The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week.

Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness is available from Deseret Book.


The Divine Paradox

In his remarkable vision, the prophet Lehi describes five groups of people. Each successive group differs from the one before in a single way, and these single distinctions add up to the difference between personal stagnation and overflowing joy.

On one side of a river there rose a “great and spacious building,” filled to the brim with those Lehi is careful to tell us were “both old and young, both male and female.” Clearly no people in any category were immune from putting themselves in this building. And what were they doing? They were mocking those who desired to partake of the fruit of the tree.

These multitudes in the building were divided from the rest by a “great and terrible gulf,” which represented the “justice of the Eternal God.” A river ran along this gulf from the tree out to the river’s head, beyond which was a “large and spacious field, as if it had been a world.” In this field we encounter the second group of people-“numberless concourses.” Unlike those in the first group, these people were not in an attitude of mocking righteousness. As a result, they were not (at least not yet) divided from the righteous by the great gulf of justice.

We are then told of a third group-a subset of those in the field. “Many” of these people in the field, Lehi tells us, were “pressing forward that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree” of life. They distinguished themselves from the second group by setting out after righteousness. They wanted to partake of the fruit of the tree. However, these people lost their way and wandered off the path when the way became obscured by “an exceedingly great mist of darkness,” which represented the “temptations of the devil.”

A fourth group made it through the mist of darkness all the way to the tree. What was different about this group? In addition to setting out on the path, they “caught hold of” and “clung to” the rod of iron that paralleled it. This clinging to the rod (or word of God) allowed them to press forward through those mists “even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.” They made it! But, as you may know, they didn’t stay. The scripture says that after they had partaken of the fruit “they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.” They were ashamed, we are told, “because of those that were scoffing at them” from the great and spacious building across the gulf. They slunk away and fell into “forbidden paths and were lost.”

The question is, why? I believe that the answer to this question reveals the key to happiness itself-the key that unlocks the paradox of the fifth and final group:

To be short in writing, Lehi saw other multitudes [like group 2] pressing forward [like group 3]; and they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron [like group 4]; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron [again, like group 4], until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree.

Unlike group 4, this group stayed at the tree once they had obtained it. They were able to receive the happiness and joy that Lehi said resulted from the tree’s fruit. The question is, how? What single thing did this group do that the prior group did not? If you read the above passage again, you may notice something odd near the end-something that doesn’t make sense: a paradox. Think about trees, and fruit, and harvesting, and then read the passage again. Look for what doesn’t make sense. Find the paradox.

Do you see it? Does the passage accurately describe how we normally harvest from trees? Don’t we normally reach up to pick fruit? Then what are we to make of this group falling down to partake of the fruit, and of the fact that their falling down was the only thing that distinguished them from the group that fell away? As I’ve thought about those who fell away after reaching up for the fruit, it has occurred to me that their reaching up perhaps implies a level of pride that left them susceptible to the criticism and pride of the world. By contrast, the humility of those who found happiness by falling down rendered the pride of the world powerless.

So at the heart of the gospel we encounter a world-shifting, direction-obliterating paradox. In the gospel, it appears that up isn’t up and down isn’t down. After all, those who reached up fell, while those who fell were lifted. And the great and spacious building that was so “up” it “stood as it were in the air, high above the earth,” ended up falling, “and the fall thereof,” the scriptures emphasize, “was exceedingly great.”

Regarding happiness and joy, then, it appears that up may not be up and down may not be down. Rather, we begin to see the surprising outlines of a divine paradox. As nonsensical as it may at first sound, in the gospel, and regarding happiness, up appears to be down and down appears to be up.

And that, it seems to me, is a paradox worth pondering.