Vain imaginations
© 12 May 2014 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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1 Nephi 12:18


The vision seen by Lehi (1 Nephi chapter 8) and Nephi (chapters 11-14) is often discussed in meetings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Often there will be some kind of chart or diagram, an “‍iron rod = word of god‍” kind of translation. Much of this comes from the scripture itself: Nephi’s version of the vision comes with a lot of interpretations. Often one particular symbol, the “‍great and spacious building‍” is identified as “‍the pride of the world.‍” That is correct, as far as it goes, but I think there is much more to know of it.

1 Nephi chapter 12 verse 18 is as follows:

And the large and spacious building, which thy father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men. And a great and a terrible gulf divideth them; yea, even the word of the justice of the Eternal God, and the Messiah who is the Lamb of God, of whom the Holy Ghost beareth record, from the beginning of the world until this time, and from this time henceforth and forever.

The pride part of this verse has, I think, been adequately discussed in many contexts. It is the rest of the verse that caught my eye recently and that I wish to explore in this post.

Vain imaginations are quite common. We imagine that entertainment is recreation, that sin will make us feel good, that if we just get the right friends/job/home/recognition/spouse/whatever then we will be happy. We also, of course, imagine much more fanciful things, like what would have happened if we had made a witty comeback or how cool we would be if we had talents we lack because we haven’t invested the years of practice needed to get them or what we would do if we were a superhero or magician or protagonist whose life inexorably moved toward happy resolution and meaning by the laws of narrative.

Of course, not all imaginations are vain. Imagination is a powerful learning tool, a useful way of discovering patterns in the world around us, and so on. What separates the good imaginations from the vain? “‍A great and terrible gulf,‍” the angle tells us, “‍even the word of the justice of the Eternal God.‍”

From here I go off not so much into speculation as into overly narrow interpretation. Readers be warned: I do not think what follows is the truth, just one perspective of the truth.

Justice is action in accordance with a principle or law. The word of justice is that law: thus, it is just that a dropped object falls and the word of that justice is “‍gravity‍”. The justice of the Eternal God may be taken to mean those laws whose importance is eternal, not temporary. That killing something causes it to die is true, but a truth that has a limited shelf life since death will happen anyway and will be overcome eventually. However, that killing something affects the killer’s soul is eternal, and so we see the Eternal God telling us “‍thou shalt not kill‍” rather than “‍thou shalt not let others kill you.‍”

Now, what gulf lies between beneficial imaginations and vain imaginations? Eternal law. A helpful imagination obeys those eternal laws, while a useless one imagines some subset of them away. Pride is predicated on a vain imagination, imagining that one’s own worth, satisfaction, and contentment can be derived by comparing oneself to other “‍lesser‍” beings—or, more simply, imagining that more = good, an equation lacking in eternal truth.

Skipping over the reference to the Messiah and the Holy Ghost I skip these not because I don’t have thought about them but because a post like this is linear in form and that means ignoring branching thoughts. , let us consider this gulf in the context of the vision. People press towards and/or arrive at the Tree of Life, the greatest joy that there is in eternity. But then they turn their inner eye toward vain imaginations of the great and spacious building, an impossible dream “‍filled‍” with other people who of course have not attained the dream (it is, after all, impossible) but who help others imagine that they have. And those originally-earnest seekers of eternal life veer off course, seeking this vain imaginary life, only to find there is a vast gulf of eternal laws, the word of the justice of the Eternal god, a universal and invariant nature of the universe wherein those vain imaginations can no more be realized by acting as if they were not vain than the deluded can attain mystical powers by waving toy wands and chanting mystical-sounding phrases.

There are lots of interesting aspects to this view of this vision. For example, the iron rod (= the word of god, as we often say) becomes not only a guide to the tree of life but also a guardrail, the warning that truth exists. Likewise, there is no malice in the gulf; it is not a gulf of brimstone rained down by vengeful god but rather the intrinsic gulf between truth and fantasy. That it catches and indeed destroys people in Lehi’s vision is not because God decided to make it dangerous but instead because people decided to try to walk toward something that does not (and can not) exist.

I could go on, but I think I have said enough for now. There is merit in pondering and questioning parables ones self, in using the imagination we each have to picture the scene and ponder the meaning as it intersects with the word of justice.

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