Eager not to miss one of life’s holiest events, I hurried to Henderson, Nevada, to be on location for the blessed birth of a new grandson. That tiny fellow arrived as scheduled, but he mistakenly inhaled fluid during the rigors of delivery that necessitated his remaining in the neonatal intensive care unit of the hospital for several days while his body absorbed that misplaced fluid. Our brave daughter and I took turns shuttling back and forth between her home and the hospital to be sure that all three of their sons were being attended to as much as possible by either their mother or grandmother.
One afternoon, as I rocked that little newcomer in the hospital, I claimed a moment of attention from the able attending doctor to ask him a question. I had noticed that the conscientious staff was carefully inventorying the breast milk our daughter was dutifully pumping and transporting to the hospital, but that none of it had been used. They were not yet feeding that little boy. My grandmother’s heart yearned to see him nourished.
The doctor patiently explained to me that they were not sure he could tolerate food yet. As I understood it, they were waiting until his lungs were sufficiently clear to assure the probability that he would have adequate energy to commit to digestion. Until he had begun to eat, his digestive system was not fully functioning. He didn’t yet feel hunger. If they introduced food before his lungs were clear and then they found they needed to discontinue the feeding, that little guy would suffer hunger pains and be miserable. Postponing the introduction of food for the time being was actually merciful.
I continued to rock that peaceful baby long after the doctor had left, all the while considering the implications of what that doctor had taught me. If our baby didn’t eat, he would remain peaceful, but he would not grow. He would know neither hunger nor progress, neither bitter nor sweet. Eventually, he would need to embrace and tolerate the introduction of food in spite of the risk of periodic hunger pains in order to meet the requirements of growth.
For our tiny newborn, and for us all, there must be opposition: bitter to know sweet. Seeing opposition as opportunity is essential for awakening in us the determination and the courage we need to promote our rising to the level of our intended stature. If we remained cocooned in small spaces – safe play pens, high school or college, our parents’ basements, dorm rooms or apartments, tidy sitting rooms – there would be less stress and risk, but there would also be less growth.
No discomfort, no restlessness, no struggle = no change, no pressing on, no growth. We came to earth to grow beyond the bounds of the Garden of Eden to enable us to become what we could not become in more tranquil, more relaxing, less demanding places. Perhaps we must tolerate and even be grateful for challenges and discomforts that strain our ease in order to access regular occasion to grow. The opposition enables us to develop spiritual musculature and stretch nearer to our eternal potential.
We often refer to mortality as a season of testing and earth as something of a testing center. That reference is firmly grounded in scripture. In Abraham 3:24-25, the Lord himself tells Abraham, “There is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon they may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.”
I have never been terribly fond of tests in the academic sense. They are often stressful and demanding, and they have the possibility of leaving me feeling unprepared or inadequate. They typically pit one test taker against another as everyone competes for a limited number of desirable marks. Often the questions are elusive or different from what I have studied, and the answers are complicated or hard to find. I have taken too many tests where I didn’t even know for sure what would be tested or how I could best prepare for success.
Based on what I know about God and His plan for us, I am convinced that the anxious associations I have with that variety of academic test taking are not relevant to the test taking that heaven has orchestrated.
The best teachers I have ever known offer testing that is purposeful and positive. Those teachers’ tests are designed to assess what the learners already know in order to customize instruction going forward. They are also used to lock in and reaffirm existing knowledge, to validate and affirm the learners, and to provide a deliberate occasion to take inventory and increase the self-awareness of the test-taker. For those teachers, “prove” has more to do with demonstrating abilities and identifying possible needs for additional learning going forward than it does competing with anyone but oneself.
Proving is used in the definitional sense as an opportunity to show one’s abilities, or even, as stated in dictionaries, to “show one’s courage.” In classes and on tests that employ that variety of testing, I am eager and happy to “prove” myself as I “im-prove” myself. Those satisfying, valuable tests administered by master teachers “prove” learners in a broad sense of the verb “to prove.”
A longtime, very popular television show entitled “The Great British Bake-off” introduced me to another meaning of the word “prove” altogether. The reality series consisted of episodes showing assorted amateur British bakers competing with each other as they all baked biscuits, English trifle, and other mouth-watering British delicacies. Besides delighting in the wonder of their imaginative culinary creations, I found pleasure in their British use of language. I was particularly drawn to what for me was a very original use of the verb “to prove.” Rather than employing that verb to describe any form of testing, they used it to describe the process of bread becoming aerated by the action of yeast. In other words, “to prove” meant “to rise.”
That usage seems valuable metaphorically in extending our understanding of the proving that occurs in us under the tutelage of heaven. Perhaps we are being proven like bread is proven with the addition of yeast and the help of heat and time. We “rise” to the level of our intended spiritual height as we patiently endure the heat, or metaphorically, the difficulties and challenges, and allow the yeast, or our experiences, to promote our growth to our full potential.
All that consideration of the metaphor of earth life as a time and place of testing is valuable for expanding our notion of what this testing time and place are designed to accomplish and how heavenly tests are administered. Our perfect Heavenly Father, the Master Teacher, does nothing motivated by anything but perfect love. As His children, we are the beneficiaries of customized, perfect tests administered with perfect love for perfect purposes.
His testing is never meant to be debilitating or defeating. His tests are perfectly crafted with the intent that they can be motivating, validating, and growth promoting. The results of the tests are meant for our benefit, not just His information. He already knows.
Furthermore, the tests are all open-book, and we have been given both all the questions and all the answers in advance. He wants us to succeed – all of us. There is an infinite number of A’s available. We are never tested in comparison to anyone else. We only compete against ourselves. And the more we share our answers and help others with their tests, the better our own scores will be! That’s not cheating. It’s encouraged.
We are meant to succeed through the tests of life, but not without personal effort, repeated falls, and the generous help of heaven. In order to endure the inevitable falls, we must be willing and determined to get up, plead for and access the patient grace of God, and try again. C.S. Lewis said: “No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give up” (The Letters of C.S. Lewis, p. 418).
An insightful educator introduced me to a visual that showed what looked like a bull’s eye with three concentric circles. The center circle was labeled, “Comfort Zone,” the second circle, “Growth Zone,” and the outer circle, “Panic Zone.” That teacher explained that functioning constantly within the comfort zone is just that – comfortable, but inevitably stagnant. It is a lovely place to recover and enjoy the view occasionally, but it doesn’t produce much growth. In order to grow, we need to venture a step out of that safe comfort zone into the growth one. The ambiance there is more challenging, but the very fact that it requires more of us means that braving the more difficult space promotes our developing new capacities to meet the new demands. It’s like lifting weights. That’s growth.
Occasionally, we may find ourselves or even choose to be in the panic zone. That very uncomfortable space is not a place to remain long, but periodically it can serve as a reminder of what lies beyond our current reach. The good news is that as we embrace challenges and try new things by pressing beyond comfortable space, our comfort zone increases in size as more things become enjoyable for us to do. One of the satisfactions of navigating the rigors of mortality with courage and trust is increasing our capacity to do hard things, and decreasing our fear of what may be beyond our reach for now. As we experience the thrill of embracing growth, we reach farther, trust more, and press forward and upward. Eternal personal progress. That’s glorious.
Elder Marvin J. Ashton said repeatedly, “You haven’t failed until you have quit trying. Nobody’s a nobody, and you can get there from here (Funeral service for Elder Marvin J. Ashton, “A Voice of Faith and Hope,” April 1994).
Mortality is an invitation to hang in, hang on, press forward, look inward, and reach upward, and to grow be more like Him whose children we are.