Take Ezekiel, for example.
He had the high and holy calling of prophesying Jerusalem’s destruction. He didn’t get to make the standard cry of repentance, however. Instead, God asked him to perform a series of unpleasant symbolic gestures to illustrate the Israelites’ impending fate. One of these tasks inspired the health-food staple, “Ezekiel bread.”
As recorded in the Old Testament, here is the recipe, straight from the mouth of God on His throne:
“Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; . . . use them to make bread for yourself. . . . [B]ake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement for fuel.”
Ezekiel was a faithful and dedicated servant of God, but when he heard that last part, he balked. Eating a puzzling conglomerate of grains for 390 days straight, he could handle. But, baking it over human dung?
“Not so, Sovereign Lord!” he replies. He asserts his strict adherence to the law of Moses and all its purity to defend his position.
“Very well,” the Lord says, “I will let you bake your bread over cow dung instead of human excrement.”
Here’s the thing: the Lord had thought this symbol through. He had a message for Jerusalem, and this detail was an intentional part of the message. The use of human dung instead of cow dung was supposed to reinforce the point that Jerusalem was headed for very bad times – so bad, there wouldn’t even be cows available to produce cow dung to light fires with.
And yet, he was willing to concede the detail. Why?
Because that’s what Ezekiel asked for.
Since ancient times, spiritual people around the world have embraced surrender to the Most High as a paramount truth. Proverbs teaches to “trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not to thine own understanding.” The Yoga Sutras declare that surrender to God is the most effective way to achieve enlightenment. Taoism invites individuals to harmonize their wills with the Universe. Jesus Christ canonized “Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer, and sealed that commitment with the great act of Atonement. In modern times, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offer all that they have and are to God, including their choices, in binding temple covenants. As Christians, we clearly embrace willful surrender as a divinely required path to exaltation, and as the mysterious means to achieving the highest joy possible.
So then, what to make of Ezekiel’s exception?
There is an account in the Book of Mormon of an ancient prophet who exhibited the proverbial faith to move a mountain in literal fashion. As the record states:
“[T]he brother of Jared said unto the mountain Zerin, Remove—and it was removed. And if he had not had faith it would not have moved.”
Reading this, we might ask: which was the Lord’s will, that the mountain move, or that it stay put? Because by the sound of it, He would have been okay with arranging either outcome. The deciding factor was not so much God’s specific intentions, but rather the brother of Jared’s faith and action.
It would seem, given these two stories, that God’s will has a bit of wiggle room.
Not only that, but He is constantly telling us to ask Him for guidance and blessings, and promising that we will receive. Here is a selection of such promises from just one section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
- Therefore, if you will ask of me you shall receive; if you will knock it shall be opened unto you.
- Verily, verily, I say unto you, even as you desire of me so it shall be unto you.
- And if thou wilt inquire, thou shalt know mysteries which are great and marvelous.
- Thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit.
- I have spoken unto thee because of thy desires.
- I grant unto you a gift, if you desire of me.
Similar messages are woven liberally throughout the scriptural canon.
Women of New Testament times especially internalized this promise, and to astonishing effect. Martha and Mary, sisters, disciples of Christ, lost their brother Lazarus – and this, despite their faith. When Jesus arrives on the scene, Martha affirms this faith and says to Jesus, “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died!” She doesn’t stop there, however. Even in the face of death, she is aware that changes can happen, as long as someone is willing to ask for them. She reverently, if boldly, invites Christ to ask on her behalf, declaring, “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask him for.” In return, Christ promises, “Your brother will rise to life.”
And so he did.
But as everyone who has ever thought about it knows, these promises are not always so straightforward. To borrow some of President Uchtdorf’s phrasing, if all you have to do is ask and ye shall receive, “why can’t I receive an answer to a heartfelt prayer? I don’t need a sea to part or a mountain to move. I just need my illness to go away or my parents to forgive each other or an eternal companion to appear on my doorstep with a bouquet of flowers in one hand and an engagement ring in the other. Why can’t my faith accomplish that?”
But seriously, those are important questions, aren’t they? We are told by God to ask so we can receive, and then we do ask for a miracle healing, or the fulfillment of a righteous desire, and it doesn’t happen. And that causes a little bit (or a lot) of spiritual dissonance.
I know this is not really a new point of thought for most people reading this. We’ve read the invitation to ask in the scriptures; we’ve experienced the disappointment of undelivered blessings; we’ve examined the dichotomy and come to peace with the notion that God knows best; so we trust His will and His timing. And that is a good thing. It is good – no, vital – to exercise faith in God through times of uncertainty and disappointment. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a lot more power in this invitation than we might be making use of currently.
What follows is a real, actually happened interaction that I had with Heavenly Father. The tale unfolds amidst the trials of singlehood in the Church.
(Side note to myself and to anyone else tempted to label dating as a trivial subject: it is not. It is a profoundly complex and transformative process, a refiner’s fire of micro/macro decisions and micro/macro humiliations replete with life-altering possibilities.)
When I got home from my mission years ago, I felt ready to jump back into dating life – but that’s not really how things turned out. I asked out a couple of guys in my singles ward, I had a blind date, and then after that – nothing. For six months, as a recently returned missionary who attended a singles ward and regular institute classes, I went on exactly zero dates.
Despite my initial enthusiasms, I didn’t mind the dearth. I had come home to a new and enthralling field of study. I was focused on school and richly satisfied by the work. I didn’t feel the absence of dating, and I didn’t desire things to be any other way.
That all changed, as any number of Ensign articles could predict, with a weekend of General Conference. Through my YSA lens, the unofficial theme seemed to be (any guesses?) marriage and family. In that context, I felt some direct lines from the Spirit letting me know that I needed to make this a higher priority.
It wasn’t just the Conference messages, of course. I knew I wanted to marry the righteous young man foreseen by my stake patriarch, and I knew I had gotten complacent in my quest to find him. So, I knelt before my heavenly king, affirmed my desire, and asked Him to help me make whatever adjustments necessary in order to start meeting and dating the kind of guys I would like to marry.
Somehow, through some miraculous means that I truly can’t explain, that prayer initiated a dating deluge. My date count suddenly jumped from a flat zero to a lively two, sometimes three, per week.
The pattern had proven so successful, I decided to keep up the “ask and receive” process for each individual date. Before each outing, I would kneel and ask the Lord to help me see and meet the needs of whoever I was going out with. Often, God would give me a little heads-up on what those needs might be – to feel respected, share some laughs, have a meaningful conversation – small and simple things like that. And then I would witness the delivery of those blessings unfold over the course of the date.
It was great. Sacred, actually. With the support of the Holy Spirit, I got to know a lot of really admirable, likeable men. After twelve weeks of casually getting to know people, however, I started to feel like I was ready for a committed, one-on-one relationship. I made my desire clear to the Lord, and once again, He helped make the arrangements. Within a couple of weeks of that prayer, a tall and enthusiastic medical student I had been dating asked me (bless him) to be his girlfriend. I said yes.
It turns out, he wasn’t the one. The man I had set off to find didn’t really enter the scene until three relationships later. In that sense, I suppose, it took some time for the root of my desire to be realized. Along the way, though, it was clear that God was hearing and answering my prayers – but in a much different fashion than having an eternal companion show up on my doorstep with a bouquet of flowers and an engagement ring.
The key difference? Agency. True to His number one guiding principle, God honored my agency and let me determine the steps to take, how many of them, at what pace, and in which direction. And since I asked Him to, He was always there to open doors, make introductions, and offer suggestions. As a result, I look back on those dating experiences with a sense of deep empowerment. Even with all the unpredictability that dating entails, I felt like I was in charge of my life, the maker of my own map – and I have God to thank for that.
What then, of submitting to God’s will? I don’t have all the answers, but I know this much: God’s will, first and foremost, is to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life. I believe the relentless invitation to ask, in order that we might receive, is central to the divine purpose of raising up souls with the independent ability to identify and desire all that is good, for all of God’s children – ourselves included.
As a final testament to this idea, consider one more faithful heroine: the woman with the issue of blood.
This woman had bled and bled for years and years and decided enough was enough. She wanted to be healed. Having clarified her desire after endless suffering and interminable expense, she privately proposed a method through which her mortal efforts could mingle with divine power: touch the clothes of the Son of God.
It worked! She acted, and she was healed.
Understandably, and perhaps appropriately, the woman felt a little afraid to acknowledge her boldness before God. When Christ searched for the person in the crowd who touched him, “The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.”
But He wasn’t displeased with her for taking matters into her own hands; to the contrary, He validated her initiative and encouraged her to move forward from her suffering in peace, assuring her that her will for her own happiness aligned with his divine motives.
This woman exemplified the agency-based process of “ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find.” She knew what she wanted, she took action, and was profoundly blessed. The whole beautiful, merciful exchange happened because of her personal will in full force. The Great Healer was certainly willing to heal her, but the miracle came of her volition, not His. According to the available records, He didn’t even know about the healing until after it had already occurred. Maybe, after all, our will matters as much to God as He wants His will to matter to us.
Christ teaches us plainly, “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you . . . ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” Alma teaches, “I know that [God] granteth unto men according to their desire…yea, I know that he … decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills.” The question to answer then, is, do you will joy for yourself, and for others? Because if you do, God will work alongside you, hand in hand, to achieve that joy. He has promised to do so. He gave His Beloved Son in order to do so.
Even as you desire of God, so it shall be unto you.
Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
Seek, and you shall find.
Ask, and you shall receive.
 Ezekiel 4:9,12 (NIV)
 Ezekiel 4:14-15 (NIV)
 Proverbs 3:5 (KJV)
 Yoga Sutra 1:23
 Matthew 6:10
 Ether 12:30
 Doctrine & Covenants 6
 John 11:22-23 (GNT)
 Uchtdorf, “Fourth Floor, Last Door,” October 2016
 Mark 5:33 (NIV)
 John 16:23-24 KJV
 Alma 29:4
 Doctrine & Covenants 6:8