“Now, to each member of the Church I say, keep on the covenant path. Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.” – Russell M. Nelson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
For me, the prophetic call to “keep on the covenant path” speaks to a deep personal assurance that anchors and secures me. For a loved one who is experiencing a faith crisis, not so much. What I hear in that phrase is “Keep your hand in God’s hand and do not fear. He will keep every promise and you will see the very miracles you need unfold.” What my loved one hears is, “Keep your head down, your eyes forward, your questions on the back burner, and yourself doing all the things the Church has laid out for you, and you will be okay.”
I’m pretty sure that unthinking obedience to a course set out for you by outside authorities, even benevolent, called-of-God authorities, is NOT a fitting definition of the covenant path. I’d like to explore what I understand “the covenant path” to mean.
The first image that comes to my mind is Lehi’s dream, with Nephi’s additions in 2 Nephi 31:17-18. I think of a straight and narrow way running along beside a rod of iron, and leading to the Tree of Life. One enters into it by a gate, which is baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost.
It’s understandable how that image could be understood the way I think my loved one sees it, an assembly line as it applies to those who grow up in the faith: get baptized at age 8, ordained (if you’re male) to the Aaronic Priesthood at 12 and the Melchizedek at 18, graduate from Seminary, study the scriptures daily as well as the words of living prophets from the last general conference, get endowed and (optional for females) serve a mission, get married and raise a bunch of children to follow the very same path. There’s not much space here for variation or individual adaptation. I think that’s what my loved one imagines when they hear “the covenant path.”
But It struck me this week that Lehi’s dream describes the path from two perspectives, how it may feel from the inside and how it may look from a bit of a distance. What I’ve described above is a perspective from a distance. But the internal, felt experience of being on the covenant path is not focused on complying with institutional or cultural expectations, it’s not even particularly aware of anyone else. Instead, it is a wrenching, personal journey with God.
Lehi describes his own experience of walking the covenant path in 1 Nephi 8:4-12. With a dark and dreary wilderness before him, he encounters a heavenly being that bids him, “Follow me.” He follows, but instead of being led to a happier place, he realizes he is now in a wasteland. He trudges forward through the darkness for many hours, until he can no longer bear it. He calls upon the Lord for mercy “according to the multitude of his tender mercies.”. Then the darkness lifts to reveal a large and spacious field, with a tree whose fruit will make him happy. He goes forth, partakes of the fruit and is filled with such joy that he wants to share it with those he loves.
This resonates with my experience of the covenant path. I willingly entered that path at age 8, when I was baptized. I believed, with the simplicity of an eight-year-old. But the gospel became real and vital to me when, as a teenager, I had such a powerful, personal witness of God’s reality, goodness and love that I committed to follow Him. I soon made covenants at my bedside that would be renewed, though with different words, in the temple. Of my own will, and in response to a personal heavenly invitation that penetrated to the core of me, I pledged to be His.
As I learned about Church history, I became aware that there were people who had felt at least as deep a connection with God as I was feeling, who had subsequently lost their faith and had eventually come to fight against it. This was more than sobering; it was almost terrifying to me. This precious connection was more important to me than my life. In order to protect it, I made a personal commitment that I would not let a day go by without reading the scriptures and sincerely praying.
Then, I suddenly found myself in a spiritual wasteland. For nearly two years, the scriptures that had been delicious to me became painful to study; all I could see were inconsistencies. The prayers that had connected me to an outpouring of love and strength now felt like they were being sent out into a void. I remember praying, “Heavenly Father, I know I love Thee but I don’t feel it. Please help me to feel it.” But I didn’t feel anything except doubt and increasing desperation. I felt surrounded by darkness, but I kept my promise because I could remember knowing and feeling. Several times it got so bad that I would ask for a father’s blessing after which the darkness would recede for a little while, only to return. Then, one day, my prayers connected again and the wasteland went away.
I had a few glorious years where I had confidence in my path and felt that I was steadily heading for the tree of life. Then, I added on additional covenants – now involving another party – and within a few years, the mists of darkness were back, but different. This time, I could feel God’s love and I knew the wholeness and happiness I dreamed of lay ahead for us, but I could not see my way to get us there. I kept trying to apply solutions that arose out of my own misunderstandings, and they didn’t work. I was in a wasteland again, so bleak that part of me longed to die. Only I had little children and that was more than reason enough to fervently live.
There were a lot of things I misunderstood about my role in God’s plan of happiness, and those misunderstandings kept me in agony. They were also regularly reinforced, often from the pulpit, by others who had similar misunderstandings. I had to dredge through my broken scripts, uncover where they were broken, ask my impossible questions and bring it all to my Heavenly Father. He gave me glimmers and occasional floods of light and, bit by bit, the darkness fell away and I began to experience sweetness like I have never known before. And it’s happened in a way that has surprised both me and the people around me. Especially when I followed Him out of a second marriage where the abuse was emotional. Loved ones, whose counsel had always been precious to me, then saw me as giving up on my covenants. But it has never been my job to follow another’s perception of my covenant path. It is my job to follow my Savior to the best of my understanding, holding fast to His promises while calling on His grace to help me keep mine.
This is how my covenant path has felt from the inside. From the outside, it probably looks like Lehi’s description of those who “did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree.” But that is nothing like an assembly line that funnels the faithful forward through a series of institutional or cultural expectations. Thus, Lehi’s dream mentions those who seem to be in the path, clinging to the iron rod all the way until they reach the tree of life and partake of the fruit. Only, instead of tasting its sweetness, they look around to see the reaction of those in the great and spacious building, become ashamed and fall away into forbidden paths (1 Nephi 8:24-28). I read this as an eloquent warning about the harm of making covenants because of external pressures and expectations. The journey may look almost the same from the outside, but it doesn’t connect us with God so we cannot perceive the sweetness of the fruit He wants to give us.
From my perspective, the covenant path is a personal journey with God from darkness into light; from victimhood and incapacity into assurance and godly power. It involves asking difficult questions, disentangling truth from the false traditions of even goodly parents, and holding fast through swirling doubt and even despair to the truths we have known and the promises we have made in brighter times when we could see. In my experience, that path has led me to a joy that fills my life. And if there are mists of darkness still ahead for me, I plan to navigate them by holding fast to the iron rod, which means relying on the Word of God, keeping my eyes on Him, my hand in His, and trusting that He will keep His every promise. That includes promises of aid for my struggling loved ones.