In consequence of these things, I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections; when, on the evening of the above-mentioned twenty-first of September, after I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him; for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one.
--Joseph Smith - History 1:29
Joseph approached God with a need and a question. He knew he needed forgiveness for having given in many times to weakness and temptation. He felt he had not lived up to God's expectations of him following the supernal revelation of the First Vision. He had certainly not lived up to his own expectations. So, his need, acutely felt, was forgiveness.
I have this same need. I know I do not live up to God's desires for me, and as I strive imperfectly to keep the commandments and my covenants, I am not meeting my own expectations. Whether I recognize and feel godly sorrow for my imperfections is determined by my humility and my attenuation to the Holy Spirit. Because I am serious in my desires for discipleship, my imperfections drive me to prayer.
Joseph's question was about his standing before God. He wanted to know, despite his mistakes, if he was still acceptable to God and if God still wanted to use him. Had he messed up so bad and procrastinated so long that God had turned away from him? Had he lost his chance to build a lasting relationship with God? This was not a passing curiosity. It was not just one of a hundred things Joseph thought about each day. It had become his primary focus, the question that vexed him the most. He needed to know more than anything else if he was lost or still salvageable.
My quest for faith and spirituality is faltering but sincere. Thus, I am also vexed from time to time with a question similar to Joseph's. For all my efforts and despite all my failures, how am I doing? Am I at least on the right path and leaning in the right direction? Have I made so many mistakes that I am lost? Am I broken beyond repair? Have I made so many wrong turns that I can never reach the goal God set for me in the beginning? Have I wasted my life? That's a tough question for a seventeen-year-old. It is an excruciating question for a sixty-nine-year-old.
One other thing to note about this prayer experience of the young prophet-to-be: unlike his experience in the grove where he was alone and could speak out loud, he was not alone in his attic bedroom with his brothers sleeping peacefully next to him only inches away. He could not pray vocally. He did not say whether he knelt by his bed or simply stretched out under his comfy quilt. Yet his heartfelt, silent prayer penetrated the heavens just as effectively as had his spoken prayer three years earlier.
Joseph showed that the form of prayer is not as important as the content and intention of prayer, supported by faith and confidence in God's ability to hear and answer. Joseph's narration indicated his expectation of an immediate response. He was not being impatient (although what seventeen-year-old has an abundance of patience?), but he felt that an answer would be forthcoming.
He humbly and sincerely recognized his shortcomings and did not try to hide them. He desired to repent. He understood his need for forgiveness and grace. And he had a legitimate, burning question, the answer to which he was fully committed to obey. He seemingly had no other plan, no alternative strategy, no fallback position. He was willing to be all-in if God still wanted him.
I can pray the same kind of prayer if I put in the same kind of preparation and exercise the same kind of faith. Vocal or silent, alone in a lovely grove or surrounded by a crowd, if my heart is right, if I am humble, if I am willing to confess my faults and truly want to change, if I will accept God's grace and stop trying to save myself, if I bring to God my most burning, fundamental question, and if I cry to Him with the full intention of accepting and obeying whatever His answer for me is—if I am all-in with my faith and hope—God will hear and answer. Immediately. Instantly. Unequivocally. Directly. Unmistakably. And to my total satisfaction. I will know what I need to know.
It is up to me, then, to act on that knowledge.