Editor’s Note: Beloved Meridian author Darla Isackson recently passed away. We will continue to share her wonderful insights here periodically.
We can lean on the following words from the 4th verse of “How Firm a Foundation”:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
What flames of the refiner’s fire are you currently dealing with? Wayward children, financial reverses, disease, aging? Almost twelve years ago the suicide of my son was that kind of refiner’s fire for me. No event in my life has ever caused me to re-think what I believe as much as that one. As a practicing, believing Latter-day Saint, my identity was intertwined with “forever family” goals and “I am a child of God” ideas. I felt challenged at every turn. Platitudes and formulaic answers didn’t help. Gratefully, my searching and reaching has allowed this refiner’s fire to clarify my thinking about many things. In this article I’ll focus on only a few.
Faith, Prayer and Agency
So many of my friends have children who have strayed for years but are back in the Church and doing great now. Brian never came back into the Church and now it was too late. The hardest question I faced was: could the outcome have been different for Brian if I’d been a better person, if I’d had more faith, if I had been more effective at mighty prayer? The “ifs” were suffocating. Sometimes I felt I was left with only two choices, neither of them positive:
- To condemn myself for not having what it takes to draw on the powers of heaven to help my son—(after all, look what happened when Alma the Elder prayed for his son). Or:
- To be angry at God for the seeming injustice of it all. (If it wasn’t my lack that was to blame, then God must not be as impartial as He proclaims Himself to be. The Lord has, in answer to prayers, saved so many others—even from attempts at suicide—why not Brian?)
Over time I’ve recognized that Alma the Younger and the Sons of Mosiah (and even the rescued children of others) are actually the exception. Consider Adam and Eve—surely as faithful parents as ever lived—and their grief over Cain’s choices. Think of the prayers and righteous example of Lehi and Sariah; yet, Laman and Lemuel continued to rebel.
Agency is the ruling law of heaven; the strongest parental faith cannot over-ride it. I received an e-mail from a woman who said, “From someone that has attempted suicide, know that suicide is a personal choice, and only the one that chooses it can lay claim to it. Brian would take full responsibility for his choice.”
I know that. When we cleaned out his apartment, a printout on his wall said, “Responsibility is a unique concept . . . You may disclaim it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize its presence you cannot escape it. If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden onto someone else.” – Admiral Hyman Rickover
I wrote in my journal, “I feel those words apply to this situation. Brian would not want anyone else to feel even a shred of responsibility for his decision. He would take full responsibility for it.”
I also take full responsibility for my own choices . . . for anything I need to repent of . . . for how I’m choosing to respond to this present challenge . . . for how I’m choosing to re-evaluate my life and thoughts. My experiences have changed my perception of so many things—especially what pleases the Lord.
Rethinking What the Lord Really Wants from Me
I used to think that the Lord wanted me to work hard enough and be a good enough mother that I could present my sons to Him as practically perfect people. Because I was living with that paradigm, Brian’s exit from church and family activity and foray into drug and alcohol abuse wiped me out. I remember my feelings of failure when Brian’s picture appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune after they interviewed him in regard to one of his jobs—as a bar tender, and again, not many years later when I sent the write-up and his picture for the obituary section.
I had done my best and it hadn’t been good enough. The worst had still happened. Totally unable to maintain any semblance of the Molly Mormon image, I found myself depleted in every way. I couldn’t keep up the pace and I couldn’t keep up the façade. I didn’t even want to. I had to find a better way.
The Pain of Unrealistic Expectations
In my head I knew perfectly well that my youthful expectations had been unrealistic. But part of me still hung onto the ideal. Here’s how it goes: By “choosing the right” I expected to create a home where every true principle was taught and exemplified with effective clarity, where both parents were paragons of virtue, full of gospel goodness and love for each other . . . where every day was a Spirit-filled exercise in gospel living and gospel joy . . . where each child’s every need was met so they could go forth from that home filled with strength and testimony ready to make the world a better place.
That picture sounds so pie in the sky, yet I had been completely taken in by it. And every Mother’s Day for decades I had grieved over the cavernous gap between that ideal and the reality I lived with. Wasn’t it about time I exchanged that unrealistic picture with a solid scriptural-based view of the real purpose of mortal experience and the real responsibility of parents?
What Is Reality?
What I previously sought, without realizing it, was either a Garden of Eden experience for my children—where everything was beautiful and pleasant and we walked and talked with God—or a city of Zion or celestial experience here and now without the testing and proving time necessary to get there. Was I totally forgetting the law of opposition and the necessity of adversity?
The reality is that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden and no parents on this earth can re-create it in mortality. Their posterity, including me and my children, live in the lone and dreary world, the same of which the Lord said, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee” (Genesis 3:17-18).
Mortal life is simply not planned to be easy! But the thorns and thistles are for our good: the Lord said He cursed the ground “for our sakes.” Our job as parents is not to create a place of comfort and lack of challenge for our children. Of course we’d never plant thorns and thistles in the ground of our children’s lives on purpose, but we can be sure there will be some. No matter how hard we try to smooth the way, our children are going to have trials and adversities. That is God’s plan.
The Lord has said, “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom” (D&C 136:31). But of all our trials and chastisements we are told, “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).
Building celestial character traits is our goal, but celestial conditions are not possible in this telestial world. And the experiences of this sphere are calculated to bring us to our knees in humble recognition of our need for the Atonement and our need for constant spiritual guidance. Our problems and trials show us our lack, and our lack is designed to motivate a closer walk with the Lord. (See Ether 12:27.)
The Homes We Are Born into Are Part of God’s Plan
One of the biggest struggles I had after Brian’s death was questioning the Lord for placing Brian in our home which He knew perfectly well was going to be so imperfect! What I have come to grips with is that the Lord has perfect foreknowledge of what will happen in the homes in which He places each child. An all-knowing God has tailor-made the resulting trials to teach each child the exact lessons he needs to learn. Neal Maxwell said:
The truth about foreordination also helps us to partake of the wisdom of Alma, when he said we ought to be content with things that God has allotted to each of us. (See Alma 29:3-4.) If, indeed, the things allotted to each were divinely customized according to our ability and capacity, then for us to seek to wrench ourselves free of every schooling circumstance in mortality is to tear ourselves away from matched opportunities. It is to go against divine wisdom, wisdom in which we may once have concurred before we came here and to which we once gave assent. (Neal A. Maxwell, Things as They Really Are, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1989, 31.)
The implications of those words are breathtaking. It seems that less-than-perfect parents (and spouses and children), and difficult and challenging home circumstances are part and parcel of the testing and trying of this probationary experience. God knows exactly what He is doing when He places each child in each home. He never makes mistakes. His placements inevitably give individuals the precise difficulties they most need for their particular personality in order to fulfill their particular mission on this earth. Who am I to say that Brian did not (or will not, in the eternities) fulfill his?
So many times it is not in spite of, but because of difficult home situations that people develop the strength of character and drive to become who the Lord wants them to become. For example, how many people do you know who have developed their best characteristics in a Herculean effort to do things differently from the way their parents did them?
Turning Our Hearts Over to the Lord
As I moved ahead, I began to ponder more about the whole experience, and dig deeper. Just what was I learning or supposed to learn and why? Stripped of all ability to be the “shining example,” I began to recognize how prideful that need had been in the first place, and how much I had misunderstood basic doctrines. The refiner’s fire was line upon line purifying my beliefs as well as my heart.
My friend Sheila e-mailed me:
We need to turn to the Lord completely. Only His help in these last great and dreadful times will suffice. I am so saddened by the number of sisters that I write to who have not found the Lord at all, even though they have attended every meeting, taught every lesson in their callings, and are still lost in feeling worthlessness, despair, and lack of spirituality. I believe that “lengthen your stride, do more, work harder, fill each second with busy-ness” is melting away to be replaced with “be comforted, these are days of trials, seek the Lord, be still and know that I am God.” The Lord is with you and will never leave you. With His help you can endure to the end.
Self-condemning thoughts are from the adversary, not the Holy Ghost. They are a temptation, not the truth. They are evidence of Satan trying to turn me from my course, trying to rob my joy. Over and over it was like the Savior was saying to me: “I want you to come and let Me love you. I need you to feel stillness and be nurtured and healed. I want you to let go of the pride that has kept you wanting to look good. I want you to turn it all over to Me and just let Me bless you.”
Turning things over to the Lord takes practice. When I said that to my e-mail friend Becky, she responded:
I think you’ve hit on something. Turning things over to the Lord seems to take LOTS of practice. My biggest problem has been that when I have thought of “turning it over,” IT tends to be whatever the issue or situation is. What I really need to turn over to Him is my heart. Won’t the rest fall into place if I do that? I know I would have to keep doing that, because it is my nature to take it back again. Proverbs 3:5-6 a “let go and let God” scripture: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
Becky is right. What the Lord really wants is my whole heart—and He wants it broken.
A Father’s Poignant Words
There are as many scenarios that break our hearts as there are people.Righteous actions do not give a guarantee of safety from the refiner’s fire. We are all left to turn to the Lord’s promises for comfort.
Elder George Q. Cannon, a member of the Twelve in the early days of the Church, said these comforting words:
No matter how serious the trial, how deep the distress, how great the affliction, He will never desert us . . . We may pass through the fiery furnace; we may pass through deep waters; but we shall not be consumed nor overwhelmed. We shall emerge from all these trials and difficulties the better and purer for them, if we only trust in our God and keep His commandments. George Q. Cannon, Collected Discourses, 2:185.
Trials are so much more intense if we compound them with dismay at God, questioning His love and goodness. Yielding ourselves to the Lord and His will may seem risky, dangerous. However, I’ve come to believe that trusting God no matter what is the only safety we have.
Somehow, some way, we are given motivation to trust God enough to turn our lives over to Him. It’s an amazing process, actually—how the very things that cut us down to nothing carry the potential to build us up to what the Lord wants us to be. The Refiner’s Fire does us a great service when it purifies our hearts as well as our beliefs.