The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week.
I remember a basketball practice years ago when our coach absolutely tore into a few of us on the team. I don’t remember anymore what his specific complaints were, but I remember what he said to us at the end of practice that day. “Don’t worry if I get after you,” he told us. “That just means I believe in you—that I know you can be better. The time you should begin worrying is when I’m no longer getting after you, because that would mean that I have given up on you.” So it is, I believe, with God.
Except that God doesn’t give up.
“Happy is the man whom God correcteth,” the scriptures tell us. “For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.” The Lord repeated this truth to John in the book of Revelation when he said, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”
The Lord awakens us to our faults precisely because he loves us and wants us to be with him and to be like him—to enjoy the kind of life that he enjoys: eternal life. This explains in part why many of those whom we revere in the scriptures also struggled mightily with their personal challenges. Enoch lamented that his lack of talent caused all the people (not just some, but all) to hate him. Moses likewise felt inadequate because of his lack of eloquence and his “slow tongue.”
Martha felt burdened by all she had to do. Peter wept bitterly after realizing he had denied for the third time that he knew Jesus. Nephi felt that he was a wretched person because of his iniquities. Enos was filled with guilt and worry for his own soul. Zeezrom was so troubled by his sins that he lay with a burning fever, finding no deliverance. Leah struggled with not being loved. Paul was burdened by an unnamed challenge that weighed him down and lamented his wretchedness and carnal nature.
Rachel’s distress at not being able to bear children was so great that she longed to die. Jonah’s soul fainted within him because of his sins and predicament. Joseph Smith lamented that he frequently fell into many foolish errors and temptations, offensive in the sight of God. The widow of Zarephath had exhausted all her resources and was resigned to starving to death with her son. Alma was haunted by all of his sins and iniquities and tormented with the pains of hell.
The Lord did not rush in to rescue these people from their struggles. His love for them, and for us, dictated that he didn’t—and doesn’t. Faith is forged when one’s back is against the wall. When we finally realize that no strength of this world—our own, most of all—can rescue us from our fate, then we feel keenly both our predicament and the Lord’s redeeming grace. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness,” Peter assured us, “but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
Part of the Lord’s love is his forbearance from rescuing us from the challenges and heartaches that will lead us to further repentance if we will let them. This is not slackness toward us, but long-suffering love.
In just the same way, God’s chastisements and rebukes of us are part of his longsuffering as well. “Where sin abound[s],” Paul taught, grace must abound toward us even more. And part of that grace which abounds toward us is manifested through the rebukes of a loving Parent to children who are not yet seeing what they must see if they are ever to be able to return. This is the message that came to me during the flight on the plane that I mentioned in chapter 11, a message that has been repeated to me through other experiences many times before and since.
When we approach the divine, we are overwhelmed both by God’s love and by our own weakness. Actually, this comes in reverse. It is precisely because his presence makes our own unworthiness obvious that the love we feel from him is so overwhelming. How could he love such a one as me? we exclaim in disbelief. But he does. Doesn’t he know what I’ve done? Yes, he knows it better than we do. Then how can he still love me? Because love is who he is. If he didn’t love us despite all, he would not be God. A friend of mine often says, “God doesn’t love us because we are good, he loves us because he is good.” And so it is.
Another friend told me this story. He was grading his students’ finals in his university office when he became disturbed by an odd kind of noise outside of his office door. It sounded a bit like someone was rustling some papers out in the hallway. He tried to ignore the sound until, after about five minutes, he could take it no longer. He left his task, walked over to the door, and opened it. The sound had not been rustling papers. There at his door stood one of his students. She was hyperventilating out of fear. He invited her in and tried to calm her. Through tears, she confessed something that, in her mind, threatened all that she had ever hoped for.
“A week ago,” the student said, “you sent an e-mail to me saying that I had failed to turn in an assignment that was a substantial part of my grade. I e-mailed you back, saying that I had e-mailed it to you two days earlier.”
The professor nodded. “Yes, I remember. I get tons of e-mails and miss them all the time. I apologized, and you re-sent me your assignment.”
The student began shaking violently, and tears streamed down her cheeks. “Yes, but it was a lie. I hadn’t sent it to you at all, I just said that I had. I was afraid that you would fail me because I had missed the deadline!” She cried even harder. “And now I’ll fail for sure because I lied!”
It turns out that this young student was anxious about much more than her grade in the class. She was afraid that she had disqualified herself even from the right and ability to graduate. In her mind, her dishonesty was a sin that this institution of higher learning could not countenance. She was confessing to something that she thought would ruin her.
When my friend told me this story, my heart was overwhelmed with love for this meek and courageous young student, just as my friend’s was when he received the confession. I was struck, as well, by how powerful a metaphor this story is for life. It is so easy, isn’t it, to spiritually hyperventilate ourselves to the point that we believe that any one sin puts our eternity at risk.
But in our gasping for breath, we are forgetting the Savior. He knew we would fail. He knew we would transgress. His plan contains the solution for this. He paid for our sins because he knew we would commit them! He doesn’t love us less for having committed them. Forgiveness awaits if we but come to him. And sanctification is promised if we continue to repentantly cling to the rod and allow his Spirit to change us. On the one hand, we are separated from him by every sin. On the other hand, this separation is what by necessity binds us to him. We need not despair.
Whatever grade this student ended up receiving meant nothing in comparison to the lesson she allowed herself to learn: that the most exquisite joy is felt only when we listen to and act upon the Lord’s whispered rebukes. He loves us so much that if we don’t heed the whisperings, he will find ways to shout to us—some way to reach our hardened souls. Whatever his tone of communication, his chastisement is the love we have been waiting for, and in our listening to that chastisement we will finally find the happiness that we have been consumed with obtaining but that has always seemed just beyond our grasp.
The truth is, this happiness has never been “just” beyond our grasp at all, but a million light years beyond it. It exists only in His grasp. Everything that has kept us from him, including our resistance to the rebukes we need to hear, has been keeping us from it.
This is a realization that brings me to a dream I had many years ago. The scriptures speak of both dreams and visions, sometimes blurring the line between them. In this particular case, what I saw was definitely a dream and not any kind of vision. It hinted at something I believe we all may experience one day. I hope, however, when that day comes for me, that the experience will end differently than it did in my dream. For I learned that I wasn’t yet prepared for what is to come.