If I had known beforehand what was about to unfold, would I have stayed in bed that morning? I could have rolled onto my side, tugging the comforter snugly around me, and saved myself some pain. But trouble rarely gives advance notice. No, it shows up on your front porch, uninvited, and pushes its way into your life before you can slam the door.

I remember exactly what I wore that day: the deep red turtleneck sweater to ward off January’s chill, my favorite worn-in jeans, and sturdy brown lace up shoes. I even recall thinking it was a decent hair day as I stowed my comb in its designated bathroom drawer and stepped back into the bedroom to pray. But in the end, none of that mattered.

Just as I knelt at my bedside, I caught a glimpse through the bay window of my 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, on her way to the pasture. It was her turn to throw hay over the fence to our handful of sheep. Less than a minute into my prayer, I was startled to hear shouting, and glanced up to see Sarah racing toward the house. Something was wrong. I rushed to meet her at the back door as she cried out, “Tiny had a baby!” What? Tiny was our small, shy ewe–her thick winter wool had apparently masked the fact that she’d been pregnant. In disbelief I rushed to the pasture with my daughter, absolutely stunned to find Tiny running frantically in circles, attempting to shake off the umbilical cord and afterbirth flapping behind her.

Sure enough, on the frozen ground lay a trembling, bloody lamb–just minutes old. My first instinct was to rush through the gate and rescue the poor little creature from the extreme cold, but I hesitated when I caught sight of Tanner, our huge ram, who had become so aggressive over the past few months that my husband had forbidden the family to enter the pasture for fear of injury. Yet one look at the helpless, shivering lamb and I knew I had to take the risk.

By this time, three more of my young children had run outside to check out the commotion. The kids tried to distract Tanner by offering him handfuls of hay through the north side of the fence while I surged through the west gate and snatched up the baby. But Tanner was having none of it. He charged into me with shocking force, knocking me off my feet as I clung desperately to the fragile lamb. My ankle turned hard as I went down, hampering my ability to get back up. Before I could even straighten fully, Tanner rammed me again. Knowing that even one blow from the ram would be fatal to the baby, I twisted my torso away each time Tanner came at us. This shielded the lamb but made my falls more awkward.

I heard my children’s shrill screams each time the huge sheep knocked me down. The one saving grace was that it took Tanner several seconds to back up between blows, so I lunged a painful step or two toward the gate in those brief moments of reprieve. I yelled to my two oldest children that I was going to toss the lamb over the fence to them as soon as I was close enough. With Tanner ramming me repeatedly, I was barely able to throw the baby to safety–shouting to Sarah to take it into the house and get it warm. Finally, operating on sheer adrenaline, I clumsily launched myself over the gate, landing on a patch of frozen mud. My anxious children surrounded me just as my brother Robb arrived on the scene. As my next-door neighbor, he’d heard the ruckus and come to investigate. 

Robb helped me limp to the house where I collapsed on the kitchen floor next to the unexpected little lamb which Sarah was cuddling in a faded brown towel. Soon my husband rushed in, having received a panicked phone call at work from one of the kids. Bewildered, Brad stood over his muddy, bloodied wife, while the children all chattered at once, trying to explain what had happened.

Brad quickly sized up the situation, calmed everyone down, and examined the wooly addition to our family. After I reassured my husband that I would live, he wrapped me in a blanket and insisted that I rest on the couch with my sprained ankle elevated. He then backed our vehicles out of the garage and onto the driveway and rounded up some metal fencing which he used to fashion a triangular pen inside the garage, where Tiny and her baby could escape the bitter cold and the aggressive ram.

Once I found myself alone, I gave into my swirling emotions–sobbing out the pain of my injuries, the shock of Tanner’s attack, and the distressing knowledge that four of my children had been traumatized by witnessing the whole thing. Each time I closed my eyes I could see the ram barreling toward me. Finally, exhausted both emotionally and physically, I slept.

Upon waking, I assessed my injuries more thoroughly. My ankle was swollen and discolored. I was terribly bruised from my chest to my knees–it seemed that Tanner had bashed me from every angle. I soon discovered that the slightest cough or sneeze on my part was excruciating, due to muscles torn around my abdomen. But just as I was starting to feel sorry for myself, I remembered something magical: we had a newborn animal. I hobbled to the mudroom, pushing open the door into the garage, and there he was: Travis Lamb.

Thus, began one of the sweetest chapters in our family’s history. Perhaps we’re in the minority–not everyone would be thrilled to have sheep living in their garage–but for my animal-loving, lamb-crazy young family it was pure joy. Two springs earlier, we had bottle-fed and raised newborn lambs, including Tiny and Tanner, and we cherished the memories of the wooly little creatures frolicking in the pasture, rushing to us on spindly legs, and sucking hungrily from the bottles we offered. Now we had a front row seat to the life of a newborn lamb and its mama. I soon lost track of the hours we spent observing them.

After a month in the garage, Tiny and Travis graze in the pasture.

It took me more than a month to heal from the injuries inflicted by our “battering ram,” but eventually the swelling and bruising subsided, the torn muscles knit back together. I could walk without a limp again, and sneeze without gasping in pain.

I sometimes asked myself: if I could, would I go back in time and erase Travis and Tanner from my life, thus deleting a month’s worth of physical pain caused by that traumatic experience? I’ve decided there’s a better question to ask. What’s done is done. After (or even during) a trial it is much more productive to examine the experience, pinpointing what we can learn from the struggle–even struggles we bring upon ourselves (such as foolishly entering a pasture, knowing there’s a dangerous animal waiting there). What unexpected gifts do we recognize as a result of our challenges and heartaches?  

Not every silver lining is as obvious as an adorable newborn lamb bleating in the garage, and some blessings come so thoroughly disguised that a significant amount of time must pass before we can begin to recognize and appreciate them. It is particularly difficult when a trial stretches out for years or even decades, with no sure end in sight. I recall a conversation with my friend Becky, whose debilitating chronic illness has, in some respects, held her prisoner for nearly ten years. Yet, in the midst of a struggle with no apparent finish line, Becky revealed to me that despite the ongoing sickness, pain, and frustration, she would not trade her trial away, because it has caused her to turn to the Lord in a deeper way than she ever had before. She has recognized the gift in her challenge.

In his mid-forties, Brett experienced a sudden betrayal by a long-time friend, which cost him his job. This led to depression, and months of unemployment. Later, when asked what he learned from this experience, he responded that he came to see that the plans we have so carefully laid sometimes fall apart through no fault of our own. As he felt God telling him to be patient, the many months he was out of work became an opportunity to learn to trust the Lord’s timing–even when Brett couldn’t see how things would work out. This trial also compelled him to be humble and to have greater compassion for other people who struggle with depression.

Sheri Dew, former counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, relates a personal story: “Some decades ago, I experienced a crushing emotional blow that left me adrift in a sea of hurt and loneliness. I didn’t handle myself very well during that painful season. I flailed about emotionally and wallowed in anger, including at the Lord for “letting me down.” In the midst of that ordeal, however, I received a priesthood blessing in which I was told that this trial was a “gift.” At the time I couldn’t comprehend how that could be true.

But I wrestled for understanding and for peace. Neither came quickly. During the process, however, I began to understand for the first time that the Atonement…was not just for sinners…Because the Lord took upon Himself our sins, weaknesses, mistakes, and agonies, there is godly power available to help His followers to deal with all kinds of pain. That “gift” from many years ago altered the trajectory of my life.” (1)

What is God’s gift to you in your current struggles? When circumstances threaten to overwhelm us, and it seems too early to identify even the tiniest blessing or benefit that could come from our struggles, perhaps all we can do is recognize an opportunity to submit fully to the will of our Father in Heaven–just as Jesus did when faced with the bitter cup. Surely, any suffering that allows us to become more like our Savior is not wasted. Perhaps the gifts we receive from our challenges may be the privilege of experiencing the Lord’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness, or the sacred prospect of learning to trust in His timetable.

My greatest trials have yielded vital blessings–they have served as valuable wakeup calls; they have fostered much needed humility, and taught me to be less judgmental; they have deepened my appreciation for the Atonement of Jesus Christ; and they have contributed significantly to the ongoing process of “the mighty change” within my heart. Though some of those experiences have been bitter, even shattering, and I would never want to relive them–I cannot regret the resulting personal growth. As I wrote after a particularly heart-wrenching year:

“If it brings me to my knees,
if it shakes me to the core,
if it starts me seeking answers
that I never sought before,
if it brings about
a needed inner change,
then how can I complain?”

I love the words of the apostle Peter: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.” (1 Peter 4:12) This reminds me that the Great Plan of Happiness includes serious, repeated testing–not as a punishment, but as a pathway to becoming like our Heavenly Parents and receiving of Their fulness. This perspective encourages me to not dwell on difficulties, but to search for the well disguised blessings that may be hiding in my hardest times.

Just last week, a friend shared the following poem which resonated deeply with me. It was written by a woman who knew serious heartache and trials beginning in childhood, yet somehow learned to identify and appreciate God’s generous gifts in her struggles:

He Giveth More Grace, by Annie Johnson Flint

He giveth more grace as our burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength as our labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials He multiplies peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

Fear not that thy need shall exceed His provision,
Our God ever yearns His resources to share;
Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing;
The Father both thee and thy load will upbear.

His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again. (2)

Nineteen years after my ram attack I still have the occasional flashback of Tanner charging at me. But I don’t dwell on the injuries sustained that January morning, nor on the weeks of pain that followed.  Instead, I have the gift of sweet memories from the month a newborn lamb inhabited my garage, and nearly a decade’s worth of memories of Travis thriving in our pasture. With the passing of time, many trying experiences are softened by the sweetness of the gifts they bring, as those gifts help to move us upward, along the pathway that leads to ultimate joy.

Notes:

  1. Sheri L. Dew, Worth the Wrestle, Deseret Book Company, 88-89.

RECOMMENDED READING:

The Immediate Goodness of God, Elder Kyle S. McKay, General Conference April 2019.

https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/04/55mckay?lang=eng