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Life is a test, with a Teacher, a testing center, sample problems, text books, and a final grade.
Abraham knew life was a test. He heard the Lord say, “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25). Joseph Smith knew, for the Lord explained to him, “I have decreed in my heart . . . that I will prove you in all things, whether you will abide in my covenant, even unto death, that you may be found worthy. For if ye will not abide in my covenant ye are not worthy of me (Doctrine and Covenants 98:14 -15).
Speaking to Joseph Smith of the homeless that had been driven from Jackson County, the Lord said, “Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son. For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:4 – 5). To Jeremiah, Jehovah spoke of the Test when He declared, “I search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:10, New International Version, emphasis added).
Yes. Life is a test. My reflections on this matter have taught me that people who refuse to participate in the test according to the revealed instructions can have a different version of the test. My observations have taught me that those other versions of the test are always more difficult.
I was hurrying. My wife and I had made plans to attend a movie and if I did not move quickly, we would certainly be late. I decided I had just enough time to wash the car and then pick up the baby sitter. The children were in the car with me: Chris who was three and Debbie, who was nearly two. Since the sitter was a young lady they did not know, I thought I might facilitate the getting-acquainted process by having the three of them in the car while I drove home.
I pulled in at the self-serve car wash, rolled the windows up tightly, and stepped out of my new, two-door, 1971 Dodge Charger. I swung the driver’s door shut and pushed the lock button as the door passed me. By the time it thumped shut, I knew I had made a mistake. The keys were still in the ignition. The children were still in the car.
I explained the problem to my son, and told him to pull up the lock button on the door. He tried. He really tired. But his little three-year-old fingers could not generate enough force to pull the knob up. The newness of the car and the smoothness of the plastic defeated him. Nor could he open the doors. They needed to be unlocked manually first.
I was frantic, now. I needed to get inside the vehicle and get the baby sitter. But how? I knew that with a wire coat hanger, I might have some chance. But where would I find a coat hanger at a car wash? Without much hope I walked to a nearby garbage can and began to examine the contents. To my astonishment I found not one, but two hangers, discarded there, I was certain, by some inspired car-washer earlier in the day.
I unwound the hook from one of the hangers and forged a small loop to fit over the lock knob. Fashioning the hanger into a useful tool took some time. Then, using all my creativity, I forced the wire around the plastic molding of the door and into the passenger compartment. Finding a spot around the door where this could be done consumed more time. Then I discovered that I could not get the loop over the knob without help. But finally I made Chris understand what I needed and he moved the wire to the correct spot. I pulled sharply and the knob popped up.
Filled with relief, I glanced at my watch and realized that we were not going to get to the movie on time. “Well,” I thought, “since we are late anyway, I might as well wash the car while I am here.” I secured the keys as a hedge against children now fascinated with door locks, and deposited my quarters. I had been washing the car for about three minutes when my son waved for my attention. I bent over near his window to hear what he had to say, but the noise of the water made it difficult to understand him. “What?” I shouted, whereupon he rolled the window down and said, “Dad, I need to go to the bathroom.”
I stood there stupefied at how easily I could have solved the problem of the locked car if had been thinking clearly.
As I have reflected on this matter, I have thought about of the Israelites in the wilderness. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, the Teacher made it clear that it was His desire to make of them “a peculiar treasure unto [Him] above all people . . . a kingdom of priests, an holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5,6).
The people seemed willing enough. “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do,” they promised. (Exodus 19:8,) But they didn’t. The straight-line distance from Mount Sinai to Kadesh-barnea, from where the twelve spies entered the Promised Land, is slightly more than one hundred sixty miles. It was from this Kadesh location that Israel should have begun its conquest of Canaan. The Israelites, however, traveled forty more years before the conquest actually began. Of course they rested on the Sabbath, but even so, their average progress toward their destination turns out to have been less than 70 feet per day.
The Teacher did not demand that they spend this unproductive and difficult time wandering in the wilderness until after they demonstrated that they were not willing to solve their problems in the way He had intended. When spies reported on the size and strength of the inhabitants of the land the Teacher had promised them, the Israelites cried, “Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness! . . . And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt” (Numbers 14:2,4).
Dissatisfied with the version of the test offered them by the Teacher, they sought for and obtained a different version, one that they soon learned was much more complex than the one presented to them at Mount Sinai.
Even after they had settled the Promised Land, their infatuation with their own solutions caused them continuing difficulties. The Teacher brought them to this special place,
And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?
And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; [and] break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts [is] the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry (Isaiah 5:2-7).
This declaration from the Teacher is an announcement to his people that they are about to receive a more difficult version of the Test of Life. He intends to take away the hedge, break down the wall, and lay waste the vineyard. Israel will be exposed to the viciousness of her enemies, without the protection of the Teacher in their times of trouble.
It would be a mistake for us to become too complacent about these tragedies simply because they occurred in a distant time. The attitudes that caused these problems for the House of Israel occur in our own lives. We spend far too much time wandering in our own wildernesses, making too little progress toward Graduation, immersed in the difficulties of versions of the test that we have requested for ourselves. It is the hope of the Teacher, of course, that these difficulties will finally bring us back to him, and back to the problems on the test that He has designed for us.
When we are handcuffed by our unwillingness to repent, of when we try to ignore the truth or hide from God, we may find that our evasion has not simplified our test, but rather has multiplied its complexities.
When the colony of Lehi began is trek across the most desolate sand desert on earth, the Lord provided them with a small brass compass to guide them in the most fertile parts of that wilder ness (see 1 Nephi 16:16). The way might not have been easy, but it was the easiest way available. All they needed to do to travel a direct course to the Promised Land (Alma 37:44) was to look at the Liahona and then go the way the arrows pointed. But they were “slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey” (Alma 37:41).
The journey to America required eight years, years that might in part have been spent in more productive pursuits in the Promised Land if they had chosen the version of the test the Teacher had prepared for them.
The story of David and Bathsheba in 2nd Samuel is another account that sends a solemn warning across the years: other versions of the test are available, and in the absence of repentance, they will always be harder. David himself tells us something about the difficulty of the version of the Test of Life he took after his transgression. The citation below is from the first six verses of Psalm 38, but the whole psalm is an affirmation of this principle.
O Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath: neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure. For thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore. There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin. For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness. I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long.
Does this sound easier than immorality with Uriah’s wife?
In the beginning, as we met in council and discussed the creation and utilization of the earth, our Testing Center, we must have been instructed regarding the purpose of the earth and the relationship between justice and mercy. When we turn away from mercy and search for our own solutions to simplify our lives, we place ourselves in the grasp of justice, and the requirements of justice will always be more challenging than the requirements of mercy.
Following his conversion, Alma spent his life bringing souls to Christ (see Alma 36:24). That effort required him to travel throughout all the cities of the Nephites, to spend time in prison in the land of Ammonihah, and to suffer the religious miasma of the Zoramites with their Rameumptom. But those experiences, individually or collectively, cannot have been more difficult than those three days when he longed to “be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that [he] might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of [his] deeds” (Alma 36:15). His act of repentance was a request of the Teacher to be allowed to take an easier version of the Test of Life.
Alma taught this reality to Amulek, who said, “Thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice . . .” (Alma 34:16).
I wonder how many times, as I have labored over the Test of Life, I have done what I did that day at the car wash. Have I chosen a more difficult test? With the Teacher willing to open the windows of heaven and give me direction and assistance, I search through the garbage for my own solutions. Of course the Test of Life often presents us with exhausting, even frightening ordeals, but this is no reason for us to seek more of them than is required by the Teacher. The pathways we follow through mortality will always be less abrasive when they are the pathways recommended in the revelations.