Sometimes I wonder about the roles of prayer and faith in mental illness.
On the one hand, we are instructed in places like Alma 34 of the Book of Mormon to pray about any and everything:
On the other hand, we are also instructed to use our own agency and abilities to solve our problems and be self sufficient. Elder Hales said in the April General Conference of 2016,
“I remind all of us that the Holy Ghost is not given to control us. Some of us unwisely seek the Holy Ghost’s direction on every minor decision in our lives. This trivializes His sacred role.”
Taken in context with Elder Hales’ words, I start to wonder if the instructions from the Book of Alma above are more to give an update to Heavenly Father about our lives and our desires. Maybe we shouldn’t expect God and the Holy Ghost to intervene in every little part of our lives, but that doesn’t mean They don’t want or need to know what’s going on.
Purposes of Prayer
For me, the act of praying allows me to distill my thoughts. Sometimes I feel like my brain is a jumbled mess of thoughts and things I want or need to do. Praying helps me to organize my thoughts and feel what really matters. Occasionally the path or course I need to pursue becomes obvious to me during the prayer itself. In these times, prayer becomes a meditation and a way to crowd out distractions.
When it comes to finding relief from mental illness, I have learned over my ten years of having issues that prayer is not a cure all. Sure, I’ve prayed for relief and freedom from my anxiety. But, spoiler alert, I still have OCD. I wasn’t miraculously cured by praying.
The important thing here, though, is that I wasn’t miraculously cured because I didn’t have faith. It’s not that being cured wasn’t a righteous desire or anything like that.
God is still in control
President Uchtdorf spoke about faith and prayer in the Women’s Session of General Conference in October of 2016 and said,
“faith cannot […] force our will upon God. We cannot force God to comply with our desires—no matter how right we think we are or how sincerely we pray. […] No, the purpose of faith is not to change God’s will but to empower us to act on God’s will. Faith is trust—trust that God sees what we cannot and that He knows what we do not.”
I used to be bitter that prayer didn’t relieve my mental health induced suffering. But looking back, maybe that suffering wasn’t relieved but I was strengthened, like the people of Ammon in the Book of Mormon, to withstand the suffering and come out the other side with a greater desire to use my trial to benefit myself and others.
If all hard things were immediately taken from us when we prayed, how much weaker we would be. How much weaker and of less service to the Lord would I be if I hadn’t had to go through having OCD.
President Uchtdorf put it perfectly when he said,
“Faith means that we trust not only in God’s wisdom but that we trust also in His love. It means trusting that God loves us perfectly, that everything He does—every blessing He gives and every blessing He, for a time, withholds—is for our eternal happiness.8
With this kind of faith, though we may not understand why certain things happen or why certain prayers go unanswered, we can know that in the end everything will make sense. “All things [will] work together for good to them that love God.”9
I’m learning slowly that this is true. I’m also learning that the end might not be very soon. It might mean after this life, in the eternities. So we just have to trust in God. And of anyone to trust, I think God’s a pretty safe bet.