Vertically Connected Blog
In the prophet Lehi's magnificent dream, a tree bearing brilliant white fruit stood in the middle of an open field. This tree, Nephi later learned, represented Jesus Christ and the fruit was a manifestation of His love. There was a path with a handrail of iron running alongside it providing a guide to this glorious tree. And Lehi could see multitudes of people trying to make their way to it (see 1 Nephi 8).
However, the way to this tree was not free from obstacles or distractions.
There was a great building in the distance full of finely dressed people who were loudly mocking those trying to reach the tree.
A filthy river divided the path from the building.
Strange roads leading into darkness awaited in the distance.
And a mist of darkness hung thick and heavy over the path.
It is no wonder, then, that although many wanted to, very few actually reached the tree. Instead, many were drawn away from the path by those in the building, some drowning in the river or wandering down a strange road. One group even got on the path, but because they didn’t grab hold of the rod of iron, they lost their way in the darkness.
But then we learn of two groups who got on the path, held to the rod, and made their way through all of the obstacles and distractions to the tree.
When the first group eats the fruit of the tree, however, they immediately did something interesting: “they did cast their eyes about . . .” (1 Nephi 8:25).
They were standing in front of a tree that was whiter and more precious and more beautiful than anything Lehi had ever seen. It offered a fruit that was "most desirable above all things" (11:22). Indeed, they were standing at the feet of the Savior.
And they looked around.
Lehi even explains it seemed "as if they were ashamed." And so, they soon left the tree and "fell away into forbidden paths and were lost" (v. 28).
Another group pressed forward on the path through the same circumstances and when they finally got to the tree, they also did something interesting: “They came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree” and did not leave (v. 30).
There are so many lessons to take from these ten short verses in the first book of Nephi, but one question must be asked: What made these two groups different from the rest of the people who never made it to the tree?
Interestingly, it was the same thing that made these two groups different from each other.
It was where they were looking.
For where they were looking determined what they did - indeed, it ended up determining everything.
One thing to notice is that the fate of these two groups was not determined by being a member of the Church or not. Both groups who made it to the tree were more than likely followers of Jesus Christ, for they were both on the path holding fast to the word of God and then both partook of His gifts of grace and mercy and love. But one group chose to look horizontally in their experience and one chose to look vertically.
One group chose to "cast their eyes about" for support, guidance, and approval and one chose to keep their focus on the tree and what it represented.
This miraculous account also seems to reveal one of the great challenges of our day: where are we going to look?
God stands ready to help us. He is pouring down His divine knowledge, approval, peace, guidance, and love from the heavens.
The world, however, is also throwing opinions, ideas, popularity, pleasure, and "likes" our way - pulling at us from all sides, beckoning us to cross dangerous rivers and walk into seemingly innocent darkness.
Now more than ever before, its loud incessant voices want to tell us who we are, what we should be doing, and what is important in this life.
We have to decide which direction we are going to look to fulfill the needs in our lives - and also evaluate where we are already looking for those things - for that focus will end up determining the choices we make - indeed, it will, in the end, determine everything.
One day, a young woman named Rebecca came in to talk to me. As we talked, I discovered she was a wonderful young lady. Although she was a little bit reserved, she was definitely a "go-getter," usually taking around 18 credits a semester, working over 40 hours a week, and still managing to accomplish so many other things.
In fact, whatever she did, she did well.
And yet, she was really struggling: “I just can’t find joy or happiness in my life,” she said. “I am struggling to find peace and contentment and purpose.”
As we talked about why and how she could be feeling this way, I had a feeling to ask her, “Rebecca do you believe Heavenly Father loves His children?
“Absolutely,” she said. “I know He loves His children.”
And then she paused . . . “He just doesn’t love me.”
I asked what she meant by that and she explained, “I know He is our Heavenly Father who loves us like a Father would love us. I know He loves you. I know He loves others. But I honestly believe I am an exception to His love.”
As we talked, it became apparent that Rebecca's unending effort to "do everything" was somehow trying to "earn" a divine love she didn't think applied to her. We also both realized not only how easy it is to make ourselves an exception, but how dangerous it can be.
This seems to be one of the many lessons we can learn from the story of King David.
He was perhaps one of the most righteous men of his time and one of the most righteous kings in human history. That is . . . until he made himself an exception.
David had been king for several years when one day he decided to send his troops to battle and stay back in Jerusalem. Kings are always supposed to go with their troops to battle. But David decided to stay.
Maybe he was tired. Remember, he had been in battle most of his life, starting with his encounter with Goliath as a young lad. Nevertheless, it was a mistake. A seemingly innocent mistake, really.
But that one exception put David in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For, that night he couldn’t sleep, and when he went out on his roof, he accidentally saw a woman bathing. And he chose to stay and watch.
Accidentally seeing her was not a sin. Staying was.
Maybe he said to himself, “What’s the big deal? I can watch. I am strong enough.”
And so he watched long enough to know that she was “very beautiful.” (v.2).
When he discovered her name was Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, he asked for her to come meet him. Another exception.
David probably knew Uriah was at the battle. Maybe at this point he justified, “I’m the king. I can have anyone I want.” Or “No one will know.” However, when Bathsheba came to him, David ended up lying with her and Bathsheba became pregnant.
Now David had a dilemma.
His pattern of small exceptions had led him into a big problem.
And so he called Uriah in from battle. Another exception. No one comes homes in the middle of the battle. But David was hoping that he could cover up what he had done. Uriah was given meat and food and told to go home to his family for the night.
The only problem is Uriah wouldn’t go home.
He “slept at the door of the king’s house with all of the servants of the lord, and went not down to his house.” (2 Samuel 11:9)
Why? Because there was a law - and maybe more importantly an expectation - that you weren’t supposed to be able to enjoy the comforts of home during battle. And you especially weren’t supposed to be able to be with your wife.
You were supposed to focus on the war.
David knew that.
So did Uriah.
And Uriah did not consider himself an exception to that law. “Why should I be able to sleep in a bed when Israel was sleeping ‘in tents . . . in the open fields’? (v. 11), he said. Why should I be able to eat and drink and be with my family?
Why should I be different?
Why should I be special?”
Upset that Uriah hadn’t gone home, David brought him into the palace, got him drunk, and sent him home, thinking surely that he would go to his wife in that state.
But Uriah again went and slept on the steps with the servants and “went not down to his house.” (v. 13)
Even with his defenses down, Uriah wouldn’t do it.
In desperation, David sent Uriah back to the battle with specific directions that Joab assign him to the worst part of the battle. Joab obeyed. And Uriah was eventually killed. David made Bathsheba his wife and she bore him a son.
The interesting but truly sad thing about David’s story is that we know now from David’s writings that he will forever regret that decision he made.
It seems that David never intended on seeing something he should not have seen. He never intended on lying with another man’s wife. David never intended on killing her husband. I’m not sure that was ever his nature or his desires.
He just chose to be an exception in a small, inconsequential way and it led down a slippery slope to a tragic conclusion.
Both David’s and Uriah’s stories compel us to ask ourselves “Are there times I make myself an exception to the rules? Do I consider myself an exception to one of God’s commandments?”
And as in Rebecca's case: “Do I think I am an exception to God’s love or kindness or forgiveness? Am I beyond the scope of His patience? Is what I have done beyond the scope of His mercy?”
When we do make ourselves an exception in some way, what can happen in our lives? What are the consequences?
When we sneak candy into the movie theater “because it’s so expensive to buy it there and it’s ridiculous they have such a rule,” we may not find ourselves in David’s shoes, but we may find ourselves making another exception somewhere down the road for something else.
We may find ourselves feeling anxious, lonely, or unfulfilled because we have moved ourselves away from intended blessings or what we believe is the reach of God’s love like Rebecca did.
Or we may find ourselves feeling we are an exception to trial or struggle.
One man shared with me that unknowingly he had made himself an exception at work. He was a truck driver and had worked at his company for many years. Whenever they would get a newer, nicer truck, he would assign himself to that truck. “I deserve to be in a nicer truck. I have been here longer,” he would justify.
He realized that he had made himself an exception: he shouldn’t have to “suffer” in an old truck.
His co-workers should, but not him.
And he didn't even realize he was doing it.
Years ago, I had just finished teaching this concept about making ourselves an exception to a group of youth and we all headed to lunch. The directors of the conference brought me a plate of food but didn’t realize my wife had come to listen to me speak. “I’ll just go grab her some food really quick,” I thought. So I went to the front of the line and kindly asked if I could get a plate for my wife. A young woman a few kids back in line called out to me smiling and said, “Hey Brother Hunsaker! Great job making yourself an exception!”
I almost dropped that plate of food right then and there! I felt horrible.
It is so easy to do!
Our Savior, Jesus Christ, is the perfect example to us in all things.
And it should come as no surprise that He never made Himself an exception.
Although it seems He really didn’t need to be, He was baptized by John “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Although He had to power to, Christ did not turn stones into bread when the adversary tempted Him to. He did not unnecessarily use His power to call upon angels to deliver Him. He did not ask to be an exception in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked if there was another way. But He submitted to the Father’s will.
Our Heavenly Father gives laws, commandments, and expectations for us to follow.
He also gives us opportunities to have divinely customized experiences.
And each one is perfectly designed to fulfill His greatest work in bringing to pass our "immortality and eternal life" (Moses 1:39).
Every time we choose to follow, choose to be obedient, choose to submit, and choose to see ourselves as no better and no worse than anyone else, we not only place ourselves on solid ground, even the "sure foundation" of Christ (Helaman 5:12), but we actually become more and more like Him in the process.
In the Old Testament, we learn about Naaman, the powerful commander who had delivered the Syrian army in a great battle. A respected man and natural leader, Naaman was held in high regard among many.
However, that doesn’t seem to be why his story is in the scriptures. Naaman was a leper, and because his wife’s handmaid knew of a prophet in Samaria, Naaman was part of an incredible miracle. The story leading up to that miracle is where we will begin our study about “boxing the Lord in.”
Once Naaman discovered there was a way to be healed, he rode to Samaria with his chariots, a large sum of money, and, it seems, the beginnings of faith. However, when he got to the house of Elisha, the prophet did not come out to meet him. Instead, he sent out his servant, who told Naaman to go down and wash himself seven times in the river Jordan to become cleansed of his leprosy.
This angered Naaman, and he exclaimed, “Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So, he turned and went away in a rage” (2 Kings 5:11-12).
Although there might be many reasons why Naaman was angered — including pride or misunderstanding or cultural tradition — there could be at least one other explanation: Naaman might have been upset because nothing in that experience ended up going the way he thought it should: “Elisha should have come out to meet me.” “He was supposed to do something dramatic and perform a miracle right then.” “Surely, he could have asked me to go bathe in some other river?”
In other words, Naaman had set parameters for how he was to be healed.
He “boxed the Lord in.”
And because the Lord’s help didn’t fit in that box, Naaman wanted nothing to do with it.
Thankfully, we know that’s not how the story ends.
One of Naaman’s servants was brave enough to ask him this important question: “Just because you didn’t get the respect you thought you would, and just because this hasn’t gone the way you thought it should, does that mean it is not of God?”
It seems this servant didn’t have a box for the answers to fit in. Naaman then chose to humble himself and went down into the Jordan seven times “according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (v. 14).
Naaman wanted to be healed of his leprosy. Yet, God seemed to have greater things in mind. He wanted to heal Naaman, not just of a skin disease, but of what was keeping Naaman from finding true joy and peace, even what was keeping Naaman from finding Him. So, He sent Naaman an answer that wasn’t in his “box.”
Sometimes, we carry around a similar box: a mental receptacle meant to receive the answers, help, or comfort we are seeking from the Lord.
Our box, intentional or not, can set parameters of not only what He is supposed to do for us, but also how and when and where He is supposed to do it.
We limit the Lord by “boxing Him in.”
I find that we might not necessarily set these parameters because we think we know more than God. Instead, it might be because we think we know our specific situation better than He does, or at least that we, like Naaman, know what we want in that situation.
However, when we dictate how revelation works in our lives, we can diminish what revelation we receive in our lives.
Can you think of a time in your life when you may have set these kinds of parameters with the Lord? Have you found yourself pleading with Him for guidance or answers, but actually limiting what guidance or answers He can give? Have you realized times you may have been “waiting on the Lord” for a long time for an answer and it could have simply been because you were unwilling to accept a certain answer? Have you discovered an overflowing box that doesn’t have any room for the Lord’s answers?
Here are a few examples of what this looks like:
We can also have expectations like these:
Elder Neal A. Maxwell once asked this poignant question:
“How can we sincerely pray to be an instrument in [the Lord’s] hands if the instrument seeks to do the instructing?”
We can also ask ourselves some similar questions:
“If I have parameters for the Lord, how guided do I really want to be?"
"If I will only accept an answer that’s already in my box, then do I honestly want an answer?”
As we begin to answer these questions, we can begin to recognize the boxes we may be setting out for the Lord to fill. And as we remove these boxes, we will find that revelation can flow so much more in our lives.
Stephen & Michelle Hunsaker
Stephen teaches at the Logan Institute of Religion for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has been teaching for over 26 years.
Michelle is a full-time mom who enjoys reading, writing, teaching, and anything and everything to do with musicals.
They are the parents of ten children and authors of the book : Boxing the Lord In and Other Ways We Hinder Revelation.
Their hope is that each week through the thoughts and ideas they share in this blog, you can become more "vertically connected" in your lives. They seek to see and share "things as they really are" and "as they really will be" (Jacob 4:13) by learning how to build more and more on the sure foundation of the Savior, Jesus Christ and the doctrines and principles of His gospel.