Note: This post was originally written as an adaptation to a talk (sermon) that I gave early this year.
On New Year’s Eve my husband and I stood on our front porch at the stroke of midnight listening to the laughter and festivities taking place on our street. “Here’s to a better year,” he said. To which I replied, “Surely it can only get better from here?”
You see, this past year was marked by the three Ds that have plagued our marriage for all of its three and half years. Death, disease and disappointment seem to have been the hallmark of our marriage. Last month was no exception. Among the three deaths that affected me in December was one of my brightest students that I taught last year on the Cree Indian Reservation where I worked in northern Manitoba. Not technically diseases, but certainly health issues abounded. Between a bad fall, kidney stones, and a dog attack, things were not pleasant. And this Christmas we were supposed to spend the holidays with my family in Newfoundland, which I was dearly looking forward to, as was my three year old nephew whom I miss dreadfully.
I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised by the trials we endured in December, and in a way, we weren’t. Those of you who don’t know us very well could think that I was over-exaggerating when I said that our marriage has been plagued by those three Ds. It started the week before our marriage, actually, when a sewage flood in the apartment I was renting ruined nearly everything for the wedding, followed by the loss of 300 report card files that had to be redone, 12 hours of hair care, and a day in the hospital due to kidney stones.
Then we got married.
Since then I have lost my grandmother and other relatives, several friends, and many former students, most of them to suicide; I have had health issues with every major organ in my body; my step-daughter has had ongoing issues with her ears and other problems resulting from the illness of her mother and her subsequent moving halfway across the country; some of our relatives shunned us for a whole year because we asked them to watch a Christmas Devotional with us; my old van literally blew up in the driveway; my replacement vehicle was stolen and ended up costing about $10 000 in repairs over the course of the year as a result; my husband’s car was broken into when he met me in Montreal for our immigration interviews; due to immigration laws and issues, we were separated for three and a half years, not the nine to fourteen months we had expected; our oldest daughter ran away from home two years ago and hasn’t spoken to any of us since. And this is the shortened list.
When such things occur, it is human nature to wonder why these trials and tribulations happen. Why me? is a popular refrain amongst those suffering intense adversity. Perhaps the better question is: Why not me? Understanding why such things occur in our lives is a key step toward being able to move forward with faith.
W. N. Partridge in his book entitled ‘All These Things Gain Us Experience’ gives us five reasons why we have afflictions.
First, punishment is one reason that we have trials. Indeed, it is human nature to assume that our trials are punishment for some misdeed we have committed. But this is not always so. We turn to various means to attempt to make sense of what is happening to us.
Falling to our knees in prayer is one way we attempt to make sense of the things that are happening in our lives. Our cries of woe are further reinforced in our minds when we feel that our prayers for relief have gone unanswered. But Richard G. Scott teaches us that, “It is a mistake to assume that every prayer we offer will be answered immediately…. When He answers yes, it is to give us confidence. When He answers no, it is to prevent error. When He withholds an answer, it is to have us grow through faith in Him, obedience to His commandments, and a willingness to act on truth.”
When we look to the scriptures for answers, we fall upon passages such as that of Lot’s wife, who through disobedience to God’s commandments was turned into a pillar of salt. But, as Partridge explains, “Lot’s wife…wasn’t just looking back; in her heart she wanted to go back. It would appear that even before she was past the city limits, she was already missing what Sodom and Gomorrah had offered her…. So it isn’t just that she looked back; she looked back longingly…. To yearn to go back to a world that cannot be lived in now, to be perennially dissatisfied with present circumstances and have only dismal views of the future, and to miss the here and now and tomorrow because we are so trapped in the there and then and yesterday are some of the sins of Lot’s wife.”
Are we like Lot’s wife, holding on to the familiar yet discordant past in fear of what is to come? When we feel we are being punished for some misdeed, it is easy to wallow in self-pity and guilt, to maintain the status quo. As much as we do not like what is happening, some small part of us thinks that we must deserve to be punished, or that, as the saying goes, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Moving forward is difficult in the best of times; moving forward with faith in times of trial, to exchange a known way of being that we can bear, regardless of how terrible the experience is, for perhaps an unknown trial that we cannot, is a frightening prospect.
But, we cannot remain stagnant and expect to grow as an individual, as a family, as a community, or as a nation. One of the purposes of punishment is to help us effect a change for the better in our lives, to be more obedient to the will of the Lord, to strive to better those around us through service. Lot and his daughters learned a hard lesson that day about the consequences of disobedience, just as the inhabitants of the earth did when they failed to listen to Noah‘s voice and the rains started to fall, and the Nephites who became slaves to the Lamanites after the martyrdom of Abinadi. They knew they had done wrong, as the scriptures record that “they did cry mightily to God…that he would deliver them out of their afflictions.”
So it is with us. As we learn the lessons of obedience, we, too, can have our afflictions lessened as we go forward with faith.
A second reason that we are given afflictions is to help us remember our duty. Affliction is not limited to people of my faith. Indeed, anyone who believes in God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, have taken upon themselves certain duties when they become believers. When we became members of this Church, we took upon ourselves many duties – to obey the commandments, pray daily, read scriptures, bear one another’s burdens, mourn with those who mourn, accept callings….the list goes on. Afflictions help us to remember those duties, for if we do not remember them, we begin to forget God, and Satan creeps into our lives.
This is what happened to Lehi and his family in Mosiah 1:17. “Therefore, as they were unfaithful they did not prosper nor progress in their journey, but were driven back, and incurred the displeasure of God upon them; and therefore they were smitten with famine and sore afflictions, to stir them up in the remembrance of their duty.” Lehi had been wandering for eight years in the desert, forgot God, and was afflicted. Not just afflicted, mind you, but SORE afflicted.
In the Doctrine and Covenants 121 we read of Joseph Smith’s pleas to Heavenly Father while in Liberty Jail: O God, where art thou? In Section 122, we read the Lord’s response to those pleas, wherein He asks fifteen questions of Joseph, ending with the phrase, “know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”
When we have afflictions and honestly feel that we have not done anything to warrant such punishment, we should ask ourselves if we are remembering our duty to God. To move forward with faith through such trials, we must fulfill all of our responsibilities, magnify our callings, pay a full tithe and a generous fast offering, keep the Sabbath Day holy, obey the commandments, do our visiting and home teaching, support our leaders, fellowship with other members, follow the counsel of the prophets, and live up to our roles as parents. In the midst of affliction it is easy to let these things fall to the wayside. The harder path is to move forward with faith by striving to do each of these things more perfectly.
A third reason that we have afflictions is so that we can be an example for others. Seeing how others overcome afflictions in their lives can help us to move forward with faith when we are faced with our own afflictions. In Alma 17:11 the Lord says to the four sons of Mosiah as they are starting their fourteen year mission among the Lamanites that, “…ye shall be patient in long-suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me…” Can you imagine how those young men must have felt knowing that they were about to have fourteen years of afflictions? And yet, they moved forward with faith, because they had been promised that if they bore their afflictions they would have much success.
Oftimes we are not being afflicted because of wickedness or because we have forgotten God in our daily lives. Health problems, unemployment, family crisis, death, financial issues, natural disasters come to both the unrighteous and the righteous. When righteous individuals are afflicted in such ways, it is to show that even in the midst of trials those who know God can be examples of hope to those around them by going forward with faith.
Although not a member of our church, my husband’s Aunt Anne, who has been afflicted with a very painful condition her entire adult life, is a wonderful example for my family. Despite her condition, she is one of the brightest, most cheerful people you could ever meet. And when her only daughter and son-in-law asked her if they would consider moving closer to them, the first thing Aunt Anne did was to go to her knees in prayer, not once, but several times. She received the answer that she and Uncle Hal needed to move to be near their only child. They immediately flew halfway across the country, chose a home site, contracted a builder, and put their home up for sale. The amazing thing about this, however, is not that she prayed and acted upon the response she received. The amazing thing is that her daughter lives in Oklahoma City. In fact, when the big tornado was sweeping through the community, cousin Amy’s home was in its direct path. She went to the safest part of their home and prayed fervently that her home would be spared and her husband would make it home safely. And…the tornado changed direction at the beginning of her street. Amy’s house sustained little damage – the worst was a section of fence that fell down. But less than a quarter of a mile away, complete destruction reigned. Whole neighbourhoods gone, with just foundations showing where homes once stood. And it was in the midst of this chaos that Aunt Anne and Uncle Hal decided to follow the Lord’s prompting to give up all they had worked their entire lives to build, to leave behind friends and activities and the very comfortable life they had made for themselves in their retirement, and to move forward with faith to begin again.
A fourth reason that we have afflictions is to prepare us for something that we need to learn.
When I was growing up I was an active member of my Protestant church. When I became pregnant at age eighteen, my entire family was devastated. My minister told me that if I did not get married, my child would be “a sin and an abomination.” I remember looking at her, and with a sinking heart, telling her that if that is what her church believed, then I could no longer be a member of that church. I spent the next several years raising my daughter, while going to university full-time, taking extra classes, and working anywhere between four to seven part-time jobs. My parents or brother would fly the 900 miles to the province I was living in to pick my daughter up during exam periods so that I could have time to study, but the rest of the time, I was largely on my own with her while at university.
It was during this time that I began my search for a church that I could believe in. I knew that I was not an atheist or agnostic – I knew that God exists. I read everything that I could find about every other religion I had ever heard about, talked to ecclesiastical leaders from any number of congregations, searched online. In every religion I found truths, but there was always something that told me that each one was not quite right for me.
One night I saw an ad for a free Book of Mormon on television, and gave the number a call. I spent six years reading, studying, talking to missionaries, and going to church before I was baptized. To make it clear how active I was in this Church before my baptism, I had one brother exclaim, “You’re not baptized? I thought you must have been born in the Church! Well, that explains why I could never figure out why you didn’t have a calling!”
My experiences as a pregnant teenager and unwed mother were very difficult to go through, but they prepared me to go forward with faith to find the true church, and as a result, my husband and step-daughter.
Finally, sometimes we are given trials to test our patience and faith. In Abraham 3:25 we are told that we should expect lots of trials and adversity. Christ says in that verse that “…we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” A modern-day definition of the word ‘prove’ means to determine quality through tests. But the archaic meaning of the word makes our purpose here on earth even clearer. It means to find out or learn something through experience. How do we gain that experience? Through trials and tribulations, adversity and afflictions.
After I joined the church, I, like many others I suppose, had this naive idea that things could only get better. I quickly found a suitable spouse, and after a short period of time, we were married in the temple. Since it took me six years to be baptized, I’m sure you can appreciate that I rarely do things on a whim, but rather study them out and choose the best option. Getting married was no different. On seven different occasions I prayed about it, and each time was prompted to pick up the nearest scriptures and open them at random. I picked up seven different scriptures – at home and in the temple, hard bound and soft bound, triples and quads, old and new – and each time I opened the scriptures, I found myself reading Doc. and Cov. 104:51, which reads, “And this I have commanded to be done for your salvation.” I figured, hey! this must be a sign, right? Seven different scriptures all telling me the same thing?
So imagine my dismay when things rapidly went downhill. As in, we walked out of the temple, into the chapel, and things start to go wrong. The diamonds fell out of my wedding band. I spent most of the reception in the bathroom being violently ill. My new father-in-law kept referring to his son as the ‘gloom’ instead of the groom. Long story short, the marriage didn’t last long and my husband was eventually excommunicated.
Fast forward about a year and a half. I was living a scant five minutes from the temple, and I spent a lot of time there because I knew for certain that that was the one place that my ex would not be. I prayed day after day in the temple for an answer as to why these things had happened when I felt so sure that I was supposed to marry this guy.
One February day I was sitting in the chapel inside the temple, praying about this matter and pondering again on that scripture…”And this I have commanded to be done for your salvation”… when I heard as clear as a bell, a voice say to me, “What comes next?”
I had never thought to continue reading that verse. I picked up the nearest scriptures and read the following, “And this I have commanded to be done for your salvation, The covenants being broken through transgression, by covetousness and feigned words— Therefore, you are dissolved as a united order with your brethren, that you are not bound only up to this hour unto them.” Well, I thought, that is pretty clear. The covenants had been broken, through transgression, covetousness, and lies, we were divorced or not bound to each other any longer, and he had been given the opportunity to seek salvation through repentance.
I was telling this story to my Stake President one day a few months later, and he, knowing everything that had happened in that marriage, commented, “I do not understand why you are still a member. I have known countless people who have left the church over far less than what you have experienced.” My reply? “Where else can I go? I believe the Book of Mormon is scripture. I know Joseph Smith is a prophet. I have a strong testimony in the sealing ordinances of our temples. There is no other place for me to go.”
My patience and faith were sorely tried during this time of my life, but I also know that the scriptures give us this promise: “Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me….And I will…ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders…” (Mosiah 24:13-14). The only sure thing to do in times of hardship is to go forward with faith, believing that God will ease our burdens.
Here is the thing about afflictions – the difficulty of the trial depends upon the individual and the circumstances that cause the affliction. And what passes as an affliction for one person, could be a great blessing for another. Take, for example, a heavy rain after a season of drought. For the couple hosting a backyard barbeque, this rain is certainly not a blessing. But for the farmer, this same rain will save his crop and allow him to provide for his family. If we learn to approach our understanding of our trials by looking for the blessings found therein, we can move forward in faith.
Those 3 Ds of Death, Disease, and Disappointment that I mentioned had plagued our marriage? All blessings in disguise.
If I had not had the opportunity to care for my grandmother for several hours each day in the pain-filled months preceding her death, I would not have had the opportunity to bear to her my testimony. I would not have had the opportunity to have her say to me, “You know, perhaps that’s what I believe, too.”
If I had not had all those health issues, I doubt that our marriage would have lasted. For example, in our first year of marriage we expected that we would be able to spend about six weeks that summer together, and perhaps one or two other weeks throughout the year. As a result of my illnesses, we actually spent close to seven months together in that first year.
As Doctrine and Covenants 122:9 tells us, “…fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.” This promise, given to Joseph as he lay languishing in Liberty Jail, holds true for us as well. If we bear our afflictions well, we, too, can move forward with faith with the sure knowledge that God will be with us forever and ever.