I still vividly recall the homework assignment from Brother Ortho Christensen, my ninth-grade seminary teacher. It was September 1964, early in the school year, and we were studying the Book of Mormon. We had just completed reviewing Lehi’s dream (1 Ne. 8) when Brother Christensen gave us our assignment. “Students,” he said, “I want you to draw a picture depicting Lehi’s dream. Your assignment is due Friday.” Now for those students blessed with even marginal artistic talent, the assignment was not difficult. For students like me, devoid of such talent, it was a daunting task.
I recall my feeble attempts to depict the tree of life, the great and spacious building, the river of water, and the mist of darkness. But what I remember most distinctly is the rod of iron leading to the tree of life and acting as a guide to those who would take hold and follow where it led. The stick figures in my picture who held to the iron rod would reach the tree, “whose fruit was desirable to make one happy” (1 Ne. 8:10). Lehi’s son Nephi later explains that this iron rod “was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction” (1 Ne. 15:24).
What was so special about the fruit that Lehi describes? “I beheld a tree,” he said, “whose fruit was desirable to make one happy. … And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy” (1 Ne. 8:10, 12). Nephi later explains the meaning of the tree in his father’s dream: “It is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men” (1 Ne. 11:22).
What is the connection between the iron rod and the fruit of the tree? How does the word of God lead to the joy and happiness that come from partaking of the tree of life?
Church President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) taught: “The way for each person and each family to guard against the slings and arrows of the Adversary and to prepare for the great day of the Lord is to hold fast to the iron rod, to exercise greater faith, to repent of our sins and shortcomings, and to be anxiously engaged in the work of His kingdom on earth, which is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Herein lies the only true happiness for all our Father’s children.”1
In King Benjamin’s address to his people he also explained how to experience true happiness: “And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it” (Mosiah 2:41; emphasis added).
These prophets teach us that if we are to obtain true happiness, or in other words, to partake of the precious fruit described by Lehi and Nephi, we must obey the word of God, or His commandments, which Nephi describes as the iron rod. True happiness comes from the peace and joy we experience when we do that which we have been commanded to do.
In today’s world there is confusion over the definition of happiness. We can be misled if we listen to those who claim that happiness comes from material wealth or worldly pleasures. This all brings to mind a bumper sticker that was popular a few years ago. It read, “He who dies with the most toys wins!” Nothing could be further from the truth. Pursuing the pleasures of the world, particularly sin, does not bring lasting joy and peace. Alma taught his son Corianton that such pursuits do not bring true happiness: “Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10).
The world defines happiness as pleasure or fun, not the inner peace and joy that come from partaking of the fruit of the tree of life. Elder James E. Talmage (1862–1933) clearly explained the difference: “Happiness includes all that is really desirable and of true worth in pleasure, and much beside. Happiness is genuine gold, pleasure but gilded brass. … Happiness is as the genuine diamond, which, rough or polished, shines with its own inimitable luster; pleasure is as the paste imitation that glows only when artificially embellished. … Happiness leaves no bad after-taste, it is followed by no depressing reaction; it calls for no repentance, brings no regret, entails no remorse; pleasure too often makes necessary repentance, contrition, and suffering; and, if indulged to the extreme, it brings degradation and destruction.”2
As a young holder of the Aaronic priesthood, I watched many of my older peers prepare for and depart to serve full-time missions. When they returned, I was amazed at the transformation that had occurred. I was impressed at how polished and mature they appeared. I was amazed at the strength of their testimonies. They seemed to shine with enthusiasm for the gospel. Where two years earlier they had stumbled and mumbled through a farewell talk in sacrament meeting, they now spoke with confidence and conviction as they described their mission experiences and bore strong testimony of the restored gospel. Invariably they told the congregation, “The past two years have been the happiest of my life.”
As a young teenager I wanted to experience the happiness these returned missionaries were describing. Now, I thought I knew what it meant to be happy. I had many friends, I loved playing football and baseball, and life seemed pretty good. I thought a mission would just be a continuation of these happy experiences.
Some years later I found myself in Hildesheim, Germany, as a brand-new missionary serving in the North German Mission. I had come into the mission field believing that missionary life would be a happy continuation of my teenage years. I was quite mistaken. I found missionary work to be difficult and exhausting. I was very homesick. My German skills were grossly inadequate. Small children and even dogs seemed to understand more German than I could. On top of all this, no one seemed to want to listen to our message.
I began to wonder what in the world those returned elders from the St. George Fourth Ward in Utah had been talking about. This was hard, and I definitely was not happy.
But like many young missionaries who had gone before me, a gradual transformation began to take place. I learned to study and pray in a way I had never known. I learned to be obedient to mission rules. I learned the value of hard work and consistent effort. Only then did I begin to understand what those returned missionaries had meant. I really was happy—the happiest I had ever been. It wasn’t the happiness I had experienced with friends on the ball field; it was the inner peace and joy that come from obeying the word of God and feeling His love.
I am surprised that after all these years I have such a clear memory of my clumsy depiction of Lehi’s dream. My efforts certainly would not have won any awards; in fact, I don’t recall they even earned a very good grade from Brother Christensen. What that picture did instill in me, however, is of far greater worth. It helped me understand that Lehi’s dream is a beautiful description of the purpose for which we come to earth in the first place. The great plan of salvation provides that we may return to God’s presence and partake of the precious fruit, namely the love of God, and ultimately eternal life. Part of that plan involves temptations, such as the “great and spacious building” Lehi describes. It includes, as well, the trials and challenges of life. Many will wander from the path and be lost in the “mist of darkness” or perish in the “river of water.” But those who hold fast to the iron rod, or, in other words, obey the word of God, will enjoy the fruit of the tree of life and experience a happiness that will fill their “soul with exceedingly great joy.” This joy is the happiness that will last and will bring us peace.
Involve your family in drawing a picture of Lehi’s dream. Start with the iron rod and talk about its meaning in the dream. Then have each member of the family add a feature. Bear your testimony of the happiness that can come to those who hold on to the iron rod.
Share an experience when you had to make a difficult choice. Bear testimony of the joy you felt because you chose to follow the Lord. Then, as a family, make two lists: (1) Things that may bring short-lived pleasure then sadness; (2) Things that bring long-lasting happiness and peace.