Evidence has a crucial place in the Mormon faith. As documented in my last article, the Mormon tradition enjoys more evidence, more witnesses, more avenues to verify truth than perhaps any other tradition. This article will answeravery different question: What happens when faithfulness does not bear fruit, when good works do not bring blessings, when dogged spiritual determination does not bring any ready evidence of God’s hand in our lives? The answer comes in reviewing the darkest moments in prophets’ lives.

The Role of Experience

In the winter of 1838, the Saints were persecuted, besieged, driven, and murdered. The Prophet Joseph Smith and those close to him were overcome by their enemies and were imprisoned in Liberty Jail. Dissension in the ranks was rampant, and the Church appeared to be on the brink of disintegration. Joseph Smith cried out from Liberty Jail: “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” Joseph, dwellingin a dank dungeon day after day, naturally wondered, “How long shall [we] suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions?” How long indeed.From thefirst moment Joseph claimed to be a prophet to all the world, the forces of earth and hell seemed to rise against him (D&C 121:1, 3); now, he sat languishing in jail with these questions on his mind. Under such circumstances, I wonder how pleased he waswith God’s answer: “If thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; . . . if thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb; . . . if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; . . . know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 121:5-7).

In other words, “If your only reward in this difficultlifeis experience, why, that’s good enough for now.” Such a doctrine would be unacceptable without an understanding of the bigger picture. As we will see, experience is one of the few indispensable words in the overall, big-picture scheme of things.

God’s Exercise

Sometimes we sail through life, and other times are seasons of testing. We all wish that in these times of testing, we would be steadfast and weather the storm with gladness and maybe a touch of panache; maybe by the end of the trial we will have accomplished something; maybe our wallet will be a little fatter. Such is almost never the case, even among the best of us.

Abraham learned that before this existence, certain intelligences, or spirits, chose to dwell on earth as mortals. They would be tested and tried to see if they could keep God’s commands despite all the vicissitudes of life. Abrahamlearned that he was one of the “noble and great ones” in the premortal realm (Abr. 3:22).Imagine the confidence Abraham must have felt from receiving such a compliment; it came not just by anyone, but by the creator of the universe.

Yes, Abraham learned he was highly favored of God-which is usually a bad sign as far as smooth sailing is concerned. God did not intend that Abraham’s path would be easy. “Noble and great” became “noble and great trials.” Abraham was commanded to offer his own son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, just as his own father, a worshipper of idols, had once tried to sacrifice him. We can only imagine the confusion and inner torment that Abraham must have felt over such a command. But Abraham submitted himself as if he was the meekest child on earth (and maybe he was). Hewent up on the mount to sacrifice Isaac. God sent an angel anda ram as a sign forAbraham not to sacrifice Isaac; Abraham’s submission to the test was all that was required. In other words, the whole experience was simply an exercise. Nothing tangibly measurable was accomplished.

Zion’s Camp: Over Before it Began?

Zion’s Camp is also anintriguing example in Church history of this “been there, done that, accomplished nothing” principle. The members of the Church in Missouri were being driven off their land at a time when the federal land sales were coming due, meaning that the Missourians could buy up all the improved Mormon farms at the original, unimproved price.[i]The Prophet Joseph received a revelation from God on February 24, 1834, instructing him to assemble a group of men to redeem the land in Missouri that was rightfully theirs (D&C 103:19-34). Zion’s Camp, a groupof about one hundred fifty men, gathered at Kirtland, Ohio, in the spring of 1834 and marched to western Missouri. By the time they reached Missouri, the camp had swelled to nearly two hundred, though sucha relatively small number put the camp in grave danger. A fortuitous storm was all that saved them from being overtaken by a company of armed men. Finally reaching Missouri, negotiations with Governor Dunklin failed and Zion’s camp was disbanded.

Peter under Pressure

A final classic example is found in Peter’s denial.After the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples left Jerusalem and went up to the Mount of Olives. Knowing of the terrible cruciblethat he and his followers were about endure, Christ said to them: “All ye shall be offended because of me this night.” Peter answered bravely, “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.” Jesus said to Peter, “Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” Peter responded defiantly, “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee” (Matt. 26:31, 33-36).

Thereafter followed the incomprehensible pressure in the Garden of Gethsemane, and immediately thereafter Judas betrayed Christ into the hands of his enemies. As the procession that held Jesus moved to the court of Caiaphas, “Peter followedhim afar off unto the high priest’s palace, and went in, and sat with the servants, to see the end” (Matt. 26:58).

There is some disagreement as to why Peter so suddenly lost his resolve. Perhaps Peter was not prepared for the terror of seeing firsthand the violence inflicted against Jesus. He watched as the Jews passed the sentence of death upon Christ and “spit in his face, and buffeted him; and smote him with the palms of their hands, Saying, Prophesy unto us, thou Christ, Who is he that smote thee?” At this point a young womansaw Peter and said: “Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee.”

Here was the moment of truth. All eyes were on Peter. With violence and perhaps death staring him in the face, Peter”denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest.” Peter then slipped out onto the porch. “Another maid saw him, and said unto them that were there, This fellow was also with Jesus of Nazareth.And again he denied with an oath, I do not know the man.And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee.Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man.

And immediately the cock crew.And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly” (Matt. 26:69-75).

Peterwas all determination and resolution before, but fear overtook him. When everything was on the line, his resolution turned to dust.We can all relate to Peter because we are so much like him. We covenant to follow Christ; we live good lives,we stand up for a good cause, we profess our strong testimonies in Church-and then the pressurehits and knocks the wind out of us. Through the experience, Peter had taken a giant step backwards in his spiritual progression and wept bitterly because of it.

The Rest of the Story

True, there was torment in Liberty Jail and in Abraham’s trial; there was failure in Zion’s Camp and with Peter’s ordeal; but these events tell only half the story.

Out of the lowliness of Liberty Jail came perhaps the most sublime and transcendent language found in holy writ concerning the priesthood and the condescension of God, culminating in the greatest rhetorical question ever asked in scripture: “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8).

Likewise, Zion’s Camp was regarded by many as an exercise in futility. The journey spanned over a thousand miles; there was dissension in the camp and armed hostility outside it; a cholera outbreak tormented the travelers. A citizen of Kirtland snidely askedBrigham Young upon his return, “Well, what did you gain on this useless journey to Missouri with Joseph Smith?” Brigham answered that he received exactly what he went for. “I would not exchange the experience I gained in that expedition for all the wealth of Geauga County.”[ii]Brigham was wise enough to see a deeper lesson in failure.

Sure enough, by February 1835, those who had been membersof Zion’s Camp were called together, and from amongthem the Quorum of the Twelve and the Seventies were called and ordained. The Prophet observed that such tribulations endured by the members of Zion’s Camp had a purpose after all, and it was the will of God “that those who went to Zion, with a determination to lay down their lives, if necessary, should be ordained to the ministry.”[iii]Failure was in fact success; Zion’s camp prepared these men, with Brigham at the helm, to later lead tens of thousands of Saints in a vast exodus from Nauvoo to the great western basin.

And as for Peter and Abraham, any first step backward merely set up a mighty leap forward. As so it is with life. It may take many years to realize it, but the moments of the greatest struggle and stagnation are often, when all is said and done, the most spiritually productive times of our lives. We may cruise to success, we may have great degrees, good careers, attractive bank accounts, and cool-sounding titles, but all these thingsare little more than dust to God. He is interested in failure and futile experiences if that is what will deepen us spiritually. Easy success may be fun, but it never matures the human spirit.

It is crucial to understand this bigger picture if we are to keep the faith. In fact, if there is never a breakdown between our expectations and the actual results, exercising faith would be impossible. There must be a gap of time when things don’t make sense,where confusion ruffles our peace of mind.But the gap is the special place. The gap is where faith is found.

Sometimes it will seem that the gospel is not working. Despite our best efforts, life may seem so contradictory and unfair so as to destroy any confidence in God as a loving and rational being. Yet these are the very times that, if we hold on to faith-a little longer, a little longer-then we will gain experience and bevaulted into the company of giants.”All these things shall give thee experience. . . . The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?”


[i] Jeffrey N. Walker, “Mormon Land Rights in Caldwell and Daviess Counties and the Mormon Conflict of 1838: New Findings and New Understandings” BYU Studies 47, no. 1 (2008): 5-55.

[ii]B. H. Roberts, “Brigham Young, A Character Sketch,” Improvement Era 6 (June 1903), 567.

[iii]Documentary History of the Church, 2:182.