I imagine that one of the lesser-known debates in the council in heaven was about the way we would learn in mortality. There was a prominent, scholarly faction that favored a series of classroom lectures as the essence of our second estate. “That’s the best way to learn. And the safest,” they said. “Everyone can read their texts and come to class to be taught. Occasional tests will verify the learning.”
There was another faction that favored experience over lectures. “People learn by doing,” they insisted. But the scholars looked shocked. “Experience is so messy! And it is risky! So many people get hurt, so many get lost! So many never learn the lessons!”
As the masses debated, God looked on with amusement. It finally occurred to the fussing factions to put the question to God. “Father, how are we to learn in mortality?” Each side looked to be vindicated.
How God Teaches
God spoke deliberately, “I love a good lesson! There is nothing quite like a lecture by Terryl Givens or a talk by Truman Madsen. I love a class led by Sister Norwood. I just love listening to them all!” The scholars were feeling a hint of triumphalism sneak into their souls. “I give to all of you the opportunity to be taught by great thinkers. They won’t all be scholars. There will also be ordinary folks who share their wonderful discoveries. Learn from them.”
The heavenly courts were hushed as the experience faction waited to see if they had lost the cause altogether. God just beamed.
“You will not learn exclusively through study and the teaching of others. Some of the best education comes through life experiences.” Some in the crowd wondered if God had thrown a bone to the lecture-learners. They listened intently for clues.
“Each life is a collection of stories. Their meaning will often be unclear. The cowboy standing on the dusty trail — did he find a rope or lose a horse? Often you will wonder. So I grant all of you agency in your actions but also in your opportunities to interpret your experiences.”
Phew. No one in the crowd was sure which side was winning. Couldn’t God be clearer about his preference? Are the lessons of life primarily to be learned via lectures or experiences?
“One of the great gifts of mortality is the opportunity to make sense of everything — both lectures and experiences. In every lesson and every experience are the seeds of exasperation or inspiration. You get to choose.”
This was really confusing. Neither side dared to declare victory.
The Power of Choice
“You will start as infants whose eternity of experience will be obscured. You will be more helpless than you can ever remember being. There will be people who will help you. And some who will hurt you. You will often feel lost. In a fallen world, each life will have a mixture of sweet experiences and hard ones.”
Uncertainty turned to dismay. Why would God send His children to such a risky place?
“This is where your freedom will be most critical, most precious — or most damning.” God looked earnest. “Let me give you some examples.”
“When Jim loses his precious wife, he will have a choice. He can shake his fist at deaf heavens. Or he can thank me for bringing his beloved Home to safety.”
“When Miriam gets leprosy, she can shed hope and goodness or she can be stretched in greater trust and enlarged compassion.”
“When Adam is called to put his best lamb on the altar, he can feel cheated or be taught by angels.”
We listened soberly, only partially comprehending.
“That is not all. Some will shake their fist at a sun that makes them sweat while others will thank the sun that ripens their grapes. Some will turn away from a Son who calls them to suffer while others will thank Him for maturing their souls.”
How Can We Make It?
God sensed the question in our souls. How do we choose correctly? How do we avoid shaking our fists and shrinking our souls when we know so little and face so much?
“This is where your millennia of experience will pay off. Those of you who have loved the light will love it still. Those of you who have chosen holiness will resonate to it. Those of you who have loved truth will be invited to choose it again.”
The debate was forgotten. The question that weighed on us now was practical. How could we turn challenging experiences into growth? How do we choose betterness over bitterness?
He answered. “Find the blessing in every experience. Thank God for every moment. He who receives everything with thankfulness shall be made glorious.”
How do we keep such a positive perspective when life bedevils us?
“It’s a choice. This is the choice on which all eternity turns. You may amass your experiences to create a story of injustice and pain. You will have plenty of data. Or you may take the very same experiences and organize them to create meaning, to inspire gratitude, and to develop character.”
Ahhh! A light dawned! This is that ultimate choice. The opportunity to make sense of our experiences by viewing them all through the lens of faith!
God paused. “Let me give one warning. Your freedom to make sense of your own experiences must be used carefully in making sense of other’s experiences. Though you may not have lost a spouse, suffered leprosy, or lost a lamb, you should offer love and a warm embrace to those who have. When you have had similar experiences, it should activate your compassion more than your advising. Your experiences are intended to grow your faith. They do not qualify you to evaluate the struggles of a fellow traveler.”
The hushed crowd pondered. It seemed that these gatherings with Father followed a predictable pattern. We children discern alternatives and argue for the one we favor. God transcends those alternatives. He unites truth into one great whole. And, after listening to Him, it all made perfect sense.
God paused before concluding: “Mortality will be your capstone experience. I challenge you to fill the stories of your mortality with faith, meaning, purpose, kindness, and serving. You can reach out to fellow travelers. You can see goodness and growth where others see tragedy. That is the key to joining me in my work, that apparent chaos is organized and sacralized by faith.”
“Do not despair. The One who tends every sparrow knows your every struggle. Look to me in every thought. Doubt not. Fear not.”
Applying the Lesson
We don’t remember that debate. We can only reconstruct it from scattered clues. We know that God loves stories. He built our lives out of them. His beloved Son taught using them. (What a teacher!) We also know that, while each of us imagines that our personal truth is objective and accurate, God may be inviting us to recognize that only One really understands Truth. The tragedies and chaos of our lives are carefully managed moments. God stands by to infuse them with growth and meaning. When we need humbling, life ministers just the right remedy. When we need hope, God points us to His Son who triumphed over all enemies.
When we are lonely, He offers His embrace.
More than we realize, we impose our own self-serving meaning on our memories.
We may see ourselves as misunderstood or unfairly treated. We may question whether God was present during times of trials or disappointments. When relationships fell apart or plans failed to materialize, we may lament having wasted our time, efforts, and love. We humans invariably shape our memories by selective perception, careful editing, and even creative re-writing. Yet, rather than complain about our fates, God invites us to put our creative capacities to work looking for His gracious hand in all aspects of our lives. He invites us to ponder the heavenly lessons and blessings He offered during all of our experiences including times of challenge, disappointment and unexpected turns in the road of life. He invites us to be glad students.
We should not hold onto our truths as sacred. Rather we should hold onto His Son. After all, one of His names is Truth. We must never allow our limited scope to infuse us with gloom. We must not ever surrender to black despair. When life stumps and bewilders us, we call on God to sustain our faith.
I define faith as the stubborn resolve to see God’s goodness in everything that happens to us.
Elder Maxwell’s application of faith is (naturally) more eloquent than mine: “Let the kaleidoscope of life’s circumstances be shaken, again and again, and the true believer of Christ will still see with the eye of faith divine design and purpose in his life” (BYU Speeches, True Believers in Christ, 7 October 1980).
May our stories be filled with praise for His perfect purposes.
You may be interested in Brother Goddard’s books such as Soft-Spoken Parenting, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, and Between Parent and Child. For more information about his books and programs, visit www.FamilyCollege.com or www.DrWally.org
Thanks to Barbara Keil and Annmarie Worthington for their insightful contributions to this article.