We have significant latitude over the content of our prayers. For the most part, we can pray for the things we want to pray for, and our Heavenly Father wants us to share our genuine thoughts and feelings when we communicate with Him.
However, the content of our prayers is constrained in some ways. A public prayer at a church meeting, for example, represents the combined prayer of a group of people and ought to reflect the combined desires of those people. This is why we say “Amen” at the end of a collective prayer: to affirm that we are all in agreement with the words spoken. So the person offering the prayer has a responsibility to represent the combined desires of the group in the prayer.
And there are some occasions when we are told what we should pray for. On the second day of Jesus Christ’s visit to the American continent, His disciples knelt to pray. Mormon tells us that they “did not multiply many words, for it was given unto them what they should pray.” And he adds, “They were filled with desire” (3 Nephi 19:24). Earlier in the day, they had prayed for the Holy Ghost, and now the Holy Ghost was helping them to know what they should pray for.
If the purpose of prayer is for “the will of the Father and the will of the child [to be] brought into correspondence with each other” (“Prayer,” Bible Dictionary), then God is interested in helping us pray for the right things. The apostle Paul taught that “we know not what we should pray for as we ought.” But he reassured us that the Holy Ghost would supplement the content of our imperfect pleadings: “the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).
Knowing all this, we should not be surprised to find a few examples of prayers which are so formal that their content is revealed to us. An example is the dedicatory prayer offered for each temple. (See the header for D&C 109.) Another example is the sacrament prayers (Moroni 4, 5). These prayers mark events so sacred that the Lord has given us the exact words He wants us to say.
Like other public prayers, they represent a collective request, but on these occasions, we are particularly careful to ensure that our requests represent the will of God. Those formal prayers can also serve as models for us to help us improve the content of our less formal prayers, much like the Lord’s Prayer (3 Nephi 13:9-13).
I think it’s important to note that even though it was given to the disciples what they should pray, they were nevertheless “filled with desire.” We can feel that a fixed prayer such as a sacrament prayer or a dedicatory prayer represents our own thoughts and feelings, even though we know that the words of the prayer were given by revelation from God. Our thoughts and feelings can be elevated, and we can come closer to the desires of our Father in Heaven as we speak or assent to words He has asked us to say.
Today, I will be grateful for the diversity of prayers we participate in as disciples of Jesus Christ. I will be grateful for the opportunity to pour out the desires of my heart to Him in my personal prayers. I will also be grateful for the discipline provided by public prayers and the additional structure provided by fixed prayers, which are given to us by revelation.