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Cover image via Latter-day Saint Media Library.
When I left on my mission in 2002, I wanted to serve the Lord. I was determined that serving a mission would allow me to develop a personal relationship with Him. That was my goal. By the end of my mission, I wanted to know Him better. There’s an interesting reality about getting to know the Savior better; He manifests Himself most poignantly in adversity, in my experience. During this period of my life, I found myself overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. I struggled as a missionary to feel authentic. In the end, however, I can say that my mission truly led me down the path of understanding grace better than I could ever have on my own. I needed to go through that experience to learn how to rely on the Savior more than I ever had before.
Much like experiencing adversity as a missionary helped me feel His tender mercy, Christ’s ministry is a similar type of paradox. He disrupted beliefs and claimed to cause the blind to see, and blindness in those who see (John 9:39). According to Jacob in the Book of Mormon, “it behooveth our God, and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God. For should the mighty miracles be wrought among other nations they would repent, and know that he be their God. But because of priestcrafts and iniquities, they at Jerusalem will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified” (2 Nephi 10: 3-5). Yet, because He polarized His listeners through His works and ministry, “Jesus revealed a principle that can help us distinguish truth from error: ‘My sheep hear my voice,’ He said, ‘and I know them, and they follow me’ (John 10:27)” (Come, Follow Me; April 29-May 5).
God Manifests Himself Through Our Challenges
As much as I struggled on my mission, I did develop the relationship I sought with my Savior. I learned about the power of prayer and sacrifice to feel His grace. I learned that it is through the Refiner’s Fire that I am purified (Malachi 3:2).
Since then, I have been through many more trials, even more difficult than I ever thought I could endure. I can’t always say why we are asked to endure particular trials. In fact, I think there are many reasons. The reality is that we live in an imperfect, mortal world. There will always be injustices in this life, and there will always be a struggle. It is part of our trial here. When Jesus’s disciples asked him “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
“Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:2-3). So often, our trials are a way for the Lord to perform His work in our lives in ways we can’t imagine or expect.
Elder Brook P. Hales helped me understand some reasons why we have trials, and they are all a means for Heavenly Father to reveal Himself in our lives. He phrased this as three ways that God answers our prayers. They are (1) “sometimes that help is given in the very moment or at least soon after we ask for divine help”; (2) “sometimes our most earnest and worthy desires are not answered in the way we hope, but we find that God has greater blessings in store”; and (3) sometimes our righteous desires are not granted in this life” (“Answers to Prayers” General Conference, April 2019).
In the first instance, the trial of our faith is simply a matter of acting: kneeling in humble prayer that the blessings we desire in this moment will be received. These seemingly small or simple miracles are often the deliverance we need for that moment, and may sometimes go unnoticed. A phone call from a friend. A word of encouragement. Ministering brothers or sisters showing up just when you needed them. A wave of peace in the midst of grief. Such manifestations are truly a blessing. I need to be more mindful of these and keep a gratitude journal to recognize the Lord’s hand in my life more abundantly!
The second example feels more common to me. It feels like so many of my prayers go unanswered in the way I hoped. I am reminded of Joseph in the Old Testament being sold as a slave by his own brothers as Elder Hales mentions in his talk. I love this story knowing the ending. In spite of his suffering, Heavenly Father magnified Joseph’s potential more than he could have even imagined, especially during what was likely deep despair and sorrow!
I am also reminded of the story told my Hugh B. Brown of the currant bush. It’s a story worth repeating. When Brown was a farmer in Canada, he saw a currant bush that had grown wild, so he cut it down to stumps. Then, Brown says of the experience: “It was just coming daylight, and I thought I saw on top of each of these little stumps what appeared to be a tear, and I thought the currant bush was crying. I was kind of simpleminded (and I haven’t entirely gotten over it), and I looked at it and smiled and said, ‘What are you crying about?’ You know, I thought I heard that currant bush say this:
‘How could you do this to me? I was making such wonderful growth. I was almost as big as the shade tree and the fruit tree that are inside the fence, and now you have cut me down. Every plant in the garden will look down on me because I didn’t make what I should have made. How could you do this to me? I thought you were the gardener here.’”
Brown answered: “Look, little currant bush, I am the gardener here, and I know what I want you to be. I didn’t intend you to be a fruit tree or a shade tree. I want you to be a currant bush, and someday, little currant bush, when you are laden with fruit, you are going to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for loving me enough to cut me down. Thank you, Mr. Gardener.’”
Later, Brown recounts a time when he was in line to receive a promotion in the Canadian Army and it was denied. He was devastated! He says he got on the train back to town and felt like “every click of the wheels on the rails seemed to say, ‘You are a failure.’” He was bitter, and he shook his fists toward heaven and said, “How could you do this to me, God? I have done everything I could do to measure up. There is nothing that I could have done—that I should have done—that I haven’t done. How could you do this to me?”
Then Brown heard his own voice saying, “I am the gardener here. I know what I want you to do.” He says, “I arose from my knees a humble man. And now, almost 50 years later, I look up to Him and say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for cutting me down, for loving me enough to hurt me’” (“The Currant Bush” Hugh B. Brown, New Era, April 2001).
I have read this story often especially in the last decade of my life. How many times I have prayed for an answer and it has so often been no. I have faith that the reason is so I can be refined and that Heavenly Father can shape and prepare me for a potential work that I cannot even imagine! I have already seen this in my life. Because certain prayers were unanswered, Michael and I have set a new course for our family that we never imagined before. We have grown in ways that have strengthened us. We believe we are on the path that is allowing us to manifest God’s hand in our lives!
The third type of trial is the prayer that goes unanswered in this life. This is one I often struggle with because I just can’t wrap my head around it yet. Parents who lose a child. Spouses who are widowed. Chronic illnesses (physical or mental) that we endure our entire lives. A child born with a disability. A lifetime of poverty, childlessness, same-sex attraction, being an amputee, a recovering addict, or any number of struggles or desires of our hearts. I can only imagine how much it breaks Heavenly Father’s heart to see us suffer. When I reflect on this, I have to wonder how God can manifest Himself in such trials. I don’t know if I have that answer yet. I’d like to get to a place where I don’t see a trial, but an opportunity. Perhaps it is in these experiences, we are meant to somehow make the most of it, in spite of it. Elder Hales gives an example of a girl who lost her sight when she was eleven. I’ll be honest, this story broke my heart. But, she was able to live a good life, and adapt to her new life without sight.
In an interview I had with Paul Schulte, an Olympic Wheelchair basketball player, I learned more details about his story. I grew up with Paul, and I remember the day I heard the news that his family had been in a car accident. Paul was only ten years old. He had dreamed of playing baseball, but after that day, he learned that he would never regain the use of his legs. It was deeply heartbreaking. Paul had to relearn how to be a kid, now living in a wheelchair. He could have chosen to continue feeling depressed about his loss. I’m sure he allowed himself a season to grieve. But soon, Paul discovered wheelchair basketball. He went on to earn gold medals with the USA wheelchair basketball team at the Special Olympics, among other amazing accomplishments. Now, Paul runs a wheelchair basketball clinic for kids, has a beautiful family, and leads an exemplary life.
So, not all prayers are answered how we imagine, or at all in this life. But until they are, we can live our best life. In Elder Dale G. Renlund’s General Conference address this April, I learned that “If a desired blessing from God has not been received—yet—you do not need to go crazy, wondering what more you need to do. Instead, heed Joseph Smith’s counsel to ‘cheerfully do all things that lie in [your] power; and then … stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the … arm [of God] … revealed’” (“Abound with Blessings”).
Mercy Is Available to All
When I read the account of the woman taken in adultery, I love how Jesus resolved the question about how to handle this situation. He turned the accusation back onto the accusers: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7).
“The Savior’s mortal ministry was indeed characterized by love, compassion, and empathy. He did not disdainfully walk the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea, flinching at the sight of sinners. He did not dodge them in abject horror. No, He ate with them. He helped and blessed, lifted and edified, and replaced fear and despair with hope and joy. Like the true shepherd He is, He seeks us and finds us to offer relief and hope. Understanding His compassion and love helps us exercise faith in Him—to repent and be healed” (“Our Good Shepherd” Elder Dale G. Renlund, General Conference, April 2017).
I can’t help but think of those of us whose prayers seem to go unanswered. God’s mercy is available to all of us because we are all sinners, and we are all struggling with our own trials in mortality. Jesus says in John 7:24 “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” In a previous article on this topic, I said “Righteous judgement boils down to this: viewing others through the lens of love. Reacting to others with fear, shame, envy, insecurity, assumptions, labeling, and of course hatred is not a righteous judgement, and will never be out of a spirit of love” (Come, Follow Me for Individuals and Families: Lesson Helps for Matthew 6-7).
It is sometimes common in the culture of the church that we are expected to be perfect somehow. We show up in our Sunday best each week, and have little tolerance for people who seem to struggle. Maybe I’m the only one who think so, but perhaps it’s because I’m so imperfect and feel my own insecurities. But, how do we react to the family that is late every week. The noisy kids in Sacrament meeting. That kid with earrings and tattoos. The recovering addict. Whatever it is. Shouldn’t we just be glad they showed up?? Yet, we are reluctant to share our insecurities. I wish we could welcome a heartfelt plea for comfort and council in our classes when our brothers and sisters come with questions, or even doubts.
In a speech given at the Brigham Young University Commencement in April 2019, Arthur C. Brooks postulated our society is fraught with a culture of contempt which is the root of the dissonance and contention in our culture. Brooks said, “And just as contempt ruins a marriage it can tear a country apart. America’s developed a culture of contempt, a habit of seeing people who disagree with us, not merely as incorrect or misguided, but as worthless. This is causing incredible harm to our country. One in six Americans have stoped talking to close friends or family members over politics since the 2016 election. Millions are organizing their social lives and curating their news and information to avoid hearing viewpoints differing from their own. Ideological polarization is at higher levels than at any time since the American Civil War. Listen now to the words of church President Russel M. Nelson, ‘Hatred among brothers and neighbors has now reduced sacred cities to sites of sorrow.’ He said this in 2002. Today it’s even truer, isn’t it?”
In a discussion I had with Kalyn Sherwood L.C.S.W., she suggested that we can develop better understanding of diverse backgrounds and opinions by reading and listening to things that express a different opinion that we already know. Read more than just those things you already agree with. This can help open your mind to have more compassion and empathy, and to share Christlike love for those we wouldn’t have understood before.
“The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued a public statement from which I quote:
‘It is morally wrong for any person or group to deny anyone his or her inalienable dignity on the tragic and abhorrent theory of racial or cultural superiority.
‘We call upon all people everywhere to recommit themselves to the time-honored ideals of tolerance and mutual respect. We sincerely believe that as we acknowledge one another with consideration and compassion we will discover that we can all peacefully coexist despite our deepest differences’” (“What is Tolerance?” President Russell M. Nelson, Youth Articles).
Righteous judgement is judging how the Savior would have judged: “I judge no man” (John 8:15) with the footnote to John 12:47 “And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” I believe it is our own hearts that will condemn us, just like those men who “being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst” (John 8:9).
“When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
“She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:10-11).
Freedom From Sin
The Savior promised that His truths would make us free from sin. The world would have us believe that freedom is without obligation or responsibility. Alma clarifies that we cannot escape the bonds of sin.
“And it is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good.
“And if their works are evil they shall be restored unto them for evil. Therefore, all things shall be restored to their proper order, every thing to its natural frame—mortality raised to immortality, corruption to incorruption—raised to endless happiness to inherit the kingdom of God, or to endless misery to inherit the kingdom of the devil, the one on one hand, the other on the other—
“The one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good; and the other to evil according to his desires of evil; for as he has desired to do evil all the day long even so shall he have his reward of evil when the night cometh.” (Alma 41:3-5).
He goes on to say,
“Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10).
Another story worth repeating is in a talk given by Sister Patricia P. Pinegar. She describes receiving peace by putting her trust in Heavenly Father’s plan, and by “the principle of courageous obedience” which she illustrates with this story of a boy who went to fly a kite with his dad:
“The boy was very young. It was his first experience with kite flying. His father helped him, and after several attempts the kite was in the air. The boy ran and let out more string, and soon the kite was flying high. The little boy was so excited; the kite was beautiful. Eventually there was no more string left to allow the kite to go higher. The boy said to his father, ‘Daddy, let’s cut the string and let the kite go; I want to see it go higher and higher.’
“His father said, ‘Son, the kite won’t go higher if we cut the string.’
“‘Yes, it will,’ responded the little boy. ‘The string is holding the kite down; I can feel it.’
“The father handed a pocketknife to his son. The boy cut the string. In a matter of seconds the kite was out of control. It darted here and there and finally landed in a broken heap. That was difficult for the boy to understand. He felt certain the string was holding the kite down.
“The commandments and laws of God are like the kite string. They lead us and guide us upward. Obedience to these laws gives us peace, hope, and direction” (“Peace, Hope, and Direction” General Conference, October 1999).
Jesus taught how we will hear His voice and He will know us as His sheep. We can know how to distinguish His voice by doing His will: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine” (John 7:17). We will have freedom from sin when we ground ourselves in the principles of the gospel.
Ways to apply this lesson
- Keep a daily gratitude journal to track the small blessings, miracles, and answers you receive each day.
- Read Elder Brook Hales’s April 2019 General Conference talk and write your impressions and feelings in your journal.
- Read Sister Patricia Pinegar’s October 1999 General Conference talk and write your impressions and feelings in your journal.
- Ponder and discuss ways that following the Savior’s teachings before you gained a testimony of that principle helped you gain one.
- Discuss the story of Joseph in Egypt and ponder experiences in your own life when a difficult trial prepared you for something greater.
- Who do you know who is struggling with a particularly challenging situation? Ponder and pray about what you can do to serve them and have more compassion for their situation.
- Read articles, listen to podcasts, read books on topics that you are unfamiliar with and differ from your opinion. Talk to people with different opinions without judging, arguing, or trying to prove anything. Just listen.
- Write down ways you have been like the woman taken in adultery. Consider when you might have been like those Jews who brought her to Jesus. Mercy is available to both sides who are willing to repent.
- Show your family picture of different kinds of people and express love and acceptance of all people.
- Read stories and books about a protagonist undertaking a hero’s journey. Basically, any classic. Here’s a list on the TJEd website.
- Examine how your pet sins are keeping you in bondage. What is it costing you to hold on to them? Study up on how you can get free and change the habit, and repent! Record your experience in your journal.
- Book list: