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Lehi’s Dream: Only God Can Make a Tree of Life
Just a few chapters into the Book of Mormon, we find ourselves in the middle of an allegory—an extended symbolic journey filled with dark mists, a great and spacious building, and a glorious tree with shining fruit. Just what does it all mean? In fact, we might well ask, Why is spiritual information so often conveyed to us through symbols? After all, if the scriptures are so important for our eternal welfare, why make them so obscure and difficult to understand? Why not just tell us what we need to know without all the poetic, flowery language?
This is an excerpt from User-Friendly Book of Mormon, The: Timeless Truths for Today's Challenges.
To address this question, we need to take a moment and think about language, because the scriptures are made of words. All words are representative by nature; they consist of sets of letters that, when grouped together, stand for something in our world.
But certain words take on a double meaning and become symbols. This means that they stand for real objects (like trees and seeds) but may also be used to help us understand more abstract, immaterial concepts (like love and faith.) Because scriptures attempt to explain the most abstract concepts, they abound with symbolic language. And precisely because these multilayered words require more mental work, the scriptures have the power to impact us more deeply.
How does symbolic language help us understand spiritual things? To begin with, it wakes up the brain. For example, in the Bible when Jesus says that your faith need only be the size of a mustard seed, an interesting thing happens in your brain. To help you arrive at an understanding of this statement, the side of your brain that collects data fires off whatever it has on file about mustard seeds (that they are tiny, for example). In response, the side that has some understanding of the concept of faith, including the emotive content of that word, sends a message or two (such as faith is believing but not knowing, I feel unsure about many spiritual things, and so on).
Combining two things that normally don’t occur together causes an immediate reaction: the two sides of the brain must communicate in order to grasp the meaning. This connection is called a synapse. Each synapse—the electrical connection between the two sides of the brain—creates a tiny physical change that may be compared to adding a groove to an old record album. When synapses fire, the brain actually grows. As a result of that connection, we are able to go from just collecting facts or feeling vague emotions to understanding. I believe that just as the physical mind grows when symbols are introduced to it, the spiritual mind grows when symbols are contemplated over time.
Lehi’s vision centers around one of the most ubiquitous symbols in all of scripture—the tree of life. Found at the center of Eden (both literally and figuratively), the tree of life turns up in various iterations throughout the canon, including but not limited to the tree in Eden, the allegorical olive tree that represents a variety of concepts, including the house of Israel and the Atonement of Christ, the healing staff Moses raised in the wilderness, the cross of Crucifixion, and Alma’s seed of faith that, when planted in the heart, grows into a tree of life inside each of us.
Real, physical trees help us to make a connection between gospel principles and our own life experiences. We can contemplate the characteristics of a tree that relate to faith (seeds), testimony (fruit), and the firm foundation we have in Jesus (roots) to understand the meaning of these abstract concepts. So as we learn to appreciate the symbolic language in the scriptures, we begin to understand them more deeply. Our brains and our souls grow a little.
The scriptures are difficult to read, but they are so for a good reason. Like Jacob in conflict with the angel, our mental and spiritual muscles grow as we wrestle with the scriptures. We might view it as a workout that will be difficult but will also produce a sense of accomplishment and even euphoria after finishing. We learn new things all the time in life—why not in scripture study?
If we can learn to type with our fingers and use Skype, then we can master the subtleties of symbols.
This is an excerpt from User-Friendly Book of Mormon, The: Timeless Truths for Today's Challenges