In the past nine years I have loved and lost hundreds of precious sons and daughters. And I have seen inexplicable miracles in the lives of hundreds more. I know what it means on one day to have “joy and great hopes… that they would walk in the paths of righteousness”[1], and to feel the searing agony of seeing them throw it all away on the next. Through it all I’ve learned that almost all losses are temporary, and that much of my parental misery comes from my misunderstanding of redemptive labor.

My extended family lives at an unusual school called The Other Side Academy. Adult men and women come to us after decades of homelessness, scores of arrests and after perpetrating innumerable acts of evil. They live with us for free for 2-4 years. We labor with them as they struggle through confronting monstrous demons. I’ve watched them find rewarding careers, reunite with abandoned children, and become respected members of the community. I’ve even officiated at their weddings.

And in the past couple of years, I’ve buried five who I was certain were safely beyond relapse. I recently had a stirring conversation with a hardened thug named Manni. Against his every finely honed gang sensibility, he renounced his past status as shameful, and pledged to dedicate his life to learning to become an honorable man. Three days later he was arrested after fleeing back to gang life.

In spite of crushing disappointments, I’ve come to marvel at the efficacy of the Plan. I’ve gained great confidence in the end game as I’m given frequent glimpses into the Master’s competence in contrast with mine. I am clear on the relative importance of our mutual roles in saving souls. He never needs my advice. His motivation to involve me is for what He wants to make of me not for what I can make of His children. It’s when I get that twisted up that I lose hope in the labor.

One of His goals is to help me develop the muscle of faith. Persevering with hope through life’s heavy disappointments is part of the regimen. As distance is measured in meters and weight is measured in grams, faith is measured in years. Not minutes. Not hours. Years. Sometimes decades. Or, in God’s case, millennia. The primary godly creative capacity He is training me for is measured by how long I can hold a vision of righteous longings while no evidence yet exists of their fulfillment.

  • How long can I believe I will one day stand in a celestial room with my entire posterity when few share my beliefs?
  • How long can I embrace my LGBTQ+ loved-one while simultaneously embracing beliefs that contradict some of their choices?
  • How long can I imagine a saint in a sibling who is a habitual sinner?

We’re told that even the council of gods who presided over the entire creation had to “[watch] those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.”[2] Apparently, even God can be kept waiting! Patience is the calisthenics of godhood. Our bodies have both short and long muscle. Faith isn’t a short muscle. Short muscle is what we use to sprint. Faith is the long muscle needed for marathons. And there is no marathon more demanding than family.

The prophet Jacob is the patron saint of weary families. Jacob was a worrier. While his book fills less than 4% of the Book of Mormon, he makes almost half of its references to anxiety. He worries about “stumbling because of my over anxiety”[3] for loved ones. Before delivering one of his greatest sermons, he admits to being “weighed down with much more desire and anxiety”[4] for his kin. “Great anxiety,”[5] he tells us, motivated him to seek revelation for his people. He is eminently qualified to counsel broken families because his was shattered by violence. He even grew up hearing prophesies of future intra-family genocide.

As a result, Jacob thought as deeply as any prophet-sibling about prospects for the Lost Causes in our lives. His message isn’t for the parents of kids who are late to Seminary or who sneak two pieces of bread from the Sacrament tray. In Jacob 4-7 he prosecutes his case for hope by arguing that there is reason for optimism even for those who murdered Christ.[6] This is followed by the story of redemption of one who attempts to destroy Christ’s Church. The stories of an Olive Tree and an Anti-Christ named Sherem are drenched with Jacob’s counsel and comfort for weary parents.

The Olive Tree

You’ve likely read Zenos’ 77-verse allegory of the Olive Tree many times. But you may have missed the setup. It’s at the end of Jacob 4 where he tells us why he is about to recount this lengthy tale.

In verse fifteen he predicts what the Jews will do to the Savior of the World. Then he quickly adds an incomprehensible reassurance: in spite of their complete corruption, they will one day claim Jesus as their Savior. Having made that outrageous claim, he poses the question that frames everything that follows: How is that possible? “How is it possible that [even] these,” he marvels, “after having rejected the sure foundation [Christ], can ever build upon it…?”[7]

Brother Jacob, you have my full attention. I would have been satisfied with your answer to my own questions:

  • How is it possible to exalt a woman who shut the door on her screaming infants while she sold her body and shot heroin?
  • How is it possible that a man who steals pain pills from his terminally ill grandmother could become a saint?
  • What are the prospects for the married High Priest who visits prostitutes for decades on business trips?
  • How many times can someone return to sin, betray loved ones, relapse, or deny the faith before it’s too late?

Add your own troubled queries to this list. None will exceed the apparent impossibility of Jacob’s. And Jacob delivers.

The key to the allegory is not just in its details, it is in its themes. The story is one of violent interventions followed by protracted waiting. We witness repeated digging, dunging, chopping, burning, scattering and gathering, but the deepest message is of the law of waiting.  The very fact that it is 77-verses and many seasons long is the message!

God’s interventions are loving, aggressive, and rare. As ours should be. Two of the deep lessons from the Olive Tree are:

  1. Waiting is often the most powerful form of influence.
  2. Dig, prune, and nourish only under Godly guidance.

Waiting is Growing

You can’t rush growth. God knows that. But we don’t buy it.

It’s no coincidence that Zenos chose an olive tree rather than a carrot as his central symbol. The parable of the vegetable garden would have been wrapped up in a single season. But Zenos chose one of the slowest growing plants in the world as the key figure for his saga. Not only do olive trees grow excruciatingly slowly, but they also have a very long lifespan—some well over a thousand years.

Three years ago, Jesse broke my heart. He came to The Other Side Academy as an alternative to spending many years in prison. For the first three decades of his life, he had been a violent, immoral, dishonest narcissist. Most of our new students go through a rebellious phase at the Academy. But not Jesse. He was done with the old life from the first day. As he grew in our house, he was the first to wrap his arms around newer students and help them find hope. He was an unflinching voice of truth to those who needed reproof. He became strong, noble and wise. Then after four years of miraculous growth, he traded it all for meth and meaningless sex. He ran from the Academy to the same filth we retrieved him from.

I was certain I could reason him back to sanity if I could just deliver the right sermon. He had born the most delicious of natural fruit and, as the Master of the Vineyard said, ‘it grieved me that I should lose him.’[8] We put 10 of The Other Side Academy’s best ‘arborists’ on the job, but the tree wasn’t having it. Jesse wanted nothing to do with us.

As patience is the calisthenics of godliness, so waiting is the isometrics of faith. Work that produces no movement may seem pointless, but it isn’t. This is when the muscles of faith are developed the most.

I have learned that when the Spirit leaves me on the bench, my work must be elsewhere. I prayed fervently about Jesse but received no instructions. At one point in the allegory, the servant seems dissatisfied with the Master’s plan. I know that feeling. One day I saw a picture of Jesse on social media. He was emaciated and toothless. I thought God could be doing better than that. But then I heard the rebuke of the Master in my mind, “Counsel me not; I knew that it was a poor spot of ground…”[9] I wanted to harvest carrots, but He was growing olives.

Our tendency in the story is to pay too much attention to the action and too little to the rhythm. Music is made by silences as much as by notes. And so it is with God’s way of exalting His children. The most striking admonition in the tale comes after brief but intense periods of intervention. At multiple moments of great despair, we are told that, “a long time passed away.”[10]

In a reality based on agency, waiting is one of the primary tools of godhood. We love action. Waiting stinks. God, on the other hand, leaves us alone most of the time. Like a patient fisherman, the Fisher of Men lets us run out the line and tire ourselves out before firmly bringing us back. He makes His sun to rise on the evil as well as the good.[11] He lets people take pleasure in sin for a season.[12] And so must we. Sometimes for a long time.

The waiting isn’t just for the sinner, it’s for the impatient disciple as well. As you wait, you exercise faith. The long muscle of godly power grows as you retain your vision of your righteous longings while no evidence yet exists of their fulfillment.

But don’t mistake waiting for idling. There is much to do in other parts of the Vineyard while the olive tree you love most is doing its thing. Six times in the parable when things are going poorly, the Master turns his attention to the “nethermost” part of his property.[13] When it’s time to leave those you love alone, there are always others your unique traumas have trained you to serve.[14] God enlisted you to serve the entire orchard, not just your favorite tree. Service is the fastest remedy for sadness.

Dig, Prune, and Nourish as Asked

As in the allegory, God intervenes at times. Zenos describes three categories of action: digging, pruning, and nourishing. He makes seven references to digging, nine to pruning and twenty-five to nourishing (or its equivalent, dunging). Make what you will of that. The Spirit will teach you what the human equivalents of these actions are in your situation. To me the overarching message is that they are to be done occasionally not frequently. Also, it is the Master who makes the assignments. To paraphrase D&C 121, ‘Prune betimes with a sharp instrument, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’[15] Sometimes you are the best person to nourish or prune. Often you aren’t.

After a long time passed away, Jesse was ready for some pruning. Pruning is the violent removal of encumbrances to growth. He was arrested. He lost everything. His girlfriend, car, money, glasses, teeth, health, and freedom were taken. He was very well pruned. I heard he was in jail and wanted to rush to see him. But the Spirit forbade me. I felt a whisper from the Master saying, “Counsel me not.” Apparently, some digging was also needed. Digging is aggressive disruption of both roots and soil. I figured He knew what He was doing, so I waited.

Left to myself, I would give my wandering children a good pruning daily. But nagging is not the same as pruning. Nagging is an attempt to coerce growth. Pruning is skillful preparation to enable it.

Perhaps your tendency is different than mine: you’re afraid of wielding the pruning shears. If your weakness is favoring temporary peace over eternal progress, you might be mistaking shrinking for waiting. If the Spirit prompts you to do the digging, to drive your spade into the rocky soil, step into the discomfort and trust the Master.

Last September, Dave and Robyn, two leaders from The Other Side Academy, were driving to Utah County Jail to interview a few applicants. A jail lieutenant called them enroute to say there was a problem at the jail and they would not be allowed in. They turned around and drove back to Salt Lake City. That was the very day Jesse Graham was arrested. He was so injured and sick that he was sent to the infirmary. Had we shown up at the jail that day, what followed would not have happened.

Two weeks later, on the day Jesse was released from the infirmary to a regular jail pod, the jail invited us back. It’s a large jail, with capacity for 1,000 inmates, but he happened to be in the unit Dave and Robyn visited. And his pod happened to be on the exact path they traversed to meet with inmates. As Dave walked by, he looked to the left and saw the silhouette of a withered figure who looked vaguely familiar. Jesse saw Dave and tried to hang his head to avoid detection. He was nothing but a profusion of wild fruit. But the Master decreed that it was time for some nourishing. Dave and Robyn entered his cell. Jesse immediately melted into tears of shame. Dave pulled him to his feet and wrapped him into a loving embrace. Robyn joined from behind, sobbing affectionately into his back. A few weeks later a few tender new branches emerged with a promise of natural fruit. He pleaded to come back to The Other Side Academy.

Joseph Smith assures us that when the time is right, “God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings…”[16] He prunes, digs and nourishes not only those we love, but also us, with masterful timing. The agony of waiting invites growth in you and me as much as in our loved ones.

The Antichrist

Jacob was so worried that his message wouldn’t sink in[17] that He added two powerful literary devices to ensure it was unmistakable. First, he bluntly stated the moral of the allegory: How merciful is our God unto us, for he remembereth the house of Israel, both roots and branches; and he stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long…[18] Then, to underscore his witness, he offers a concrete example of the limit case of God’s almost limitless redemptive urge: the story of Sherem, an Antichrist.

Sherem shows up cocky and charismatic, intent to “overthrow the doctrine of Christ.”[19] In a made-for-TV confrontation with Jacob, Sherem demands a sign. Jacob suggests immediate affliction with some unnamed physical disability after which Sherem immediately “fell to the earth.”[20] Up to this point we know only enough about Sherem to despise him. He is a caricatured villain.

Then, Jacob takes a striking turn. In words unmistakably resonant of the allegory, we are told that Sherem was “nourished.” And furthermore, the nourishing continued “for the space of many days.”[21] He was well pruned and dug about. And now he was nourished for a long time.

In the end, he bears natural fruit. On his deathbed, he offers a confession that rivals that of Alma the Younger. He bears witness of Christ and acknowledges his sins against him.[22] His final confession and testimony bring an overpowering Spirit to a large audience that restores some to the faith and deepens the conversion of many others.[23] A violent intervention, a long time, and delicious, hard-won natural fruit.

We worried during the weeks that Jesse was held in jail long after he asked to return to The Other Side Academy. We worried that his judge would demand prison time. We worried that Jesse’s resolve to return to The Other Side Academy would wane. But God had other plans. During those weeks, Jesse nourished his cellmates. By the time we picked him up to bring him home, he had persuaded five of his cellmates to come with him. The Master needed no counsel on timing or technique from me.


Most of the epidemic of family despair in the Church today is self-inflicted. God is very good at what He does. He cannot hurry growth. He waits lovingly. Don’t mistake His discernment for abandonment.

Satan understands that the hardest part of loving is the waiting. The choice to continue hoping when all evidence points to the contrary builds spiritual muscle that Satan finds menacing. In these taxing moments, he hisses, “Worship me.” He offers two easy outs that bypass godly growth and resolve our impatience. He suggests we surrender either hope or belief.

Hopelessness relieves uncertainty. Giving up on loved ones is an easy offramp from waiting. But giving up means resigning from the vineyard. When the time comes, and it always comes, that the Master calls his few servants to take action,[24] your surrender will deafen you to the invitation.

Satan’s second ploy is to offer relief from waiting by suggesting we abandon belief in eternal truths. If you try to close the spiritual distance between you and a loved one by surrendering your beliefs, you simultaneously surrender the power to draw them toward greater joy. The pain you feel as you fight to retain hope in yet unfulfilled promises is the spade and shears of the Master’s digging and pruning, preparing you to participate in the work of exalting souls.

Families are both the regimen and reward of eternity. Family life is intended to be excruciatingly exalting at times. Human intimacy exposes our weaknesses but also abundantly rewards our growth. There is no greater ecstasy in life than that which is patiently earned through the humility and sacrifice known only to those who double-down when the work is the hardest.

I testify that no soul is beyond the Savior’s redeeming power. Saving Father’s children is His full-time job. He is always on schedule in marshalling the precise interventions we need. Always. I know this because every once in a while, He pulls back the curtain as if to say, “See what I did there? Do you trust me, now?”

  • James lost a temple marriage, children, testimony and fortune. He lived on the street for years, a vagrant and criminal. One morning he lay beaten and broken in front of a 7-11 Store. That very morning his former bishop felt prompted to take an unusual route to work—something he had never done. At age 55, it was James’ time. After a year of ministry and patience, the bishop set him on the interview bench of The Other Side Academy where he has regained more than he ever lost.
  • Twenty-five years ago, Angela announced to her husband and ward members that she was lesbian, leaving the Church, leaving her family, and moving in with her lover. Then after decades of hostility toward and activism against the Church, she was one day purging a closet when she found an old brochure of the Joseph Smith Story. She read it as if for the first time and was overcome with a familiar conviction. She is now remarried in the temple.
  • Lynne had been decidedly out of the Church for fifty years when her husband died. In her grief she turned to prayer. One night she dreamt her husband came to her. “I love you,” he said. “And I want to be sealed to you.” At 89-years of age, Lynne was re-baptized then sealed to her beloved.

These occasional glimpses are His way of reassuring you and me during years of unrealized hopes that He is fully engaged in every salvation story. Every time you feel a holy envy of someone else’s happy-ending story, Satan will urge you to take it as a taunt. But God is trying to offer it as evidence of things not yet seen. If you pause prayerfully in these moments, you’ll sometimes feel His quiet, “I’ve got you, too.” As Elder Holland said, “Some blessings come soon, some come late, and some don’t come until heaven; but for those who embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, they come.”[25]

How merciful is our God unto us, for he… stretches forth his hands… all the day long.[26]


[1] 1 Nephi 16:5

[2] Abraham 4:18

[3] Jacob 4:18

[4] Jacob 2:3

[5] Jacob 1:5

[6] Jacob 4:17-18

[7] Jacob 4:17

[8] Jacob 5:7

[9] Jacob 5:22

[10] Jacob 5:15, 29

[11] Matthew 5:45

[12] 2 Thessalonians 2:12

[13] Jacob 5:13, 14, 19, 38, 39, 52

[14] See Are We Losing?: A Gospel Perspective on Imperfect Families, Meridian Magazine. In it I suggest that the best way to help those who don’t yet want our help is to immerse ourselves with serving those who are ready for it.

[15] Compare to DC 121:43


[17] Jacob 4:18

[18] Jacob 6:4

[19] Jacob 7:2

[20] Jacob 7:15

[21] Jacob 7:15

[22] Jacob 7:16-20

[23] Jacob 7:21,23

[24] Jacob 5:61


[26] Jacob 6:4