It has always brought a sense of wonder and comfort to me to realize that the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ began with a boy’s private prayer. Perhaps one of the most powerful lessons the Prophet Joseph Smith taught the world is contained in five simple words he spoke to his mother after his experience in a grove of trees: “I have learned for myself …” (JS—H 1:20). His whole life was an illustration of the truthfulness of those five words, and we all continue to benefit from the answers he received. I believe, however, that this first profound experience given to him was also meant as an assurance to all of us that we also “might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided” (JS—H 1:26).
As a teacher in the Church, I have been asked these questions more frequently than any other: “How do I get answers to prayers? How can I strengthen my relationship with my Father in Heaven?” It is evident that there is a natural hunger in the souls of God’s children to commune privately with their Heavenly Father. All of our lives we can be learning how to do this more effectively. I have found it beneficial to take a close look at the First Vision.
So many of our experiences are echoes of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s search for truth. His words may be similar to our own: “If any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know” (JS—H 1:12). He wanted a “certain conclusion” and was concerned about “settling the question” (JS—H 1:8, 12). To whom may we turn when we need conclusions, wisdom, or settled questions? Perhaps the first step in obtaining wisdom is to understand the character of God as it is implied in James 1:5. The key words in that scripture are “giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.”
When I was younger, I often read Jesus’ promise regarding prayer: “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them” (Mark 11:24). I thought this meant I would get what I wanted if I simply believed strongly enough. But there was always a doubt in my mind, and I felt the doubt showed lack of faith. I knew the Lord could grant my requests, but would He? I was trying to manufacture faith in a request instead of in the grantor of the request. While our requests of God may be righteous, our faith must be in a being, and that being is merciful and kind and delights in the happiness of His children. We have the assurance that the Father we address in prayer “giveth liberally.” But there are also times when all we desire is not granted. Knowing the character of our Father in Heaven, we can be assured in these cases that His wisdom is best, and we demonstrate our continued faith in Him by accepting His answers.
Sometimes we come close to Him at moments that are painful. Two summers ago in a moment of inattention, my 14-year-old son got his foot caught in the blade of the lawn mower. In a second, his toes were severed. While he lay on the ground bleeding, waiting for a friend to find his earthly parents, his thoughts turned to another Parent, and he prayed, “Father in Heaven, please help the pain go away until I can get to the hospital.” When I reached my boy a few minutes later, he was lying calmly on the lawn. The pain had been initially taken away and did not return until we arrived at the hospital, where he could be treated. One of the lessons of that experience for me was the assurance that it was not unique. This is a small example of what thousands of people could attest to, that they have received help when they turned to our Heavenly Father in moments of extremity.
Though my young son’s experience may not be one that I or his Father in Heaven would have chosen for him, I have prayed that each of my children would have an experience by which they might know the reality of their Eternal Father’s love. The answers have come in different ways for each child, but there is a similarity in the life-changing power that these experiences produce. As children continue to call upon their Father, a confident humility, born of a sense of their kinship with Deity, begins to grow in them. They are kinder to one another as they see how God has been kind to them. They are more willing to seek out and follow His counsel, knowing it will come.
I have noticed my children more drawn to the truths of the scriptures, sensing that many answers to present and future prayers are recorded there. The things of the world seem to appear less attractive to them, dimmed by the light of the reality of a personal God who is aware of them. Moses experienced this life-transforming reality when the Lord spoke to him face-to-face, calling him “my son” (Moses 1:6). When Lucifer later tempted the prophet, he replied, “I will not cease to call upon God, I have other things to inquire of him: for his glory has been upon me, wherefore I can judge between him and thee. Depart hence, Satan” (Moses 1:18).
When we are recipients of anyone’s compassion, especially that of our Heavenly Father, we experience a refinement and softening of our character. In the first chapter of Ether, the brother of Jared offered three recorded prayers, each of which was granted. In every case we read that the Lord “had compassion” (Ether 1:35, 37, 40) upon Jared and his family or friends. It is critical as we seek our Father in Heaven that we understand that we address a being who is filled with compassion.
Before he went into the Sacred Grove, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s “mind was called up to serious reflection” (JS—H 1:8). I believe our Heavenly Father anticipates that we will reflect seriously about the concerns we bring to Him. This lesson was taught to the brother of Jared when the Lord asked him to ponder the problem of light in the barges (see Ether 2:22–25; Ether 3:1–6; Ether 6:2–3). Sometimes when I pray, I can imagine the Lord saying, “What do you think about the matter?” There is something very humbling in knowing He really does care what we think. Perhaps this is what Alma meant when he taught his son Helaman to “counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good” (Alma 37:37; emphasis added). Serious reflection allows me to bring something to our counseling session when I approach my Father in prayer.
The Prophet Joseph Smith also indicated that his feelings “were deep and often poignant” (JS—H 1:8). I am impressed by the word deep. It is used elsewhere in the scriptures to describe a certain hunger for communication with God. Enos said that “the words … concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.
“And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker” (Enos 1:3–4; emphasis added).
The Prophet Joseph Smith tells us that when he knelt down in the Sacred Grove he “began to offer up the desires of [his] heart to God” (JS—H 1:15). The 12 chosen Nephite disciples “did not multiply many words, … and they were filled with desire” (3 Ne. 19:24). Speaking to the Lord, the brother of Jared observed “that from thee we may receive according to our desires” (Ether 3:2). We sing “prayer is the soul’s sincere desire” (Hymns, no. 145). It seems almost self-evident that we should offer God our desires, but occasionally, for various reasons, we may find ourselves hesitating to express our deepest feelings.
Of course, not all of our petitions are granted, for we also address a God of wisdom. Jesus introduced the Lord’s Prayer with this comment: “Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him” (3 Ne. 13:8; Matt. 6:8; emphasis added). We know our desires; He knows our needs. It would be wonderful if our desires and our needs were always one and the same, but unfortunately this is not the case. That is why we must “counsel with the Lord” and then pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (3 Ne. 13:10; see also Matt. 6:10). Understanding that our Father in Heaven knows our needs, we can do as Hannah did after pouring out her soul to God that He would grant her a son. “So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad” (1 Sam. 1:18). She had put her desires in the Lord’s hands, trusting His goodness and wisdom.
When life’s answers don’t match our expectations, it is important to realize that the Lord “doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world” (2 Ne. 26:24). And at a more individual level, Jesus taught, “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?” (Luke 11:11). When one needs bread, a stone is a useless thing. A serpent is a harmful thing. The Lord does not give stones or serpents, only bread and fish.
As I approached my 19th birthday, I prayed fervently that the Lord would call me to Denmark on a mission. My grandfather, uncle, and cousin had all gone to Denmark. I also prayed that I would not go to France, even though I had studied four years of French. When I opened the call, it said France. I served two years in France and loved the French people, their culture and language, and the wonderful members. The Lord had not given me a stone; He gave me bread. I discovered a few years after returning home that I had French ancestors. I find myself expressing gratitude often to my Father in Heaven for allowing me the wonderful opportunity of serving the French people and experiencing as much joy in my French heritage as I do in my Danish.
If the answers to our pleadings do not come when we feel we most need them, let us remember that young Joseph Smith did not see the pillar of light until after “exerting all [his] powers to call upon God” and only “at the very moment when [he] was ready to sink into despair and abandon [himself] to destruction” (JS—H 1:16). This was on the occasion when he prayed vocally for the first time in his life (see JS—H 1:14). The Lord surely hears all our prayers, the silent and the spoken, but there is a concentration of purpose that often accompanies vocal prayer. I have discovered in my own life that those times when I most deeply express my feelings and thoughts, I find myself, without consciously thinking about it, praying vocally.
While trying to come to a “certain conclusion,” the boy Joseph had searched the scriptures for answers. Though he did not find in them the specific answer he sought, he received guidance on how to get that answer. It seems that there are two parts to private prayer: speaking and listening. Sometimes the answers come even as we pray, but more often they come according to the Lord’s own time, place, and circumstance. Quite frequently they come through the scriptures. Most often when we pray, we expect to speak while God listens. When we read the scriptures, God speaks and we are invited to listen.
A few years ago a young woman in our ward who had recently graduated from high school was invited to go to Russia to teach English to young children. Communication between her and her parents would be sporadic at best. Her father was concerned that there would be times she would need advice or comfort and he would not be there to give it. He pondered on the many situations, emotions, and needs she might encounter while away and then wrote a number of letters covering each situation. These he sealed in envelopes, labeling each one. When she left, she took her father’s counsel and love with her. The scriptures are like those letters. Our Father in Heaven has placed within their pages many answers. They contain certain conclusions and wisdom. They can direct us how to act. They can settle many questions. In this way the scriptures fulfill the Lord’s promise that “before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear” (Isa. 65:24).
One of the greatest lessons I have learned from the First Vision is the need to act on the answers God gives us. The Lord can shape and transform our lives when we are willing to respond. But when He answers, will we believe? Can we meet the challenges the answer may bring? Are we willing to testify of the truths we receive? Will we follow the Lord’s counsel? Our responses to these questions largely determine the life-changing efficacy of our communication with our Father in Heaven.
The Lord’s answer to young Joseph Smith put him on the path that eventually led to Carthage, but the Lord knew the future prophet would pay that price. In spite of a lifetime of severe persecution, the Prophet Joseph Smith “continued to affirm that [he] had seen a vision” (JS—H 1:27). He wrote: “Why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it” (JS—H 1:25).
The Lord taught this principle to Oliver Cowdery when he revealed: “Behold, I have manifested unto you, by my Spirit in many instances, that the things which you have written are true; wherefore you know that they are true.
“And if you know that they are true, behold, I give unto you a commandment, that you rely upon the things which are written” (D&C 18:2–3; emphasis added).
Our willingness to act with faith before the answer comes helps to bring the desired assurances of our Father in Heaven. The Lord once asked the brother of Jared, “Believest thou the words which I shall speak?” When the brother of Jared responded, “Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth” (Ether 3:11–12), the Lord granted his request.
We worship a personal God who is our Father. Let us approach Him with the deepest respect, for as Isaiah wrote, God is He “who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance” (Isa. 40:12).
Yet this God of majesty is pleased when His children individually and humbly approach Him “evening, and morning, and at noon, … and cry aloud” (Ps. 55:17). He delights in answering them, for “he heareth the prayer of the righteous” (Prov. 15:29).
Invite family members to tell what they know about Joseph Smith’s first prayer. Talk about possible answers to the two questions in the second paragraph.
Use the section headings to introduce the main points of this article. Ask family members to tell what they have learned by experience about receiving answers to prayer.
Show a stone and some bread. Ask family members what they think these objects have to do with prayer. Review the author’s mission call story. How did he compare these objects to prayer? Read Luke 11:11 and 2 Ne. 26:24 and share a similar experience from your life.