Prayer keeps a man from sin, Brigham Young once said, and sin keeps a man from prayer.
It's true. The scriptures are full of the assurance that prayer is the first and best defense against the powers of the destroyer. "Humble yourself before the Lord," Alma pleaded, "and call on his holy name, and watch and pray continually, that ye may not be tempted above that which ye can bear." (Alma 13:28)
Sin can clog the communication lines to heaven. The soul darkened with unrepented sin is in no condition to get a message through.
Mark Twain knew about that. His Huckleberry Finn described the condition of far too many of us:
"I about made up my mind to pray and see if I couldn't try to quit bein' the kind of boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. It was because my heart wasn't right; it was because I was playin' double. I was lettin' on to give up sin, but way inside of me I was holdin' on to the biggest one of all. I was tryin' to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie."
But it's not just sin - at least not just sins of commission - that keeps us from prayer. It's also indifference or laziness. Effective communication with God takes hard, concentrated effort. Too often, we make prayer a matter of convenience instead of high priority for our time and attention.
And often, it's lack of faith - real faith that He will hear and answer - that makes our effort superficial, if we make the effort at all. We haven't recognized a clear answer to our prayers, or it has been a while and we've forgotten. The Lord must have known how quickly we forget, which is why He pleaded with us to pray evening, and morning, and at noon (Psalm 55:17), to pray without ceasing (II Thess. 5:17), to call on the name of the Lord daily (Mosiah 4:11), to let our hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually. (Alma 34:27.)
Or it's that we don't recognize answers wheen they come. We pray, but don't listen. Or we don't listen long and patiently enough. Jesus' plea (Matt. 24:42) to watch, "for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come" applies not only to those times in the life each of us when quietly He comes in answer to our prayers.
As we listen for the answer, we may well reflect on how it may come. It may come directly, powerfully, immediately recognizable, of course. But it may come subtly, knowable only to the sensitive, listening heart.
In his luminous little book, He Touched Me; My Pilgrimmage of Prayer, John Powell suggests five quiet ways in which God may answer prayer:
"Can God put a new idea directly and immediately into my mind?
"Can God put new desires into my heart, new strength into my will?
"Can He touch and calm my turbulent emotions?
"Can He actually whisper words to the listening ears of my soul through the inner faculty of my imagination?
"Can God stimulate certain memories stored within the human brain at the time these memories are needed?
"If the answer to these questions is yes, then God has at leasty five channels through which He can reach me, five antennae in my human anatomy through which He can 'touch' me. . . . I feel sure that God can and does reach us in these ways. . . . God is available and anxious to speak to you and me. Yes, just as anxious as he was to speak to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Isaiah and Jeremiah."