In the larger Christian world, and to a lesser extent even in the LDS Church, prayer serves many purposes, including confession, thanksgiving, petition, worship, pleading for forgiveness, asking for strength, searching for purpose or direction, pondering an important life decision, glorifying God, begging for a miracle, searching for lost keys, and so forth. But in the LDS Church, special importance is placed on prayer as a truth device. You are all familiar with Moroni’s Promise at Moroni 10:3-5 and the Prayer Response algorithm outlined at D&C 9:8-9, which together are used by missionaries and by youth leaders trying to instill an LDS testimony in converts and youth. Let’s talk about prayer responses and false positives.

It’s More of a Problem Than You Think

First let’s talk about Covid tests, which have generated a lot of the current discussion of “false positives” lately, then get back to prayer. It’s easy to think of false positives as a minor problem, as a little bit of noise associated with a generally reliable Covid test. PCR tests are seen as the gold standard for testing, but still present a significant risk of generating false positives. Go read this short discussion in a published paper to confirm this is a real problem. A “false positive” is a positive test result for a person who does not (objectively) have Covid. A “false negative” is a negative test result for a person who does, in fact, have Covid, whether asymptomatic or not. “True positive” and “true negative” are, I think, self-explanatory.

Here’s the problem: In a low-incidence population, a positive test result applied to a large population (say as a screening test applied generally rather than a diagnostic test applied to a patient who is already symptomatic) may be very misleading. A test with only 1% false positives can nevertheless mean that a single person who tests positive has only a 50% chance (or less) of actually having Covid. Yes, I have had personal experience with this recently (a positive test, followed by three negative tests within three days, all from reliable testing outfits), which led me to investigate.

The statistics are straightforward if counterintuitive, and medical people, as well as everyone else, are largely unaware of the results. Take a simple example: a screening test applied to 1000 individuals, with a 1% incidence rate in that population and a test that gives only 1% false positive results (which would be a very good real-world test). Let’s assume no false negatives. So we get: 0 false negatives, 10 true positives (the 1% who have Covid), 9.9 false positives (1% of the 990 who don’t have Covid) round up to 10, and 980.1 true negatives (round down to 980). Which means 20 people tested positive, 10 of whom have Covid and 10 of whom don’t. If you test positive, there is a 50% chance you have Covid and a 50% chance you don’t. But screening procedures pretty much assume a 100% accuracy for a positive result. But the math is simple and doesn’t lie. Repeat the same analysis with a 1% incidence rate and a 97% accurate test (only 3% false positives), and a positive test gives only a 1 in 4 chance you actually have Covid. These results are terribly relevant for an asymptomatic person who tests positive under a screening regime. Instead of “oh my, I have Covid,” the proper response is “maybe I have it, maybe I don’t.”

There are real-world consequences: people who don’t have Covid but (because of a false positive with no immediate way of proving it wrong) can’t get on a flight, aren’t allowed across a border crossing, have surgery delayed, are forced to miss work for a week or two, avoid contact with family members or maybe with everyone for a week or two, and so forth. Some otherwise healthy and asymptomatic people may undergo serious anti-viral or anti-Covid medication regimes as a result of a false positive.

Let’s Get Back to Prayer Responses

Is there a false positive problem with prayer? It’s a little tougher to set up helpful examples because the mechanism of prayer is rather opaque, but let’s try, starting with a simple scenario. Someone is troubled by a serious harm they inflicted and at some point prays for forgiveness. A “false negative” would be where the Prayee thinks they get no answer when, in fact, God or His angels are attempting to metaphorically whisper into his ear, “You are forgiven.” Perhaps the Prayee is hardhearted. Perhaps he just can’t bring himself to even acknowledge the possibility of forgiveness before he first endures a good deal more suffering and anguish. A “false positive” would be when God or His angels have given no reply or have said, “No, you must suffer first, then maybe be forgiven later,” but the Prayee mistakenly has a sense of being forgiven. If you have a general sense that sometimes God answers prayer and sometimes He doesn’t, and that we fallible and easily misled humans sometimes hear God’s reply and sometimes we don’t — then I think you must acknowledge this scenario where there are false negatives (and people who suffer needlessly when God was trying to communicate His forgiveness) and false positives (where people mistakenly let themselves off the hook despite God’s ongoing anger, or at least irritation, with their prior actions and incomplete repentance).

That scenario seems quite plausible, given that in entirely secular scenarios there are people who are far too demanding of themselves, thinking they have done wrong when they haven’t and being unwilling to forgive themselves for small infractions. And then there are people who never find themselves at fault or who too-rapidly forgive their own infractions and transgressions, however serious. Given these human predilections, it’s hard to see how a “please forgive me, God” prayer would not be subject to the same difficulties and have false negatives and false positives.

What About “Is the Church True?”

The set up is trickier if we look at the Mormon employment of prayer as a truth device. Using the standard if oversimplified Mormon formulation, the questions “Is the Book of Mormon true?” or “Did Joseph Smith truly see God in 1820?” or the simpler “Is the Church true?” are either objectively true or objectively false. If true, there are false negatives but no false positives; if angels are whispering “Yes, indeed” to every prayer query, then there are no false positives. If false, then there are false positives (people incorrectly thinking God has answered their prayer in the affirmative) but no false negatives. This isn’t like a Covid test, where there is an underlying condition that may or may not be present. The “always true” scenario is more like one of those audiology tests where you try to hear the beep at various frequencies. There’s always a beep. Some people can hear it, others can’t. The “always false” scenario is more like seeing figures or faces in the clouds. There aren’t any really any images placed in the clouds. But some people nevertheless detect them (projection?) while other people just see clouds.

Always True. In the first scenario, if you assume that the Church is true and there are no false positives, every positive response, even a questionable one, is a true positive. The challenge is to explain false negatives. The usual explanations (for all those people who can’t get a positive reply when using the standard Mormon prayer-as-a-truth-device approach) is they are hardhearted, sinful, not asking with sincere intent, and so forth. In simpler terms, if you don’t get a “Yes, it’s true” response, then there is something seriously wrong with you. It’s not hard to see that this leads to an elitist or Pharisee-like perspective among those who get a “Yes” regarding those who can’t get a “Yes” (or who get a “Yes” but stubbornly refuse to admit it).

Always False. In the second scenario, if you assume the Church is simply not true at all or that the issue is so complex or nuanced or poorly formulated that even God can’t properly give a “Yes” response, then there are no false negatives. If there is no God, then there is no response at all. If God just doesn’t think you deserve a reply, or flat out says “No,” then false negatives aren’t the problem; false positives are. How would someone get a “Yes” if there is no God? How would someone get a “Yes” if God declines to answer or if God or His angels metaphorically whispers, “No, not really”? That’s really a psychological inquiry, not a religious or epistemological inquiry. But it’s not hard to accept the idea that people often fool themselves about what’s out there in the world and about what’s going on inside their head.

For adult “investigators” I suppose wishful thinking would be at the top of the menu of possibilities for a false positive under the “always false” scenario. For those raised in the Church, I think a discussion of indoctrination is what’s needed. We generally give ourselves and our fellow humans far too much credit when it comes to resisting false or misleading claims in propaganda, in advertising, and the like. Most Russians think that Russia is truly somehow threatened by Ukraine and Russia’s attack on Ukraine is fully justified. Most Republicans think Trump actually somehow won the 2020 election and that some nefarious scheme somehow resulted in a miscount of millions of votes. So it’s no surprise that churches, like all of them, manage to persuade most or many of those born into and raised in that church that its particular truth claims (however established or verified) are valid. False positives are no mystery.


So maybe we need to push back a little on prayer as a truth device. Maybe we need to be a little more skeptical about “answers to prayers.” There is a pragmatic and worldly bent with Mormonism that often counsels against prayer and the like, instead just rolling up ones’ sleeves and doing something to solve the problem or accomplish the task at hand. This is reflected, perhaps, in the counsel to “study it out in your mind” before using prayer as a truth device. Maybe we need more study and less prayer. Maybe we need more sleeve-rolling and less petitionary prayer.

What do you think?

  • Do you have a good “false positive” prayer story?
  • Do you have a good “false negative” prayer story?
  • Has a Mormon missionary ever told an investigator that their positive prayer response, however unusual or misguided, was perhaps not valid?
  • Has a Mormon bishop ever told a member that their negative prayer response showed anything other than personal unworthiness, sin, stubbornness, insincerity, or some similar personal fault?
  • Do you have a different approach to the problem of prayer responses and how Mormons (or any other group) explain them, whether positive or negative?