Of Compasses and Covenants

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“Of Compasses and Covenants,” Ensign, June 1996, 37–43

Of Compasses and Covenants

The Book of Mormon teaches that sacred covenants point the way back to our Father in Heaven’s presence.

It was night. The swamp was pitch-black. Inky water, cold in the early spring, crept above our waists to our chests, bringing an incessant shiver. Mangrove trees scratched our faces and hands and pulled at our clothing, and submerged logs seemed to throw themselves in our path. An occasional slough opened under our feet, and suddenly we would be over our heads in the fetid water. Sodden clothing and equipment and heavy weapons seemed to weigh a ton, pulling us down into the murky bog.

From somewhere deep in the swamp an alligator bellowed. Deadly water moccasins silently slithered off nearby tree stumps into the water. The blackness of the night and the heaviness of the pungent, stagnant air was like a suffocating blanket. But our patrol of United States Army Rangers moved steadily and surely toward our destination, our course clearly pointed by a diminutive device worth at most a few dollars in the marketplace but of immeasurable value to soldiers swallowed up in an alien wilderness—a lensatic compass.

The year was 1965. The place was the swamplands of Eglin Air Force Base in the western panhandle of Florida, the site of the last phase of commando training at the U.S. Army Ranger School. Virtually all in our class were destined for service in Vietnam. Less than a year later I would find myself leading a platoon of infantry in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. My experience in Vietnam would attest that of all the skills taught in Ranger School none was more important than the ability to read—and the confidence to follow—that simple little gadget, the compass. Even on the darkest night its luminous dial reliably pointed the route. No matter how hedged up the way, no matter how dangerous and foreboding the surroundings, the compass faithfully led to safety the soldier wise enough to follow its bearings.

Lehi and his family knew something of the perils of the wilderness. Indeed, for Lehi, life was a wilderness. He and his family also knew something of the lifesaving qualities of a reliable compass. The Liahona provided their direction through the desert. Its directing capability came not from a magnetic field but rather “according to the faith and diligence and heed” which Lehi and his family gave to the directions that appeared on this compass.1

Lehi also saw life as a spiritual wilderness, a circumstance that created “opposition in all things.”2 The imagery of life as a wilderness requiring a reliable compass, or guidance system, is captured powerfully in Lehi’s great dream of the tree of life, profound in its teachings about the mortal experience. Significantly, his account of the dream begins with this metaphor:

“Methought I saw in my dream, a dark and dreary wilderness.

“And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.

“And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him. And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.

“And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies.”3

Seeing mortality as a wilderness fraught with darkness, dreariness, and moral hazards is essential to understanding Lehi’s dream. (Lehi’s own life experience made this imagery both natural and appropriate.) The central message of this dream is that there is “a tree, whose fruit [is] desirable to make one happy”4—“the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.”5 This love has as its ultimate expression “the condescension of God” through the advent of Jesus Christ in the flesh to minister among men and then to be “lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.”6

The challenge of mortality is to find and remain close to this tree, with its divine fruit, in the midst of a vast moral and spiritual wilderness. Some means of direction is needed. In his dream, Lehi followed the man in the white robe, his compass bearer on a journey that lasted “many hours” through a “dark and dreary waste.” Eventually, Lehi’s followership led him to his celestial destination. The dream then teaches that he who would follow in Lehi’s path, which is “strait and narrow,” will find a “rod of iron” beside the path—“the word of God”—to which the wayfarer must hold fast in order to find the tree and partake of the fruit.7 The path and the rod of iron, though passing perilously by the precipice of spiritual death, nonetheless will safely guide the seeking traveler through mortality’s wasteland.

In a broad sense, “the word of God” means the teachings and commandments.8 At a more specific level, it is the sacred covenants between God and man. Covenants bespeak commitment to living the commandments—God’s law. It is living the law—not simply knowing it—that ultimately leads to happiness in this life and exaltation in eternity. In return for our faithfulness to our covenants, the Lord promises us the companionship of his Spirit. Living worthy to receive this blessing, and receiving it, is what it means to partake of the fruit of the tree. Accordingly, the imagery of holding fast to the rod of iron means to make and keep sacred covenants.

Covenants are like a compass. The Book of Mormon provides an unparalleled perspective on covenants as the Lord’s compass through the welter of pitfalls that characterize this mortal wilderness. Indeed, one of the principal purposes of the Book of Mormon is to restore knowledge and understanding concerning God’s covenants with man. The title page itself contains this statement by Moroni regarding the purposes of the book: “… to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever” (emphasis added).

As a result of his request for an interpretation of Lehi’s tree of life dream, Nephi was shown the broad sweep of history leading to this present day.9 Central to all of it were the covenants of the Lord with his people. In vision Nephi beheld the discovery of America and “multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise.”10 They brought with them a book (the Holy Bible) “which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel.”11 But the “great and abominable church” had “taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away”12 (emphasis added). Through Nephi’s seed, however, would come a record that would restore many of these plain and precious things, including truths concerning the covenants; “these last records … shall establish the truth of the first, … and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them.”13

Thus the Book of Mormon reestablishes truths associated with the sacred covenants of the Lord. Many of these truths we find reflected in the writings of Nephi. He delighted in the Lord’s covenant with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”14 All the families of the earth would be thus blessed “with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation.”15 Nephi saw this covenant as the compass to safety that it is:

“My soul delighteth in the covenants of the Lord which he hath made to our fathers; yea, my soul delighteth in his grace, and in his justice, and power, and mercy in the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death.”16

Nephi sought to teach his rebellious brothers that the Lord honored this covenant when he led Israel’s children away from the fleshpots of Egypt, which was a spiritual wilderness.17 (It should be said here that mortality’s journey to the promised land is always through a wilderness.) The Lord was true to his promise, but the Israelites honored not their fathers’ covenant of righteousness and followed after iniquity.18 Consequently, they were left to dwell in the desert wilderness because they chose to dawdle in a spiritual one. Had they kept their covenants, they might have had a sure compass and a true azimuth through the wastelands of Sinai. Even the new generation after the 40-year sojourn was tested. They, too, hardened their hearts, and when the Lord “prepared a way that they might be healed” from the serpents’ bites, “because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.”19

For Nephi, the parallel between these earlier Israelites’ quest for the promised land and his own family’s journey to their promised land was striking. He taught that Lehi and his family were a natural branch of the house of Israel that had been broken off.20 They would in due course dwindle in unbelief after the Messiah had manifested himself unto them. But in the latter days the Gentiles would bring them the fulness of the gospel.21 Then they would know that they are of the house of Israel, they would “come to the knowledge of their forefathers,” and, most important, “they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved. … Yea, at that day, will they not receive the strength and nourishment from the true vine? Yea, will they not come unto the true fold of God?”22

This Book of Mormon teaching provides keen insight into the operation of the Abrahamic covenant as it relates to all of Abraham’s children. The blessings of the covenant between the Lord and Abraham were promised to Abraham’s “seed,” meaning his posterity. Thus, the covenant is in one sense biological and genealogical. It is this heritage that entitles the literal posterity of Abraham to hear the gospel preached unto them, that they might come to a “knowledge of their forefathers” and “of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine.” But in the ultimate sense every soul, literal descendant of Abraham or not, must “come unto [the Redeemer] and be saved.” Only then will that soul be entitled to “come unto the true fold of God.” In other words, heirship to the eternal blessings promised to Abraham hinges on individual righteousness. It is not one’s pedigree but one’s obedience to the doctrine of Christ that qualifies him eternally as Abraham’s seed.23

Ancient Israel failed to understand this critical point, explained so clearly by Nephi. This point is one of the “plain and precious truths” absent from or diluted in the Bible. Nephi’s words give rich meaning to John the Baptist’s injunction to prideful Israel in the Judean wilderness: “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father; for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”24

Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, is the central part of the Abrahamic covenant. The Savior himself taught this doctrine when he appeared among the Nephites. He, as Jehovah, covenanted to gather Israel in the last days, and his covenant with Israel will not be fulfilled until Israel has been gathered together upon the lands of her inheritance.25 But Christ’s teachings as recorded in the Book of Mormon make clear that inheritance under the Abrahamic covenant is conditioned upon following the Lord:

“For it shall come to pass, saith the Father, that at that day whosoever will not repent and come unto my Beloved Son, them will I cut off from among my people, O house of Israel.”26

The Lord made covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because he loved them.27 He loves us too. We may inherit the blessings of Abraham, but first we also must “do the works of Abraham.”28 Hence, all who are of the lineage of Abraham—and members of the Church become his seed through their faithfulness—are potentially heir to the marvelous blessings given unto him by covenant. But the efficacy of that Abrahamic covenant is conditioned solely upon the keeping of individual covenants of obedience with the Lord.

One of the great doctrinal sermons of which we have record is King Benjamin’s address to his people at the temple in the land of Zarahemla.29 That sermon must have been accompanied by a powerful witness of the Spirit, because when he had finished, King Benjamin inquired of his people what effect his words had had upon them and they exclaimed in unison:

“Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually. …

“And we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things that he shall command us, all the remainder of our days.”30

Hearing their joyous words, King Benjamin responded:

“Ye have spoken the words that I desired; and the covenant which ye have made is a righteous covenant.

“And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.”31

Thus the covenant of obedience—fundamental to all other covenants—is what qualifies us to become the “children of Christ.”

A commitment to obedience is manifest in genuine repentance. Indeed, the principle of repentance is at the heart of the covenant of obedience.

The Lamanite king Lamoni and his people were converted through the teaching of Ammon and his brethren, the sons of Mosiah.32 Other Lamanites who had not been converted were stirred up to anger at the followers of Christ and came against them to war. But not a single soul among the converts would take up arms against their brethren, fearing they would jeopardize their repentance. Their feelings were eloquently expressed by Lamoni:

“Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God at the last day.”33

These repentant Lamanites in effect made a covenant with the Lord by promising never again to lift their swords, even if it meant giving up their lives.

The covenant of obedience and repentance is necessarily followed by the ordinance of baptism, as a witness of commitment:

“If this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?”34

Baptism makes the children of Christ members of his Church, eligible to receive the companionship of the Holy Spirit. This is the Lord’s covenant promise to those who truly manifest, through the ordinance of baptism, their willingness to repent and obey. It is the Holy Spirit who will direct us from day to day as we seek the right path through this mortal wilderness.

Significantly, the Lord’s program calls for the renewal of our covenant weekly as we partake of the emblems of the sacrament. Worthily partaking of these emblems is a “testimony unto the Father that ye do always remember me. And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you.”35

Making covenants is important. But it is the keeping of covenants, even more than making them, that holds us on the correct course heading through mortality and leads us home to God. This essential truth is captured in a divinely profound syllogism which summarizes the dynamism and blessings associated with making and keeping covenants:

“And the first fruits of repentance is baptism; and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments; and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins;

“And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until … all the saints shall dwell with God.”36

Making sacred covenants brings the visitation of the Holy Ghost—the Comforter—who gives divine reassurance that we are on the right course. But to maintain that spiritual direction we must “endure by diligence,” meaning to keep our covenants and pray always. The promised reward is the supreme heavenly gift, the opportunity to dwell with God. That is the ultimate “promised land” toward which the compass of our covenants points.

Sadly, there are some who, having embarked on the right path by making the fundamental covenants of obedience and baptism, allow their vision to become clouded by the things of the world—a stumbling block that Book of Mormon authors often referred to simply as “pride.” Mormon makes this telling observation about the members of the Church in the days of Nephi, son of Helaman:

“And in the fifty and first year of the reign of the judges there was peace also, save it were the pride which began to enter into the church—not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God.”37

Mormon’s insight suggests that in that day the Church membership could be characterized by two concentric circles. The outer circle circumscribed all who had been baptized; that is, they had at least initially made the covenant of obedience and repented. But the inner circle, the “church of God,” included only those who were true to their covenants. All of the others, merely professing membership, had drifted from their sacred covenants by allowing pride in its various manifestations to enter their hearts.

This insight about the ancient Church provides a sobering perspective on statements made to Nephi by an angel who spoke of the Church of Christ in our day. After asking Nephi whether he remembered the covenants made by the Lord with Israel, the angel said, referring to the latter days, that “there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations.”38 Nephi then “beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few.”39 That this “church of the Lamb” refers to those who both make and keep sacred covenants is indicated by the following passage:

“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory.”40

Mere membership in the Church is not enough. Broken or disregarded covenants will do us no good. But those who keep their covenants with the Lord have his assurance that they will be “armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory.” Holding to our covenants assures us the protection and deliverance of God from the dangers and pitfalls of this mortal wilderness. It assures us that we are on the road home.

After explaining that the Liahona worked by faith, Alma taught his son Helaman this great truth:

“And now, my son, I would that ye should understand that these things are not without a shadow; for as our fathers were slothful to give heed to this compass (now these things were temporal) they did not prosper; even so it is with things which are spiritual.

“For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land. …

“O my son, do not let us be slothful because of the easiness of the way; for so was it with our fathers; for so was it prepared for them, that if they would look they might live; even so it is with us. The way is prepared, and if we will look we may live forever.”41

Decades have passed now since those anxious days and nights in Ranger School and Vietnam, slogging through trackless swamps and canopied jungles. Yet the value of a simple compass remains vivid in the corridors of memory. With its ever true direction, the way was easy. But we had to look and follow to live. So with our covenants: The way truly is prepared, and if we look and follow we may live forever.

From the last page of the Book of Mormon, Moroni’s powerful voice echoes down the centuries and beckons us:

“Awake, and arise from the dust, O Jerusalem; yea, and put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion; and strengthen thy stakes and enlarge thy borders forever, that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled.

“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.”42

Background photo © Tony Stone Images/David Muench; compass photo © Tony Stone Images/Steven Peters

Nephi’s New Bow, by Gregory Sievers

Alma Baptizing in the Waters of Mormon, by Ronald Crosby

Photo by Jed Clark