The Path and the Tree.January 1, 2012
I recently finished reading the Book of Mormon. I plan to do so again this year for purposes of our Gospel Doctrine class study. I have a testimony that the Book of Mormon is the word of God and has come to us exactly as Joseph Smith testified. By assignment, I would like to talk about some things I find very important in the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon.
We have wonderful symbolism in the scriptures. Symbolism uses familiar ideas to help us learn concepts that are less familiar but very important. Symbolism often makes it easier for us to understand and implement gospel principles in our lives. In ancient scriptures it is sometimes hard to distinguish symbolic representations from historical accounts. This uncertainty shouldn’t matter because the lessons are the same either way – the lessons we are intended to learn from ancient scriptures generally don’t depend on whether something ‘really happened.’ Using symbols is a loving way to present difficult but important lessons to someone (such as us) who might not understand the lessons any other way. We can move toward actually knowing the truth of all things as we learn the lessons of the scriptures with the help of symbolism.
The Strait and Narrow Path.
In one repeating symbol, the scriptures describe a path that we should follow - a strait and narrow path leading eventually to the Celestial Kingdom. To get to the Celestial Kingdom we must get on this path and stay on it until our mortal journey is finished. Sometimes the path is referred to as the ‘way.’ In geometry, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. So it is with scriptural paths - the straighter the path, the shorter the distance to the Gospel goal.
At the beginning of the strait and narrow path is a gate through which we must pass to get on the path. We understand this gate to be repentance and baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is no other way to get onto the path except by going through this gate, which means becoming worthily associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through conversion, repentance, and baptism. After learning the gospel, we must freely choose to enter the gate by repenting and being baptized. Only an authorized ordinance, performed by an authorized priesthood holder, will do the job.
Going through the gate by baptism puts us on the path that we must then travel. Being baptized gets us into the Church, but getting into the Celestial Kingdom requires a life of striving to keep the commandments and repenting, as needed. We have been commanded to ‘endure to the end.’ An important part of enduring to the end is being a lifelong, faithful, loyal member of the true Church we joined to get on the path. We don’t have to be perfect (something impossible for us in this life), but we should be striving towards this goal, knowing the Savior’s atonement will make up what we lack. We can’t choose to go nowhere; there is no ‘time out’ permitted. We are either on the strait and narrow path or on some other path.
At the far end of the strait and narrow path there is another gate; this second gate is an entrance to where we will be after this life – eventually the Celestial Kingdom if we are faithful. We understand the Savior himself guards this gate, and he employs no servant there. In order to get through this gate, we must be able to satisfy the Lord that we deserve to be in the Celestial Kingdom. Because of his attribute of justice, the Lord will not let us into the Celestial Kingdom unless, with the help of the atonement, we are worthy to be there; as part of his attribute of mercy, the Lord will not let us in unless our conscience is such that we would feel comfortable being there – that is, unless our confidence would be strong in the presence of God and those worthy to be with him. Appropriate humility won’t prevent us from seeing ourselves as we really are, entering paradise, and feeling comfortable with our spiritual peers as we complete our eternal journey.
The Prophet Joseph Smith instructed that there is much for the righteous to learn and do following this life. We could characterize this post-mortal process as another path. Just as we must be baptized to get on the mortal path, so we must qualify, through choices and actions, to continue along the post-mortal path to the Celestial Kingdom. Those who are admitted through the Savior’s gate at the end of life will have demonstrated they can be trusted to learn and implement the principles of godliness and to have a productive eternity. However, following this life we will still be ourselves, so the more good characteristics and habits we acquire in this life, the better.
Since there is only one path leading to the Celestial Kingdom, we need to be sure we are not on the wrong path. There are many other paths, but only one strait and narrow path. Someone has said: ‘If you don't change direction, you will arrive where you are headed.’ If we are on a path that leads somewhere other than to the Celestial Kingdom, then we will reach some other destination unless we change our path and direction. Over time, a slightly wrong heading will lead to a destination far from our goal. Even if we start on the right path, we will veer off in the wrong direction unless we pay close attention and make necessary course corrections as we go through continuous, conscious attention to the journey.
The temporal length of the strait and narrow path is determined by the length of our lives after we are baptized. Following the scripture’s admonition to endure to the end will keep us on the path and lead us to the gate the Savior guards, when we die. Plus, the sooner we get on the path the better, because the spiritual progress we make along the path will benefit us in the life to come.
The Tree of Life.
In the Book of Mormon, Lehi's dream of the tree of life and the path leading to that tree provides wonderful symbolism that can strengthen our understanding of the strait and narrow path. Also, Nephi had a vision about his father’s dream which helps illuminate these symbols and the intended lessons.
Lehi’s path led to a tree of life which we are told represents the love of God. When Nephi was shown his father’s dream, his version included instruction on the birth, baptism, ministry, example, and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ as an integral part of the lesson. The Savior’s life and atonement are also integral and foundational to our understanding of the tree of life and the path we must follow to reach it. The Savior’s life and atonement make the path to eternal life possible, setting its course, and establishing its standards. Under the direction of the Savior, with the covenants and saving ordinances of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the process of faithful Church activity defines for each member the path we must be devotedly traveling.
We learn from Lehi and Nephi that after we get on the path, there is an ‘iron rod’ we can grasp parallel to the path, like a banister next to a stairway. The iron rod guides the way to the tree of life. We are told the iron rod symbolizes the word of God and his love. For us, the word of God is found in the scriptures, in the Church magazines, and in the general conference addresses of our leaders. God’s word can also come to us through the quiet voice of the Holy Ghost. We can stay on the path by holding onto the word of God, or in other words, by keeping the commandments, heeding the counsel of the brethren, saying our prayers, and staying active in the Church.
As we travel the path, the love of God becomes increasingly manifest in our lives as we qualify ourselves to receive it and sensitize ourselves to feel it. A ‘law of increasing returns’ applies – the better we do, the more divine help we receive to help us do even better. We are told if we don’t keep the commandments, we will lose the right to receive spiritual help. This isn’t unfair; it implements the eternal law of the harvest – you are rewarded for the good you do and you lose blessings when you do what you shouldn’t do.
Lehi's dream teaches us a number of things about the journey along the strait and narrow path. In his dream, Lehi first followed a man in a white robe who led him through a dark and dreary wasteland. At times, our path may be covered with symbolic, or even real, thorns and sharp rocks. From the Prophet Joseph Smith we learn that those who come to us from the Father to help us along the strait and narrow path are dressed in white, as are our church leaders when they dedicate the Lord’s temples. These are examples of those who will help us stay on our path, just as the man in white guided Lehi through the wasteland. Also, if we are worthily on the path, we can follow another leader, the pure and reliable Holy Ghost.
In addition to the image of the tree of life in Lehi’s and Nephi’s visions, we know there was also a tree of life in the description of the Garden of Eden occurring in several places in our scriptures. Adam and Eve were given the fruit of their tree of life to help sustain them in the Garden. There was also a tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were told they would be subject to mortality and death if they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and that is exactly what happened to them; they were cast out of the Garden after they ate the forbidden fruit. There was a clear commandment with a stated consequence, which was enforced when Adam and Eve disobeyed. But Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden actually was a very merciful thing, since they needed the opportunity to repent before they again partook of the fruit of the tree of life.
All of what happened in the Garden of Eden was an important part of the Father’s plan put into effect by the Savior. We sometimes have trouble understanding why God gave Adam and Eve a commandment he knew needed to be disobeyed in order to get the Plan of Salvation under way. We know that every mortal process in the Plan of Salvation needed to take place outside the Garden of Eden. Apparently, opposition in all things included opposition in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve’s decision-making in the Garden, no doubt aided by the Light of Christ, was apparently something important for them to do in order to prepare for the gift of knowledge of good and evil, and for the shock of mortality, after they left the garden. Adam and Eve and their children needed to learn to walk the strait and narrow path by faith, outside the presence of deity. Adam and Eve and their children needed to learn there are serious consequences to sin and transgression.
The Father knows that, over time and through mortality, all his children (except the Savior) will disobey his commandments from time to time; this is not a defect in the plan but a part of it. Thus, setting a process in which Adam and Eve transgressed in the Garden of Eden was not a defect or oversight in the Father’s plan, but a key part of the plan, leading to the need for, and role of, the Savior and his atonement.
The Lord’s atonement, along with His birth and resurrection, were the greatest events that ever happened. Adam and Eve were required to make a consequential choice which they made as best they could, using the spiritual tools they then possessed. The Father’s plan allowed them to repent of their transgression, repent and become entirely clean through the atonement, and then get on with their mortal lives. They were not somehow short-changed by a divine dilemma.
Before they could get back to the tree of life, Adam and Eve were required to learn to distinguish good from evil based on their choices and experiences. Partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil didn’t give them perfect knowledge; rather, the consequence of their transgression enabled them to progressively learn from their own experience in a place where there is opposition in all things. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the original days, Adam and Eve were baptized and aided by the precious Gift of the Holy Ghost. As it does for us, the Savior’s atonement enabled our first parents to repent of their sins when they chose poorly. So, like us, Adam and Eve were required to get on the strait and narrow path (repent and be baptized), grasp the iron rod (follow the word of God), and then work their way along the path, making choices with the help of the Spirit, relying upon the Savior, in order to get back to the tree of life. It was a difficult process for them, just as it is a difficult process for us. The same Plan of Happiness in effect for us was in effect for them. Adam and Eve succeeded and so can we.
Mansions vs. Buildings.
In his dream, Lehi saw a large and spacious building representing the pride of the world. It was on the far side of a great and terrible gulf separating the righteous from the wicked. Having no foundation, this building floated in the air. This awful building is symbolic of the destination of all the wrong paths, the place where the wicked go. People who refused to get on the strait and narrow path ended up in the large and spacious building, as did people who started out on the strait and narrow path but failed to hold onto the iron rod and thus strayed. When the mists of darkness inevitably came, as they surely will in our lives, those who were not holding on to the rod of iron lost their way. Sadly, even some of those who successfully arrived at the tree of life later went astray, giving up the riches of eternity for nothing but fleeting gratification in return. This is why enduring to the end is so important; we’ve never ‘arrived’ to the point where we don’t need to keep striving – no such point exists. The tree of life isn’t the same as the gate to the Celestial Kingdom, but a welcome, strengthening, way-station on the path.
The people in the large and spacious building made fun of the people traveling along the strait and narrow path. Some who were traveling along the path cared what the wicked thought about them, while those who stayed true at the tree of life ignored the taunting. So can we ignore the worldly. Plus, we can more easily avoid giving heed to those who point and jeer at our righteousness when we travel together with friends and family along the path, listening to the Word. Once we get used to being church members, we realize there is nothing to be embarrassed about in being a good person and keeping the commandments.
It is important to distinguish the large and spacious building in Lehi’s dream from the Father’s many mansions in the Celestial Kingdom, prepared for the righteous. The rewards in the Celestial Kingdom’s mansions, to be enjoyed after attaining the tree of life and after entering the gate guarded by the Savior himself, are more exquisitely good than we can imagine. All the Father has can be ours if we successfully negotiate the path to the mansions above; Father gladly shares it all with us and we will gladly share it all with all the righteous souls who join us there. We are only asked to do things that will make us happy; the only things we are asked to avoid are things that will make us unhappy. The promise is that we will gain all that the Father has by keeping the commandments.
There is no floating around in the Father’s mansions - instead we will enjoy stability, peace, and happiness with our eternal families, lasting forever. The Father’s mansions have a foundation in the gospel of Jesus Christ, with an earthly structure of prophets, apostles, leaders, and faithful Church members who help us along the path, with Jesus Christ being the chief corner stone.
The scriptures are very clear describing the devil's building as a place of heartbreak, for he seeks to make all souls miserable like he is. This is what all the shouting and confusion are about in the bad building. The destination of all paths except the strait and narrow path is misery. Just as the beauties of life testify there is a God, so do the evil things of life testify there is a devil who, pursuant to the Plan of Happiness, is allowed to provide opposition in all things. We can learn from our own experiences that bad conduct leads to bad results. You can’t have opposition in all things without having the effects and consequences of the opposition.
The spacious building is not a place of peace or freedom, but the opposite . It is a place where the consequences and bondage of sin are immediately manifest and forever confining. If you think keeping the commandments is hard, think how hard it will be to everlastingly realize the happiness you have lost by taking some other, more expedient, ‘easier’ path.
If we are not on the right path at the end of our mortal journey, it doesn’t make much difference how much time we have spent on the path prior to the end. Latter-day Saints who fall off the path face very serious consequences. In the physical world, the farther we fall off a ladder, the more damaging the impact. On the path to eternal life, we make covenants that bind us to the Lord and require faithful obedience. A fall from church activity and the breaking of covenants by a Church member is a serious sin against the light illuminating the path, and takes the sinner far from the path, unless and until completely remedied. Any time you are crossways with the Church, its leaders, teachings, or commandments you are headed off the path.
It is possible for a church member who has strayed to return to the strait and narrow path and the tree of life. To do so, one must sincerely repent, put off everything having to do with the evil paths, and then get on the strait and narrow path, hold onto the rod of iron, and continue through the mists of darkness to the tree of life and beyond. There are no shortcuts back across the terrible gulf for those who have strayed from the path. The process of repentance may be difficult, but drinking the living water refreshes us as we travel back to the path.
Many of us got on the path by being baptized when we were children. The repentant person who joins the Church as an adult must become like a little child to be worthy to receive baptism. When a person who is already a member of the church needs to repent, he or she doesn’t get to be baptized again but can become as clean as a newly baptized child, through application of the Savior’s atonement, after repenting. This is one of the many beauties of the Gospel. The familiar steps of repentance lead up to the path, but those steps must be individually climbed. Happily, there are loving bishops and other Church members on the path to help lift and encourage those who have sinned and are working to return. Some of our greatest scriptural leaders were once ‘sinners’ who got back on the path (e.g., Alma the Younger), so the positive prospects of repenting and getting back on the path should be very encouraging.
As fallible humans, our progress may have some zigs and zags. If we get onto a different, forbidden path we need to take immediate remedial action. The longer we head in the wrong direction towards the wrong place, the more we will have to do to change, once we decide to get back on the right path. In life, if we want to get home, but have started driving the wrong direction, then the sooner we turn around and start driving towards home the better. The longer we drive in the wrong direction, the longer it will take us to get home, after we turn around. The sooner we repent the better because, as President Monson has recently reminded us, we never know how soon will be too late. This life is the time to repent.
We also risk falling off the path if we choose to walk near the edge. The idea or feeling to do something wrong is what a temptation is; we need to recognize that temptations come from the devil and must be avoided, not sampled. We have the precious Gift of the Holy Ghost to help us do all good things, to learn all truth, and stay on the path. If we stumble, we can call on the Savior’s atonement to help us back through sincere repentance. Those persons who are on the path, who are helping us, are in every sense far greater than those who would lead us off the path.
The narrowness of the path suggests, in one sense at least, there is little room for variation from its center. We risk being lost in the mists of darkness if we let go of the rod of iron for even a moment. There are no little detours off the path, since any willful sin is a serious thing. Any Church member who thinks they can zigzag back and forth across the strait and narrow path demonstrates they have already started down some other path, a strange road to an unhappy destination. The only safe course along the strait and narrow path is right down the middle. The middle of the path is where the iron rod is located, and it should be firmly grasped at all times.
Nephi gives us the marching orders for the path in unambiguous terms: “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” 2 Nephi 31:20.
Once Lehi was on the path, he wanted his family to join with him. So did Adam and Eve, and so do we. Lehi beckoned to his family members; he used a loud voice to get their attention, so they could travel together and enjoy the blessings of the tree of life as a family. Some of Lehi’s family members responded and, sadly, some did not. So it was with Adam and Eve’s children. This may also be our experience, but we should try to make it a family experience as we travel the path. We should invite our friends and neighbors to travel the path with us. Hopefully, if they don’t join at first, our family members and friends will later change their minds and joins us on the path; this will be more likely to happen if we can show them the path is a good place to be and the journey is joyful. Traveling along the strait and narrow path doesn’t need to be a lonely journey, but it may be at times if others dear to us don’t respond. Happily, members of the Church, in the millions, are on the strait and narrow path to the tree of life and they will fellowship, help, and encourage us along.
Ironically to some, those who choose to travel along the strait and narrow path find there is plenty of room for the righteous exercise of moral agency. Great freedom comes from exercising moral agency to keep the commandments. By staying on the strait and narrow path, we are freed from the need to re-decide our moral path and re-choose our eternal destination every day. We are thereby also free from the confusion, destruction, loss, unhappiness, and bondage that are the natural consequences of sin. When we are righteous, we are free to do everything that will make us happy. We can focus on eternity and not become bogged down in frivolity. Because he loves us, the Lord won't force us along the path back to his presence; Satan’s plan was rejected. The Lord does offer to help us along the way and then welcomes us with open arms when we get back to him.
We do know, as a matter of faith, that the good we do in this life will be rewarded in the life to come at the end of the path. Our difficulties in time are just a speck within eternity. Happily, some of the good we do will be rewarded before then, in this life. While there is no guarantee good people will not suffer great hardships, we are clear in understanding that good people will be rewarded in the life to come for every good thing they do. Given this principle of justice, the Lord will rectify every wrong and compensate for every injustice endured well by the righteous.
We cannot afford to be open-minded about sin. We must avoid the paths and buildings where sin is found; we must avoid people who loudly or subtly try to get us to do what we know is not right. There is nothing intellectually weak in exercising our moral agency to choose what is right and stay on the path. There is nothing enlightened about sampling the opposition we know must be present in all situations. As members of the Church, we must be the force for good in opposition to the evil so rampant in this world. If Latter-day Saints don't stand up for good, then there is little hope good can prevail. The scorners can only try to tempt others off the path; if we are on the path, we can both be exemplary and can reach down and help to lift others up to be with us and the happy group we travel with. Such lifting is known as service, a key indicator of discipleship.
However hard things get, it is always possible to do the right thing and stay on the right path. The guiding rod is iron, not tissue paper. If we hold to it, it will bear the load. The Lord has promised us we will not be tempted beyond what we are able to resist. It is possible for every person to obey every commandment the Lord gives. When we slip we are not lost because the Savior has made it possible to completely remedy such problems.
The Lord wants us to succeed. He has told us it is his work and his glory to help us achieve immortality and eternal life in the Celestial Kingdom. He has given us this great Church with its Bishops, Relief Society Presidents, home and visiting teachers, leaders, and members to help us. We have the gift of the Holy Ghost to help us know the truth and identify evil. The Savior has made it possible for us to repent. We can pray for answers and for support. There is no better support system we could have; ours is the best team we could be on. We are saved by the Savior’s grace, but we need to be doing what we can. We need to refine ourselves so the blessings of eternity really seem like blessings; we need to believe the people in the Father’s mansions are the people we want to be with forever.
There is no downside risk to keeping the commandments. Let us decide now and forever more to worship the Savior, keep the commandments, follow the Prophet, stay on the strait and narrow path, hold to the iron rod, and look forward to greeting the Father and the Savior after this life as we enter the Celestial Kingdom. There is no question: if we do our part, they will do their part. The journey along the straight and narrow path is not necessarily easy, but it is worth the effort.
Let me close by reading another great Book of Mormon scripture:
Mosiah 2:41: "And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it."