughout all existence in worship of Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11). Surely, those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, who approach him humbly in prayer for their salvation, will joyously give him every possible honor: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12). Jesus is fully worthy of our worship and praise, because he is “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

D. What about the Holy Spirit?

At this point, you might be wondering whether it is proper to direct prayer or worship to the Holy Spirit (whom Mormons usually call the Holy Ghost). The Bible never forbids or discourages addressing prayer or other honors to the Holy Spirit, but it also says nothing to encourage it and gives no examples of anyone doing so. There is a reason for this silence in the Bible about praying to or worshipping the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s intention during this era between the first and second comings of the Son into the world is to draw attention not to himself but to the Son. The Holy Spirit has always been in the world, but he came in a new way, indwelling people with life-transforming spiritual power after Jesus’ death and resurrection for the express purpose of glorifying Jesus and empowering his disciples to be witnesses to Jesus throughout the world (John 15:26-27; 16:13-15; Acts 1:8). The normal Christian experience is not to pray to the Holy Spirit, but to pray in the Holy Spirit—that is, to pray in a way empowered by and guided by the Spirit dwelling in us (Romans 8:26; Ephesians 6:18; Jude 20). Likewise, Christians normally do not direct their worship to the Spirit, but rather worship in the Spirit (Philippians 3:3; see also John 4:23-24). That means that the Spirit who dwells in us stirs us and draws out from us worship of the Father and the Son.

Of course, since he is God (Acts 5:3-4), the Holy Spirit is deserving of all divine honors. But just as Christ humbled himself to come into this world as a human being to save us (Philippians 2:5-8), the Holy Spirit humbles himself to come to us as the invisible, indwelling spiritual power within us to bring glory to the Son (John 16:13-15). The best way for us to honor the Holy Spirit is to call on the Lord Jesus for the gift of salvation and then in the spiritual power of the Spirit to direct praise, glory, honor, and worship to the Father and the Son.

E. What Kind of God Hears Prayer?

It is worth reflecting on the implications of prayer for our understanding of the nature of God. Mormons rightly believe that God knows all things, that he hears all prayers and is able to answer them. The LDS doctrine of the nature of God, however, has some difficulty explaining how God can do these things. The historic Christian doctrine of God’s nature, on the other hand, while not detracting from the wonder of God doing these things, offers an internally consistent, biblically grounded understanding of how God can hear and answer prayer. What follows will be some intellectually deep stuff—but we should expect that when we think about the nature of God it will involve some deep thinking!

First, how does God hear the prayers of all of the millions of people who pray, some audibly and some silently, often at the very same time? According to LDS theology, neither the Father, nor the Son, nor even the Holy Ghost, is able to be personally in more than one place at a time (see our article on Mormonism and the Holy Ghost). LDS doctrine must suppose that there is some force or medium—perhaps the impersonal “light of Christ” or something associated with it—that conveys all of the information from all of the prayers of all of the people praying to God. This information consists not just in the content of what everyone prays, but their feelings, motivations, attitudes, and unarticulated or subconscious thoughts (see 1 Chronicles 28:9; Psalm 139:23-24; Romans 8:26-27; Hebrews 4:12-13). Furthermore, this medium (perhaps in some way analogous to radio or wireless Internet?) must convey all of this information instantly and in a way that God can process. Does this make sense? When the Bible speaks of God hearing prayer, does it really mean that God has an amazing communication system in place that allows him to receive and process information instantaneously?

The problem cannot be resolved merely by asserting that God is all-knowing, although that is true (1 John 3:20). We may be glad to observe that the LDS Church does affirm that God knows all things. The question is how God knows all things, especially the hidden, unspoken things in the hearts of billions of people all over the world at the same time, if he is not also immediately present everywhere at the same time.

In classic Christian theology, based on the teachings of the Bible, God’s attributes of omnipresence (being present everywhere at the same time) and omniscience (knowing all things) are interrelated. God knows all things instantly, and even ahead of time, because his nature is such that he is spiritually present everywhere at the same time (and at all times); and that is so, because as the Creator he transcends the limitations of the space-time universe that he created. Because God’s being is unlimited by temporal dimensions (which are part of the universe that God created), he does not need to wait in the stream of time for something to happen or for information to be produced in order to perceive and know it. “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:4). Because God’s nature or being is infinite, unlimited by spatial dimensions (which are also part of the universe that he created), he is omnipresent; no information needs to pass through space to reach him, because he is not located in one place rather than another, waiting for that information to reach him. Nor does God have to hurry to arrive at a location or send some force or energy to catch up to wherever we may be. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).

Thus, the classic, orthodox Christian conception of God understands God’s attributes or characteristics in a way consistent with understanding that God is the Creator of the universe—not just its Organizer, but the one who actually brought the whole universe into existence (Genesis 1:1; John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2). (On this issue, see our article on chapter 5 of Gospel Principles.) If we may use an analogy, God is like the author of a novel who knows everything that will happen from the beginning of the book to its conclusion because he wrote it. True, in God’s “story” his world is a real world and his “characters” are real people who have minds of their own and make choices for which they are responsible. But this does not change the fact that God transcends the whole story and thus sees and knows everything in it from beginning to end.

F. If God Hears, Can He Answer?

Then there is the even more difficult problem of how God can answer prayer. The LDS conceptions of God and free agency, held together, would seem to make it impossible for God to answer many if not most of the petitionary prayers that human beings—including both orthodox Christians and Mormons—typically pray. If you pray for your children to be safe when they are away from the house, the answer to your prayer depends largely on what your children and other people choose to do or not to do, where they go and when they get there and who happens to intersect their paths. If you pray for a friend to come through surgery successfully, the answer to your prayer depends largely on the skills of the surgeon and supporting staff at the hospital as well as other factors that are to some extent beyond any human being’s control. If you pray for a loved one to come to faith, the answer to your prayer depends on what happens in that loved one’s heart, as well as which people happen to influence them, which books or articles they happen to read, and on a host of other factors. Most of these factors are connected in some way to the free choices that human beings make. How does a divine being that is subject to the same flow of time that we are, and who is not present everywhere but must exert his influence through the medium of an impersonal force or power, answer such prayers without interfering with the decisions of human beings?

Here again, the classic Christian conception of God has a clearer and more consistent, as well as more biblically grounded, answer. God is able to answer prayers that depend in whole or in part on the free choices of creatures because as the transcendent Creator his involvement in the events of the universe is generally at a higher level than intervention or directly causing things to happen. (I say “generally” because God can and occasionally does “intervene” to cause things directly to happen; this is what we commonly call miracles.) Rather than constantly interrupting the flow of history or interfering in human actions, God’s normal modus operandi is to govern the whole flow of history from his transcendent perspective as the Creator—as the “author” of the whole “story.” This transcendent governing of everything that happens (not causing everything that happens) is what Christian theologians traditionally call providence.

The Bible clearly teaches this doctrine of providence. God’s providence extends over everything that happens, both good and bad, without him causing anything evil or enticing anyone to do evil (James 1:13-17). Joseph’s brothers were responsible (and culpable) for selling him into slavery and all his trouble, but although they meant it for evil, “God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Proverbs 16:4 NRSV). Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from the Father (Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:6). “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NRSV). God “works all things after the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).

Christian theologians have different ways of working out the details of what this all means. In any case, this biblical doctrine of providence fits perfectly with the classic Christian conception of God as the transcendent, omnipresent, omniscient Creator who “wrote” the history of the world from beginning to end in such a way as to include creatures with the capacity to make genuine choices. This God really can hear everyone’s prayers, know what is in our hearts even better than we know ourselves, and answer prayers as he chooses without negating our responsibility as choice-making beings.

Moreover, because this God is one, infinite, absolute Being, existing eternally in the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each person can and is involved in hearing and answering prayers. It is especially interesting and important to notice that the Lord Jesus is able to do these things because he shares this eternal, transcendent divine nature. Even while he was living on earth as a mortal, Jesus could heal people from a distance without ever seeing them physically (Matthew 8:5-13; John 4:46-54). Jesus promised that wherever two or more gathered in his name, he would be present with them (Matthew 18:20), and that he would be with all of his disciples throughout all nations to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). Of course, it makes sense that if Jesus can hear and answer prayer (John 14:14), he would have to share God’s infinite, transcendent nature. Thus, the act of calling on Jesus in prayer for salvation, whether we understand this at first or not, presupposes that Jesus is God and has the attributes of deity that Christianity classically recognizes that God possesses.

Once again, we need to recognize that doctrine matters. The LDS concept of God is that he is an exalted Man, unable to direct the course of what happens in our lives without interfering with our free agency. Heavenly Father is the leading member of the “Godhead,” a group of separate Gods, each of whom is located in one place at a time, with only the Father authorized normally to receive prayer. This concept of God not only conflicts with the teaching of the Bible, but is also creates significant problems for such crucial issues as prayer, worship, and receiving salvation.


 For Further Reflection

  • What are some of the differences between the LDS understanding of God’s nature and the understanding presented in the Bible?
  • How does knowing what God is like enhance our confidence in his ability to answer prayer?
  • If God’s people prayed only to Jehovah in the Old Testament, and if Jesus is Jehovah, why should we not pray to Jesus today?
  • Is there any honor that we properly give to the Father that we should not also give to the Son (see John 5:23)?
  • Does the LDS Church teach the worship of two Gods? Why does this seem to be a difficult question?
  • Can Jesus hear and answer our prayers?
  • Why, according to the New Testament, is it vitally important to pray to Jesus?
  • What does the confusion about worshipping Jesus tell us about the LDS view of Jesus Christ?
  • Does the lack of worship or prayer directed to the Holy Spirit imply that he is any less God than the Father or the Son?
  • How can God hear the prayers of all people everywhere?
  • How can God answer prayers when the answer depends largely on the decisions that people make?

For Further Study

Bowman, Robert M., Jr. The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity: An Outline Study. See especially Part IV, section D., “Jesus receives the honors due to God alone.”

God’s Attributes. Monergism (off-site). Excellent group of brief articles on the attributes of God, with numerous links to additional articles. See especially the article on God’s providence.

Storms, Sam. The Attributes of God. Enjoying God Ministries (off-site). Good, basic treatment of the nature of God, including his omnipresence and omniscience.

Note: While we seek to recommend only the best or most helpful off-site articles, IRR does not necessarily endorse or agree with everything taught on the websites where those articles are found.