and the Joy of Heaven
by James T. Summerhays
Joseph Smith taught, “Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience…Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.” [i]
Despite the fact that this joy cannot be described adequately, scripture provides clues as to what it is like, how intense it is, and how it acts upon a person. As we piece together these few hints, we are able to see a clearer picture — and therefore gain a greater respect for the sublime state of rapture that might be ours if we are worthy of exaltation. It is, after all, human nature to seek after an object more vigorously when we know something of the reward.
An example of this intense joy is found in the story of the conversion of King Lamoni. After Ammon had tended the royal flocks so faithfully, and after he expounded to the king the great plan of redemption, King Lamoni “began to cry unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, have mercy; according to thy abundant mercy which thou hast had upon the people of Nephi, have upon me, and my people. And now, when he had said this, he fell unto the earth, as if he were dead (Alma 18:41-42).
The queen was concerned, because the people were ready to place King Lamoni’s body in a sepulchre. She told Ammon all the circumstances of his falling to the earth, and pled with Ammon to help. Evidently, nothing could make Ammon happier than this bad news. “Now, this was what Ammon desired, for he knew that king Lamoni was under the power of God; he knew that the dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from his mind, and the light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was a marvelous light of his goodness — yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul… that this had overcome his natural frame, and he was carried away in God” (Alma 19:6).
Ammon then explained to the queen that King Lamoni would rise on the morrow; he was not dead, but merely was in a godly sleep. The next day, at the appointed time, King Lamoni arose. With the power and dignity of one whose spirit had just returned from heavenly delights, he prophesied concerning the Redeemer that would come into the world. At his own prophecies, his heart was bursting with joy and he again fell to the earth. His wife, the queen, was also overcome with the joy of the Spirit and fell to the earth. At this, Ammon “fell upon his knees, and began to pour out his soul in prayer and thanksgiving to God for what he had done for his brethren; and he was also overpowered with joy; and thus they all three had sunk to the earth” (Alma 19:14).
What is going on here? What is with all this fainting? The scriptural example is almost humorous. We think of joy as a smile on our face and a general sense of well-being, but when God unleashes his joy upon them, they are flopping to the earth as if they are dead. [ii]
The scriptures speak of a heavenly joy so sublime that it cannot be described in mere words; hence it is designated as “unspeakable.”
Peter foretells of a day when, upon the appearance of Jesus Christ, the Saints will “rejoice with joy unspeakable,” and that this joy will be “full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8). In my mind’s eye, the phrase “joy which is unspeakable and full of glory” (Hel. 5:44) evokes an image of a joy that flows like a speeding and powerful current through the body and causes the recipient to spontaneously burst into a luminous aurora of flame and light.
I really do not know if it is the joy that causes the glory, or the glory that causes the joy, or if they are perfectly integrated — the heavenly physics of cause and effect are not really the concern here. The point is to show that first, there is a connection between joy and glory, and second, the sheer intensity of godly glory gives some indication of the sheer intensity of godly joy.
Notice the connection as Joseph Smith describes the First Vision: “I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee. He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God.” [iii]
Joseph had trouble finding words to describe the transcendental nature of the First Vision in more respects than one. In the earliest account, written in his own hand, he describes the glory of God as fire, but finding that word lacking, fire is crossed out, and in a classic example of Joseph’s taste for understatement, he simply settles on the word light. [iv]
The other accounts of the First Vision, however, confirm that it was not by any means ordinary light. In his 1835 account, Joseph intimates that he was fascinated to see that the flame did not altogether consume everything it touched. [v]
In the 1840 account, we see how Joseph worried that the intensity of the light would make it impossible for him to survive:
And, while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God, he, at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around, was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hope of being able to endure its presence.Joseph did endure its presence, but not without it having an exhausting (though gracious) effect on his system: “The vision then vanished, and when I came to myself, I was sprawling on my back and it was some time before my strength returned.” [vi] Evidently the joy was also deeply infused into his soul: “And my soul was filled with love [and] for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me.” [vii]
Though Joseph had difficulty describing the joy and glory of God, the effect it had on his body and spirit tells us more than words or swelling bravado ever could.
Another of the most celebrated visions in church history is the vision of the three degrees of glory, written of in section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph and Sidney Rigdon viewed the vision at the same time. Twelve men were present during the vision. One of these, Philo Dibble, wrote of what he saw:
Joseph would, at intervals, say: “What do I see?” as one might say while looking out the window and beholding what all in the room could not see. Then he would relate what he had seen or what he was looking at. Then Sidney replied, “I see the same.” Presently Sidney would say “What do I see?” and would repeat what he had seen or was seeing, and Joseph would reply, “I see the same.”At first thought, it seems a little strange that such a glorious vision would cause Sidney such trauma. Sidney saw the glory of the Father and the Son, and saw numerous angels worshipping God. One would suppose that such a joyful scene would be an invigorating experience. But Sidney was new to the powers of heaven. The joy and glory was so potent, it overcame his constitution. His faculties were rendered useless.
Dramatic examples in scripture and Church history can be multiplied, but few illustrations give greater perspective than that of Moses on the Mount — not only because he, too, flops to the earth, but also because we gain some insight into the infinite nature of God’s joy.
When God appears to Moses face to face, Moses is transfigured and changed somehow in order to endure God’s presence and joy. Apparently the unprepared body cannot taste too much of this joy, just as the natural man cannot look upon God and his glory and live to tell about it.
God bids Moses,
“Look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease.” Moses looks and beholds a panoramic vision of “the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered. And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth. And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:4, 8-10).Moses is left without strength for hours; he marvels at the magnitude of God’s work; he sees in contrast that man is nothing; and yet with it all, we discover that Moses was given only a small portion of God’s glory. “Wherefore, no man can behold all my works, except he behold all my glory; and no man can behold all my glory, and afterwards remain in the flesh on the earth” (Moses 1:5). It is easy to miss the significance of the message here; even with the meekness of Moses, or the pure heart of Job, or the faith of Enoch, not to mention the fact that all visionaries must be transfigured from their already virtuous (though natural) state, they can partake of but a fraction of God’s joy and glory.
The nature of glory and joy that the Father possesses is more sublime than we could ever suppose. It is not of this earth. It does not abide by the same laws. It does not have the same boundaries. It is infinite and therefore incomprehensible to us. However, through the scriptures we have a glimpse of its unsurpassed desirability.
With some small working knowledge of this resplendent happiness, what extraordinary incentive we have to live valiant and upright lives. Like a method actor, we have found our motivation.
The stakes in this play, however, are higher; the stakes are between infinite joy and a limited joy throughout eternity. In light of what we might receive if we live the godly life, it seems like a vast understatement when the Lord declares, “Wherefore, fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full” (D&C 101:36).
We cannot receive it all now. We must grow into the light line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little (see 2 Ne. 28:30). “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24).
Let our whole souls, therefore, cling to what future joys and infinite fires might be, for thus is the promise: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
[i] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected and arranged by Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976), p. 324. [back]
[ii] See also Alma 27:16-18 [back]
[iii] Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2d ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 159. [back]
[iv] Joseph Smith, Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. 1, edited by Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989), 6 [back]
[v] Dean C. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820¬–1844, John W. Welch, ed. (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2005), 8. [back]
[vi] Welch, Opening the Heavens, 25. [back]
[vii] Welch, Opening the Heavens, 7. [back]
[viii] Juvenile Instructor, vol. 27 (15 May 1892), 303-4. [back]
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