As a new missionary there came a time when I found myself very dissatisfied with the traditional diagram for teaching the plan of salvation. At first I relied on it heavily. I remember one of my early companions making me a copy of her beautiful set, while I wondered why there wasn’t an “official version” I could copy out of Preach My Gospel to cut out and color. After all, how could we teach the plan without it? But as I became more familiar with the plan of life and salvation, I became less comfortable with the cute little cut-outs our lessons frequently revolved around.
“What’s the big deal?” You might be thinking. “What’s the harm in adorable illustrations to help you remember the stages of the plan.” To be honest, it does seem harmless. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s useful in some ways. The diagram is a marvelous visual metaphor, easy imagery to help you keep the details straight. However, it is only a metaphor, a crutch for your brain, and just like a crutch, it must be set aside at some point or it becomes more of a burden than an aid.
One shortcoming of the Plan of Salvation diagram, for example, is that instead of illustrating our change from one state to another (a rather elusive subject to draw) it illustrates us physically moving from place to place. In actuality, when we pass from this life into post-mortality, for example, we don’t suddenly teleport to a new realm. In fact, those of us who qualify to live in God’s presence will stay right here for the rest of eternity. The difference isn’t our location, it’s our make-up, our material. We become something different.
This difference is subtle, but the diagram’s focus on our surroundings throughout the different stages of the plan drives our minds to focus on the periphery of the plan instead of it’s heart. We ask questions like, “Where is Kolob?” and wonder what dimension the spirit world exists in on Earth. We subconsciously think we know all about the Plan of Salvation because we have the diagram memorized. We consistently study the plan and yet never really advance in our understanding.
How important is it to study the Plan of Salvation anyway? Joseph Smith said, “[the purpose of life and death] is a subject we ought to study more than any other. We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation.” He went on to say that, “if we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything, it is for knowledge on this important subject.”(Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:50)7
When Brother Joseph said we have claim upon knowledge of the purposes of life and death, I think the location of Kolob isn’t quite what he had in mind. So, then, if the locations where the Plan of Salvation take place have been studied to exhaustion, what should we be focusing our study on instead? The beautiful thing is that once we move past the tight confines of the diagram, the possibilities are endless! We might wonder, what role does the priesthood play in each stage of the plan? To what extent is the earth traveling through the same process that we are, becoming refined and glorified? Or how do the laws of the gospel change as we move from state to state?
The Great Plan of Happiness is a log of our evolution from intelligences to glorified beings. First, we were organized into spirits. Then we became living souls – a spirit and body combined. For a time after death we will become spirits once again, but spirits trained, matured, and molded by life in a body. Finally, we will be resurrected and judged, and we will go forth to take our place among those whose glory matches our own. (See what I did there? The entire plan without a single location! It can be done!)
One of the best missionary lessons I ever taught on the Plan of Salvation didn’t center around the diagram, but centered around the temple. We told our dear investigator where she and her family had come from, why they were here, and the role she could play, as a Savior on mount Zion, taking her family with her to Celestial glory. After we had explained it all we asked for her thoughts, and with great emotion she replied, “If that’s what you do in the temple, then I am going to get there.” And she lived true to her word. By the end of that lesson she had set her baptismal date with the next ward temple trip date in mind, planning to do baptisms for the dead at the first possible opportunity. When her husband voiced concern about her rapidly-approaching baptism, she called her closest member-friend and (before we missionaries even knew what was happening) a member of the stake presidency had taken his wife to visit, setting her husband’s heart at ease. Her husband and her two young children attended her baptism and came to church with her over and over again. That is the power of the Plan of Salvation! The power to inspire each of us to ACT, to change, to become something special ourselves, while offering the same potential to those around us, even those who are dead.
The Plan of Happiness also has great power to unlock our understanding of Jesus Christ’s atonement. In Preach My Gospel we read that “Jesus Christ is central to God’s plan.” But Jesus Christ is not central to the Plan of Salvation Diagram. Relying on this metaphor alone, one could study the entire plan without discussing Jesus Christ at all. Oh what we miss when we cut Him out of it! How unique and important Jesus Christ’s role is in every step of our spiritual development, from Pre-mortal Life straight through to the Celestial Kingdom. He became our Savior long before Gethsemane and His unique role has not ended yet.
When we rely too heavily on handy teaching tools and diagrams, we forget to use the spirit. We forget the unique questions, needs, and sensitivities of those we teach. We fall in a rut. Minds go dormant on those heavily-worn trails, and pretty soon the Plan of Salvation is nothing more than a memorized pattern of shapes. May we all know enough about Heavenly Father’s magnificent plan, to set aside the diagram when the occasion is right, and teach (or study) the doctrine with our hearts.