Cover image and image below: Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Richard W. Linford
In his fifteenth year, Joseph Smith’s mind “was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness.” He listened to Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists preach. They “were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.” He said: “The cry and tumult were so … incessant” that it was “impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong” (JS-History 1:8-10).
“While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (JS-History 1:11).
These words changed everything for Joseph and for every person who has or will live on Earth.
These words continue to change lives. They are a formula, which I thank my husband for pointing out to me. The formula is: If any of you lack _____________, let him or her ask of God. The idea is to fill in the blank with whatever attribute you lack or want to strengthen. The virtues in Doctrine and Covenants, section four, are useful examples: if any of you lack faith, if any of you lack hope, if any of you lack charity and love, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, humility, or diligence.
Part of the power of the formula is thatJames speaks directly to you, the reader.“If any of you” has much greater impact than “If anyone out there lacks wisdom….”
It surprises me, though, that James chapter one verse five is about wisdom because patience is the topic of the two preceding verses: “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work…” (James 1:3-4, italics added). It seems logical the next verse would continue: “Therefore, if any of you lack patience….”
But, James, under the inspiration of heaven, used the word wisdom because that is what Joseph Smith needed and desired. I think these eleven words were written specifically to and for him. He wrote in his history: “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again” (JS-History 1:12).
If you were in an English class and your teacher asked you to identify the subject in the sentence, “Ask of God,” you would correctly answer “you.”In grammatical terms “you” is the understood subject. Understood subjects command: Get up. Who should get up? You. Open the window. Who should open the window? You. Stop. Who should stop? You. Ask of God. Who should ask of God? You.
James promises if you do ask God, “it shall be given [you]” (James 1:5), but he doesn’t say when or how. In some spectacular instances, answers come like beaming lights on an airport runway. On the other extreme, your promised land may come after wandering forty years in the wilderness with Moses, a journey that should have taken several weeks.
James teaches two important facts about what to expect after you “ask of God.” First, your part of the formula is not finished when you get up off your knees. “Prayer is a form of work” (Bible Dictionary, Prayer). Receiving desired blessings is most often a process rather than an event. James said: “Wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead” (James 2:18-20)? Second, though you may ask “in faith nothing wavering” (James 1:6), God in his omnipotence knows if your request is right for you. The purpose of prayer is to align your human desire with God’s will, that you ask not in vain. James said: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss” (James 4:3). The meaning of “amiss” is given in the rest of the sentence, “that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” Asking for wisdom or any other virtue will be withheld if your motive is immoral, prideful, or self-serving.
I was humbled recently in a situation in which I thought I had pure motive. But the verbal exchange troubled me through a sleepless night. As I analyzed my heart, I realized I had tried to control the situation. I spoke when I should have kept silent, bite my tongue as my mother would say. And the worst part is that I had prayed for the Spirit to bless me in my interactions just hours before. Under the microscope of truth, I knew I had spoken amiss. What I lacked was wisdom.
When you involve your Eternal Father in the process of personal refinement with the desire to serve him as He would be served, you will receive the desired blessings. You pray and work and perhaps refine your request and pray and work some more. You venture forth into the unknown, knowing you are not alone. You listen for promptings and watch for God’s hand. And the answers come—a snippet of knowledge, a fleeting burst of insight, a not-so-gentle reprimand, a precisely timed tender mercy, a burden lifted, a glimpse of hope, a moment of joy, an unexpected helping hand. James spoke truth: “God… giveth… liberally” (James 1:5)!
It is miraculous to me that Joseph Smith at age fourteen found these world-changing eleven words. It wasn’t an easy find. The Bible has 783,137 words. But this is what happened: “I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse” (JS-History 1:11).
It’s miraculous to me that Joseph’s home life included diverse religious opinions and that the children sought for truth on their own. His father joined the Universalist Society and his mother and three of his siblings joined the Presbyterian Church. Their views on salvation were polar opposites. Universalists believe everyone can be saved. Presbyterians believe in predestination, meaning that God decides in advance that “eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others” (presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/predestination).
It is miraculous to me that Joseph at fourteen was interested in community religious revivals. It’s miraculous that he would conclude, “that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God” (1:13).
Whenever I sing about the First Vision: “Oh, how lovely was the morning! Radiant beamed the sun above. Bees were humming, sweet birds singing, Music ringing thru the grove” (Hymns, 26), I have thought that someone should write a new first verse to teach or remind that Joseph was in the grove because of eleven words in the book of James.
This idea spilled over a few months ago into some words I wrote for a children’s song titled “James Chapter One Verse Five.” After I wrote the words, I wished I knew someone to write the music. Then the thought came: “The words you have written fit the music and message of ‘Oh, how lovely was the morning.’”
You know the melody. (It takes a little creativity to fit in some of the words.)
When Joseph Smith was fourteen,
He had a great desire
To know which church to join
Of preachers he inquired.
He found their words confusing
Their beliefs were not the same.
How could he find the true church,
The one with Jesus’ name?
One day he read the Bible,
Book of James chapter one verse five.
“If any of you lack wisdom,
Let him ask of God in faith.”
A forceful feeling filled his heart;
His trust and courage grew.
He would ask of God which church is right.
Joseph did and so can you.
May the words that opened the curtains of the Restoration help you prepare for April General Conference as President Russell M. Nelson requested: “Start today by acting on the invitations I extended to you at last general conference to immerse yourself in the glorious light of the Restoration” (churchofjesuschrist.org/blog/my-2020-invitation-to-you-share-the-message-of-the-restoration-of-the-saviors-gospel?lang=eng).