What Is the Liahona?

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When God commanded Lehi to leave the city of Jerusalem, he obeyed immediately. He took his family three days’ journey into the wilderness and set up camp by a river in a valley.

The family camped in that valley for a long time: long enough for Lehi to send his sons back to Jerusalem twice—once for the brass plates and once to invite the family of Ishmael to join them. During their time in the valley, Lehi studied the scriptures and taught his sons the gospel. He shared with his family a dream he had experienced, and his son Nephi saw a vision. His sons were married to the daughters of Ishmael.

After all of these events, it was finally time to take up camp and journey to the promised land. The Lord instructed Lehi that, “on the morrow, he should take his journey into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:9). As he arose the next morning, ready to begin traveling even though he didn’t know where, he received help in the form of a small object. In the words of his son Nephi:

And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness (1 Nephi 16:10).

Nephi doesn’t tell us what the other spindle did. But he does describe another feature of this remarkable instrument. Later in the chapter, God commands Lehi to look at the ball:

…and behold the things which are written.
And it came to pass that when my father beheld the things which were written upon the ball, he did fear and tremble exceedingly, and also my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and our wives (1 Nephi 16:26-27).

Nephi tells us that the pointers on the ball and the writing on the ball only worked “according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them” (1 Nephi 16:28-29).

Later, when some of Nephi’s brothers rebelled against him and tied him up, “the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord, did cease to work” (1 Nephi 18:12). After they repented and set him free, it began to work again (1 Nephi 18:21).

Nephi never tells us the name of this instrument. He always calls it either a “ball” or a “compass.” But more than 500 years later, the prophet Alma shared its name with his son Helaman:

And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director—or our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it.
And behold, there cannot any man work after the manner of so curious a workmanship. And behold, it was prepared to show unto our fathers the course which they should travel in the wilderness (Alma 37:38-39).

Alma reiterated to Helaman that the Liahona only worked “according to their faith in God.” When they became slothful and “forgot to exercise their faith and diligence,” then “those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey” (Alma 37:40-41).

Then, Alma explained how the story of the Liahona applies to our lives:

It is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land.
And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.
O my son, do not let us be slothful because of the easiness of the way; for so was it with our fathers; for so was it prepared for them, that if they would look they might live; even so it is with us. The way is prepared, and if we will look we may live forever (Alma 37:44-46).

Elder David A. Bednar has taught that the gift of the Holy Ghost fulfills the same purpose in our lives that the Liahona fulfilled for Lehi:

Just as Lehi was blessed in ancient times, each of us in this day has been given a spiritual compass that can direct and instruct us during our mortal journey. The Holy Ghost was conferred upon you and me as we came out of the world and into the Savior’s Church through baptism and confirmation….
The Holy Ghost operates in our lives precisely as the Liahona did for Lehi and his family, according to our faith and diligence and heed….
The Spirit of the Lord can be our guide and will bless us with direction, instruction, and spiritual protection during our mortal journey. We invite the Holy Ghost into our lives through meaningful personal and family prayer, feasting upon the words of Christ, diligent and exacting obedience, faithfulness and honoring of covenants, and through virtue, humility, and service. And we steadfastly should avoid things that are immodest, coarse, crude, sinful, or evil that cause us to withdraw ourselves from the Holy Ghost (“That We May Always Have His Spirit to Be with Us,” General Conference, April 2006).

Today, I will seek for the guidance of the Holy Ghost in my life. I will strive to live in a way that will make me worthy of this gift. I will remember that, just as the Liahona only worked when Lehi’s family demonstrated faith and diligence, I must also qualify for the companionship and guidance of the Holy Ghost in my life.

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