The Tree of Life, the Great and Spacious Building, and Suicides

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.

24 thoughts on “The Tree of Life, the Great and Spacious Building, and Suicides

  1. I think part of the missing connect for many people is the recognition that we are all fallen, that’s why we need the Savior. We spend a lot of time reminding people that God loves every one of us (which is true) and maybe not enough time reminding people that we, all of us, absolutely don’t deserve that love. If we deserved God’s love, it would be unremarkable that we had it.

    The world wants us to believe we are valuable in and of ourselves, but the Gospel teaches that we are valuable to God regardless of our value to ourselves and other people. But because He values us, He would like to help us be the best we can be. This is the frustration we all face, that we think, in our short-sightedness, that there’s room in our understanding of ‘our best’ for things that God knows will make us not ‘our best’.

  2. Excellent post Daniel O.

    In my opinion Lehi’s dream of the Tree of Life alone is proof enough of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.

    You’re insights are spot on and have given me much to think about this week.

  3. Dan, you do realize that Joseph Smith Senior had practically the exact same dream as Lehi long before Joseph Smith Junior translated the book…right?

  4. J C, I think it’s wonderful that you believe Lucy Mack Smith’s memory of Joseph Sr.’s dream is so reliable; as it means you also believe Lucy’s memories of holding the gold plates, the breastplate, and the Nephite interpreters are similarly reliable.

  5. Jc, I would expect that JS, Sr. had many spiritual experiences in his life. He was clearly prepared to accept and support JS, Jr. in his efforts once JS, Jr. told him about his experiences. It seems logical that JS, Sr. had already been prepared through experiences of his own.

    And, as JimD said, I am glad that you are on board with Lucy Mack Smith’s testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

  6. JC: People who are familiar with the goodness and blessings of God want as many people as possible to share in them. I think God wants to pour out as many blessings, revelations, and goodness as possible on as many people as possible. I don’t begrudge others receiving more blessings, revelations, and God-inspired dreams than I do. I think being prepared for them, and being able to receive/handle them, has a lot to do with what kind, what degree, and how many blessings one receives.

    If JS Sr. had a dream from God, of a kind that was important enough to be included in scripture, well good for him.

    Brigham Young and Heber Kimball shared some of the same visions before joining the church too. I remember reading something about how they saw some kind of army march across the sky. They saw it separately, and it was on the same date of some other important event but I forget which. Maybe it was Moroni’s first visit in 1823 when he revealed the plates, or the 1827 visit when he gave the plates to JS, or the 1830 founding of the church.

    That generation had some very spiritual people in it, and God played a part in preparing them for the great work of the restoration.

    And, uh…. why shouldn’t God give the same dream to two related people? Is there some rule against that?

  7. It’s instructive to note how two people can see the same set of facts and choose to interpret them differently. For one, the fact that Joseph Smith Sr. had a tree of life dream remarkably similar to the dream Lehi had is a huge stumbling block. To another, it’s evidence of consistency in how God treats His prophets down through the ages. In other words, it just makes sense.

    The key is how we use our agency in choosing a paradigm. I choose to believe.

    Getting back to this post, Daniel O’s insights are very appropriate and definitely worth pondering over. I appreciate his time and willingness to share his witness with us online.

    Given all the controversies leveled against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the past few years alone, I am personally appreciative of people – all from a broad, diverse background – being willing to share their faith and testimonies, encouraging all of us to choose faith as an expression of their moral agency.

  8. MT: this is not related to anything you said. But just so I get an idea of what your generation knows, do you know, off the top of your head (no web search or asking someone) the literary reference of repeating a loyalty oath in order to eat, or singing the national anthem to get the salt and pepper?

  9. Bookslinger, I’m not sure where you’re going with references to a loyalty oath etc.

  10. It is important to note that JS Sr’ dream took place in a forest, not a desert setting. JS Sr dream stopped far short of what we read from Nephi.

    I would add that there may be one additional group in the dream. Laman and Lemuel are at the head of the river. They are not at the tree, bldg, nor drowning . They seem to be paralyzed by the choices,unable to decide.

  11. The great and spacious building represents the ” vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men”. People may think they are following the word of God, yet their hearts are full of pride.” When we look down, in any way, on those who are struggling with the issue of being LDS and LBGT at the same time, we could be one of the people in that building. Remember that the Tree of Life represents the Love of God. There are many things to divert us from that and lead us to that. The gulf between pride and the love of God is “wide”, according to the Book of Mormon. We would do well, to rid pride from our lives, listening to and reaching out in love.
    I have seen people post the suicide numbers, NOT to make the church look bad, but because those memes gave them a voice. I do know people who have been suicidal over their quest for happiness and the contradictions they feel they face. it is not my place, nor any of our places to judge their intentions on sharing these feelings with us. Geoff’s blog made many assumptions as to the political beliefs and agenda of people posting these numbers. From my circles, these are not what is behind the message. I have only seen people crying out, saying, “see? There are others like me, who have been shocked and saddened and felt alienated.” Instead of assuming we know the intentions of these people, why don’t listen to what they are actually saying?

  12. @ Kristin: Have you actually seen the Mama Dragons Facebook page?

    I have.

    That “See?” precedes a “So . . .”.

  13. Daniel, you’re trying to win an emotional debate with a rational argument. That might be an effective approach to reach those who are willing to think about the situation rationally, but in an emotional debate, how many actually do that?

    In my opinion, when someone is trying to use suicides to pressure ideological opponents into submission, there is only one appropriate response:

    “Suicide should never be used as a weapon.”

    No debate. No discussion. End of conversation.

  14. Kristin wrote “it is not my place, nor any of our places to judge their intentions on sharing these feelings with us.”

    That’s Bulloney. And here’s why…

    We (people who hold no ecclesiastical authority over the speaker/sharer) are to avoid making judgements as to a person’s deserved standing in the church (ie, we should avoid saying so-and-so ought to be disfellowshipped/ex’ed) and we are to avoid making eternal/spiritual “final judgment” type judgments (ie, we should avoid saying so-and-so is going to hell).

    But we have to make judgments/determinations whenever someone else, especially one who is _not_ speaking from a recognized position of ecclesiastical authority, makes attempts at persuading us to do/not do, or believe/disbelieve or support/disavow something.

    Whenever we hear or read something, we _have_ to decide whether we will _approach_ or _avoid_ the influence or attitudes that the speaker is exhibiting or promulgating. Intentions are part of that.

    Attitudes are contagious. Words cannot be unheard/unread, just as pictures cannot be unseen. Everything in the environment has influence. The philosopher Epictetus made that point. We either approach/adopt/follow/believe the speaker to some degree, or we avoid/ignore/disbelieve the speaker to some degree.

    The main judgment we make upon listening to or reading church members is: are they encouraging me to (or intending that I) accept and follow the positions of the Brethren, or to ignore or go against the Brethren (FP+Q12)?

    In addition to the classical stoic philosopher Epictetus (in his work “Enchiridion”) Dr. Bruce Charlton also wrote an essay on this at:
    titled: It is not un-loving to judge people as having evil intentions – indeed such judgements are absolutely required.

    It’s short, so I’ll quote it here:

    Christians sometimes feel or say that they ought to suppose other people have ‘good intentions’, and that this attitude is entailed by being loving, as we are required to be.

    But this is a mistake. Christians simply need to judge the intentions of others as accurately as possible, and then act accordingly.

    When a person is judged as having evil intentions, then this may need to be said explicitly; and such a person should be treated as such.
    The Christian injunction to love, and not to hate – comes-in in the sense that a person’s evil intentions should not be taken as a justification for hating them; because such emotions as hatred, resentment, grudge-bearing, vengefulness are un-Christian.

    Of course, most people cannot help but feel hatred, resentment, cannot help bearing grudges, cannot stop a desire for revenge. However, such feelings should be acknowledged to be wrong, should be repented, and should not be justified.
    As Christians, we must acknowledge that we ought to be able (were we perfect in our obedience) to love even those who are motivated by evil – as did Christ.

    But that does not-at-all mean we should always assume good intentions, nor that we should always give people ‘the benefit of the doubt’. To do that would be dishonest (a sin) as well as simply foolish.

    Christians are not supposed to be self-deluding dupes, deranged by wishful-thinking – but to be clear-eyed realists.

  15. I have been learning lately that wanting to love and wanting to be loved are effectively opposites. It has helped me understand better what it means to love, particularly in those cases where loving will mean I miss out on being loved.

  16. To comment on Kristin’s comment about the intent of the suicide numbers. Simply, I cannot know the intention of those who published those numbers. But, the truth should still be known that, in fact, suicide is an extremely complicated issue, and that it is most often caused by a number of combined issues. Yes, some of those issues may involve the struggle of having same sex attraction and not feeling there is a place in the church. But, I believe that to say that the Church, or really anyone is to blame (including the person who committed suicide) is just not truth.
    I feel like Kristin, in her response here, is saying falsehoods are ok as long as it is propagating something good or just. I’m just not sure I see it that way.

Comments are closed.