The Strait and Narrow Path is Not Straight

One of the most famous and talked about sections in the first book of Nephi is Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life along with Nephi’s subsequent vision and explanation of what his father saw. We speak about this vision a lot, and rightly so, as there is so very much to learn from it. This time, however, I noticed a few things that we have been missing or getting wrong.

In every picture or representation of the vision that I have seen, there is a straight path with a straight rod next to it, when the scripture says, “I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood.” The two homophones, straight and strait, have very different definitions and we should really stop confusing the two. We keep thinking of the path as straight, picturing a road that has no curves, bends or even hills. One can very clearly see the end from the beginning. A strait, on the other hand is a difficult situation, such as “dire straits,” or when speaking of a path, one might think of a narrow passage of water, such as the Bering Strait or the Strait of Magellan. The path is tight, constricting, and difficult to navigate. I think the use of the word strait in this vision is purposeful and far more accurate.

The path to the tree of life is not straightforward. We want to think that it is. Make the right covenants, check the right boxes, just be obedient and stop wandering. In 2nd Nephi, chapter 4, Nephi prays and asks God to make his paths straight, and don’t we all want that. A simple path with no surprises and a clear destination. But Nephi saw the vision and he knows the path is strait. The purpose of those covenants is to connect you with the Holy Ghost, the purpose of those commandments is to teach you to receive revelation and seek the Spirit. The Spirit will help you navigate. The scriptures are your map and guide, but your path is still difficult. Your situation will require you to listen to your navigator and follow the bends and turns. You won’t always see the end from the beginning. 

Thinking of the path this way has also helped me to correct my interpretation of the iron rod, which is stated to be the word of God. We talk about it as if that means a list of the commandments we follow, but to me that is the title of revelation. Commandments are contained within revelations, but there is so much more. Perhaps, even more important are the personal commandments and directions we receive through revelation. In order to get through the mists of darkness and stay on a strait path, I have to receive revelation and do what the Spirit tells me to do, which will not necessarily be what the Spirit told Joe, or Bob, or Mary. The scriptures will help me learn how to connect with the Spirit and interpret the promptings and directions, but I still need to be getting my own directions.

I worry for those that think the path is straight and that “hold to the rod” means “just do what I told you to do” because they also then misinterpret the large and spacious building which represents the pride of the world. I’ve heard some people speak of their position on the path with a lot of pride and mocking towards those people in the building, and isn’t that a bit ironic and hypocritical? In the vision, the people in the building are mocking those at the tree. In real life, I’ve seen a lot of people at the tree point their mocking fingers at the building not realizing that they are just as consumed with pride as those they attempt to scorn.

There have definitely been times when I’ve felt pressure from friends to do things that weren’t aligned with my beliefs. I did hold on to that vision of myself at the tree and think, if they mock me, it won’t matter because I’m eating fruit that is more precious than anything they could offer. The allegory is helpful when you’re trying to visualize yourself working towards a desired goal and not falling for discouragement from people that don’t understand what you’re doing. I’ve also learned that my real friends do not mock me even if they hold different beliefs. If I’m truly partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life—the love of God—I won’t mock them either. Let’s be careful not to crush the tree with our own building of pride.

This is easier to do when you remember that you are walking on a strait path you need constant revelation to navigate. You have to stay humble; you have to keep listening, and the invitation for others to join you must always remain open.

Abusive Relationships in the Book of Mormon, Love Him or Leave Him?

Nephi had some really awesome adventures. He was a man of action and he knew how to get stuff done. He got the scriptural records from their murderous cousin, he persuaded another family to join them in the wilderness, he made his own bow after his old one broke, he built a boat and crossed the ocean. It is not hard to understand why he is a favorite hero to many people. I remember wanting to be like Nephi when I was a young child. When I was a teenager, however, I felt like he let me down and betrayed me. He became an impossible standard that I couldn’t live up to, and I started to hate him for it. Mostly because of the way he dealt with his brothers.

Nephi’s brothers were abusive, and we really don’t say that enough. They beat him with a rod, they tied him up and wanted to abandon him to the beasts in the wilderness, they blamed him for their problems, they tied him to the mast of the ship, and in general were truly awful to him. Nephi would somehow escape—an angel would come and chastise Laman and Lemuel, the Lord would give him strength to break his bonds, family or friends would plead for him until Laman and Lemuel relented. And after every single one of these brutalities, Nephi would forgive them.

When I was 15, I was bullied and not in the off-hand way that is used by many nowadays. Before bullying became a buzz word, the only way I had to describe what this boy did was abuse. Mostly verbal, only in a few instances was it physical, but it was enough that I felt scared and I was emotionally and mentally beat up by this boy constantly. I wanted to be like my hero Nephi, I wanted to be saved. There were no angels, I felt no heavenly gift of strength to break the bonds, I didn’t even have friends and family that would stand up for me (except my mother, she was the only one that believed me). I thought maybe, if I tried to forgive more like Nephi, I could be stronger like Nephi. It never worked.

Every time we cover these chapters in Nephi, someone will bring up what a great example of forgiveness Nephi is, and I want to scream and pull my hair. Yes, Nephi’s brothers apologized, and he forgave them, but they didn’t stop. He just kept getting abused. When I was trying to stop the abuse, I felt that Nephi was a traitor telling me that I needed to forgive and keep going back to my abuser and if I couldn’t do it, I was simply too weak. It was my fault that I couldn’t handle the abuse. Maybe I’d be able to handle more abuse if God would send me something like he did Nephi, but then maybe he didn’t because I wasn’t as good as Nephi. And so, I ended up in a cycle of anger and despair at myself, Nephi, and God. For a long time, I refused to forgive because forgiveness left me open to more abuse. I held on to my pain because it was the only protection I seemed to have.

Years later, I started going back to church and reading scriptures again and I skipped through these chapters. Then I read the one where Nephi is told to leave his brothers. I felt the Spirit tell me, it’s ok to leave, to protect yourself. After this, I realized a better way to forgive and that protecting myself wasn’t going against God.

I don’t know why the Lord made Nephi stay with his brothers for so long. Maybe he protected Nephi as much as he did because he needed the family to stay together, and then, once it was feasible for Nephi to leave, the Lord told him to do so. I just wish that we would expand our discussion on forgiveness and recognize that you do not need to keep opening yourself up to abuse that is continual and ongoing.

Nephi is a good example of forgiveness, but not only when he stayed with his brothers. Even when they separated, he prayed for them and taught his people and they later sent missionaries over to the Lamanites. There is forgiveness in that too.

Forgiveness is hope. Hope can be many things and can be held in many different circumstances. You can hope that someone will get help even when you are not able to help them. You can forgive and protect.

Is Nephi Arrogant or Humble? The Underlying Confidence Necessary for Powerful Humility

To be totally honest, Nephi is not my favorite. He and I have a troubled past, but he and I are learning to work through our differences. As arrogant as I think Nephi is, there is one thing he has taught me about the awesomeness of humility. 

Soon after leaving Jerusalem, Lehi tells his sons they have to go back to the city to get the plates of brass (in other words, the scriptures) from a distant family member who is also a bit murderous. Of course, Laman and Lemuel complain and don’t think they can do it because they’re all going to die. Nephi rallies them with the story of the Lord delivering the Jews from Egypt saying, “Therefore, let us go up. Let us be strong like unto Moses…the Lord is able to deliver us even as our fathers and to destroy Laban even as the Egyptians.” There is something really awesome about how Nephi just assumes that the Lord will give him the same aid that He gave to Moses. He doesn’t see himself as less than Moses, too low in standing or worth to the children of God to receive aid. Nephi doesn’t seem to see any big difference between himself and Moses. He knows the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Therefore, if the Lord helped Moses, the Lord will help him too.  

Laman and Lemuel don’t have that attitude. Nephi seems to think that they doubt the power of God, but thinking of myself in this position, I think that they doubt they are deserving of the Lord’s help and thus forget to look for it, let alone ask for it. Later on in the story, after they do succeed in getting the plates and even see an angel, their father has a vision. Laman and Lemuel are confused by it and Nephi asks them if they asked God. Their answer is, “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.” Perhaps they have tried on previous occasions and have given up, but a part of me wonders if they didn’t ask because they thought they weren’t of the right standing. Maybe they thought their father received visions because he was a visionary man, a prophet, and because they are not prophets, they will not receive visions or revelations. They didn’t try because they didn’t think they were allowed to. 

At first glance, it might seem a bit arrogant that Nephi automatically places himself among prophets of old. Yet, I think this is actually the strength of Nephi’s humility. If we look at what Nephi does with the assumption that he is as deserving as the prophets, we see that he asks for help, a lot. He is constantly asking God what to do and where to go. He then actually does what he is told to do. 

There is something really amazing about his basic belief that the Lord will love him and help him as much as the Lord loves and helps anyone else. It isn’t that he is more deserving than his brothers, it’s that he asks for help a lot more. Nephi didn’t wait to earn a title or position before asking for help from God. He didn’t need anyone’s permission because the opinion of other men meant very little. 

I’ve learned a lot from Nephi in this regard. Even though I am not anyone with huge standing or a prominent calling doesn’t mean that the Lord loves me any less or that the Lord will help me any less. The individual answer will change, the type of help that comes will be specific to my or your situation, but the Lord will always answer the question and give aid. No special title or standing required. 

It is not arrogant to know that the Lord will answer you and help you. That’s just faith. In fact, I think this basic belief and confidence is necessary for true humility and the power that it brings. To ask for the answer and the help, most especially to accept whatever answer and help is given instead of demanding your own desire, that’s incredible humility.  

Revelation, the Cure for Whining

What is the real difference between Nephi and his brothers Laman and Lemuel? We could also ask, what is the difference between someone who is happy in a church and someone who is not. When these stories are taught there is an emphasis on obedience and cheerful work without murmuring. Perhaps I am prone to disobedience and complaining, but I do not find these lessons encouraging for myself. I am too often a Laman. One of the most frequent admonitions I remember from my mother is, “no whining.” But is whining what really makes Laman and Lemuel the epitome of all that is wicked and evil?

After their father, Lehi, was told by the Lord to leave Jerusalem because it was going to be destroyed, he prepared his family to go into the wilderness. The entire family obeyed and went. Laman and Lemuel, the oldest sons, complained and criticized their father. Nephi says they did this because “they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them.” Nephi describes his own reaction to his father’s demands as such:

     And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers. 

1 Ne 2:16

While I don’t know why Nephi feels it important to tell us of his large stature (my best guess is that he’s a teenager), I do love his description of his first recorded revelation. He was young and had a desire to know. I too found it a lot easier to receive revelation when I was younger. My desires to learn and my simple curiosities were just that—simple. Now they are easily clouded with confusion, conflicting desires and thoughts, even my own pride and wish to be right. Nephi is not describing anything grand either. Later, he will receive visions, ministering angels, and huge assignments from the Lord. But here, this first one he tells us about was just a softening, a heartfelt belief. It sounds so small, yet this is what stopped his own murmuring and rebellion.

We don’t know about Laman and Lemuel’s history with personal revelation. Did they have some when they were young and then doubt them when they got older? Did they try but never get an answer? I have experienced both of these and can testify that they do lead to extreme frustration. Revelation is not always simple. As a scientist, I like things that follow a protocol and are repeatable. If it can’t be repeated by another person, then it’s not valid or the interpretation is incorrect. If I can’t repeat an experiment or a procedure, I will keep trying, looking for things I might be doing wrong, blaming myself or my own lack of skill. Until, I’m so sick of blaming myself that I either give up entirely or lash out at the original procedure. It is so easy for me to see myself in Laman and Lemuel.

In my quest to please my mother and stop whining, I have thought about the importance of personal revelation. To me it is the difference between being forced to do something by an outside force and choosing to do something with your own power and your own motivations. It is always worth it to take some time and consider why you do or do not want to do a particular thing or what your goal is from a particular project regardless of the stated goals of other people.

My church has a rich history of revelation from the Lord and we love that history particularly because it declares that the heavens are not closed, and that revelation is possible. I think this knowledge and an ability to receive revelation for oneself are essential for a healthy practice of a living religion. While my church has this belief, it does not mean we are free from blocks to personal revelation. I am a Laman that constantly strives to seek revelation and to be a little more like Nephi. I have found help to do so within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have friends and family who have left the Church and found other traditions and structures to help them find the revelation they seek. They were Lamans like me and they also sought revelation to be more like Nephi. They found that help in other churches and other traditions. I still count them as righteous and highly favored of the Lord.

All of Lehi’s sons were obedient. Nephi did it without complaining because it was his choice and he didn’t feel forced. Obedience is not the key difference, revelation is. I applaud all of my brothers and sisters that are able to find revelation, wherever in the wilderness they may be. Blessed is she that can find joy and stop whining.

Destruction as a Path to Salvation and the Importance of Context

It’s been so long since I’ve posted regularly, mostly because we have been battling a lot of different illnesses at our house this winter. Nothing major, just a lot of viruses and infections, one right after the other. I did a lot of reading (and a lot of Netflix bingeing) but did not have the mental energy and focus to write. I did find a lot of interesting things in my reading, especially as I tried to stay with the Come Follow Me curriculum put out by my church. I really wanted to write down and work out some of my ideas, even though the curriculum is now far past this point in the reading. I hope you’ll understand as I go back to the beginning and try to catch up to the study schedule. 

I usually study and read by topic and so it’s very easy for me to fall into the excuse that I’ve read the Book of Mormon many times before, I’m familiar with the stories and thus do not need to read them from cover to cover. This year, I want to read it straight through and see it again as a whole. Everything has a context and seeing that context is important in arriving at an understanding of the intended message. While I always try to look for the context of each individual verse as I study (for example, who is speaking and to whom), it is just as important to see that story within the full arc of the Book of Mormon and the book itself within the full scriptural cannon and the story of the Restoration. This is essential for the Book of Mormon and that’s obvious from the very beginning.

The first grand vision and revelation in the Book of Mormon is given to Lehi but is written by his son Nephi, who is reportedly young—the youngest of four brothers. Nephi writes that his father was worried for the people of Jerusalem and prayed for them. He saw a pillar of fire, was carried away by the Spirit and saw the heavens open. He was given a book and read about the destruction of Jerusalem. After reading the book, Lehi exclaimed, “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!”

I stopped here for a second and wondered, is he including the destruction of Jerusalem in his praise for great and marvelous works? How could someone glory in the destruction of another? I wondered if Lehi might be a bit vindictive in his praise of the Lord, believing that the people of Jerusalem deserved to be destroyed and he deserved to be saved, thus his description of the Lord’s great mercy. This attitude is not all that hard to imagine. I’m sure we’ve all seen it or even felt it from time to time. We feel safe, maybe even jubilant, when we avoid catastrophe. And when we’ve avoided catastrophe because of our own work and choices, we are proud. Bad people should have bad things happen to them, right? Except, aren’t we all bad people at some point? 

Then I remembered that Lehi is not the only prophet to see or to prophecy about the destruction of an entire people. These prophets also praised God for his mercy because they saw the purpose of the destruction and how it fit into a greater plan. As I thought of even my own experience in learning from God that something bad was going to happen, I realized that God doesn’t show such things in isolation. He comforts and teaches. In my experience, God is not vindictive or petty but He does lead people down paths. We have a great deal of choice when it comes to which path we walk, but He also bends the roads and alters the direction to help us reach a favorable destination. I think Lehi and other prophets praised God’s mercy even after learning of destruction because they saw the part it played in their ultimate salvation.

We don’t know the entirety of Lehi’s vision—if he saw God’s full plan for Jerusalem or not. We only have an account written by his young son in a handful of verses. Later in the book it will become obvious that one small account of a vision is never enough to understand the entirety of it and that Nephi himself had a lot to learn about the meaning of mercy. 

I think this particular verse made me stop because I have seen so many examples over the years of people taking one thing and emphasizing it to the point that they forget to balance it with all of the other perspectives, stories, and lessons with in the Book of Mormon. This one verse (and it’s not entirely alone), when misconstrued and context ignored, can easily lead to a puffed up pride that is dangerous and destructive. The truth is, the Jews at Jerusalem were destroyed but then brought back again. Their history is rich and long and the love God has for them runs deep. We must also never forget that Lehi and his immediate family may have avoided destruction, but the nations that came from them did not. Prophecies about the destruction of Nephi’s people began quite quickly, and they were also welcomed with praise by the prophets that foretold them.

While the Book of Mormon does guide readers in how to follow God, it would be a fatal mistake to interpret the destruction in these stories as horrifically final when the Book of Mormon’s very existence stands as a testimony that destruction is never the end. The fact that we continue, that there is more to the story, is the mercy of God.