Trusting in the Lord
When I was about five years old, someone gave me a small, brightly-colored butterfly. A little hinge with a spring on it formed the body of the butterfly, and when I pinched the wings together, they opened a tiny clasp that would close again when I released the wings, allowing the butterfly to attach to my clothes. I loved the iridescent blue and purple of the butterfly’s wings; I loved that it would hold on securely to whatever I attached it to so that it would never get lost. I loved that the wings moved like the wings of a real butterfly, and that I was the being who made them move.
One summer evening I was outside with my family on the lawn in our backyard, and I made up a game with the butterfly that I thought was very fun. And if there are any of you who are having trouble getting into this story about a stupid butterfly, just pretend I’m talking about a miniature stealth fighter jet with nuclear capability. Anyway, I would spin in a circle with the butterfly, with my arms outstretched and then, at the precise moment, I would release the butterfly into the air so that it could fly. And then I would search in the grass until I found the butterfly where it had landed, secure in the assurance that toy butterflies do not really take flight and that I was in control of this little portion of my world.
I did this over and over with the delight only a five-year-old can find in such a simple game. And then tragedy struck. I spun just as I always had, I released the butterfly just as I always had, and I searched just as I always had, but all I found in the grass was more grass. In violation of all my hard-won knowledge of the rules of how things work, the butterfly (or miniature fighter jet with nuclear capability) seemed to have truly taken flight. I searched for what seemed like forever, more and more frantic about my careless loss, but to no avail. I was devastated. And then my mother, seeing my distress, said, “Wendy, why don’t we say a prayer? I’m sure Heavenly Father knows where the butterfly is.”
“Of course,” I thought. And so we prayed. And then, full of faith and full of hope, I resumed my search. And in all the years we lived in that house, I never found the butterfly.
The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints starts with prayer—the prayer of a young boy seeking help, a prayer that is splendidly and powerfully answered. It is no wonder that we continue as a church to see prayer as the “Sunday School answer” to almost any question, that we focus our missionary efforts on inviting people to pray to know for themselves to know if our message is true, or that we culminate our temple worship in contemplating the power of both collective and personal prayer.
Prayer is arguably the most significant spiritual practice for members of the Church from the time they learned to talk. In fact, when my mother, who recently died of Alzheimer’s, no longer knew my name, no longer knew how to brush her teeth or care for herself, she could still pray. Some of her last comprehensible words before she slipped into a coma were “Heavenly Father, please help me.”
With all that attention and all that historical and doctrinal support and all that practice, we should be pretty good at prayer. And most of us are certainly capable of going through the motions of prayer. But it’s still a pretty common thing for us to feel inadequate or clumsy at prayer, to resist what the Bible Dictionary calls “the work of prayer,” or to wonder if we are missing out on the closeness and answers that others seem to get more easily. When so much about every detail of our lives seems to hinge on the effectiveness of our prayers, including things like how we obtain our dreams, or how we resolve our problems, and how we find things or people or hope that we’ve lost—with so much riding on prayer, we would be foolish not to take prayer seriously or wonder how to get better at it.
But, as I learned when I was five, prayer is not a magic wand we wave over the problems of our lives. It is not a bell we ring in a shop to let the owner know a customer is waiting. And even when we are young, if we are to grow in prayer, God has to trust us to try again when it seems that prayer has failed us.
So I want to talk today about building a relationship with God that can accommodate both getting what we want and not getting what we want—in other words, a mature relationship of genuine love. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about prayer since I was five, it is that prayer is not just about performing a ritual or completing a duty or gaining public speaking skills or learning some secret trick for getting our way. Prayer is an investment in a relationship with our Father, and learning to pray is about learning to love and learning to trust.
God uses many metaphors in the scriptures to describe our relationship with Him. He says we are like the clay and He is the potter. He calls us the sheep and He is the shepherd. He compares us to slaves for whom He is the Master. But in the book of Hosea in the Old Testament, God uses a startling metaphor for our relationship with Him. He speaks to the people of Israel of a day when “thou shalt call me Ishi, and shalt call me no more Baali.” Baali means “master.” So he says, “You shall no longer call me Baali, or master. You will no longer be like slaves to the master, but you will call me Ishi.” What does Ishi mean? It means husband. “You will call me husband.” He’s inviting us not to be slaves or even children, but to be like a married wife to Him—as a chosen spouse who calls Him husband.
He says, “And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness, and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:16, 18-20)
I’m not exactly sure what the Lord is inviting us into with these verses, or how long it will take us as a people to get there. But at minimum God seems to be reminding us that what it takes to have a good relationship with God is similar to what it takes to have a good marriage. Just as a loving marriage is a relationship of particular emotional intimacy and closeness, honest and heartfelt prayer is a very intimate act. We felt that today with the opening prayer that was offered.
Most human beings yearn for closeness. We long to belong. We want to be known and accepted for who we are. We hope to be happy. We hope to have happy families and friendships, and we intuitively understand the importance of relationships. But at the same time, most of us fear love. It’s scary to open up our hearts, even to God. We’re afraid of abandonment, betrayal and loss. We’re afraid of feeling overwhelmed, of being used. We’re afraid of investing in another person only to be ignored or rejected. We may worry that God too will leave us feeling vulnerable and uncertain.
So let’s talk about a few principles of building this relationship of trust with anyone, and then apply them to our relationship with God. These principles might not be the ones you would pick, as they’re drawn from my experience and not yours. But perhaps you can adapt them to your style and your needs, or look at your own relationships for other principles that are more applicable to you.
The first principle of building a relationship of trust is that we have to show up. And we have to show up virtually every day, even when we don’t feel like it and even when we have little to say. In my experience, there’s seldom a really convenient time to listen to my husband or for him to listen to me. My husband demonstrates his love for me almost every day by putting down his laptop computer when I walk into his home office. I walk in the door; the laptop goes to the side.
This is not convenient for him. It requires him to interrupt what he’s doing, pay attention to me. But when he does this, he is saying, “I love you,” in words and gestures that I understand with my heart.
Likewise, we tell the Lord that we love Him when we prioritize the privilege of prayer. It’s always been amazing to me to think that I could no sooner get a 5-minute audience with the President of the United States than fly to the moon, but on any day at any time, I can have an audience—a personal audience—with the Creator of the earth and heavens.
I’m not a morning person, but I’ve learned that if I don’t pray first thing in the morning, too often I don’t pray. So I pray first thing in the morning. I roll out of bed and I start talking, and I talk out loud because that’s the only way I can keep myself focused. I talk to the Lord as I would talk to a friend. I tell Him my thoughts, my feelings and desires. Sometimes it helps me to imagine him sitting close by, listening attentively. Prayer seems to be most meaningful to me when I push myself past the pat phrases and stay on my knees for at least 15 minutes. I’d encourage you to experiment with prayer at a set time each day, talking out loud, imagining God close by, and praying for at least 15 minutes at least some of the time. These are some of the ways we show up for the relationship of prayer.
Once we’ve learned how to show up, a second vital thing we can do to strengthen our trust in a relationship is to show up with eyes to see. This especially means learning to see and receive the evidence that we are loved. With an earthly companion, this might mean appreciating small acts of service or kind words of affection, or just telling each other, “I love you.” But God doesn’t always use the words “I love you” directly. He usually shows us His love, and we have to look carefully to see it, and to receive it. It comes in different forms for each person according to our individual mission and purposes. Evidences of His great love and trust in us may include not only our gifts and opportunities, but challenges and trials and heartbreaks that can also be indications of just how much He loves us and trusts us and keeps His promises to us to give us the earthly experience we signed up for, even though we’ve now forgotten why.
I remember years ago a client I had. She was a very, very good woman who felt very, very bad about herself. I could feel every time I was around her God’s great love for her. It was not difficult at all. She was raising a beautiful family; she was doing good things with her life. But she was deeply depressed and deeply discouraged. I remember praying and wondering, why can’t she feel God’s love for her? I could feel it; I could testify to her that I felt it. But for some reason, it didn’t seem like she could let it through.
And then I realized, as I was thinking about this, that other clients I had had the same problem, had trouble really feeling God’s love. And then I realized that I had the same problem. I had trouble feeling God’s love. So I decided to make this a matter of personal prayer. I began to pray about this. I began to pray on a regular basis that I would be able to feel God’s love for me, that I would be able to see the evidences of God’s love in my life. I prayed about this for months. Nothing dramatic happened. After a while I sort of forgot about it and went about my business. You know how that is.
And then one day I was driving down the street. Our family had been blessed with an incredibly wonderful blessing—an extravagant blessing. And I was driving down the street and wondering aloud to God, why, when there are so many people in the world who are struggling and suffering, who are hurting, who are in poverty and trouble, why are we being given such a wonderful sweet blessing. And I felt the words come into my heart and into my mind, “Because I knew that this would please you, and I love you.”
I began to weep so hard that I could hardly drive down the street. Did God really love me this much? I believe He does. I believe He loves each one of us this much, including when we are in hardship and struggle and poverty and want.
Expressing our gratitude to God or other people is not just about flattering them, it is about changing us. So instead of scanning the world for threats and problems and flaws, gratitude helps us retrain our brain to scan the world for supports and solutions and strengths. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of a dour person sometimes, and I get busy looking for the problems, figuring out what’s wrong, seeing what’s disappointing in the world. Gratitude helps us change that perspective. In fact, if we’ll do some of these things that I’m going to list for you for three weeks, we’ll begin to actually train the physiology of our brain to scan the world for positive things, to look for the good and not just tragedies on the evening news.
In Ephesians 5:20 we are counseled to give “thanks always”—always—“for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Giving thanks all the time, for every thing is pretty comprehensive.
In October 2008 General Conference, Elder Bednar told of a time when a general authority visiting their home invited Sister Bednar to pray, and specifically to pray only thanks. The visitor didn’t know that the Bednars had just learned of the unexpected death of a very close family member, someone very dear to them. Elder Bednar said, “Given the unexpected tragedy, requesting blessings for our friends initially seemed to us more urgent than expressing thanks,” but “Sister Bednar responded in faith to the direction she received. She thanked Heavenly Father for meaningful and memorable experiences with this dear friend. She communicated sincere gratitude for the Holy Ghost as the Comforter and for the gifts of the Spirit that enable us to face adversity and to serve others. Most importantly, she expressed appreciation for the plan of salvation, for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, for His Resurrection, and for the ordinances and covenants of the restored gospel which make it possible for families to be together forever.” (Pray Always,” http://www.lds.org/ensign/2008/11/pray-always?lang=eng.)
So I’d like you to think about, what is something that is really hard in your life right now? What’s something you worry about or struggle with, something you need, something that’s breaking your heart? I’ve sat with you—I know there are lots and lots of these things. So have you got something in your mind?
For the next minute—just for one minute—I’d like you to focus on all of the blessings and all of the good things you can think of related to that challenge. Generate only gratitude, pray only gratitude, just for one minute. And I’ll time you.
I don’t know about you, but I feel something begin to shift inside of me when I pray that kind of prayer, when I remember what I have retained and not just what I have lost, when I remember what I have and not just what I lack.
A few years ago I started to feel like my evening prayers were just sort of a repetition of my morning prayers. Have you had that experience? And that I needed to change. And so I decided that, especially at night, I would pray only gratitude. For months at night, I simply told the Lord three new things I was grateful for that day. Every night I would lie in my bed, I would say to the Lord, “I am grateful for this and this and this that happened today.” And then I would peacefully, happily go to sleep. And when that got a little boring, I changed to telling God one happy surprise from the day, and to my surprise, there was always one happy surprise.
Later I just told God in some detail my favorite part of the day, relishing that positive experience and cementing it into my memory. I’ve also spent months expressing gratitude each night for a specific person who helped me that day, or for the opportunity to help a specific person. In all these things, I’m looking for the hand of God in my life that day, offering me His love. I’m looking for the ways that God is saying to me, “Wendy, I love you.”
This is a very concrete way to train your brain to not miss what is good about life, and to develop hope and trust. So let me just review that little list: Three things you’re grateful for, a happy surprise for the day, your favorite part of the day, someone who helped you that day, someone you helped, looking for the hand of God in your life.
Principle number one of building a relationship of trust is to show up for it every day. With God that means showing up for prayer every day, or almost every day, making your relationship with God a priority in your life. It may mean praying out loud for more than just a few minutes, as if God were a friend sitting close by.
Principle number two is to show up for the relationship with eyes to see, looking for and letting in the many evidences that you are loved and receiving them with gratitude.
A third principle is to show up with paper and pencil in hand. I have a terrible memory. My husband asks me to do things all the time, and I regularly forget. I tell him, “Write me a text, send me a note, or I will forget that” because I know I can’t trust my memory on those things. So in a marriage, that means I write down what my spouse requests of me, or thoughts that come to my mind about how I might help him, because otherwise it won’t happen. And with God, it means I show up at prayer every day with a paper and a pencil in my hand. I let Him know that I am ready to receive inspiration and direction—an idea, it seems to me, that you have also experienced.
While I’m praying, I write down impressions that come, things I need to remember, act on, people’s names that come to my mind. I write down things I need to repent of. If you don’t know what else to ask the Lord in prayer, ask Him for that—what do I need to repent of? Which of my weaknesses do I need to work on?
Or I ask Him about personal strengths that I need to develop. What are the gifts and callings that I need to be focusing on? Showing up for prayer with a paper and pencil in hand lets the Lord know we are serious about acting on inspiration and engaging Him, with Him in His work.
I still remember a college religion class I had—I won’t say how many years ago—in which the teacher said, “Prayer is a commitment to action.” That means if you are going to pray to not be lonely, then you have to take the risk of learning to be a good friend, and be curious about other people. You have to take responsibility for what you want. That’s what it means to be an adult.
If you’re going to pray for God to “bless those who weren’t here at this time, that they will come next time,” you have to commit to do something to help them get here, or don’t say the prayer. We practice honesty and authenticity when we only pray those prayers we are committed to acting on in some way.
President John Taylor, third president of the Church, counseled: “I have seen some people who would get down upon their knees and pray most heartily for God to feed the poor and clothe the naked. Now, I would never ask the Lord to do a thing that I would not do….
“ I would a great deal rather that you would take, say a sack of flour, some beef, …and clothing, and fuel, and such comforts and conveniences of life, and thus try to make people happy, than all the prayers you could offer up to the Lord about it; and he would rather see it too. That is the proper way to do things. In receiving blessings ourselves, try to distribute them, and God will bless and guide us in the ways of peace.” (from the Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, 10 Aug. 1880, 1, quoted in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: John Taylor, Chapter 3: “love Thy Neighbour as Thyself,” (2011), 20-29.)
So, showing up for prayer, with eyes to see, paper and pencil in hand—will not only deepen our trust in the Lord, but will deepen our trustworthiness to Him. As we learn to both receive His love and act on His guidance to bless others. These three simple principles will help us deepen our capacity for love with both other people and with the Lord.
I’d like to invite you to experience these simple principles right now, with a little exercise my colleague Gary Weaver shared with me that I found very worthwhile. So if you are willing, would you close your eyes for just a few minutes? Just get comfortable for a minute with your eyes closed. And now would you imagine a group of people who have your best interests at heart. They can be alive or dead; they can be people you know personally or even people you’ve never met. But the one thing they must have in common is that they have your best interests at heart. Take a moment to gather that group of people in your mind.
And as you look around at this group of people in your mind, ask them this question: “Do you love me?” And receive their response. And if God is not already in this group of people who have your best interests at heart, would you invite God, however you imagine God to be, to join this group? And now, in your mind, ask God the question: “Do you love me?” and receive His response.
Then as you look around this group, ask one more question: “What is one important thing I could do at this time to make a difference for good in my world?” Does this group have any counsel for you on that question? If you receive any counsel, I hope you’ll write that down. I hope you won’t write it off, but that you’ll write it down, that you’ll thank the people who showed up that have your best interests at heart, that you’ll come back together. If you receive some counsel from that imaginary experience, I hope you’ll take it seriously. Write it in your journal tonight, perhaps. Ask the Lord to confirm if you got it right, and if there’s anything more.
I hope you got some sense in that little exercise of God’s love for you, and for the people He has put in place in your life to support you and strengthen you. But as I said in the beginning of this talk, my hope today is that we can build a relationship with God that can accommodate both getting what we want and not getting what we want. So we need to talk for a few minutes now about the not getting what we want part, because I learned—as I learned in the story of the butterfly, we will not find everything we lose. We will not get clear direction in every decision we desperately need to make. And we will not resolve all of our doubts and concerns on our timetable. In short, we can’t completely fix the problem of uncertainty in this life.
This life is, in fact, ambiguous by design. There is no religion, no science, no version of history, no prospective marriage partner, no life path that will set us free from the gravity of uncertainty. That is not to say that there are not some answers that are better than others, or that we should distrust everything we think we know. But it does mean we will always have to live with a certain amount of not knowing. The questions then becomes, what will we do when we don’t know what to do?
I’ve learned by hard experience that the temper tantrums I throw to let the Lord know that I simply can’t tolerate this not knowing stuff don’t get me very far, and that what I do when I don’t know what to do may say more than anything else about my true character and my deepest values.
I once had an experience with both getting an answer and not getting an answer that might illustrate this point. I was a senior in college. I was approaching graduation and didn’t know what to do next with my life. I had thoughts about going on a mission. My mother and grandmother had served missions, but I wasn’t completely sure if this was right for me. So I tried to keep a very open mind as I prayed for guidance in this matter over a period of several months. But I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer to knowing what I was supposed to do.
Then one night, I had this dream. In the dream I was in a large building, and there were lots of people coming into the room. We could tell that it was underground, because there were little tiny windows up at the top of the building that were at ground level, and all these people were bringing supplies into the room. They were bringing in blankets and food and water and all of this stuff, and there was a woman seated at a desk in the middle of the room who seemed to be in charge. She was dressed in white. I remember what she looked like.
I didn’t know what was going on, but she seemed to be the one who did, and I walked up to her—you know how dreams go—and I said, “I’m really struggling to know whether I’m supposed to go on a mission.”
And she looked at me and she said, “The Lord has given you many indications that He wants you to go on a mission, and it is very displeasing to Him that you continue to deny them.”
Well that sort of took my breath away, even in the dream, and I began to sputter and say, “Well, okay, I’ll go, I’ll go.”
And she said, “I’m sorry, but it’s too late. The people you could have helped are out there and you’re in here.”
And I looked and I saw a nuclear bomb mushroom out of the window, going off in the sky. A very dramatic dream. I woke up from that dream and I just sat there in my bed, like I was afraid to move. And I thought, “What was that?” I wish that I could get more of my questions and concerns answered in such a dramatic and specific way, but I was still not at peace. That was the interesting thing. I started telling people from that day forward that I was going on a mission, but I hated it every time the words came out of my mouth. And that’s when I realized, I didn’t want just an answer to my prayer. I wanted a “no mission for you” answer. But I hadn’t really admitted this before, even to myself.
I also realized however, that even more than I didn’t want to go, I wanted to do what God wanted me to do. So I made my appointment with the bishop and I went through all the motions, but I wasn’t at peace. Finally, I drove out to Utah Lake and I sat in my car for probably an hour, pouring out my heart to God about all my fears and inadequacies and worries about my family and how much I wanted to get married instead. And when I ran out of things to say, I still didn’t feel completely at peace, even though the veil felt thin and I did feel that I had been heard. So not knowing what else to do, I turned on the engine and I started home.
And that’s when the words of a familiar hymn resonated in my soul:
Trusting my all to thy tender care,
And knowing thou lovest me…
I’ll go where you want me to go….
I’ll be [who] you want me to be.
(“I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go,” Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1985), 270)
That was the crux of the matter. Would I choose to trust the Lord? Even when a mission was not what I wanted, and even when I wasn’t even sure if my dream was really even from God, would I put myself in His care? I wasn’t certain about whether a mission really was right for me, but I took my best guess about what I thought God was telling me, and I put in my papers. My decision to serve a mission brought great struggle and heartache into my life. But virtually every one of my greatest blessings over the ensuing forty years has been a direct or indirect outcome of that single decision to trust the Lord, even in the face of lingering uncertainty.
That decision has continued to hold as having been an inspired choice, but through it I learned that belief is a choice. It’s a choice we make to trust God even when we are not sure and even when we don’t get what we want.
Now, many decades after the butterfly story, I can say that, as much as I know anything of real import, I know there is a God, that He is trustworthy, and that He loves us. Christ will redeem every failure, every sin, every lost butterfly of our lives, if we continue to turn to Him. Through the process of struggling over a lifetime to learn to pray with faith, I have learned that there is something I love far more than even a small child loves a favorite toy. I love the Lord. And I have learned that I can trust Him with my whole soul.
I hold no special keys or authority or position, but the God of heaven and earth has given me the right to pray. And so I pray for you. I pray that you’ll choose to trust that God loves you, that He has your best interests at heart. I pray that you’ll have eyes to see the evidences of His love, that you’ll open yourself up to the vulnerability of praying what is real, and not just what is easy. I pray that you’ll choose to trust the answers to your prayers even when they are not convenient or don’t come quickly, or aren’t absolutely certain. And I pray that, trusting your all to His tender care, and knowing He loves you, that you’ll do what He wants you to do, and be who He wants you to be. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Introduction: Craig Nelson
Let me introduce you to our speaker today. Sister Ulrich is a licensed psychologist who has been in practice for twenty years. She received a doctorate in Education and Psychology from the University of Michigan and an MBA specializing in organizational behavior from UCLA in California. Her focus is on helping leaders create meaning at work that creates real value to employers, customers and investors. She help organizations build people skills and personal strengths to succeed. And she speaks to thousands of people every year on those topics. Sister Ulrich is the founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth and is former president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists. She has been a columnist for the Deseret News. Her books include Forgiving Others, Weakness is Not Sin, and the national best-seller, The Why of Work, which she co-authored with her husband Dave, who is with us today. We’re grateful to have Dave with us today.
Sister Ulrich has served in the Church as a ward and stake Relief Society president, and from 2002 to 2005 she served with her husband Dave in presiding over the Canada Montreal Mission. The Ulrich’s have three children.