The Tree of Life: The Love of God

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Nephi’s experience with the tree of life is interesting. He desired to see the things his father saw in vision. He pondered in his heart and was “caught away by the Spirit of the Lord…into an exceedingly high mountain, which [he] never had before seen, and upon which [he] never had before set…foot.” (1 Nephi 11:1)

Nephi was faithful, he desired, and he acted (pondered and prayed). Then he was taken to an elevated place. Mountains typically represent temples in the scriptures. In that place of holiness he conversed with the Spirit of the Lord.

Nephi wanted to see all that his father saw but the Spirit showed him the tree of life first (after asking a question about Nephi’s belief; asking about Nephi’s testimony) (1 Nephi 11:2-4,8). The Spirit told Nephi the schedule for his vision: after Nephi was to see the tree, he would also “behold a man descending out of heaven”. Nephi was charged with witnessing this man and then bearing record that he “is the Son of God” (1 Nephi 11:7).

Nephi was faithful, desirous, active (pondering), and in a temple. As a result he saw the tree of life and wanted to know the interpretation of its symbolism.

In response and without answering Nephi’s question, the Spirit showed Nephi another vision. In this vision he saw Mary and then Mary and the infant Christ (1 Nephi 11:13-20). After Nephi saw the Christ Child and Mary, the Spirit asked him if he knew the meaning of the tree. Nephi had received his own answer: “It is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.” (1 Nephi 11:22) The Spirit confirmed that response, adding additional insight: “Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.” (1 Nephi 11:23) Nephi, conversing with the Spirit of the Lord, was able to answer his own question about the meaning of the tree. The Spirit led him to the answer and provided additional information when needed but Nephi was able to receive his own answer.

It was only after seeing the tree and Jesus Christ that Nephi saw the rest of the symbols from Lehi’s vision. Before spending any time with those additional symbols, we need to understand what the love of God is. The love of God is manifest in Jesus Christ’s birth but there is more to it. It includes charity. What is charity? Charity is the chief virtue. It is the “pure love of Christ, [that] endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” (Moroni 7:47) Charity is without end, it endures forever. Charity is not helping others, it is not treating others well; charity is the pure love that comes from God. Charity is a gift from God. It is a pure fruit from an everlasting tree of beauty and purity with preciousness above all else. Charity is the love of God for all His children but this cannot be what the tree of life symbolizes because not everyone partakes of the fruit of the tree.

So what is the symbolism of the love of God expressed by the tree of life? Elder Nelson taught: “The Book of Mormon…describes how one is born of God and how one gains the power to love as He does. It identifies three core principles that bring the power of God’s love into our lives.” (Source) These three core principles are: 1) exercising faith in Christ and entering into a covenant with Him to keep His commandments; 2) the power to become more like Him comes through receiving the ordinances of the gospel; and 3) needing to “follow His example: ‘What manner of men ought ye to be?’ [Jesus] asks rhetorically. His answer: ‘Verily I say unto you, even as I am’ (3 Nephi 27:27). Truly, He wants us to become more like Him.” (Source)

Elder Neil L. Andersen taught: “What does this tree with its most precious fruit symbolize? It represents ‘the love of God’ and proclaims our Heavenly Father’s marvelous plan of redemption. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ This precious fruit symbolizes the wondrous blessings of the Savior’s incomparable Atonement. Not only will we live again following our mortality, but through our faith in Jesus Christ, our repentance, and our keeping the commandments, we can be forgiven of our sins and one day stand clean and pure before our Father and His Son. Partaking of the fruit of the tree also symbolizes that we embrace the ordinances and covenants of the restored gospel—being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and entering the house of the Lord to be endowed with power from on high. Through the grace of Jesus Christ and by honoring our covenants, we receive the immeasurable promise of living with our righteous family throughout eternity.” (Source; emphasis added)

The tree of life represents the Savior and His Atonement. We unlock the power of the Atonement by making and keeping sacred covenants, receiving ordinances, and striving to be like the Savior. We do not partake of the fullness of God’s love without making certain qualifying steps.

Jesus taught this lesson:

“As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” (John 15:9-14)

The Savior taught His disciples. He expressed His love for them and encouraged them to continue in His love. He then clarified the condition required to continue in His love: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love.” Those who do this will have a fullness of joy. The Spirit taught this to Nephi during his vision when he said the tree — the love of God — is “most joyous to the soul.” (1 Nephi 11:23) The Savior then expressed His great love for His friends. Friends of the Savior are those who “do whatsoever [He] command[s]”. For these faithful friends, the Savior expressed great love by laying down His life.

Abiding in the love of God is thus conditional on obedience. God loves all His children but we have to do certain things to abide in His love. While conditional, this is not exclusionary. To understand this, let’s turn to Alma 13. There we read Alma’s teachings about the priesthood and high priests. While this chapter is focused on high priests and the Melchizedek priesthood, it applies to women and men and offers insight into how we abide in God’s love.

“And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such. And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren.” (Alma 13:3-4; emphasis added)

Blessings from heaven, covenants, priesthood authority and responsibilities/callings (which are offered to women and men), ordinances, and fruits of the Spirit are offered to all. Those who exercise faith and choose good obtain the privileges. They are those who abide in the love of God and partake of the fruit of the tree of life.

Foundationless Buildings

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In the Book of Mormon we read of a great vision that the prophet Lehi had. In this vision he saw that “there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path [to the tree of life] did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost…. And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.” (1 Nephi 8:23,26).

Lehi saw a mist of darkness throughout the world. This mist is the temptations of Satan (see 1 Ne. 12:17) but it might also be viewed as ignorance or even the veil of forgetfulness that prevents us from remembering our pre-earth life. However you want to view the mist, it surrounds all of us and seeks to pull us away from God’s paths. It darkens the world. Off in the distance Lehi saw a great and spacious building that “stood as it were in the air.” I always picture something like this picture – a skyscraper floating without a foundation. The big, beautiful building is just that – big and beautiful; it is enticing and worldly. More importantly, it seemed to be floating in the air. Not only is this representative of the pride of the world, but also it means the building is without a foundation. Worldly things, specifically pride and coveting and gossiping and other sins, are founded upon nothing. Buildings without foundations or with weak foundations will never stand – they will always fail and fall. We might think that we don’t live in that great and spacious building, that we have a nice sensible home. However, do we live in a foundationless home?

Do we let our houses drift about aimlessly in the mists of darkness or do we anchor our hearths and homes to a solid foundation? Upon which foundation should we build? We should build upon Christ. How do we do this? Building upon Christ is a bit of an abstract idea. Let me reify it. In order to build upon Christ we must have a foundation of personal righteousness. This foundation includes learning the gospel, living close to the Spirit, keeping our gospel covenants, and obeying the commandments. If those four things are our foundation, we will not fall. Our homes will be firmly rooted upon a sure foundation: “Remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall” (Helaman 5:12).

Those who are not built upon this foundation will fall like the great and spacious building: “And it came to pass that I saw and bear record, that the great and spacious building was the pride of the world; and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceedingly great. And the angel of the Lord spake unto me again, saying: Thus shall be the destruction of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, that shall fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (1 Ne. 11:36).

That gulf of misery and endless wo is the same one that Lehi saw that separated the people of God from those of the world (see 1 Ne. 12:18), even an eternal gulf.

We must make sure our foundations are sure, that we are not left to be buoyed up by nothing but the pride of the world. We need our foundations upon the Rock of Christ.

3D building model sources: Skyscraper: http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse/details?mid=74f60dc598c1a44bbaa0f452d5492d6&prevstart=0; house: http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse/details?mid=35aa8adfc9d1e4ea8627bce8a46cfe19&prevstart=24. The buildings were imported into Google Sketchup where I created the scenes.

Gospel Weekend Warriors – Part 1

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Are you a gospel “Weekend Warrior?” Do you fight the good fight, and bravely, but only on Sundays? Are you a strong stripling son as long as you are at church? Do you have a marathon gospel study session and then enter an early retirement from scriptural and spiritual sports? [Note: some of these terms came from the 22nd episode of the Mormon Identity podcast; that episode also inspired this essay].

One of the fundamental components of the gospel is enduring to the end. Jesus taught, “Behold I have given unto you my gospel, and this is the gospel which I have given unto you…if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world. And he that endureth not unto the end, the same is he that is also hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence they can no more return, because of the justice of the Father” (3 Nephi 27: 13,16-17). We are not sent here to earth and commanded to endure for a little while, we are commanded to endure to the end.

The prophet Lehi had a great symbolic vision of the earth. In his vision he saw the Tree of Life, an iron rod, a great and spacious building, and many people. We read:

“20 And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world.
  21 And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood.
  22 And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree.
  23 And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
  24 And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
  25 And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.
  26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
  27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
  28 And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
  29 And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father.
  30 But, to be short in writing, behold, he saw other multitudes pressing forward; and they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree.
  31 And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building.
  32 And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads.
  33 And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not.” (1 Nephi 8:20-33).

In this passage of scripture we read of groups of people. Some find the path that leads to the Tree of Life, some wander off elsewhere, some enter the gaudy and godless building, some find and partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life only to be ashamed and wander off, and others partake of the fruit and heed not the mockers. From this passage we learn that it is not enough to simply partake of the blessed eternal fruit, we must continue feasting upon it – we must endure to the end of our lives. There are many opportunities and roads to become prodigal but only one path to perfection and eternal life. This eternal path requires our every effort; we must endure unto the end.