We like to think that we speak in very straightforward ways. We say what we mean and we mean what we say. The truth of the matter is that almost all languages communicate heavily through symbols. The sooner we learn to see the symbols used and the way they are being used in the gospel of Christ, the sooner we can begin to see the deeper meanings and broader connections found in the teachings of Christ.
What is a symbol?
Simply put, a symbol is anything that represents something else or stands for something else. Think of a wedding ring, the symbol of eternal love. The band, or circle, has no beginning or end, which is why it represents eternity. It is placed (traditionally) on the fourth finger of the left hand because the blood vessel in that finger leads directly to the heart. The heart being the symbol for love and feelings in the human soul.
The wedding band is a simple, yet ubiquitous symbol, meaning it is everywhere. But what about other symbols we use every day? There is the Easter egg that represents the resurrection of the Savior, the Christmas star that represents the new star that appeared over Bethlehem at Christ’s birth. There is our national flag. Each part of almost all flags represent important things to the people of that country. For example, on the US flag the stars represent each of the 50 states, and the alternating red and white bars represent the 13 original colonies that started the country.
Examples of symbolism
We could go on for hours listing symbols we use in everyday life. When we talk about symbols in the gospel, you may or may not have specific examples come to mind. Let me list a couple for you and talk about what they mean.
Shadow of changing
And now, if ye have imagined up unto yourselves a god who doth vary, and in whom there is shadow of changing, then have ye imagined up unto yourselves a god who is not a God of miracles.
What is a shadow of changing? Think of a flagpole in a large grassy area. When the sun is directly over the flagpole there is no shadow, but as soon as the sun moves a little bit toward the west, a shadow appears to grow from the flagpole heading east. The closer the sun gets to the western horizon, the longer the shadow grows in the opposite direction.
God is like the sun at noon, but God never changes. His laws don’t change, his mind doesn’t change, his personality doesn’t change. He is unchanging. So, like the sun at noon day, because God never changes, you will never see evidence of a change in God because he is constant in all things. So in God, figuratively, as well as literally speaking, there is no “shadow of changing.” That is, his shadow never changes or moves, because he is forever consistent. There is no hint of him varying from what he says he will do.
Strait is the gate
3 Nephi 27:33
And it came to pass that when Jesus had ended these sayings he said unto his disciples: Enter ye in at the strait gate; for strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it; but wide is the gate, and broad the way which leads to death, and many there be that travel therein, until the night cometh, wherein no man can work.
A place that is strait is confined or narrow, leaving little room to move around. The word also refers to a course of action that is often difficult. That is just a definition, but apply that to the gospel.
The Lord never said the gospel was easy. In Luke 12:51 he says, “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:” meaning that even within the family there would be some who would accept his message and some that would not. The gospel message can unite the whole world, but only if the whole world believes. Until that time comes, the gospel will cause division among people.
The path of obedience in the gospel is not easy, and it requires sacrifices. How many have been disowned by their parents for accepting the Church? How many have had to change friends or even jobs because of the Church? How many have learned that happiness is only found within a narrow definition of behavior? The commandments are what bring happiness, and they keep us in that strait path.
The road to hell is broad and paved. In other words, it is easy. It is inclusive, for almost anything goes, any belief, any behavior, and any philosophy.
Use of symbols
The power of a symbol is that it has its own definition, like wheat is obviously a grain, but it also can represent the harvest of souls the Lord is seeking to gather in before the end of the world. Once we expand the definition of a word to include being representative of other things, the sky is the limit as to how we can use it and teach with it.
Think about how the Lord has used the olive tree. In life the olive tree provides both food and oil. But the tree itself has special properties the Lord references to teach lessons. For example, in Jacob 5 the Lord refers to the world as if it were a grove of commercial olive trees. His Saints are the branches of the trees. The scriptures and store of revelations are the roots of the tree. Those who are obedient to the commandments produce behavior that is good, which he likens to good fruit. Those who rebel and are disobedient he refers to as wild fruit that is good for nothing but to be cut down and thrown into the fire.
From time to time he has taken whole portions of his people and moved them to other places in the world. Lehi being taken to the Americas is one example, Jared and his people being taken from the tower of Babel to the Americas is another example. The Lord refers to these moves in Jacob 5 as grafting one branch from the original tree into another part of the orchard.
After he has moved his people all over the world he reverses the process and begins to gather them back in and re-grafts them back into the original tree. Does this sound familiar? We normally refer to this process as the scattering and the gathering of Israel. The gospel we teach today is part of this gathering and re-grafting process Jacob refers to.
Learning using symbols
Becoming comfortable with recognizing something as a symbol then figuring out what it represents can take some time. Sometimes we stretch what it might represent a little too far and the comparison breaks down, leaving us confused. When you seek for help the Spirit will help you in this process.
Some symbols are pretty consistent. The sun represents Christ, but it is also used in the scriptures to represent light and truth, or revelation. Even the Liahona or compass that was given to Lehi to help them on their travels is compared to our conscience. In Alma 37:40 we are told that as they exercised their faith in the spindles they would work and show them where they should go. If the family stopped believing and following their directions then the spindles stopped working and the family was lost until they chose to exercise their faith again.
And it did work for them according to their faith in God; therefore, if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done; therefore they had this miracle, and also many other miracles wrought by the power of God, day by day.
Our conscience works the same way. As long as we obey the whisperings, the feelings we get then our conscience will continue to show us the way. When we stop listening to the directives our conscience gives us it grows quiet and we spiritually lose our way.
That is how a symbol works. It has its obvious meaning, but it can also be used to teach us lessons that may not be so obvious. In all the lessons I have had in my life no one has ever told me that the Liahona worked just like our conscience. I figured that out on my own just recently.
Symbols are the language of the divine. Christ and his servants use symbols to teach basic principles and lessons. It is the Spirit who then takes those basic representations and teaches us deeper or broader meanings.
Learning to be comfortable with symbols takes time. And even when we think we have a symbol figured out, if we keep an open mind, eventually the Lord will show us more about the symbol that we never thought of before. By teaching with symbols we are literally taught line upon line, and precept upon precept. This allows us to learn at our own rate and in our own way as we prepare ourselves for greater knowledge.
Kelly P. Merrill
Kelly Merrill is semi retired and writes for https://gospelstudy.us. He lives with his wife in Idaho. His strength is being able to take difficult to understand subjects and break them down into understandable parts. He delights in writing about the gospel of Christ. Writing about the gospel is his personal missionary work to the members of the Church and to those of other faiths who are wanting to know more about Christ's gospel and His Church.