Since we yearn to be closer to God and receive revelation, we may find ourselves asking, “Lord, how is it done?” Something profound can be learned in the similarities between Joseph Smith’s prayer that was answered by the First Vision, his prayer that brought Moroni’s visit, and Enos’s wrestle with God when he prayed all day and all night in the woods.
In all three cases the petitioner was yearning to have one question answered, and that question may surprise us. It was—what is the state of my soul before the Lord?
The energy and real intent behind each of these prayers was for the most personal question of all. How does God see me? Can my sins, meaning all that divides me from Him, be forgiven?
In fact, it might be because this is the central question of our being, that the intensity of the desire was so compelling. What can be more important to see and know than who we are, and what our journey must be, and if the Lord can forgive us? Can I be with thee again, and what do I need to do and can I receive thy grace and strength? Wilt thou forgive me, not only for sins I know about, but blind spots I don’t even see? Wilt thou teach me better?
These are yearning, urgent questions when you are talking about your own soul, and motivate an eagerness and intensity to connect with heaven that few other questions can have. These are spiritual life and death questions. What we learn from Joseph and from Enos is that profound revelation comes from the most personal quest.
Since repentance is something we are to be about daily, we are invited regularly into this world of prayer where connection deeply matters to us because our eternal welfare is at stake. This is not to suggest that we are always on the line, but to know that progress and growth, expanded views and greater joys, ultimately come from change. If we are to be in God’s presence, we will have to have changed, profoundly so. In gospel terms, we call change repentance.
Now, wait, you might say. Didn’t Joseph go into that grove to ask the Lord which church was true? That’s true, but it was motivated by this deeper sense of confusion as Joseph notes, “for the welfare of my immortal soul.”[i]
In the four first-hand accounts we have from Joseph about his going into the grove, he uses strong, poignant expressions to speak of his need for clarity and the welfare of his own soul. It tells why an exhausted boy, in the middle of the spring maple run that demanded so much round-the-clock work, would take his only time off to retire to a grove early in the morning to be alone with God. He really wanted answers. He hungered for them. He had to have them.
Joseph said he was “seriously impressed” for his soul’s welfare. He was “perplexed in mind” regarding matters of “eternal consequences”. The “darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind” made him “exceedingly distressed” and were a “grief to my soul.”[ii] He said, “I became convicted of my sins.”[iii]
“Being wrought up in my mind respecting the subject of religion,”[iv] he went to pray. He was “laboring under extreme difficulties”.[v] “During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness.” His thoughts were “deep and often poignant.”[vi]
Yet, it wasn’t only his soul he was worried about, but the confusion of the world where men and women knew not where to turn for spiritual clarity. “I felt to mourn for my sins and for the sins of the world.”[vii] His anguish was multiplied millions of times over, but it clearly started with his own anguish.
God’s Greatness, Joseph’s Humility
What we sense here are two related attributes in Joseph’s nature and connection with God that opened him for additional light.
The first is a profound sense of the majesty of God as He moves in eternity and on earth. Joseph looked upon the sun and the moon, “rolling in their majesty through the heavens”, upon the stars. He saw the “beasts of the field and the fowls of heaven” and also “man walking forth upon the face of the earth in majesty and in the strength of beauty, whose power and intelligence” were “even in the likeness of him who created them.”
Seeing all this, Joseph says, “My heart exclaimed, ‘All, all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power, a being who maketh laws and decreeth and bindeth all things in their bounds, who filleth eternity, who was and is and will be from eternity to eternity.’”[viii]
This is reverence, a reaching out to try to comprehend God, with the full understanding that He is more than our mortal faculties can take in. This is awe. The sense that before this moving majesty, we are nothing, and yet, we are known and loved.
It is having even a portion of this understanding that authors the second attribute, and that is humility. Knowing that there is a God such as this whose very essence is truth and light, would help us see that we are still little before Him, little shadows before this luminosity. Though possessed of magnificent potential, we have a long journey to align our souls in every particular with Him. We have sinned. We are sinful, though we often refer to it as having “weaknesses”. In the root of the definition of sin is the idea of “missing the mark.” Since God sets the mark, and it is to be like Him, we have missed it and have a journey toward the light to make.
Humility then is the power to see where we are, without wincing in defeat or self-pity, and instead joyously seeking the Lord for forgiveness and tutoring.
Only He can answer our soul’s yearning to know our state and station before Him, because He sees what we cannot see. He enfolds intelligence and love and power and attributes that would make us not just fall to our knees, but to our faces should we see Him.
It is one of the sorrows of our time, that so many people think that they are the measure of all things and do not look for a truth beyond themselves. This robs them of the humility to look for something greater and more that God has to offer. It steals from them the opportunity to be astonished at a divine cascade of light in their inner being. This imagined self-sufficiency dissolves the meekness that is necessary to experience God.
Where Joseph’s Confusion Came From
We know where Joseph’s confusion came from. It was a time of ardent religious fervor in his area and “the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy” to promote “this extraordinary scene of religious feeling” left him perplexed by their differing doctrines. What was worse is they competed with each other for new converts in a way that made all their Christian zealousness seem small and petty.
Joseph fervently studied and believed the Bible. It had been a staple of his youth. The competing preachers in his area, however, actually taught competing doctrines about salvation.
Scholar, Kerry Muhlestein, in his new book I Saw the Lord, notes, “At the time, America was experiencing a religious split that was also manifest in the Smith family. Calvinist-leaning churches, such as the Presbyterians, felt that humanity was depraved and that Christ atoned for the sins of only a few who would be saved. Others, such as the Methodists, believed mankind was fallen but not depraved, and that Christ would save all those who chose to follow Him.”
Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, and other siblings had joined the Presbyterian church. His father thought that the churches, while good, were not necessary for coming to Christ to be saved. His family had different opinions about the Big Questions. This weighed upon Joseph.
Of these fiery religious meetings, Muhlestein noted, “Joseph went to meetings with his family and saw them and others ‘get religion’. Usually this meant that they were touched by the Spirit and would stand up and let those around them know they loved Jesus, were saved by Him, and would follow Him.” This didn’t happen for Joseph, and he remained bewildered about the most basic questions: how to be saved and the welfare of his soul.
All of this intensity of feeling, and spiritual push and pull, was the preparation God gave Joseph to be able to walk into that grove and wholeheartedly cry out. In the 1832 account Joseph said, “I cried unto the Lord for mercy, for there was none else to whom I could go…And he spake unto me saying, “Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee…Behold, the world lieth in sin at this time, and none doeth good, no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments.”
Since we understand that no unclean thing can enter the presence of God, of course, it would be necessary that Joseph’s sins were forgiven to receive the revelation we know as the First Vision.
The Power in Prayer Where We Seek Mercy and Growth
We see again the power a prayer can have about the welfare of your soul when Joseph prays in the Smith cabin the night Moroni visited in 1823. He explained that because he was forbidden to join a religious sect and was persecuted by those who should have been his friends, “I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature,; which I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature.”[ix]
Because of this, “I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections,”[x] Joseph said. Thus, it was again to seek forgiveness that sent Joseph to his knees in intense prayer the night when Moroni made his remarkable visit.
Some things really matter and take prayer to a new pitch. We are desperate to hear and be heard. You pray with expanded desire when large things are at stake, and what could be more at stake than the welfare of your soul and your need to be strengthened and forgiven?
This important purpose also sharpened and focused Joseph’s prayer. Oliver Cowdery described how it was for Joseph the night he prayed and Moroni came. He said of Joseph:
“At length the family retired, and he, as usual, bent his way, though in silence, where others might have rested their weary frames ‘locked fast in sleep’s embrace,’ but repose had fled, and accustomed slumber had spread her refreshing hand over others beside him—he continued still to pray—his heart, though once hard and obdurate, was softened, and that mind which had often flitted, like the ‘wild bird of passage,’ had settled upon a determined basis not to be decoyed or driven from its purpose.”[xi]
Lucy Mack Smith’s Covenant
Perhaps Joseph had learned this care for the state of his soul from his mother. Before Joseph was born, while Lucy and the family were living in Randolph, she became so terribly ill that she could not stand a footfall across the floor. All had given her up as one who was dying. When a Methodist minister came to see her, her spirit winced, and she wrote of the occasion her concern about the welfare of her soul..
“He seated himself and for a long time seemed pondering in his mind something he wished to say. I thought to myself, ‘He will ask me if I am prepared to die.’ I dreaded to have him speak to me, for said I to myself, ‘I am not prepared to die, for I do not know the ways of Christ,’ and it seemed to me as though there was a dark and lonely chasm between myself and Christ that I dared not attempt to cross.
“I thought as I strained my eyes towards the light (which I knew lay just beyond the gloomy veil before me) that I could discover a faint glimmer.
“I covenanted with God that if he would let me live, I would endeavor to get that religion that would enable me to serve him right, whether it was in the Bible or wherever it might be found, even if it was to be obtained from heaven by prayer and faith.”
Of course, it is not just Joseph Smith or his mother, Lucy, whose prayers became determined when so much is at stake. We remember that when Enos goes to the woods to hunt beasts, he soon changes to a higher purpose. He says, “I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.”
The joy of the Saints sunk deep into his heart and he says, “My soul hungered.” That hunger was so intense, in fact, that he poured his heart out in “mighty prayer” and “all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens” (Enos 1:2-4).
A Significant Pattern
So, again and again, we see this significant pattern. A deeply-felt personal quest for forgiveness and seeking the welfare of your soul brings down the powers of heaven, in fact, bursts the shackles that seem to keep you from heavenly things.
We used to hear the old joke, “If you want a prayer answered instantly, just ask the Lord, what’s wrong with you.”
In reality, more than we know, sincerely seeking change and growth and eyes to see does bring revelation. It may be because in truly humbling ourselves and asking, “What lack I yet?”, we are making a step towards aligning ourselves with God’s will. We are choosing to walk into the light.
What he wants is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man”[xii] and when we seek the change and growth that is repentance, we open the door to cooperate with Him in His dearest goals.
You want to pray with more intensity? Begin that series of
daily connections that allows the Lord’s tutoring and cleansing. When the
growth of your very being is at stake, you can’t be casual.
[i] See 1832 account. All of Joseph’s first person accounts of the First Vision can be found here. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/first-vision-accounts?lang=eng
[ii] 1832 account
[iii] 1832 account
[iv] 1835 account
[v] 1838 account
[vi] 1838 account
[vii] 1832 account
[viii] 1832 account
[ix] Joseph Smith-History 1:28.
[x] Joseph Smith-History 1:29.
[xi] Citation in original: “Oliver Cowdery, ‘A Remarkable Vision,’ Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 1, no. 2 (May 1840–April 1841): 42.” Originally published in Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1, no. 5 (Feb. 1835)
[xii] Moses 1:39