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Jacob’s Answer to Parental Despair: The Olive Tree and the Antichrist


In the past seven years I have loved and lost hundreds of precious sons and daughters. And I have seen inexplicable miracles in the lives of hundreds more. I know what it means to have “joy and great hopes… that they would walk in the paths of righteousness” on one day, and to feel the searing agony of seeing them throw it all away on the next. Through it all I’ve learned that almost all losses are temporary, and that much of my parental misery comes from my misunderstanding of redemptive labor.

My extended family lives at an unusual school called The Other Side Academy. Adult men and women come to us after decades of homelessness, scores of arrests and after perpetrating innumerable acts of evil. They live with us for 2-4 years. We labor with them as they struggle through confronting monstrous demons. I’ve watched them find rewarding careers, reunite with abandoned children, and become respected members of the community. I’ve even officiated at their weddings. And in the past couple of years, I’ve buried five who I was certain were safe.

I recently had a stirring conversation with a hardened thug named Manni. Against his every finely honed gang sensibility, he renounced his past status as shameful, and pledged to dedicate his life to learning to become an honorable man. Three days later he was arrested after fleeing back to gang life. I’ve learned that God expects little of me in His effort to save souls. Don’t misunderstand, He expects me to give it my all. But He never needs my advice. His motivation to involve me is for what He wants to make of me not for what I can make of His children. It’s when I get that twisted up that I lose hope in the labor.

Protracted failures like my experience with Manni are teaching me much about the relationship between despair and faith in life. Distance is measured in meters. Weight is measured in grams. Faith is measured in years. Not minutes. Not hours. Years. Sometimes decades. Or, in God’s case, millennia. The primary godly creative capacity He is training me for is measured by how long I can hold a vision of righteous longings while no evidence yet exists of their fulfillment.

  • How long can I believe I will one day stand in a celestial room with my entire posterity when few share my beliefs?
  • How long can I embrace my LGBTQ loved-one while simultaneously embracing beliefs that contradict some of their choices?
  • How long can I imagine a saint in a sibling who is a habitual sinner?

We’re told that even the council of gods who presided over the entire creation had to “[watch] those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.” God can be kept waiting? Patience is the calisthenics of godhood. Our bodies have both short and long muscle. Faith isn’t a short muscle. Short muscle is what we use to sprint. Faith is the long muscle needed for marathons. And there is no marathon more demanding than parenting.

The prophet Jacob is the patron saint of weary parents. Jacob was a worrier. While his book fills less than 4% of the Book of Mormon, he makes almost half of its references to anxiety. He worries about “stumbling because of my over anxiety”[1] for his loved ones. Before delivering one of his greatest sermons, he admits to being “weighed down with much more desire and anxiety”[2] for his kin. He even suggests that a combination of “faith and great anxiety”[3] motivated him to seek more revelation for his people.

Jacob thought as deeply as any prophet-parent about prospects for the Lost Causes in our lives. His message isn’t for the parents of kids who are late to Seminary or who sneak two pieces of bread from the Sacrament tray. He talks directly to those with the least hope of all. Twice he summons his intended audience by setting up a parenting problem far worse than most of us will ever face. First, he asks, “Is there hope for the nation who murdered Christ?” And if so, how? Then just to be certain we don’t discount his message; he concludes his book with what few realize is a redemption story: the story of Sherem.

The stories of an Olive Tree and an Anti-Christ are drenched with Jacob’s counsel and comfort for weary parents.

The Olive Tree

You’ve likely read Zenos’ 77-verse allegory of the Olive Tree many times. But you may have missed the setup. It’s at the end of Jacob 4 where he tells us why he is about to recount this lengthy tale.

In verse fifteen he predicts what the Jews will do to the Savior of the World. Then he quickly adds an incomprehensible reassurance: in spite of their complete corruption, they will one day claim Jesus as their Savior. Having made that outrageous claim, he poses the question that frames everything that follows: How is that possible? “How is it possible that [even] these,” he marvels, “after having rejected the sure foundation [Christ], can ever build upon it…?”[4]

Brother Jacob, you have my full attention. I would have been satisfied with your answer to my own questions:

  • How is it possible to exalt a woman who shut the door on her screaming infants while she sold her body and shot heroin?
  • How is it possible that a man who steals pain pills from his terminally ill grandmother could become a saint?
  • What are the prospects for the married High Priest who visits prostitutes for decades on business trips?
  • How many times can someone return to sin, betray loved ones, relapse, or deny the faith before it’s too late?

Add your own troubled queries to this list. None will exceed the apparent impossibility of Jacob’s. And Jacob delivers.

The key to the allegory is not just in its details, it is in its themes. The story is one of violent interventions followed by protracted waiting. We witness repeated digging, dunging, chopping, burning, scattering and gathering, but the deepest message is of the law of waiting.  The very fact that it is 77-verses long is the message!

God’s interventions are loving, aggressive, and rare. As ours should be. Two of the deep lessons from the Olive Tree are:

  1. Waiting is often the most powerful form of influence.
  2. Dig, prune and nourish only under Godly supervision.

Waiting is Growing

You can’t rush growth. God knows that. But we don’t buy it.

It’s no coincidence that Zenos chose a tree rather than a barn as his central symbol. If the master farmer’s frustration was a shabby shed rather than a sickly tree, he could have put ten workers on the job and knocked out the tale in six verses. But Zenos chose one of the slowest growing plants in the world as the key figure for his saga. Not only do olive trees grow excruciatingly slowly, but they also have a very long lifespan—some well over a thousand years.

Two years ago, Jesse broke my heart. He came to The Other Side Academy as an alternative to spending many years in prison. For the first three decades of his life, he had been a violent, immoral, dishonest narcissist. Most of our new students go through a surly, lazy, sneaky, and rebellious phase at the Academy. But not Jesse. He was done with the old life from the first day. As he grew in our house, he was the first to wrap his arms around newer students and help them find hope. He was an unflinching voice of truth to those who needed reproof. He became strong, noble and wise. Then after four years of miraculous growth, he traded it all for meth and meaningless sex. He ran from the Academy to the same filth we retrieved him from.

I was certain I could reason him back to sanity. If I could just find the right inspired phrase, I could awaken him from his lost and fallen state. He had born the most delicious of natural fruit and, as the Master of the Vineyard said, ‘it grieved me that I should lose him.’[5] We put ten of Academy’s best ‘arborists’ on the job, but the tree wasn’t having it.

As patience is the calisthenics of godliness, so waiting is the isometrics of faith. Work that produces no movement may seem pointless, but it isn’t. This is when the muscles of faith are developed the most.

I have learned that when the Spirit leaves me on the bench, my work must be elsewhere. I prayed fervently about Jesse but received no instructions. At one point in the allegory, the servant seems dissatisfied with the Master’s plan. I know that feeling. One day I saw a picture of Jesse on social media. He was emaciated and toothless. I thought God could be doing better than that. But then I heard the rebuke of the Master in my mind, “Counsel me not; I knew that it was a poor spot of ground…”[6]

Our tendency in the story is to pay too much attention to the action and too little to the rhythm. It is the silences as much as the notes that make music. And so it is with God’s way of exalting His children. The most striking admonition in the tale comes after brief but intense periods of intervention. At moments of greatest despair, we are told twice that after some vigorous work, “a long time passed away.”[7]

We love action. Waiting stinks. God, on the other hand, leaves us alone most of the time. Like a patient fisherman, the Fisher of Men lets us run out the line and tire ourselves out before firmly bringing us back. He makes His sun to rise on the evil as well as the good.[8] He lets people take pleasure in sin for a season.[9] And so must we. Sometimes for a long time.

The waiting isn’t just for the sinner, it’s for the impatient disciple as well. As you wait, you exercise faith. The long muscle of godly power grows as you retain your vision of your righteous longings while no evidence yet exists of their fulfillment.

But don’t mistake waiting for idling. There is much to do in other parts of the Vineyard while the olive tree you love most is doing its thing. There are many trees for you to nourish in the meantime.[10] God enlisted you to serve the entire orchard, not just your favorite tree. Service is the fastest remedy for sadness.

Dig, Prune and Nourish as Asked

As in the allegory, God intervenes at times. Zenos describes three categories of action: digging, pruning and nourishing. He makes seven references to digging, nine to pruning and twenty-five to nourishing (or its equivalent, dunging). Make what you will of that. The Spirit will teach you what the human equivalents of these actions are in your situation. To me the overarching message is that they are to be done occasionally not frequently. Also, it is the Master who makes the assignments. To paraphrase D&C 121, ‘Prune betimes with a sharp instrument, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’[11] Sometimes you are the best person to nourish or prune. Often you aren’t.

After a long time passed away, Jesse was ready for some digging, pruning and nourishing. He was arrested. He lost everything. His girlfriend, car, money, glasses, teeth, health and freedom were gone. He was very well pruned. I heard he was in jail and wanted to rush to see him. But the Spirit forbade me. I felt a whisper from The Master saying, “Counsel me not.” I figured He knew what He was doing.

Left to myself, I would give my wandering children a good pruning daily. But nagging is not the same as pruning. Nagging is an attempt to coerce growth. Pruning is inspired preparation that enables it. Perhaps your tendency is different than mine: you’re afraid of wielding the pruning shears. If your weakness is favoring temporary peace over eternal progress, you might be mistaking shrinking for waiting. When the Spirit prompts you to drive your spade into the rocky soil, step into the discomfort and trust the Master.

Last September, while Dave and Robyn from The Other Side Academy were driving to Utah County Jail to interview a few applicants, a jail lieutenant called them to say there was a problem at the jail that and they would not be allowed in. They turned around and drove back to Salt Lake City. That very day Jesse Graham was arrested. He was so beaten down and sick that he was sent to the infirmary. Had we shown up at the jail that day, what followed would not have happened.

Two weeks later, on the day Jesse was released from the infirmary to a regular jail pod, the jail invited us back. It’s a large jail, with capacity for 1,000 inmates, but his pod happened to be on the exact path Dave and Robyn traversed to meet with a few inmates. As Dave walked by, he looked to the left and saw a withered figure who looked vaguely familiar. Jesse saw Dave and tried to hang his head to avoid detection. He was nothing but a profusion of wild fruit. But the Master decreed that it was time for some nourishing. Dave and Robyn entered his cell. Jesse immediately melted into tears of shame. Dave pulled him to his feet and wrapped him into a loving embrace. Robyn joined from behind, sobbing affectionately into his back. A few weeks later a few tender new branches emerged with a promise of natural fruit. He pleaded to come back to The Other Side Academy. A while later he was released by a wise judge to The Other Side Academy where he has become once again a source of surpassing joy.

Joseph Smith assures us that when the time is right, “God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings…”[12] He digs, prunes and nourishes not only those we love, but us, with masterful timing. The agony of waiting invites growth in you and me as much as in our loved ones.

The Antichrist

Jacob worried that his worrying would undermine his message.[13] He added two powerful literary devices to ensure we get it right. First, he bluntly stated the moral of the allegory: How merciful is our God unto us, for he rememberth the house of Israel, both roots and branches; and he stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long…[14] Then, to underscore his witness, he offers a concrete example of the limit case of God’s almost limitless redemptive urge: the story of Sherem, an Antichrist.

Sherem shows up cocky and charismatic, intent to “overthrow the doctrine of Christ.”[15] In a made-for-TV confrontation with Jacob, Sherem makes the mistake of demanding a sign. Jacob complies, suggesting immediate affliction with some unnamed physical disability should suffice. Sherem immediately “fell to the earth.”[16] Up to this point we know only enough about Sherem to despise him. He is a caricatured villain.

Then, Jacob takes a striking turn. In words unmistakably resonant of the allegory, we are told that Sherem was “nourished.” And furthermore, the nourishing continued “for the space of many days.”[17] He has been pruned. He has been dug about. And now he is nourished for a long time.

In the end, he bears natural fruit. On his deathbed, he offers a confession that rivals that of Alma the Younger. He bears witness of Christ and acknowledges his sins against him.[18] His final confession and testimony bring an overpowering Spirit to a large audience that restores some to the faith and deepens the conversion of many others.[19] A violent intervention, a long time, and delicious, hard-won natural fruit.

We worried during the weeks that Jesse was held in jail. We worried that his judge would weigh his criminal history over his potential and demand prison time. We worried that Jesse’s resolve to return to The Other Side Academy would wane. But God had other plans. During those weeks, Jesse nourished his cellmates. By the time we picked him up to bring him home, he had persuaded six of his cellmates to come with him. The Master needed no counsel on timing or technique from me.

Conclusion

Most of the epidemic of family despair in the Church today is optional. Hopelessness is a way of resolving uncertainty. It is an easy offramp from waiting. It is Satan’s modern equivalent of tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread. He entices us to satisfy our immediate hunger for resolution by surrendering either our beliefs or our optimism.

The hardest part of parenting is the waiting. The choice to continue hoping when all evidence points to the contrary builds spiritual muscle that Satan finds menacing. So, he offers another easy out that bypasses godly growth: “Worship me,” he hisses. If you try to close the spiritual distance between you and a loved one by surrendering your beliefs, you simultaneously surrender the power to draw them toward greater joy. The pain you feel as you fight to retain hope in yet unfulfilled promises is the spade and shears of the Master’s digging and pruning, preparing you to participate in the work of exalting souls.

Families are both the regimen and reward of eternity. Family life is intended to be excruciatingly exalting at times. Human intimacy exposes our weaknesses but also abundantly rewards our growth. There is no greater ecstasy in life than that which is patiently earned through the humility and sacrifice known only to those who double down when the work is the hardest. 

I testify that no pitiful soul is beyond the Savior’s redeeming power. Saving Father’s children is His full-time job. He is always on schedule in marshalling the precise interventions we need. Always. I know this because every once in a while, He pulls back the curtain as if to say, “See what I did there? Do you trust me, now?”

  • James lost a temple marriage, children, testimony and fortune. He lived on the street for years, a vagrant and criminal. One morning he lay beaten and broken in front of a 7-11 Store. That very morning his former bishop felt prompted to take an unusual route to work—something he had never done. At age 55, it was James’ time. After a year of ministry and patience, the bishop set him on the interview bench of The Other Side Academy where he has regained more than he ever lost.
  • Twenty-five years ago, Angela announced to her husband and ward members that she was lesbian, leaving the Church, leaving her family, and moving in with her lover. Then after decades of hostility toward and activism against the Church, she was one day purging a closet when she found an old brochure of the Joseph Smith Story. She read it as if for the first time and was overcome with a familiar conviction. She is now remarried in the temple.
  • Lynne had been decidedly out of the Church for fifty years when her husband died. In her grief she turned to prayer. One night she dreamt her husband came to her. “I love you,” he said. “And I want to be sealed to you.” At 89-years of age, Lynne was re-baptized then sealed to her beloved.

These occasional glimpses are His way of reassuring you and me during years of unrealized hopes that He is fully engaged in every salvation story. Every time you feel a holy envy of someone else’s happy-ending story, Satan will urge you to take it as a taunt. But God is trying to offer it as evidence of things not yet seen. If you pause prayerfully in these moments, you’ll sometimes feel His quiet, “I’ve got you, too.” As Elder Holland said, “Some blessings come soon, some come late, and some don’t come until heaven; but for those who embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, they come.”[20] How merciful is our God unto us, for he… stretches forth his hands… all the day long.[21]


[1] Jacob 4:18

[2] Jacob 2:3

[3] Jacob 1:5

[4] Jacob 4:17

[5] Jacob 5:7

[6] Jacob 5:22

[7] Jacob 5:15, 29

[8] Matthew 5:45

[9] 2 Thessalonians 2:12

[10] See Are We Losing: A Gospel Perspective on Imperfect Familiar in Meridian Magazine. In it I suggest that the best way to help those who don’t yet want our help is to immerse ourselves with serving those who are ready for it.

[11] Compare to DC 121:43

[12] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-19?lang=eng

[13] Jacob 4:18

[14] Jacob 6:4

[15] Jacob 7:2

[16] Jacob 7:21

[17] Jacob 7:15

[18] Jacob 7:16-20

[19] Jacob 7:21,23

[20] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1999/10/an-high-priest-of-good-things-to-come?lang=eng

[21] Jacob 6:4




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