Hungry Deer and the Olive Tree

hungry_deerThere is an old story quoted from time to time in the Church about a very bitter winter in Utah with deep snow in the mountains. A large number of hungry deer ventured down into the populated valleys to look for food.

“Some well-meaning people, in an effort to save the deer, dumped truckloads of hay around the area—it wasn’t what deer would normally eat, but they hoped it would at least get the deer through the winter. Sadly, most of the deer were later found dead. They had eaten the hay, but it did not nourish them, and they starved to death with their stomachs full.” (from “Be Faithful, Not Faithless” by Steven B. Owen, in the 2019 October General Conference)

The moral of this story, when applied to gospel instruction, is that teachers need to make sure that their students are “nourished with the good word of God.” People’s souls are hungry for the living bread, and thirsty for the living waters. We shouldn’t be offering them empty calories. It is not enough to just fill up the class time or to merely entertain. Disciples of the Lord need to consistently “feast upon the words of Christ” and cannot subsist upon “that which cannot satisfy.”

This is a true lesson, and an important one in our day of spiritual malnutrition. I have written about this subject before in the context of trying to keep social media and electronic devices from taking over our lives.

But I must admit that something about this story has always bothered me. How could deer starve with stomachs full of food? I thought that hay was edible for them. Maybe they all died of refeeding syndrome? This doesn’t make sense to me.

Time to look it up.

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Deer who eat too much hay in the winter will suffer and can die of a condition called ruminitis. This is caused by bacterial overgrowth in the stomach and intestines of grazing animals when they eat too much carbohydrate-rich food. During the summer months deer can handle more of this kind of food because they grow bacteria in their intestines that help to digest it. But in the winter their diets change, and their gut bacteria can’t handle carbohydrates in such large amounts. Deer naturally ease back in to their summer diets through the spring time, and their microflora slowly adapt to this change.

Understanding how these poor deer actually died suggests a new interpretation of the parable. Just like you shouldn’t overload the deer by giving them too much food before they can digest it, those who are learning the gospel shouldn’t be expected to change all at once. We all start with baby steps in trying to follow Christ, because conversion is a gradual process. God is very patient with us as he works this mighty change in our hearts, so let’s be patient with ourselves.

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The prophet Zenos taught this principle in his masterful allegory of the olive tree. In this story the olive tree represents the House of Israel, whose branches are scattered by the Lord and grafted into trees all over the vineyard. Over time all of the trees become corrupted, and the wild branches that were grafted in to the olive tree are producing all kinds of bad fruit. The Lord of the vineyard is grieved at the thought of losing all of the trees that he has put so much work into cultivating for so many years, so he decides to set his hand to work one last time, and to call servants to work with him. As they take the natural branches from all around the vineyard and graft them back into the original tree, the Lord instructs them to be careful not to overload the roots by grafting them in too quickly, and not to clear away too many of the corrupted wild branches at once.

“64 […] And if it be so that these last grafts shall grow, and bring forth the natural fruit, then shall ye prepare the way for them, that they may grow.

“65 And as they begin to grow ye shall clear away the branches which bring forth bitter fruit, according to the strength of the good and the size thereof; and ye shall not clear away the bad thereof all at once, lest the roots thereof should be too strong for the graft, and the graft thereof shall perish, and I lose the trees of my vineyard.

“66 For it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard; wherefore ye shall clear away the bad according as the good shall grow, that the root and the top may be equal in strength, until the good shall overcome the bad, and the bad be hewn down and cast into the fire, that they cumber not the ground of my vineyard; and thus will I sweep away the bad out of my vineyard” (Jacob 5:63-65).

This allegory is a prophecy about the Lord’s “marvelous work and a wonder,” the restoration of his church and the gathering of his people in the latter days. Whether working at the scale of individual souls, or of families, communities, or nations, the Lord’s work is methodical and balanced. He clears away the bad just as much as he can get the good to grow, “precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.” If I am a willing student, then God will show me how to improve and what to prune away.

“The Lord does not expect perfection from us at this point in our eternal progression,” taught President Russell M. Nelson in the April 2019 General Conference. “But He does expect us to become increasingly pure.” If we let the Lord into our hearts, then the overall process of growing and changing will continue on slowly and gradually, “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”

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A few weeks ago, during a mid-February melt, I took a morning trail run in the mountains near my house. I love to feel my heart beat, listen to the rhythm of my breathing, and feel the ground beneath my feet as I move through God’s creation. It cost me a lot of time and effort to earn this privilege; endurance exercise is another area where improvement happens gradually, incrementally.

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Herd of deer grazing in the mountains near my home.

In the lower hills where the snow had melted I saw dozens of deer grazing on last year’s dry grass, slowly training their digestive tracts to accept this kind of food again. They saw me coming and scattered away into the trees, but I hope they came back to the meadow for a second helping after I passed by.

Spring hasn’t really started yet, but the melted snow is already warming my heart. Before long there will be longer days, a warmer sun, and green grass in these hills. The deer will be ready. I want to be ready, too, for the changes coming to my soul.

It’s going to be a good year.


Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.