Maurine Proctor’s column is available on Tuesday on Meridian. Sign up for Meridian’s free emails here.
When we were young, we may have thought of courage as a quality for the battlefield. It was a trait shown by soldiers who buckled up their armor for war, or perhaps it was an attribute for mountain climbers who would scale the thin air of Everest.
Time, however, teaches us that since we are fragile creatures, who have a somewhat tenuous hold on this planet, we must develop courage as our constant companion just to survive each day with grace. We live with uncertainty. The dearest things can be taken from us in a moment. The strength or beauty or wit we thought to be fixed qualities in us can be stolen by the years. Or perhaps we had to travel through all of life feeling the loss of strength or beauty or wit. Our best expectations are dashed.
Just to survive, every day we do hard things. We put ourselves on the line professionally, and wonder, in these tough times, if our job will be there tomorrow. We send our children into a toxic world and pray they will survive.
We dodge cars, drain bank accounts, do brain surgery or something just as hard in our work, duck catastrophe on every side, and face perhaps the hardest thing of all, our own inadequacies-day after day after endless day.
We know that all it takes, sometimes, to be devastated is one misstep, one error in judgment, one turn of the head to the right when we should have looked left.
When you stop to think about it, this existence is designed to be the “perfect storm.” We arrive with amnesia, not even sure of who we are. The people we cherish die and disappear, sometimes when we least expect it, so we travel with the hidden, but real, fear that those we count on may leave us. We know, too, that we will leave this little patch of familiarity called earth, going somewhere we can’t fully imagine.
Meanwhile, we seek to live with happiness and growth, feeling secure in an insecure world, trying to be content to hobble along, doing repetitive tasks, while our spirits yearn to soar.
With possible pitfalls all about us, we are asked to grow, to think beyond the fiery serpents leaping to bite us, and live with charity and wholeness, looking beyond our own sense of danger to comfort others who are afflicted.
It is quite a test indeed, or perhaps better, a school, and I sometimes marvel when I look at the smiling people around me who negotiate this with such optimism and courage. How do they do it? How do we do it?
A Wilderness Journey
In scripture, the Lord describes our lives as a wilderness journey, and then gives us plenty of examples of what such journeys look like lest our imaginations fail us. They feature heat, dehydration, thirst, hunger, wandering, disappointment and hardship of every sort. We don’t make our way across wildernesses on a cruise ship that features a midnight buffet and entertainment on every deck.
On wilderness journeys even the most faithful of us may cry out in pain, “It is enough.”
Yet with all this, the Lord is seeking to give us the most blessed of information-who he is and how he values us, which could not be so clear in any less desperate situation.
We may sometimes think our deepest needs are to find immediate comfort, security, recognition, and entertainment, but when all those are met, we are still aware that our deepest yearnings are for something else. Even if we do not always recognize it, that something else is to find God, know him intimately and personally. There is a hole in us that only that relationship can fill, an innate leaning toward the light that only the Light can answer.
Thus, God tells us forthrightly the purpose of this journey and why it is so hard. To Nephi he said, “Ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led (1 Nephi 17:13, emphasis added).
God told Moses the same thing about the purpose of the journey, “I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 29: 45,46, emphasis added).
Only one way allows for such certain knowledge to discern by whom ye are led. That is when you come to the absolute end of your personal resources. You cannot make it through the wilderness alone. You cannot find the way. You come starkly upon your insufficiency. Your lack, whether it be inside yourself or external conditions screams at you. Conditions, whether they be broken bows or uncertain directions, are too much, just too much.
His great favor is to allow us to be driven to the very extremities of our existence and discover our neediness. To our dismay, we discover, I am not sufficient enough. I cannot get myself out of bondage, cannot feed myself without the sunlight, cannot breathe without his sustaining me, cannot negotiate this hard time without his strength.
Our little notions of self-sufficiency and control are blasted in this journey.
The scriptures say again and again that we are in bondage, so that we may be delivered. He allows us to be subject to the fallen world so that we may know the Deliverer.
He told the Children of Israel just before they entered the Promised Land, that he intended to give them great abundance including “goodly cities, which thou buildedst not” and “houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, and wells digged, which thou diggedst not”, but they must never think of themselves that “my power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 6:10, 11; 8:17).
He would make it very clear, and inscribe in their racial memory for all time, that it was his gift and they were dependent on him. Their distress and then their relief had written his deliverance on the “fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3).
Yet our hearts can fail us while we are waiting for deliverance, which often does not come immediately, or in our time frame, or without great spiritual effort. Many hearts do fail in the wilderness. We saw the hearts and nerve of the Children of Israel grow faint by the wayside, including the whole first generation who never made it to the Promised Land. We saw Laman and Lemuel sink to cynicism.
In the world, we sometimes hear that someone who breaks from their faith was “courageous” or at least “liberated.” It is not courageous to lose faith in the heat of a secular world. It is predictable, and the course of least resistance. It is to choose to live in the flatlands, while all the adventure is reserved for the courageous who are not afraid to climb the mountain to seek the face of God.
God said to the Children of Israel, “the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no” (Deuteronomy 8:2). The enormous privileges he offers comes to those whose souls have been tested and thoroughly vetted.
Believing in his rescue, when we don’t yet see it, requires courage. Courage, like faith, is built brick by brick by experience with him. When President Gordon B. Hinckley used to say with such unfailing optimism, “Things work out,” it was based, not on just having a cheery attitude, though he did, but on real experience with God. Things do work out. Things are designed into the very heart of reailty so that ultimately you prosper, that you will have life more abundantly. Maybe it will not be in this minute, but courage and faith sustain us while we wait, perhaps even while things continue to look more and more like no rescue could save us.
We remember that God has been there before, and he will be there again. We are wise enough not to demand our time frame or control of the elements of our rescue, but we trust that he sees what we do not see.
Optimism is moral courage. It is developed through the exercise of faith.
The Children or Israel quaked with fear when they saw the inhabitants of the Promised Land who seemed so mighty they would surely destroy them. The Lord answered that fear with reassurance: “Thou shalt not be afraid of them: but shalt well remember what the Lord thy God did unto Pharaoh, and unto all Egypt…the signs, and the wonders, and the mighty hand, and the stretched out arm, whereby the Lord thy God brought thee out: so shall the Lord thy God do unto all the people of whom thou art afraid” (Deuteronomy 7: 18,19).
President Henry B. Eyring tells the tender story of being with his father during the famous scientist’s last days, through the end of a long struggle with bone cancer. In great pain, it was hard work to move him from a chair to his bed, and the nights were long.
President Eyring said, “One night when I was not with him and the pain seemed more than he could bear, he somehow got out of bed and on his knees beside it-I know not how. He pled with God to know why he was suffering so. And the next morning he said, with quiet firmness, “I know why now. God needs brave sons.”
It takes brave sons and brave daughters to live with faith in a difficult world. It is easy to be cynical, easy to give up. It demands nothing of us, if our faith blows over in the first strong wind. Our faith and courage have to surmount strong winds of even gale strength. That’s how we know who we are. That’s how we find out who He is, when he encircles us in the arms of his love.
But we must be warned too, that it is in our deepest exigencies that Satan comes calling. He would like to zap our courage, turn our insides to putty. He wants us to think our faith is unwarranted and useless. He wants our memory to be marred so that every trace of what we know about God is revised out of our life by our terror or discouragement.
Brigham Young used to describe our challenge: “The men and women who desire to obtain seats in the celestial kingdom will find that they must battle every day.”
We battle not just against the conditions of a fallen world, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood,” but more significantly, “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Satan is ever nipping at our heels with his insidious suggestions that we should fear, that we cannot do it, that we are all alone, that our lives will come to nothing.
He is a tenacious sort who does not give up. Thus, on our journey, even after we’ve received times of revelation and conviction, even after we’ve been to the mountain and felt God, even after we’ve seen rescue before, he will still send his fiery darts at us attempting to make our hearts faint. Courage is not just for one time when we’ve been assaulted or one moment of desperation; it is the mode we must have for every, every day.
Paul said in Hebrews, “Call to remembrance the former days, in which after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions” (Hebrews 10:32). What? Again and again we must exercise courage, and again and again we must seek deliverance? Yes!
It is not once, but becomes the pattern of our lives, that even after we’ve received revelation, even after we’ve seen God’s hand, we will be assaulted by Satan, tempted to despair, and must look again for the Deliverer.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said we need encouragement because we face opposition often “after enlightened decisions have been made, after moments of revelation and conviction have given us a peace and an assurance we thought we would never lose.
We know it well. The job we were inspired to take becomes more difficult than we imagined. The way we were shown to go is fraught with thorns and thistles. The marriage we were impressed to enter includes illness, economic deprivation and times we are strangers to each other. The child we feel so connected to at birth becomes our biggest problem in life. The investigator slated for baptism does not show up.
Paul therefore advises, “Cast not away therefore your confidence.” This is a powerful admonition because he makes it a question of our own agency. He says, “You decide to cast not away therefore your confidence.'” You choose to be brave. It is in your hands to be courageous and faithful-even if you must wait and then wait again for deliverance.
He says, “If any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him” (Hebrews 10:38). Even in our difficult times we can choose to draw back or press forward with hope.
He assures us that we can have courage because God will come. “For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry” (Hebrews 10: 35,36).
When the wait seems long, I think of what the Duke of Wellington, who won the Battle of Waterloo, said of his British soldiers. He said they were not braver than other soldiers; they were just brave five minutes longer.
When our courage and faith, flag, we can choose to be brave five minutes longer, five days longer-or if need be, and things are tough enough, we can take it minute by minute with our hand in the Lord’s.
Joseph Smith, who always impresses with his faith and boldness, said it this way, “Shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage…and on, on to the victory” (D&C 128: 22).
Again, a choice, a decision. We decide to cast away our fear, instead of cast away our confidence.
Joseph Smith can say that, because he knows God, and courage for life’s journey will always be a product of that knowledge.
When life is too much and courage would falter, remember what you know. Remember Who you know, the One whose face will be so familiar to you when you see your Father again. He is perfectly capable of doing His own work which He proclaims is saving you.
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