This article was adapted from my new book, The Three Pillars of Zion. Click here to receive a free sample.)
The journey through the Lord’s Wilderness is like what Elder Maxwell called “the trek of treks.”[i] The scriptures are filled with accounts of spiritual journeys. If we were to outline them, we would see that they follow the sequence of the Beatitudes, which are the principles of blessedness.[ii]
Before we discuss this outline, however, let us first note that in this world, we encounter two wilderness experiences.
The Wilderness of Sin
The first wilderness is the wilderness of sin. We are thrust into this wilderness by our own poor choices. When we have suffered enough, we cry to the Lord for deliverance, and he responds. To get out of the wilderness of sin, we must be delivered. That deliverance hinges on our willingness to make or renew a covenant—the new and everlasting covenant—to cease sinning, and to allow Jesus to work with us and change our natures.
This transformation requires refining, molding and perfecting; therefore, we voluntarily yield to the Lord, ask him to remove us from the wilderness of sin, and allow him to drive us into another wilderness where we can be changed and perfected. This second wilderness is called the Lord’s Wilderness.
The Lord’s Wilderness
We are faced with at least two facts when we exit Babylon and enter the Lord’s wilderness: (1) In choosing Zion, we become enemies of Babylon. Now Babylon will no longer support us. We can expect an all-out war, and attacks might be waged against our finances, our health, and our relationships. (2) Babylon is destined to fall. If we have anchored our safety and security there, we will become part of the fallout. Hence, a curse is placed upon wilderness travelers who attempt to place their trust in the “arm of flesh” rather than trusting in the arm of the Lord.
The transition from Babylon to Zion is daunting and can be frightening. We might ask ourselves, “What will become of us if we attempt to step away from Babylon and fully embrace the laws and principles of Zion?” The answer is always the same: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”[iii] Moreover, the guarantees of safety and security are embedded in the new and everlasting covenant: the Lord promises to support us, sustain us, stand beside us, and keep us safe. Enoch said, “Surely Zion [the people] shall dwell in safety forever.”[iv]
Safe in the Covenant, we no longer need worry as we did in Babylon. What Jesus said to his apostles could apply to anyone in the Covenant: “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.”[v] President Kimball said,
What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? Can we not take the Lord at his word and exercise a particle of faith in him? Our assignment is affirmative: to forsake the things of the world as ends in themselves; to leave off idolatry and press forward in faith; to carry the gospel to our enemies, that they might no longer be our enemies. We must leave off the worship of modern-day idols and a reliance on the ‘arm of flesh,’ for the Lord has said to the world in our day, ‘I will not spare any that remain in Babylon.’[vi]
The Beatitudes Outline the Journey through the Lord’s Wilderness
That said, let us compare the Beatitudes (principles of blessedness) with the spiritual journey to Zion that we now find ourselves pursuing.
1. Poor in Spirit. We recognize that we are strangers here, lacking in almost everything of eternal value, poor spiritually, and we want to go home to our “promised land.”
2. Mourn. We are sorry for our sins and mourn for our fallen natures and poor choices. We want to be reconciled to God and come home to him. Moreover, the road to our promised land that leads through the Lord’s wilderness is a harsh environment. We mourn because of the difficulties of the journey and our foreign and inhospitable surroundings.
3. Meek. Along the way, we encounter frequent and essential tests of obedience, which we can only survive if we become very humble, which invites the Spirit.
4. Hungering and Thirsting for Righteousness. We discover that only the principles of righteousness will allow us safety and security in the Lord’s Wilderness. Therefore, famished and parched, we seek spiritual food and drink from the Lord, who is our only Hope and our only Provider. When we cry out to him, the Lord miraculously provides manna and water on an as-needed basis. By such treatment, we come to realize that we are totally dependent upon him, which further causes us to become humble and continually prayerful. The net result is that we are now in a position to be fed, guided and protected by the Lord in His wilderness.
5. Mercy. The frequent difficulties of the wilderness cause us to yearn for the Lord’s mercy and pity. When we cry out to God, we discover that he is very merciful. We also discover that receiving mercy and pity is linked to our extending mercy and pity to others. Therefore, in the wilderness, we learn to emulate the Lord. When we do, he leads us to a place(s) of respite or our personal “Bountiful.” Bountiful is a temple location, a place of peace where we can regroup and prepare for the last leg of our journey, the ultimate test of faith in which we cross the formidable ocean.
In Bountiful, we ascend the mount (temple) to receive greater light and truth. Now our faith must increase exponentially if we are to make the hardest part of our journey. This infusion of light, truth and faith purifies us and changes our hearts. Now we are ready to be covered by grace, which is exemplified by the boat, barge or ark – a covering, which is a word associated with the Atonement. As we build our vessel, we encounter further tests of faith, hope and charity, which challenge and change our nature so that when we finally launch on the sea, which is a place of intense storms and chaos, we are pure in heart, covered by protection, and completely safe. The Lord’s mercy is the only way to traverse the ocean.
6. Pure in Heart. When we arrive in our promised land, we arrive completely changed. We now have a relationship with God that cannot be questioned. We have become like him. We know and love him so well that the only remaining step in our journey is to see him. Indeed, the end of the journey through the Lord’s Wilderness is to come into the presence of God. Only the pure in heart can see God.
7. Peace or peacemaker. We arrive in the promised land. We are home at last. We are at peace.[vii]
The Importance of the Temple
The journey to through the Lord’s Wilderness is both spiritual and physical; in neither sense can it be made without the Lord’s help.
Often, we find ourselves in an impossible situation.
Having done all we can do, we survey our environment, consider our options, tally our abilities then realize our helplessness, incompetency and inadequacy. Our only choice is to look upward to God.
When Nephi arrived in Bountiful and could do no more or go no further, he received the word of the Lord to go up into the mount to receive more light and truth. Of course, the mount is symbolic of the temple: The Mountain of the Lord’s House.[viii] After Nephi climbed up into the mount, he cried unto the Lord, and “the Lord spake unto [him], saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.”[ix] Note the word “I.” The Lord himself would reveal the exact construction so that the vessel could withstand the beating of the waves and the violence of the storms. Moreover, if Nephi was willing to create the ship as the Lord revealed, the Lord said that he would take responsibility to carry the family safely to the promised land.
Likewise, when we wilderness travelers come to a dead end and face an ocean that lies between us and our destination, we must get ourselves up into the mount of God, where we will receive further light and knowledge about how to construct a vessel to convey us safely to our blessings in Zion. In that holy setting, God will reveal marvelous things that will transcend our experience and challenge our paradigms. The instruction might lead us into uncharted territory that will press us to quickly learn skills that approximate Nephi’s having to learn to construct a ship with no prior experience.
We must keep in mind that the journey to the promised land (Zion) is unique to every traveler, but the principles are the same. One commonality is that we will be delivered multiple times to solidify our relationship with the Deliverer. Then, to arrive in the promised land, we will experience a massive deliverance that might approximate crossing the Jordan River on dry ground or traversing the ocean in an ark, barge or ship. That is, we will be delivered into the promised land by passing through the water. Of course, the symbolism does not escape us: Christ is the living water and baptism is entrance into the new and everlasting covenant.
Our arrival completely depends upon our faith in Jesus Christ and our faithfulness. And remarkably arrival also depends upon our charity. Let me end by stating a principle and relating an experience.
Charity—the Key to Deliverance
Interestingly, ultimate deliverance seems to pivot on our willingness to shed selfishness and summon the courage to give and extend charity. The people of Limhi tried every conceivable way to deliver themselves and could not. It appears that it was only when they began to take care of the widows and orphans that the Lord’s deliverance came.[x]
This powerful principle—charity opens the door to deliverance—is so simple that we often miss it. As we know, giving time, talents, and resources can be manifested telestially, terrestrially, and celestially. A telestial person might not give unless he is forced to or unless he can receive something in return. A terrestrial person will give if he already has something to give.
A celestial person gives, not because he is forced to or expects something in return or because he has wherewithal to give, but because he loves God and his children more than he considers his inconvenience. A celestial person gives despite his present circumstances because he knows that the Lord will compensate him “an hundredfold,”[xi] which will provide him more so that he can give again. This level and attitude of charitable giving has the power to break the bonds of captivity. Armed only with the unselfish motivation of pure love, we can literally give ourselves into freedom!
We recall that despite a lifetime of extending charity, Job was required to give yet one more time in the darkest hour of his life; he extended charity to his accusatory friends and the result liberated him: “And the Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends.”[xii] Most certainly, Job’s past acts of giving contributed to his deliverance, but they did not carry as much weight as the present opportunity to give. Hence, after all that Job had suffered, the single thing that stood between him and deliverance was one last charitable act. Then, when Job was able to reach deeply within himself and find the strength to give one more time, he was set free.
When the widow chose to give to Elijah rather than to give to her son and herself, she obtained deliverance from the famine, and later she experienced another type of deliverance when the Lord mercifully restored her son from the jaws of death.[xiii] Likewise, we are set free when we choose to give one last time or to place another’s needs before our own.
Fasting and Prayer without Charity is Vain
Mortality provides us ample opportunities to go to the Lord and plead for deliverance. But, according to Amulek, prayer without giving charitable service is hypocritical; moreover, such a prayer is powerless to yield blessings:
And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith. Therefore, if ye do not remember to be charitable, ye are as dross, which the refiners do cast out.[xiv]
Prayer without extending charity is just words.
Likewise, we often fast to obtain deliverance. We should fast to “loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke.” According to Isaiah, our fast counts for nothing more than going hungry unless we “deal [our] bread to the hungry, and . . . bring the poor that are cast out to [our] house,” and when we see “the naked, that [we] cover him.”[xv] It is only after we give charitable service that deliverance comes. Notice that Isaiah’s promises begin with the word then:
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward [protector]. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. . . . And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
And they that shall be of thee [your family] shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.
Clearly, prayer and fasting are powerless to deliver without charity.
Charity is What We Become
Throughout our shared wilderness journey with the Lord, we have learned to love him by emulating him, and in the process we have become what he is: love. If the pure love of Christ is called charity, then we, like Christ whom we love, are charity. Charity, according to Elder Oaks, is not only an act but what we become.[xvii] And what we have now become holds sufficient power to deliver us. When people learn to extend charity, they become Zion.
While the world seeks safety with armies and treaties, while it looks for security in rising markets and fat portfolios, and while it tries untold numbers of options to obtain deliverance, Zion people simply keep God’s commandments and apply acts of charity. As easy as it was for the Israelites to look upon Moses’ brazen serpent to obtain healing, it is likewise easy for us to invoke the simple principle of giving to experience the Lord’s safety, security, and deliverance.
A Deliverance Experiment with Charity
As mentioned, a principle of deliverance that is widely overlooked is the simple act of charity. When times are the hardest and there seems no hope on the horizon, we might try reaching out to someone and expect, in the process, to nudge open the door of deliverance. A recent experience with the principle of generosity taught me how Zion people can save others and in the process achieve deliverance for themselves.
One Christmas, I became aware of a family that was expecting nothing for Christmas…again! I could count three consecutive Christmas mornings on which they had awakened to nothing under the tree. Not that that should matter. Christmas, as we know, is so much more than packages and bows. But it does matter, especially when there are children.
So I checked my wallet and found it bare. Being a professional writer and working in a non-profit company, I depend on royalties and grants for the projects we support. Royalties are a few months off, and the grant we had been working on for nearly two years was once again delayed. If prayer and fasting could have landed it in our coffers, we would have had the money months ago. Now it seemed more distant than ever.
When I thought of my destitute friends, all I could do was mourn. I took my concern to the Lord, and asked, “What can I do? I have nothing to give.” A thought entered my mind, Yes you do. As I mulled over the answer, the impression of other friends came to me—some who were also struggling financially or with serious issues. Frequently, I had prayed for these people. I asked, “I should approach them?” I felt a little ashamed asking people whom had little to give. But the impression was that by giving they would be blessed. I arose and began to make calls.
I should point out that many of my friends are artists whom I have helped in my foundation. They have art and product, but not too much money. When I called them, I explained that I had a friend who was in need and would they be willing to contribute some product. What happened next was a miracle. My simple request to help one family grew within 48 hours to impact nearly thirty families! Each time I went to pick up gifts from one person, he (or she) would say, “I know of someone whom I would like to help, too.” Then I would call my network and additional commitments were made. When I finally had gathered everything for the first family, I shipped four large boxes of gifts, and I still had many more gifts to pass around. I suddenly understood why there are no poor in Zion and why Zion is always described in terms of beauty and abundance.
Then came the miracles to my giving friends. One couple received an unexpected contract for $10,000. On the same day, a husband who had lost his employment was offered a new job. Another family that had been waiting for two years for a contract finally received that one plus an additional contract. A woman who had been struggling with a serious question received an answer. And our foundation received its grant!
Becoming a Conduit
Since then I’ve learned an additional principle: When you decide that you are going to be a conduit of giving, the Lord will use you to funnel aid to his needy children. I learned that quite by coincidence. The day after we received our grant, I was contacted by a friend who had suddenly landed on hard times. He knew he could go to someone else for some temporary help, but as he prayed, my name came into his mind.
He hesitated because the last thing that I had told him was that our grant had not come through. Nevertheless, he followed the prompting, and I was able to help him on the spot. He just needed a Band-Aid for a few weeks until he got paid for a job that he was completing. As he was leaving, he asked if he could help someone in return, and a person’s name came into my mind that was going to have a skimpy Christmas. He had some art that he could give that family. He readily agreed.
Isn’t it wonderful! The helped become the helpers and everyone is leveled up. What a powerful principle is a simple act of charity!
This, then, is the universal journey through the Lord’s Wilderness to the promised land: Zion. The journey begins with and ends with deliverance episodes. It is fueled by the new and everlasting covenant. The path is marked by the Beatitudes, which are the principles of blessedness that progressively transform us into the image of God.
Despite our occasional feelings to the contrary, God has not set us on this path to lead us over a cliff. To successfully navigate the Lord’s Wilderness, we must humbly go up into the mount of the Lord often to learn to employ Zion principles that make little sense in a telestial world. There we might learn that God will require great things of us; but we will also learn that small acts of faith and charity can move massive obstacles.
In the end, after we have done all we can do, a simple act of charity might convey us the final distance. What a discovery it will be that we have ‘loved’ our way home to God and his Zion!
This article was adapted from my new book, The Three Pillars of Zion. Click here to receive a free sample.
[ii] Matthew 5:1–11; 3 Nephi 12:1–12.
[iii] 3 Nephi 13:33.
[iv] Moses 7:20.
[v] 3 Nephi 13:31-32.
[vi] Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 417.
[vii] Note: This connection was made by Patrick D. Degn in a 2009 BYU Education Week lesson.