I had a follow up thought to Geoff’s post about recent LGBTQ suicides that I thought should have its own post.
Last week in Sunday School, I taught a lesson on Lehi’s dream. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on the symbols of the dream and their meaning for members of the Church. And I believe the dream reveals a fallacy in the argument that the Church’s teachings cause gay suicides.
If we think about Lehi’s dream, there are four groups. One goes straight to the great and spacious building, one looks for the tree but quickly wanders off, one reaches the tree but falls away because of the mocking from those in the building, and one group remains at the tree and continually enjoys the fruit.
What I noticed as I’ve been thinking about this dream is that while a great multitude of those “feeling” their way straight to the building eventually get there, none of those who started on the path towards the tree (or those who get to the tree) but wander off to try to go the building ever actually get there. They are all simply described as wandering off and lost.
Nephi’s explanation of the river separating the tree and the building helps explain why. He notes that the water “an awful gulf . . . separating the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God.” Basically, once you proceed towards the tree of life, it becomes impossible to backtrack and make it back into the building. And in particular, once you have tasted of the fruit of the tree, and fall away, you are almost certainly going to fall into that great gulf if you try to go to the building.
So why does this matter? The building represents the teachings of the world, and the tree represents the doctrines and love of Christ. Many people successfully find their way to the building. They find a manner of happiness after the teachings of the building/world. They eat, drink, indulge, and are merry. They are unaware of the discontent between their conduct and God’s will and therefore are able to find pleasure in the building. Of course, we know that this building lacks a foundation and will invariably fall. But those in the building are not aware of this.
On the other hand, many people hold on to the iron rod, reach the tree, and heed not the mockers in the building. They remain at the tree and enjoy the fruit of the tree forever. They find true and everlasting happiness.
It isn’t the tree and it isn’t even the building that cause people to fall into that great and terrible gulf and be drowned. It is the attempt to go to the building after having learned of the tree and/or tasted of its fruit. It is the disconnect between the teachings of Christ and the teachings of the world that cause these individuals to drown.
I see drowning as quite a powerful metaphor for those who have committed suicide in recent months. Those who have taken their own lives have been unable to reconcile the things they learn in Church, with the things the world loudly declares. The Church teaches absolute chastity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. It teaches that in the eternal plan, those who do so will receive eternal bliss and happiness. The world on the other hand teaches to indulge one’s sexual appetite. And it teaches that we should only concern ourselves with this life and that being deprived something in this life is a great and everlasting tragedy. These teachings can not be reconciled. And the attempt to do so leads to despair and depression
Neither set of teachings by itself would cause this sorrow. One could heed not the teachings of the world and remain perfectly blissful at the tree. It is of course harder and harder to do in light of the fact that, as President Packer described, we are now surrounded by the great and spacious building and are effectively living in it. It is almost impossible not to heed the teachings of the world without the protective power of the spirit and the Atonement of Christ.
One could also fully embrace or live the teachings of the world and find a measure of happiness. It wouldn’t be eternal happiness, but it would be temporary pleasure.
But those who have tasted of the fruit and know of the truth of the doctrines of Christ can never be content in the building. And the disconnect between what they know to be eternally true and what the world teaches drowns many in guilt and misery.
I’m not suggesting that suicide is the inevitable or natural consequence of falling away from the Church… It isn’t. Metaphors and symbolic imagery are always more categorical than reality. And every suicide is a tragedy to be lamented and prevented to the best of our abilities.
But it’s pointless to blame the tree, or the building for those who are lost. Likewise, its pointless to point fingers at either the Church or the world for the suicides. These deaths are the tragic but foreseeable consequence of a world which takes pleasure contrary to the things of God.
That doesn’t mean that we are powerless to help. We must love, welcome, encourage and exhort individuals to stay at the tree. I suspect that there were many in Lehi’s dream who began to heed the things of the world but were brought back to the tree by their friends and relatives. We can do much to ward off despair through our charity and through the power of Christ’s atonement. Nevertheless, despite our efforts some may drown. And we absolutely should mourn with those who lose loved ones. But we should also never forget that true and eternal joy can only be found at the tree.