Once as a young teenager my uncle and his family traveled from Utah to my home in California to give a spiritual message from the history of my church. My uncle is Steven Harper, a college professor and historian of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He came and spoke to our church’s youth group about the First Vision and the events leading up to it. Overall it was a compelling lecture-sermon, but there was one particular point that struck me with powerful force.
Steven began by recounting Joseph Smith’s family history with religion and the divine breadcrumbs that guided them to the restoration of the gospel. He went on to set the scene of the Sacred Grove, starting with Joseph’s prayer and then of Satan’s dreadful, reciprocal influence. He recalled that in the pivotal moment of climax, Joseph made an active choice—a choice that ultimately encapsulates his character: he called out for God. And then miraculously, Joseph’s God appeared to him and called him by name. Then for a moment, my uncle paused to make this statement:
“God knows your name.”
I doubt that was the first time someone had ever said that to me. It’s already implied whenever your Sunday-School teacher mechanically rings out the Christian mantra: “Jesus loves you!” But it’s said so often and so ubiquitously that it can sometimes seem trite or impersonal. When my uncle declared that idea, it impacted me deeply. God knew me. In a time of my life when I felt so small and inherently wrong, God knew my name and knew my story and loved me.
That’s all I have ever really wanted: to know God and to have him know me.
I want to be with him and I want him to want to be with me. This is why I’m a member of this church. I’m convinced that my membership will help me know/remember him better and thus be more like him.
The First Vision encapsulates what I love most about the gospel: revelation, the God-to-child relationship, opportunity for growth and change, hope, progression, being a part of something bigger than yourself, being with God, knowing him, and him knowing me.
The First Vision is the most intimately documented record we have of God the Father making direct contact with a human. Some of the biggest secular criticisms of God the Father from his own children are that he is distant, inaccessible, and unfeeling. The First Vision breaks down those walls. We’re blessed to have countless examples of the Son of Man reaching out to bless, succor, heal, teach, and sacrifice everything for the welfare of mankind. The First Vision shows us that God the Father is, of course, equally interested in our ragged humanity. He traversed space and time to personally answer a farm-boy, his young son.
His Only Begotten Son had already come to the earth and performed the unthinkable, incredible sacrifice and established the path leading us back home. But then that path gradually faded away in the deaths of those who had sustained it. All that was left was darkness and confusion, just fragments of truth with the occasional spark of light. Apostasy, the governing entity of that phase in human history, is hell in a mortal timeline. How many tears had led to this Restoration? How many of the enslaved, beaten, or abused had cried out “Where is God?” How many had suffered under tyrants both political and religious? How much affliction had seemingly passed without notice?
This was his answer: his soul-saving gospel first executed, and now restored by the Son he was willing to sacrifice for our benefit. After millennia of waiting, the time had finally come.
Now in addition to being accessible, he was tangible. An exalted God, beyond description, yet in a human form—His form. A being who is not dead, but alive, active, involved, glorified, and communicative. His first action was to lovingly call out his son’s name, and introduce him to his Heavenly Brother-God, the only one who can bridge the gulf that separates them:
“Joseph, this is my beloved son. Hear him.” JSH version
To which the Son answers:
“Joseph my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.” 1832 version
How like the Son of God to have his first expression be that of mercy. It suggests that beyond answers, Joseph was quietly seeking forgiveness. And the Christ, astutely and lovingly perceptive of his sibling’s needs, initiated the conversation by tearing down the only breach between them, because that is the nature of both God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. The Father wanted his children back, and so he acted in perfect unity with and through his Son.
The Atonement is mind-boggling and difficult to grasp and universal and intimate and lonely. It’s staggering to think that God the Son could suffer intimately and infinitely for all human beings ever created. In this particular moment, God is reaching out to Joseph, the one child. A scene like this is a little easier for my mind to comprehend. Even though the Restoration had implications for all creation, the discussion began with a very intimate affirmation of Joseph’s personal, honest desires. Jesus then went on to answer the other question of Joseph’s heart: where could he consistently go to know God?
The First Vision teaches me that God knows me and will go to extraordinary lengths to connect with me. When I go to him, he doesn’t just hear my fumbled words. He reads my neurons like a map and anticipates everything I could ever do or say, but still loves to see the sparkle of my eye as I say it. The First Vision teaches me that God won’t answer a question like a crystal ball. He will teach me about him and about myself, and then endow me with a challenge of purpose: “can you be what I created you to be?”
To conclude, I’ll share my all-time favorite quote on prayer below:
“Throughout his life, Joseph Smith would turn to God in prayer to seek the help and guidance he needed. A Church member recalled hearing him pray in Kirtland, Ohio, at a time of great personal difficulty: ‘Never until then had I heard a man address his Maker as though He was present listening as a kind father would listen to the sorrows of a dutiful child. … There was no ostentation, no raising of the voice as by enthusiasm, but a plain conversational tone, as a man would address a present friend. It appeared to me as though, in case the veil were taken away, I could see the Lord standing facing His humblest of all servants I had ever seen.’”
The purpose of life is to know God. The miracle is that we can.