At the corner of our house we had a large evergreen shrub that was approaching tree proportions. It was wide, full, and as tall as our house. It wasn’t beautiful but it was faithful, full, and enriched our front yard while bringing privacy to our side yard. It even housed a family of birds.
Then came the heavy and unusual snows a few weeks ago. Our poor tree sagged under the burdens and finally broke. With sadness, we removed the tree last week. We were left with a gaping hole in our yard.
Last night I discovered an irony. We have volunteer daffodils near where the shrub stood. They are cheerful and exuberant. But the four stems of color-in all their exuberance-cannot replace the grand shrub and fill our side yard. They seem like earnest children trying to do the work of mature adults. They are like our little granddaughter Vivian wearing Nana’s coat. They just can’t handle the task.
Our Spiritual Landscapes
As Latter-day Saints, we are industrious and ambitious. We take the American can-do spirit to its zenith! Along the path of growing up, we LDS internalize many mandates-everything from flossing daily and keeping our socks sorted to rescuing every soul on our home or visiting teaching lists. Then we feel the burden of baptizing everyone in the neighborhood-which, in Arkansas, is a daunting task! And connecting every ancestor to the family tree. And then, for good measure, have model children and perfect marriages.
We plant and cultivate many purposes in our lives. We work hard and, when we fail, we try harder. We compare ourselves to our heroes–and get discouraged. We try harder. Our accomplishments may become sizeable. But we still fall short. Then come the snow storms. Unemployment. Health problems. Family problems. Tiredness. Abrahamic tests. It is predictable. Life is designed to challenge us beyond our resources.
At some point our shrubs collapse under the weight of life. We can plant a new shrub and try to nurture it to fill the spot. But, if we are wise, we recognize that we are running out of time. And the result is likely to be the same. We may try to comfort ourselves with some daffodils. They will indeed raise our spirits. But they do not fill the hole in our souls.
If we are lucky, we become desperate enough to throw ourselves on the merits, mercy, and grace of Him who is mighty to save. We may become desperate enough to ask the Master Gardner to plan his tree in our souls.
Lehi and Nephi teach us a lot about that tree. Its fruit is “desirable to make one happy” (1 Nephi 8:10). The fruit is more sweet than any other (1 Nephi 8:11). It is most desirable above all things (2 Nephi 11:22), most joyous to the soul (2 Nephi 11:23), most precious, and the greatest of all the gifts of God (2 Nephi 15:36). There simply isn’t anything like it.
It is worth observing that this tree is also durable. It will not be destroyed by storm, drought, wind, or any force in eternity. “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Every Latter-day Saint who attended Primary knows that the tree of life represents the love of God. Sometimes we fail to note that Nephi saw the tree as a symbol of the birth of Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!” was the exultant proclamation of the angel as he pointed Nephi to the tree.
The Key to Spiritual Health
“Feast upon his love; for ye may, if your minds are firm forever.” Hmmm. I wonder what it means to have firm minds. Does it mean that we don’t nibble the heavenly fruit and then run off to patch up our lives and perfect our souls with our own weak efforts? Does it mean that we sit at His table (the sacrament table?) and feast on that which will nourish us unlike any other food? Does it mean that we call on Him far more in every area of our lives?
Some years after an angel brought Alma and Amulek together, the once-hard-hearted Amulek burst out in praise for the One who stands ready to encircle us in the arms of safety (Alma 34:16). Notice his counsel to us. He recommends that we cry out for mercy over our fields, flocks, households, the power of our enemies; “ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness” (Alma 34:26).
But this is not ordinary prayer. This is crying out for mercy (Alma 34:17-8). I think that is significantly different. Our usual prayers focus on us giving God assignments. Crying out for mercy involves asking God to shower His mercy and grace on our righteous (God-chosen) desires. Ordinary prayer attempts to make us the gods of our lives. Crying out for mercy makes God supreme in our lives. Big difference. It is only when we ask God to prosper our righteous efforts-and we set aside our full agendas-that we gain heavenly power.
A New Path to Durable Wellness
All of this requires not a small adjustment but a mighty change of heart. Our agenda changes. Our stubbornness diminishes. Our submissiveness increases. Our humility becomes stronger. Our joy expands. We rejoice in Christ!
Let me make a comparison. When my colleagues and I won three national awards for one of our child-development programs, I was delighted-for about 15 minutes. Then I was pleased for a few days. Then the awards were largely forgotten. They no longer impacted my base level of happiness.
In contrast, my love and appreciation for Jesus have provided the most expansive and durable experiences of joy I have known for at least 40 years. When I read great passages in scripture, testify in Institute or Sunday School, or write about that Remarkable Brother who saves us, I feel like Ammon:
Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel. (Alma 26:16)
When Jesus touches my mind and heart, I weep with sheer wonder and appreciation. When my mind is firm enough to shut out distractions and focus on Christ, I am changed. And, OH! how grateful I am for His changes in my imperfect soul! The weaknesses that I fought for years fall away when I am in His arms.
Flowers and Trees
Our culture tells us we must learn to love ourselves. Some even suggest that we cannot love others until we first love ourselves. We are counseled to embrace the power that lies within us and to do a better job of celebrating our own goodness. All of this is presented as the path to greater happiness. I believe these suggestions are both unwise and unscriptural1. They teach us to turn to ourselves as the center of our universe and as the source for our joy. The scriptures teach us that the source of fulfillment will always be found, not in loving ourselves, but in loving Christ. Joy comes from following Him, not from celebrating our own goodness.
I would say that our successes-like the awards for our university program-are like flowers in our yard. They add good cheer and color. But they do not last long. And we do not create them. God made them! The best we can do is facilitate their growth. Any time we take credit for God’s amazing creation-even in us-we risk losing the power.
Focus on our own abilities may lead to frenzied efforts to plant unnumbered flowers. Flowers are not the basis for an enduring landscape in Heaven. They are merely a reason for rejoicing in God.
Eric Liddel, the famous runner who was highlighted in the movie Chariots of Fire, had the right understanding: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Any talent we have or success we experience gives us cause to praise God. Any self-praise is idolatry. When Liddel set the world record at the Olympics, he ran with words of God in hand, “Those who honour me I will honour.” (1 Samuel 2:30).
In contrast to the ephemeral (and beautiful) flowers is the enduring tree of life, the Lord Jesus Christ, His love and sacrifice. He will endure. If we partake of His fruit regularly, it will change us.
Many wander off from the tree to the great and spacious building of worldly success, beauty, and accomplishments. Residents of that dank denizen are actually engaged in self-worship. They point their fingers at those humble and often unimpressive people who worship Christ at the tree. While those in the building puff with pride, those at the tree weep with joy.
The irony is that those who do the works of Christ typically seem less frenzied and more serene. Trying to accomplish a never ending checklist of achievements, whether associated with the world or with the church, is draining. Yet seeking to do the right things with the Right Power is energizing. We accomplish more with Him as the center of our lives. Of course those accomplishments may not be conspicuous. But the people in our lives feel the power of our goodness, the strength of our love, the unfailingness of our faith because we know the Source from which they come.
In each of us is an assortment of seeds that can grow into a magnificent landscape. But they will remain forever ungerminated and inactive unless enlivened by the light and warmth of Christ. We may boast in the seeds we possess or we may open our souls to Christ and stand in awe and wonder as the seeds grow into brilliant foliage.
One more comment on Jacob’s invitations to firm minds. The people who built the house in which we now live planted a silver maple right behind the house. They presumably knew that it would grow quickly and provide wonderful shade to the house and yard. They may not have considered that the fast growth is associated with structural weakness. Almost every year some major branch of the tree dies and falls off. Just this week I cut off a major branch that had died. The landscape architect suggested that we have it removed.
You can see the contrast. The tree of life might be a little more like a Japanese maple than a silver maple. It grows slowly, steadily, and gracefully. There is no such thing as rapid righteousness. Even after Alma and Paul had their major uprootings, they still spent decades cultivating the solid tree of Christ in their lives.
I laugh with delight when I read prominent research psychologists saying just what God has always said: as people are happier, they think less about themselves. In fact, focus on the self can interrupt happiness-which has an inherently external focus. At least since 1983, the research has turned squarely against old notions of self-esteem as a vital tool for well-being.
You might see the application of this idea to this discussion. When we are partaking of the fruit of the tree of life, we rejoice in Christ and His goodness. We do not go to the tree to brag of our goodness or celebrate our accomplishments. We are totally absorbed in Him. And the warmth of His love courses through our soul and warms our whole beings.
Sometimes we try to reassure ourselves that we are children of God and therefore we have great potential. That is true and important. It is also true that Satan is a full-fledged sibling. As mortals we will always have a hard time convincing ourselves that we are doing okay; we are living in a place where we will regularly fall short and sometimes be keenly pained by our fallenness. We are not okay. We are a mess as mortals. But we can partake of the fruit. We can rejoice in Christ. As we do, we will both forget ourselves and be happier than we ever imagined possible.
I ask you to test the idea from your experience. Have the best times in your life been those when you felt the love of God fill your soul? I think of experiences in the mission field where I first discovered the indescribable sweetness of the fruit. I think of revelations of truth and goodness provided over decades of life. I think of the joy I feel when I “teach” a church lesson and must take notes because of all the things God is teaching us. I think of times when I sing the sacrament hymns and want to weep with sheer joy and gratitude.
Those are the best times for me.
Thanks to dear friends who helped me refine this article.
If you are interested in books, programs, retreats, or cruises by Brother Goddard, visit his Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dr-Wally/178676491370