At a recent stake conference I attended, one of the speakers briefly made a comment about how we can hold fast to the sturdy iron rod while also being flexible enough to follow the direction of the Liahona. Though it was meant to be a passing thought, this idea was all I could think about for the rest of the meeting. I mean, how interesting—within one scriptural family’s story, we have two seemingly opposing examples of obedience.
On the one hand, we have the symbolic solidness of the iron rod. Prophets and apostles have given various meaningful interpretations of the iron rod: President Boyd K. Packer shared that it can represent the guiding influence of the Holy Ghost. Elder David A. Bednar stated that the scriptures are what guide us to the tree of life. Elder Neil L. Andersen likened it to the words of living prophets. In all three interpretations, the iron rod is immovable; it is firm, secure, stable, strong, fixed, solid, and unswerving.
On the other hand, there’s the varying direction and guidance of the Liahona, a “ball of curious workmanship” that Lehi and his family were given to guide them through the wilderness. According to 1 Nephi 16, it was a brass ball had compass-like spindles that moved and pointed in the literal direction they should travel and also gave “understanding concerning the ways of the Lord” in the form of writing to Lehi and his family (see 1 Nephi 16:10, 26, and 29).
President Thomas S. Monson likened the Liahona to our personal patriarchal blessings. Elder David A. Bednar has stated that the personal whisperings of the Holy Ghost act as modern-day Liahonas for us. And President Spencer W. Kimball said in 1976, “You must realize that you have something like the compass, like the Liahona, in your own system. Every child is given it . . . But if we will remember that everyone of us has the thing that will direct him aright, our ship will not get on the wrong course and suffering will not happen and bows will not break and families will not cry for food—if we listen to the dictates of our own Liahona, which we call the conscience.”
Now, I can’t imagine the spindles of Lehi’s Liahona were stationary—that’s not how compasses work—or that the writing on the ball was just a one-time, one-and-done statement from the Lord. One BYU scholar speculates that the Liahona could have had enough external surface area for about as much text as a single page of a book, which hardly seems like enough spiritual guidance for two large families and their long journey in the wilderness. So I think it’s likely that the direction likely changed from day to day or hour to hour depending on their faith or depending on the geography around them. In Alma 37:40 it even says, “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.”
What could God be trying to teach us about obedience by providing two very different scriptural examples of obedience, one that emphasizes stability and another that stresses adaptability? How can we be grounded enough to hold on to the unchanging iron rod while being flexible enough to follow the ever-changing guidance of the Liahona?
As I’m raising my 1-year-old son, I’m finding this principle of flexibility within stability applicable in more ways than one. For example, I am the most Type A person I know. I like rules. I like planning. I like schedules. And 1-year-olds are not very good at any of that. In fact, they are famously bad at it. For the first several months of his life, apart from being physically exhausted, I was also just mentally worn out from trying to make a very independent baby fit into my imaginary schedule. So now, we have some “iron rod” rules in our house—like eating lunch and taking a nap—but I am also learning that we need some Liahona-like flexibility so he can make some of his own decisions and to account for when he isn't feeling well or when unplanned opportunities come up.
To expound on the metaphor from Lehi’s dream, I think maybe we each have our own path, and we have our own personal iron rod in the middle of it. The iron rod on everyone’s path is the same; metaphorically, it’s made of the same iron ore, it has the same cool-to-the-touch feeling, it’s the same circumference. The word of God—the teachings of living prophets, the scriptures, the blessings of following the Holy Ghost—is always the same no matter who we are or what detours our path might have. And each path, if we follow the iron rod, will ultimately lead us to eternal life with our heavenly parents and Jesus Christ.
But the road that gets us to the tree of life—the distinctive and exclusive plan God has for each of us—requires the guidance and direction of the Liahona. No one’s mortal journey is exactly the same, and no two paths to salvation are alike. Just like no two days as a parent or family are exactly the same. We all have individual struggles, trials, challenges, and temptations to overcome. So, the moving spindles of our personal Liahonas are just that: personal. It might be things like personal revelation, the personal whisperings of the Holy Ghost, and inspired answers to personal prayers.
In April 2018 General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson said, “In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.” In addition to the iron rod that serves as the unwavering commandments and principles of the gospel, we need the Liahona of personal revelation through the Holy Ghost for individual counsel and guidance to help us succeed on our mortal journey.
Despite the unchangingness of the word of God, your journey through mortality will inevitably have some unexpected twists and turns. Your strait and narrow path might wind in a different direction than someone else’s, but the gospel, the scriptures, and the love of God do not change. Your life’s path may differ from cultural expectations or your personal plans. Your detours may involve health challenges, serious sins, faith crises, unexplainable family struggles, or dreams that don’t pan out.
But it’s important to remember that God knows everything. He knows our life’s journey from beginning to end; the choices we’ll make and the trials we’ll have. And He knows your path will be unique to you and help you reach your fullest potential as His child.
He has given us the iron rod—the commandments, the scriptures, the prophets—to keep us firmly rooted in the gospel, but He has also given us personal Liahonas—patriarchal blessings, personal revelation, inspiration from the Holy Ghost—to help us navigate our unique paths back to Him. Both tools work together, not in opposition, to help us find faith, perspective, direction, and comfort as we walk our individual roads through life.