In Your Wilderness, Rely on the Lord
I’m just so impressed as I look out over this audience at how many women are here today. This is such a great thing. It reminds me of one of my favorite medical stories about the family who was tending to one of their family members who needed a brain transplant. It was a very serious kind of operation, and they were meeting with the doctor, who was explaining the science behind it and the procedure, and took them through all the risks and all the things that would happen, and then said, “Well, we’re now to the point where you get to choose the brain that is transplanted, and you should know that male brains are $50,000 and female brains are $25,000.”
So the men are kind of smiling smugly as we tend to do in these moments. One of the women spoke up and said, “Well, Doctor, why is that?”
He said, “Well, that’s because the female brains have actually been used.” As a card-carrying male, I can get away with saying that.
The other thing I notice is that some of you, boys and girls, are sitting very close to one another. Is that allowed here, President? Oh, it is? Okay. Did you see how he answered that? That was very quick.
I guess I’m too used to dealing with my own kids, where I’m a little more cautious. I caught my 4-year-old son the other day spending a lot of time with the next-door neighbor, Ruby. And I felt it was time to confront him about this. So the other day, Dan and Ruby were in the driveway playing together, and I went up to them and I said, “Dan, you and Ruby are spending a lot of time with each other. Are you two going to get married?”
He looked up at me with this totally disgusted look on his face, said, “Dad, we don’t even know the way to the temple.” At least there are geographic barriers working, if nothing else right now, for them.
One other quick story about a family member that kind of launches into what I’ve felt prompted to talk to you about today. Dan’s older brother Jake was about 10 years old when we had an opportunity to go lead some students over to London for the summer. I was a professor over at BYU, and we for a long time had wanted this opportunity, been waiting for it, preparing for it, finally got the word from BYU that we were asked to be the directors for this program and that we were going to be in England for the summer. We were so excited. We came home—I still have bruised ribs where my wife just grabbed me and held me and just exploded with happiness and delight that we were going to have this opportunity.
My son Jake also exploded, but not in the same way. He did not think that going to Europe was the best way to spend a summer, as a 10-year-old boy. He kind of flipped out and thought this was just awful, because he wanted to be home to play football and play with frogs and do whatever 10-year-old boys do in the summer. So we took him quite literally kicking and screaming. He kept saying he had his free agency, and we kept screaming back, “Yeah, but it doesn’t kick in until 18.”
So we took him, and the first few weeks there were a little bit rocky, but then I don’t know if it was the first castle or the Yorkie bar or the pastries or just the excitement of it all, but finally it just really clicked and our kids just had this great time. The last day we were there I took them to this bakery that was right around from where we lived, and we got these great pastries and were walking back and the sun is out and the double-decker buses are flying by, and it’s just one of these kind of MasterCard moments, you know, and he looks up at me and says, “Dad, I just had no idea how boring Provo was.”
So that is really to kind of take me into what I wanted to talk to you about today. Often, especially at your stage in life, new experiences, new changes, new opportunities, can seem daunting, or maybe not seem that attractive. Maybe you are kind of comfortable where you are and you think, “I’m living the best life I could live.” When, like Jake discovered, there are other things out there for you. Because we’re a little scared or nervous or comfortable with where we are, we don’t branch out, and I think that happens a lot, kind of at your stage. Some of you are brand new to school, and you’re a little uncertain about how this is going to work. Some of you are sitting very close to a member of the opposite sex, and you’re thinking about a relationship and what would marriage mean. Some of you are thinking about a career and where is that going to take you. And so I have felt to say something to you today about a lesson from the Book of Mormon that meant a lot to me when I was your age—some insights that have given me some hope, because these moments can be very unsettling and sort of disorienting.
So let me just say a word about why it’s such a good thing to learn from the Book of Mormon. I probably don’t need to say it, but it’s a truth that bears regular repeating, so I’ll repeat it for you here today.
Joseph Smith taught us that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other [book].” (Introduction to the Book of Mormon)
I had a wonderful experience at age 19 with the Book of Mormon, because that is just when President Ezra Taft Benson became the prophet. I had loved President Kimball. He was the prophet of my youth, and I loved his gravelly voice and his sweet demeanor and his spiritual teachings. I was so sad to see him go. And I didn’t know President Benson very well and candidly didn’t know that I would connect with him, sort of spiritually, emotionally, personality-wise, as I did with President Kimball. But I am so grateful for the life and teachings of President Benson, because just as I was going on my mission, he came to the Church and reminded the Church, in the most powerful of ways, that we needed to take the Book of Mormon more seriously.
Here’s what he said at his first press conference after becoming the prophet—actually, excuse me, at his first general conference address:
“We must make the Book of Mormon a center [of focus and study]…it was written for our day. The Nephites never had the book; neither did the Lamanites of ancient times. It was meant for us. Mormon wrote near the end of the Nephite civilization. Under the inspiration of God, who sees all things from the beginning, he abridged centuries of records, choosing the stories, speeches, and events that would be most helpful to us.
“Each of the major writers of the Book of Mormon testified that he wrote for future generations….
“If they saw our day, and chose those things which would be of greatest worth to us, is that not how we should study the Book of Mormon? We should constantly ask ourselves, ‘Why did the Lord inspire Mormon (or Moroni or Alma) to include that in his record? What lesson can I learn from that to help me live in this day and age?” (Benson, “The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion,” October 1986 conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1986/10/the-book-of-mormon-keystone-of-our-religion?lang=eng)
That’s the spirit in which I want to talk to you today, because there is something that, for me, that goes on in the Book of Mormon, that’s a little bit confusing, that has prompted me to ask the question, “Why is that in this book if this book is written for our day?”
So the idea here is that some time ago I was struck by the fact, how often the Book of Mormon addresses the idea of a people journeying in a wilderness. Okay, now why is that strange? Well, it’s strange because we’re talking a physical wilderness. They’re out in the woods or the desert, and they’re wandering around, and it happens all the time. But most of us in the modern Church today don’t live in wildernesses. Now, some of our ancestors, the pioneers, clearly had their wilderness moment, but remember that it’s written for our day. And the great lion’s share of the modern Church has lived in the civilized world, where there aren’t that many places of wilderness left.
But just listen for a minute, and I may share some of this a little more formally in terms of reading some thoughts I’ve observed about this, just how often you see references to wilderness and traveling in the wilderness in the Book of Mormon.
In a chronological sense, the Book of Mormon begins with a record of the Jaredites, who were “commanded … that they should go forth into the wilderness, yea, into that quarter where there never had man been.” (Ether 2:5) In a narrative sense, the Book of Mormon begins with the story of Lehi, who was commanded that he should “take his family and depart into the wilderness.” (1 Nephi 2:2) And this is no temporary thing. They spend the next eight years wandering—that’s Nephi’s verb, not mine—wandering through this wilderness, at one point referred to by Nephi as the wilderness of their afflictions.
Then having finally made it through the Judean wilderness and across the ocean, having just arrived in that sweet and long-awaited Promised Land, and set up something resembling normal life again, after having left that Jerusalem behind, and Nephi and his wife and immediate family and those who would follow him, were again commanded to “flee into the wilderness.” (2 Nephi 5:5) Even in the Promised Land, they’re back into the wilderness again.
Jacob, Nephi’s younger brother, who the records indicate was born in the wilderness along with his brother Joseph, reminds us by quoting Isaiah that people are often found in waste places, deserts and wildernesses. He specifically calls attention to the fact that Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac out in the wilderness, and that the children of Israel had a 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. In fact, to his dying day, Jacob felt that he had never quite escaped the wilderness of his birth, saying that even in the Promised Land, their “lives passed away like as it were … a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem … [into] a wilderness.” (Jacob 7:26)
Years after Nephi and Jacob and others had established the land of Nephi, Mosiah and his righteous followers were forced by Nephite wickedness to depart out of the land of Nephi into the wilderness. Ammon and Alma both recorded that they wandered many days in the wilderness. And Ammon and the other sons of Mosiah similarly record that they, too, were wanderers in a “strange land.” (Alma 26:36; see also Alma 17:6-9)
Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is Moroni, who goes on to play such a vital and glorious role in the Restoration of the gospel and the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith. He is presumably middle-aged, facing an entire continent of wilderness as a completely solitary man, left to “wander whithersoever [he could], for the safety of [his] own life.” (Moroni 1:3)
Do you get the picture? A lot of very, very righteous people spend a lot of time just wandering around in a wilderness—336 references to wilderness in the Book of Mormon. That’s prompted one gospel scholar, Hugh Nibley, to say that when it comes to the wilderness, the Book of Mormon people never entirely leave it. Wandering in the wilderness is one and the same time both a “type and [a] reality.” (“The Flight into the Wilderness,” Brigham Young University Maxwell Institute, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=60&chapid=591)
So why? It’s written for our day. We’re not packing up tents and going off into the wilderness. Why is it there? That’s the challenge of President Benson, when we read the Book of Mormon, to say, “Why is that in there? What can I learn from that for my life today?” And so what I would like to suggest is that it’s not meant that we’re not going to have the same physical reality that they had, most of us. But it might be, as Hugh Nibley said, it might be not a reality but a type, a metaphor, a message for things that we go through that are like a wilderness.
With that in mind, let’s probe this a little bit deeper. So when Lehi and his family leave Jerusalem, what can we gather as they go from that into the wilderness? We know that Lehi left gold and silver and all manner of riches. He was probably a quite prominent figure in the area, a person of stature, of comfort. He was surrounded, bounded by familiar surroundings. He had family, there was a dynamic business life, cultural life, religious affairs—all of that kind of swirling in and around Jerusalem.
If you ever have a chance to go to Jerusalem, or even today, if you get on Google Earth and zero in on Jerusalem, you can see what I’m about to say here. If you stand on Mount Scopus and Mount of Olives, that kind of rings the city of Jerusalem, you can look into Jerusalem, and it is this vibrant, teeming, living entity with green olive groves and business life and civic life. And you can turn 180 degrees—quite literally, you stand on the peak and on the other side of this mountain it is to this day an absolutely barren wilderness. There are hardly any plants, there are no animals. These Bedouin tribes kind of migrate from one little something living out there to the next bit. It’s just rocks and sand and more rocks. That’s what they were facing.
So what did Lehi leave behind? He left behind prosperity, he left behind comfort, he left behind safety, familiarity, community, stability, an entire way of life that was pleasing, sustainable, and it made sense. And what did he go into? What did they find in the wilderness? They found discomfort, they found danger, they found loneliness, they found poverty, they found boredom, confusion, inefficiency, betrayal, disorientation. Maybe those describe some of the things that you’re dealing with right now in your life. Maybe you’ve gotten here to LDS Business College but you’re still not quite sure with what you’re supposed to do with your education.
So maybe yours is an educational wilderness. Maybe yours is a marital wilderness, looking but not able to find that companion. Maybe you have family-life wilderness—wanting to be married and have children or wanting to be reconnected with an alienated parent or sibling. Maybe you are in a Church-calling wilderness, wondering why you’ve been asked to do one thing and not another. Maybe you are in a social wilderness—you’re new here, and you don’t have friends or enough friends or the right kind of friends. Maybe you’ve got a physical-health wilderness that seems strange and disorienting. Or worst of all, though with this group I hope it’s not too much, but maybe some of you are in a spiritual wilderness, really wondering about your testimony or a mistake you’ve made or mistakes you are making right now.
What I want to say to you is that, if you are in that moment and life seems strange and confusing and disorienting because it’s a wilderness you did not expect, and some days you just have to say to yourself, “It can’t really be real; it just seems like a dream that I am going through this,” the first thing I have to say to you is read the Book of Mormon, because there you will encounter family after righteous family and individual after righteous individual that found their way through the wilderness with God’s help. You are not the first, and you won’t be the last to go through the wilderness you find yourselves in right now. It happens to the best of people and not just people in some faraway, distant land like the Book of Mormon.
Perhaps like you, I loved reading about George Albert Smith this last year in our priesthood and Relief Society trainings. I didn’t know that much about President Smith. I knew that he was called to be an apostle at a very young age. I didn’t know how bad his health was; his own father thought that he wouldn’t last, that he couldn’t keep up with the rigors of being an apostle, that he didn’t have the strength for it. And as it was, he almost didn’t make it. He had to effectively suspend his apostolic duties to go to California for a year or more to try to recuperate, his health was so bad.
Can you imagine this, being an apostle, having those sacred keys, that special mandate, and not being able to do anything about it? That was a wilderness, and it got to him. It got to him in a deep, profound and even somewhat troubling way to the extent he wanted to be released from this life. He said, “I’m taking up a sacred spot. There are better, stronger, healthier men out there that should do this job, not me. So please let me go.”
That was the cry of his heart, and he even raised it to his wife. She was shocked and said, “No, don’t. How can you even say that?” But he just was relentless to the point that he finally got her to pray with him. Here’s how she records it:
“My husband had been ill for many years, and he longed to know what our Father in Heaven had in mind about him. One night [he] confided in his wife that ‘he was going to ask the Lord to release him from his position as an Apostle of the Lord, take him home, and put someone else more suitable in his place.’ The next morning, Apostle Smith told me that he had talked with the Lord in the night and had asked the Lord to release him from his position whereupon the Lord told him he should come with his wife before him in prayer to petition him. Over tears I said I could never consent to pray with him for such a purpose. However, Apostle Smith had the same advice again a few nights later. We discussed this matter again, and I finally consented to pray with him for his release from this life. No one knows what a strain it was on my feelings and my great love for my husband and children to accept such a resignation. To the astonishment of many, this was the turning point of his betterment in health. Apostle Smith recuperated from his long illness from this time on. He received a testimony that he was to live as he was one of the chosen to lead his people sometime in the future.” (Woodger, Mary Jane, “ ‘Cheat the Asylum of a Victim’: George Albert Smith’s 1909-1912 Breakdown,” Journal of Mormon History, Fall 2008, pp. 142-143, as told by Lucy W. Smith to Bishop K.J. Fetzer, http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1056&context=mormonhistory)
Well, he does recuperate. He goes on to be the prophet of the Church for six or seven years, during the Church’s centennial. He appears on the cover of Time magazine, something that’s never been duplicated again for a prophet of God, and gave remarkable, remarkable service. But that was a hard wilderness for one of the best men.
Let me draw an example from someone else not of our faith, though I would like to think he is now, given our theology. He was a great man. His name was John Henry Newman. He was a Christian of great energy and intellect in the 19th century, and I think probably a guy doing the best he could without real access to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. He was a young Anglican priest in the Church of England and was right in the center of intellectual religious life at Oxford University. And he had decided to take a trip to Italy, and in Italy he fell desperately ill and he couldn’t return home. He was so sick he couldn’t get home, and when he did start to get better, he had missed a ship and his ability to get transport back to home was precluded, so he was weeks and weeks on end from getting home when he thought he was only going to be away days. And he was a minister. He had a flock to attend to, he had a career to manage, he had people to attend to. And here he was stuck in his Italian wilderness, in this southern city, trapped and unable to do anything.
And so, all he could do was pray as he is stuck in this little moment of wilderness. It’s interesting—two things, we could give a sermon about both, and I will just speak to one. The first one is, he began to see the limitations of the foundations of the Church of England. Now, again, we have to put this in historical context. That didn’t lead him to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, but that’s interesting. He didn’t really have access to it. It took him back to Catholicism. He became convinced that the Church of England just didn’t have the proper priesthood foundations. The Lord was speaking to this man, and he was doing the best he could at the time. And He was clearly speaking to him with what happens next.
In this moment of real difficulty, he took pen to paper, and with a rare literary grace that marked so much of his work, he poured out his frustrations and his faith into a poem that is now the basis for one of my favorite hymns, “Lead, Kindly Light.” Here’s what he says about that moment:
“Before starting from my inn, I sat down upon my bed and began to sob bitterly. My servant, who … acted as my nurse, asked me what ailed me. I could only answer, ‘I have a work to do in England.’ I was aching to get home.” Remember, back to stability, back to things that make sense, back to prosperity. That’s what he was longing for. But “for want of a vessel, [for want of a ship] I was kept at Palermo [Italy] for three weeks. I began to visit the churches [there], and they calmed my impatience, though I did not attend any services. At last, I got off on [a]… boat, bound for Marseilles. We were [there stuck for another] week…it was there that I wrote the lines, Lead, kindly light, which have since become so well known.”
Listen to several of these lines:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now,
Lead thou me on!
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone.
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
(Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, No. 97)
John Newman urgently desired to do God’s work, but ironically, his power and his reach were extended dramatically because he was stuck in a wilderness in a way that was agonizing for him. He could have returned home, but what would have happened? He would have given some more sermons, he would have attended a few more folks, and we’d still recognize him because he was a great figure. But the world and the Church would be deprived of one of the great hymns and lyrics in all of the Christian tradition.
If you think about the reach—I just want to talk about an LDS missionary serving in a remote area at a discouraging point in his mission, who notes that the sky was gray one day. It was raining, and the cold north wind of this area where he was serving was blowing right through his trench coat when it had been raining. His umbrella had been destroyed weeks ago through the wind, and for various reasons his relationship with his companion wasn’t in much better shape. Despite knocking on doors through the torrential rain, not a single soul had let them in to talk about the gospel.
The ultimate wound he was carrying was that, that day, they had scheduled to have someone get baptized and had gone by to meet the investigator only to have a note saying, “I’ve decided not to be baptized. Please don’t come back.”
It was at this moment, when this elder was feeling this flood of emotions and discouragement, that he took an uncustomary path through a graveyard. And on that graveyard, he saw a phrase he had never really seen before, and it was in big, bold relief, and it said, “Lead, Kindly Light.” It was not a phrase he recognized, but it stopped him in his tracks. I know, because I was that Elder. I didn’t know anything about that hymn at that moment, but just seeing that phrase in that context reminded me like a thunderbolt from heaven that there was a power of light and goodness out there that would lead me through my wilderness and get me through this mission and on to whatever else I might face. And it also reminded me that I, too, needed to lead, kindly light with a companion or with others who may not have been always able to see the way that they should go or that they should behave.
How grateful is Matt Holland to this day that John Henry Newman was stuck in Italy in a wilderness for three weeks, and penned the words of that hymn.
Brothers and sisters, the fact of the matter is that, in our wildernesses, God can communicate with us. And I think that’s why so many of us find ourselves in wildernesses. And that’s why the Nephites found themselves in wildernesses, and the Jaredites. That’s why our modern Saints have found themselves [in wildernesses].
As a member of the Martin handcart company described his harrowing experience in the ice-encrusted plains of Wyoming, he recorded in his journal: “It was the price we paid to become acquainted with God.”
Lest the heaviness of this doctrine be too heavy, let me conclude with just two testimonials about what it means to be in a wilderness.
First, before turning his verses into a hymn, Newman’s poem was titled “Pillar of Cloud.” This is a reference, of course, to the miraculous guidance Jehovah gave the children of Israel as they made their 40-year journey through the Sinai wilderness. For Moses and his followers, it was a pillar of cloud to lead them by day, and by night a pillar of fire to give them light.
The Nephites had a Liahona. You may not have a physical Liahona, and there may not be pillars of clouds appearing to guide you. But I promise you that the doctrine of wilderness is such that you will always have access to light and direction to get you through it. God will not leave you alone in that wilderness if you will trust in him. That is sure. That is rock-solid truth. So if you find yourself in that wilderness, then you grab your Liahona—and it is all around you. You live in the technological age where you have 24-hour access to the teachings of the prophets, and you live in a country where at anytime, without punishment, you can kneel down on your knees and go to God directly and ask for His help to get through this wilderness. And you can come to devotionals and attend Institute and take religion courses, and those tools and power of deliverances are all around you. I call upon you to seize them and grab them and hang onto them, as you go through these moments of wilderness.
And finally, I just wish to say this, that the doctrine of wilderness, the principle of wilderness rather, it’s a heavy doctrine. It’s a heavy principle. But it’s buttressed and protected and surrounded by a higher and holier and happier doctrine. This is captured, I believe, by no one else as well as Isaiah.
“For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; [and] joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.”
Brothers and sisters, our wildernesses are way stations, not destinations. You are not meant for poverty or danger or boredom or confusion or failure, though you may pass through those things. You are meant for prosperity, safety, excitement, order, achievement. You are meant for Eden. Over and beyond every wilderness lies a promised land. It may come next week, next year, in the next decade or, for some, the next life. The timing of the Lord is different for different individuals, but the promises are sure. He will make your wildernesses like Eden, and your deserts like the garden of the Lord, and joy and gladness will be yours. Of this I testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.