In the early chapters of his book (1 Nephi 8 and 11), he writes of a dream about an iron rod. The rod was alongside a "straight and narrow" path, and led to a tree which offered the fruit of eternal life. The rod is interpreted as being the word of God. All about the rod and path were "mists of darkness" and those who did not hold fast to the rod "lost their way" and "wandered off and were lost."
|art by Jerry Thompson [source link]|
Later, (in chapter 16), Nephi and his family are given a Liahona, or director. It is something like a compass, being a ball with spindles, but rather than pointing just north instead it points the way they should go. It does not make a path for them, but points in a general direction and then they must choose their specific route. The ball works according to their faithfulness and responsiveness to it, and will give new directions in response to prayer.
In the early books of the Bible, the Mosaic law is laid out. It is elaborate, with minute details about which punishments should be doled out for each of the numerous infractions listed.
When Christ came, He fulfilled the law of Moses and replaced it with a new law. A much simpler and yet equally encompassing law: love one another. It is a law which requires personal interpretation (because the individual must determine which behaviors constitute "love" and which do not, rather than simply relying on a checklist as the Mosaic law had given).
Little children need detailed and specific rules. They need constant oversight and frequent direction. As they get older, the parent can step back and be less directive. Fewer rules and more self-guidence helps the young person develop their own internal ethical system. They learn to make independent decisions (and experience the consequences), rather than merely to follow orders. Direction is good for someone just starting, but ultimately "it is not meet that [anyone] should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant" (Doctrine & Covenants 58:26).
As a child, I remember learning that certain movie ratings were unacceptable. When I was in college, new guidelines were issued by the church with a different guideline: rather than draw a line for us, they asked us to use our own wisdom and perceptions about things ("if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, seek after these things" cited in For the Strength of Youth). I believe this is the higher law.
Checklists and many specific rules can be helpful in the beginning, but ultimately they will restrain a person from developing to their full potential. As children, we are taught to fold our hands, bow our heads, and close our eyes when we pray. As we age, hopefully we learn to commune with God, regardless of our physical position, and we realize that prayers do not have to be verbalized to be real.
I have sometimes heard people talk about "Iron Rod Mormons" and "Liahona Mormons," meaning those who are strict rule-adherents as opposed to those who take things as general guidelines; the letter of the law folks and the spirit of the law folks; 'checklisters' or 'intuition-followers.' One group may refer to the other as 'stodgy,' while the others may refer back to them as 'lax.' I think that neither is true.
They are simply stages in the development of discipleship.
I was very much an Iron Rodder in my younger years, and I'm not any more. I've become a Liahona Mormon.The one naturally precedes the other. We all develop and change in our own ways and on our own timetables, so the differences in our faith styles should not be a reason for anyone to look down their noses at anyone else. But I would be lying if I didn't say that, based on scriptural examples as well as the study of human development, I believe that the liahona method is a later stage of development.
I realize that while holding to the security of that rod of iron, it can be intimidating to let go of it in order to trust tiny spindles on a little ball...to set out knowing only a general direction, but without a marked path. It is overwhelming, truly. However, I have come to the conclusion that letting go of the rod to follow the ball is NOT a form of getting lost, but rather a natural and totally appropriate form of development.
I don't think there is necessarily something wrong with staying with the Rod if it is working for you...but it must be acknowledged that it is a childlike form of discipleship. Yes, Christ called us to be like a little child...but then He also called us to be like Him. And Christ was no checklister. He broke the letter of the law left and right while teaching the spirit of the law. Jesus lived a Liahona life, and I'm trying to do the same.