I recently received a difficult calling for me–ward temple and family history leader. It isn’t necessarily a difficult calling because of time involved, or the complexity of what needs to be done. I enjoy worshipping in the temple and have a deep conviction of my testimony of Jesus Christ and his restored church.

It was a difficult calling for me because I have never quite felt the Spirit of Elijah in the way that some others have. I was missing a full understanding of a church doctrine that I have heard all my life, but the implications of which have not always been clear to me.

First, the Doctrine

What are the teachings which I understood at face value, but didn’t totally understand the implications of? The following quotes are examples.

  • “In God’s eternal plan, salvation is an individual matter; exaltation is a family matter.” – Russel M. Nelson’s talk Salvation and Exaltation.
  • “they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” Doctrine and Covenants 128:15
  • [The spirit of Elijah will come to the people through the Priesthood, which will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers] “If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.” Doctrine and Covenants 2

Then, the Confounding Question

If President Nelson only means that “exaltation is a family matter” because the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom requires eternal marriage, then I understood perfectly. Yet, it felt to me that it meant more than that.

The quote from D&C 128 quotes Hebrews 11:40 where Paul says “they without us shall not be made perfect.” That made sense to me, but the latter end of the phrase is added which confounded me a bit “neither can we without our dead be made perfect.”

The question was WHY! WHY is my ancestor’s obedience essential for MY exaltation? I understand that temple ordinances must be done for our dead and that in that sense, they cannot be made perfect without us. But WHY can we not achieve exaltation without THEM?

WHY would the whole earth be wasted if the hearts of the fathers and children (the generations of the family of God) be turned toward one another?

Was I to read this to mean that if I do everything right, but my father and grandfather did not, that I couldn’t achieve exaltation? Certainly that couldn’t be the case.

I’ve often been told that we must have an unbroken chain of sealed ancestry leading back to Heavenly Father. WHY, though? Why could he not just seal us individually his? And how would this practically work when some generations were not righteous?

I have greatly benefitted from worshipping in the temple, but I have enjoyed it for my own personal communion with Heavenly Father. The proxy work simply felt like a byproduct of my worship. I did family history work out of a sense of duty, but never really felt the spirit of the work despite my sporadic prayers to improve. I also felt that I could not muster any sense of urgency in family history efforts.

I felt a nagging sense that something was missing from my testimony. I could come up with intellectual answers for the teachings, but they didn’t feel right to my spirit. A doctrinal piece was missing from my understanding that kept me from a greater understanding of this doctrine.

My Answer

I do not claim that my answer is the only answer. I only know that the Holy Ghost touched my mind as I prayed on this question and helped me to see more of the puzzle than I had previously understood. The answer, for me, came through the original symbol of the plan of salvation that God taught man–the Garden of Eden and its trees.

Eternal life means eternity in both directions–past and future. We could reach the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom with our spouse and have posterity, but it wouldn’t be true eternal life if we were not also connected to eternal life in the past direction. We would be trees without roots. We must seal our ancestors to us to have eternal increase forever into the past (roots), and posterity sealed to us through the everlasting covenant in order to have increase forever into the future (branches and fruit).

We spiritually died when we chose to leave the presence of God and come into mortality. The symbol of fruit being plucked from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was symbolic of US. WE are God’s fruit, and we were plucked from the tree that birthed us. Adam and Eve accepted evil which immediately separated them from God and caused spiritual death (separation from God).

Fixing this separation from God is the core of what religion is. Elder Jeffrey R Holland taught that the word “religion” comes from the Latin “religare” which means to “re-tie.” What was undone that must be retied? Our eternal link to God, which is life eternal.

When we chose to leave God and come to earth, we metaphorically plucked our own fruit off the tree. Fruit, when plucked from a tree, immediately begins to die when no longer nourished by a tree which gathers nutrients through its roots.

Once plucked from the tree, the only way we stay alive is to plant our fruit into the ground and grow it from its seed into a tree that then connects through its roots to the tree of life, which stands in the center of the Garden of Eden.

The largest living organism in the world (called Pando) is a stand of trees near Fish Lake, Utah. Because all of their roots are intertwined, it is one living organism. Perhaps this is one reason why, in the Pearl of Great Price, it says “THE GODS” did this, and “THE GODS” did that. Even our Heavenly Father did his work through a chain of eternal life utilizing roots from eternity before his work.

The scriptures speak of two spiritual deaths. First, we spiritually died when we were born–like fruit being plucked from a tree. The second spiritual death can occur in this life through disobedience to the Light of Christ, which is our only lifeline to truth. There are only two possible outcomes for that fruit. It either grows into its own tree, or it dies forever.

The purpose of our very lives is to take our fruit, guided only at first by the light of Christ, and grow a new tree–a good tree. A tree which can live forever once connected to an eternal past and and eternal future of life, which we access through God. God’s singular work and glory is to bring about eternal life.

The simple understanding helped me to understand what our prophet is teaching, and a different aspect of temple attendance and worship that I had previously failed to fully appreciate.


  1. I really like the tree analogy. I hadn’t thought of it in that way before. In that analogy, it only seems logical that God does not want to pick up the fruit from the ground and put it back on the tree where it was- He wants us to implant in the ground and become part of ‘pando’ or His eternal family and bear fruit of our own.
    No parents want their children to come back and live in their house again! They want their children to go out and learn and build and grow (and then live next door!).

  2. Thanks for sharing. Your insight has helped further my own understanding. I have been stuck on the question of what does, “exaltation is s family matter” mean, in more detail? We know our Heavenly Father will not violate anyone’s agency and force them into faith and obedience. But, your insight makes me think maybe it’s not about what my family chooses but the simple fact of having the ordinance work done for them, or being sealed presently so my children have the benefit of extending the eternal chain.
    Maybe it’s not about their actual choices but about us doing the work, keeping our individual covenants, so past and future CAN be linked. It’s about individuals providing their family members; past, present, and future the OPPORTUNITY for exaltation.
    Maybe it’s the effort and the opportunity we create and not necessarily the final outcome (the choices of our family members) that matters most.

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