This article first appeared on Public Square Magazine.
Cover image via Church Newsroom video.
It’s not just sickness that has spread widely in recent months. Despair, anxiety, resentment, and confusion also haunt our lands and hearts. While enormous effort has gone toward helping our physical bodies find protection or healing from the virus, far less attention has gone to what our minds and hearts need not just to endure these challenging times—but maybe to even find some learning, relief and sweetness along the way.
This uncertainty is temporary. We actually know what the ultimate outcome is. — Dale G. Renlund
Who can help us find that? Along with thoughtful insights offered by many community, political, and professional voices, faith leaders have played a uniquely important role in providing comfort and guidance during these exceptional times. Latter-day Saints believe that living “prophets, seers, and revelators” have a special calling to lead, not only members of the Church of Jesus Christ—but to also offer guidance to the entire world.
In addition to taking specific action to suspend meetings, close temples, and transport thousands of missionaries to their home countries, these prophet-leaders have shared a range of spiritual guidance in recent months about the evolving panic. Alongside the counsel given in the most recent General Conference gathering of the Church, a series of more recent interviews with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (whom members of the Church hold to be prophets) have amplified specific encouragement concerning the pandemic as a whole. In what follows, we highlight ten themes of this teaching most salient and applicable to a world-wide, diverse audience including people from all political and cultural persuasions.
We do so in hopes that these collective teachings can provide reassurance, encouragement and inspiration for those who need it the most.
Heaven knows we could all use a little more of that these days.
1. While there is more difficulty to come, good will win out in the end. Early in the pandemic, President Russell M. Nelson shared encouragement in a widely seen video that surprised many: “These unique challenges will pass in due time. I remain optimistic for the future. I know the great and marvelous blessings that God has in store for those who love Him and serve Him.”
That wasn’t to deny the seriousness of present and future difficulties, as President Nelson himself acknowledged later in April, “Here and now, we live in a time of turmoil. Earthquakes and tsunamis wreak devastation, governments collapse, economic stresses are severe, the family is under attack, and divorce rates are rising. We have great cause for concern.” He then added, “But we do not need to let our fears displace our faith. We can combat those fears by strengthening our faith.”
And he then asked, “Why do we need such resilient faith? Because difficult days are ahead.”
Despite such warnings, the overriding, overwhelming message from these prophet leaders is one of hope—reminders that these overlapping crises won’t be the end of human civilization, and that there will be good on the other side of this and a future to still believe in. For instance, as President Nelson shared in May: “I love you, brothers and sisters—and assure you that wonderful days are ahead.”
Echoing these same sentiments, President M. Russell Ballard said: “From the beginning of history there have been circumstances similar to this one. Somehow they got through them, and we are going to get through this one.” Elder David A. Bednar added: “The world will get through this pandemic. We do not know how long it will take, but we will overcome. And we may not resume our previous pattern of life exactly as we knew it, but many of those adaptations and changes will be very positive.”
Ultimate hope goes beyond temporal arrangements, however—as Elder Dale G. Renlund underscored: “All can be assured that thisuncertainty is temporary. We actually know what the ultimate outcome is—that we can live in a state of never-ending happiness with our Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and our families.”
2. Whatever confusion may exist in all the complexities of this situation, God is still overseeing and watching over us all. Given how much of this complex, global event is difficult to understand, it’s unsurprising and perhaps expected that people would wonder how different persons, and institutions are influencing the rapidly changing circumstances.
Whatever the ultimate truth is about that, there is reassurance in the teaching that no matter whatever else is happening, God is more powerful and watching over us all. For instance, President Nelson shared in March: “We’re living in a remarkable age where we constantly see the hand of the Lord in the lives of His children. Our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ know us, love us, and are watching over us. Of that, we can be certain.” He emphasized later in May, “Our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son love us, are aware of us, and will bless each of us.”
Apostles have repeatedly affirmed this same encouraging sentiment:
- Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: “He who created this marvelous world in which we live can say to any of the elements in it: ‘This far and no farther.’ That is what He will say to this blight we are facing. In the presence of His majesty, even subatomic-sized creations must bend . . . Under the direction of His Father, the Savior is in charge of the destiny of this world. We are in very sure and loving hands.”
- Elder Neil L. Anderson: “All the world is in the hands of the Lord. All things are in His control.” He added that COVID-19 did not surprise the Lord, and He will use it to accomplish His purposes.
- Elder Renlund: “Having an eternal perspective is a great blessing . . . We know that God loves us, we know that we can trust Him, and that He will have our best interests at heart.”
- Elder Gerrit W. Gong: “The Lord is aware of [God’s children] and blessing us and helping us in the things that are happening each day.” Moving forward, “we can have confidence that as things continue to change the Lord will continue to guide us . . . Sometimes we may feel alone or lost or isolated or separate, but we are not . . . . Jesus Christ knows us. He loves us. And we are never lost to Him. He is aware of us in the darkest hours and in the brightest days.”
3. More than simply watching over us, God can also communicate directly with us in our unique circumstances and struggles. However comforting it may be to believe in a loving God watching over us, that can also sometimes feel very far away. These prophets unitedly remind people the extent to which God can speak and communicate to them in their specific circumstances. This was a particular focus of President Nelson in April 2018 when he encouraged members to grow in their ability to receive revelation from God—a message he repeated in April of 2020 saying, “I renew my plea for you to do whatever it takes to increase your spiritual capacity to receive personal revelation” and encouraging Saints to “refine our ability to recognize the whisperings of the Holy Ghost”—asserting “it has never been more imperative to know how the Spirit speaks to you than right now.”
Elder Renlund added his own witness that during times of uncertainty like the pandemic, we can receive guidance from the Holy Ghost “that comes with certainty”—noting that “God knows that all of us need personal revelation for our own circumstances.” The virus that causes COVID-19 is indiscriminate, he explained. “It is protein and ribonucleic acid. It has no soul, it has no temperament, it has no personality. It affects people differently.” Because of this, “it is an incomparable blessing that God has blessed us with the opportunity to receive personal revelation so that we, in our different circumstances, can be inspired.”
In President Nelson’s April message he compared the “loud, bold, and boastful” messages in the world to those from God, which are “strikingly different: He communicates simply, quietly, and with such stunning plainness that we cannot misunderstand Him.”
Elder Renlund also went on to note that “messages from the Holy Ghost are quiet, plain and simple—and that anyone “may seek wisdom, knowledge, and understanding as they find a quiet place to communicate with God.” In turn, “the Holy Ghost will teach us things as they really are, and as they really will be, and He will comfort us.”
Elder Renlund, who is a former cardiologist, went on to compare listening to the Holy Ghost to using a stethoscope—noting that it took time to learn from mentors how to eliminate distractions and ensure the room was quiet so he could effectively listen through that instrument: “They put in the work and tuned their ears”—adding that those who really want to hear the Holy Ghost also “need to practice hearing.”
Elder Renlund admitted “I never get personal revelation if I am angry, excessively frustrated, or even excessively anxious,” and encouraged people to study as a way to “open the channels for personal revelation”—saying “to think that God will just simply reveal what we have not studied is naive and nonsensical.”
President Nelson remarked in April “We simply cannot rely upon information we bump into on social media. With billions of words online and in a marketing-saturated world constantly infiltrated by noisy, nefarious efforts of the adversary, where can we go to hear Him?”
He reiterated, “We can go to the scriptures. They teach us about Jesus Christ and His gospel, the magnitude of His Atonement, and our Father’s great plan of happiness and redemption. Daily immersion in the word of God is crucial for spiritual survival, especially in these days of increasing upheaval.” Suggesting that “our efforts to hear Him need to be ever more intentional,” President Nelson added, “It takes conscious and consistent effort to fill our daily lives with His words, His teachings, His truths.”
But he affirmed, “As we feast on the words of Christ daily, the words of Christ will tell us how to respond to difficulties we never thought we would face”—concluding, “Our Father knows that when we are surrounded by uncertainty and fear, what will help us the very most is to hear His Son. Because when we seek to hear—truly hear—His Son, we will be guided to know what to do in any circumstance.”
Could anything be of greater value than God guiding our lives? Elder Renlund suggested that, especially in times of such uncertainty, he could think of no greater gift for himself or his family or for any of Heavenly Father’s children than “to be able to have a member of the Godhead convey personalized, tailored instructions.”
4. No matter whatever else is happening, God can bring you joy and peace right now. President Nelson had previously taught:“When the focus of our lives is on Jesus Christ and His gospel, we can feel joy regardless of what is happening—or not happening—in our lives.” After COVID-19 burst on the scene, he reassured in March: “The gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness provides certain hope and help to a troubled world . . . I promise that you will receive comfort and peace as you continue to hear Him.”
President Ballard has counseled similarly, “Let’s be happy and keep going forward and do the best we can, and these circumstances will change”—encouraging those who feel discouraged to pick up the scriptures, stay connected with friends and family, and to keep smiling. Elder Renlund has added “the more Latter-day Saints are focused on Jesus Christ, and on the joy that He can bring, the less we are bothered by individual circumstances”—noting “we can experience afflictions . . . but they can be swallowed up in the joy of Christ.”
He went on to share that as they counsel together as senior Church leaders about the global implications of the pandemic, “There is not a hint of fear”—pointing out that it has been amazing to see leaders of the Church “packed with full confidence that the Savior will get us through this. And the only concern is, ‘Are we going to learn what we need to learn?’”
Saying there is “a lot to be encouraged about,” Elder Holland described an earlier period when Saints were driven out of their homes in 1833—a time he noted was “much more wrenching than anything we are facing now.” Yet even in that painful circumstance, the Lord told the people, “Let your hearts be comforted . . . for all flesh is in mine hands; be still and know that I am God . . . . Zion shall not be moved out of her place . . . They . . . shall . . . come to their inheritances, they and their children with songs of everlasting joy.”
Elder Holland continued, “Songs of everlasting joy” in the middle of such tribulation? “Yes! And why not? There is a lot to be joyful about as we refine our faith, trust more in the Lord, and see the miracle of His deliverance”—highlighting repeated declarations in the scriptures where God promises He “will be with us in all of our circumstances— good, bad and otherwise.”
For instance, Elder Holland quoted Alma as saying, “I have been supported under trials . . . of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions . . . I do put my trust in him, and he will still deliver me”— attesting that “The Spirit is not blocked by a virus or by national boundaries or by medical forecasts.”
If we allow the current pandemic—or any hardship—to “turn us more to Him,” Elder D. Todd Christofferson said the Lord has promised His children peace: “You don’t know how it’s going to work out or what is going to happen or how you are going to do it, but it will. And you can be at peace.”
In summary, Elder Holland suggested believers should be “positive and optimistic, doing the things they can do and trusting the Lord for the rest” —citing the Lord’s encouragement to the Prophet Joseph Smith after months in Liberty Jail: “Let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.”
5. Distinctive challenges such as we’re facing today provide a unique opportunity to exercise faith. While it makes sense to feel peace and joy during blessed times of prosperity, Elder Holland emphasized the degree to which these very times of acute struggle provided unique opportunities that don’t come when things are pleasant and comfortable. As he put it: “The opportunity to respond to trouble and turmoil with ever-greater faith is documented over and over again in scripture—where the love of God, the sacrifice of Christ, and their many manifestations of mercy are the great constants when we face adversity of one kind or another.”
He thus suggested this present pandemic presents a “precious opportunity to demonstrate faith”—admitting, “Often those opportunities seem rare. In our modern age, we don’t have to worry about parting the Red Sea because we have engineers that can build a bridge over it. We need some reminders from time to time that those beautifully engineered bridges can collapse, so to speak. This pandemic is just such a collapse.”
President Nelson similarly wrote in April, “How you deal with life’s trials is part of the development of your faith.” Elder Gong likewise described this period as “a new opportunity to feel the Lord’s love and to have faith that all things will work together for our good.”
Quoting Alma’s words to his son, “I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials and their troubles and their afflictions and shall be lifted up at the last day, Elder Christofferson emphasized that those promises apply “to the here and now.”
As he put it, “God will support you if you will turn to Him. No one is excluded from this promise.”
Remarking similarly how Nephi himself in the Book of Mormon spoke of “having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days,” Elder Gary Stevenson pointed out that Nephi began his own sacred record with the clear understanding that “hardship has always been part of the human experience” and “that being highly favored of the Lord in the journey through mortality does not make one exempt from life’s struggles and challenges.”
Indeed, “in the midst of affliction and disappointment, the Lord also allows us to be highly favored by Him” he continued—encouraging people “to view disappointment and discouragement through the lens of faith.”
The freedom to exercise such faith openly also remains a critical focus. While noting the desire to “honor, obey and sustain the law,” Elder Cook asserted, that “along with our commitment to be good global citizens, we respectfully assert that reasonable accommodations be extended to all people of faith as they strive to participate in rites that are foundational to their faith.”
6. Ultimately, this time can become a tender mercy in ways we will fully realize later. The surprising blessings that may come from this time was another significant theme. In the aftermath of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and powerful tsunami in Sendai Japan in 2011, Elder Gary Stevenson reflected on witnessing the courage of people experiencing the “sorest of afflictions” and being struck that “Great pain, that many continued to bear, was contrasted with the blessings that came.”
He went on to express reassurance that we will look back at COVID-19 pandemic and express the same sentiment: “These disappointments will pass over us, and one day we will be able to look back and see the great blessings, amid the afflictions, we have had in the course of our days. That is going to happen for all of us.” Many other apostles expressed similar sentiments:
- Elder Renlund: “With the right perspective, “this time will be a blessing to us, not just in the future, but right now.”
- Elder Ulisses Soares: “This pandemic [is] something that has the potential to help us to become better in every aspect of our lives . . . .[it] is changing my way of thinking. I’m learning new ways to be better prepared for other challenges that may come in the future in my life. I’m seeing things that I was not seeing before . . . The revelations we are receiving today are part of the preparation for . . . the years ahead of us.”
- Elder Quintin L. Cook: “This time is foundational and will allow the Church to grow in the future and touch more lives and do more of the work of salvation than ever before. We will look back on this as a foundational time of preparation, and not just something we had to endure.”
- Elder Anderson: “[We] have an opportunity to “stand back and say, ‘There is something about this that will be important for me.’ . . . You can never find yourself in a time that the Lord won’t teach you if you are righteous. This life is a time for becoming, not just for experiencing. It is a time of being taught from on high. As we are righteous, compensatory blessings always come—even in the most difficult times of our lives.”
7. Especially when it comes to our own personal learning, this time of forced pausing and stopping could teach us a lot individually. Elder Anderson continued: “Once we settle ourselves with our concerns about the health of our family, employment, and the disruptions right before us, we know we need to pray: ‘What am I to do? What am I to learn? How am I to grow in this unusual time?’”
He went on to recollect growing up on a farm, where he would go on a horse to watch cattle or to work on irrigation for hours—a slowness and solitude that allowed plenty of space for contemplation: “I had to think through what I was doing, think through who I wanted to become, think through the things I needed to work on in my life.”
Elder Anderson suggested “this time, when society has paused, can be a time of great learning, a time to shift one’s focus from a temporal perspective to an eternal perspective”—suggesting that everyone pray more often and more fervently: “Stay on your knees longer and see what the Lord will teach you.”
Elder Holland likewise called this unique period “a rare time of enforced solitude when we don’t have a lot of trivia or superficial busyness distracting us from considering the truly important things in life”—resulting in a “kind of mandatory Sabbath—a time when we step away from our normal routine, from life as usual, and consider our dependence on God and the blessings from Him we so often take for granted.”
He added, “We are always talking about not having enough time to think about such things. Well, we have some time now.” While acknowledging that not being with others “is a tremendous loss” for him personally (“I am an Irish back-slapper. I really do love people”), the other side of the coin, he added, “is how rewarding it has been for me to have a little more quiet time” to “do a little more searching of my own soul rather than somebody else’s.”
Indeed, “such times invite us to look into our soul and see if we like what we see there” he said. Compared to the way our minds are engaged in “chatty conversation” and the busyness of current affairs, “when we’re alone . . . that’s when you think about who you really are and what really matters.” It is “a sobering exercise to be quiet, to be alone with yourself. The obvious question then is, ‘Do you like the company you are keeping when you are the only one in the room?’”
8. If we allow it to be, this can be a unique time to deepen and enrich our experiences at home. Prompted by the exceptional circumstances we are in, similar reflections can happen on the state of our homes, families, and relationships—consideration that can lead to adjustments that deepen our experiences of them all. Regardless of whether people are able to worship elsewhere, President Ballard said, “ your home is a place you can kneel and pray. You can feel Heavenly Father’s Spirit and you can feel the hand of the Lord in your life on your knees in your bedroom or wherever you find peace to say your prayers. It doesn’t require you to be [somewhere else] to ‘be still and know that I am God.’ That can happen every day of your life.”
While increasing numbers refer to requirements to stay home as a kind of prison, apostles reinforce the possibility of it becoming a sanctuary and retreat:
- Elder Cook: “Each of us, in our current circumstances, can have a home that is a sanctuary of faith.”
- Elder Soares: “Our home is our protection. It is a place where we can help ourselves and those in our household have spiritual experiences.”
- President Nelson: “Temporary changes in our normal routine may allow additional time to experience how precious home-centered gospel study can be.”
- Elder Renlund: “I am hoping we have all learned that home-centered church can be spiritually rich.”
9. This is a time of special and urgent need for greater ministry, compassion, and concern for those around us. However important those in our homes are, another strong theme was the importance of ministry to those around us—a topic President Nelson touched on in May: “My dear friends and associates, during these months of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the world has grappled with unprecedented challenges, I have marveled at the countless examples of faith, courage and Christ-like love I have seen. Thank you for serving and loving one another as the Savior would have us do.”
President Ballard has noted that as a result of the coronavirus, people around the world seem to be more concerned about one another: “We are coming to realize how precious our families are, how precious our neighbors are”—adding, “There has been some wonderful, wise, careful ministering being done through social media, through phone calls, through notes of concern.” Speaking of such outreach he has witnessed, Elder Cook similarly noted, “My heart fills with gratitude . . . for the way they are watching out for others, staying close to others through technology.”
Elder Holland suggested that additional joy can come as we share the “things of the heart”—even if only through social media, email, Skype and FaceTime, etc” even recommending specifically that “We ought to dedicate a certain part of our day to communicating with people who need a boost.”
Elder Soares described how he and his wife “have been able to minister to those who are very dear to us that we haven’t seen lately who played a role in our life history and became part of our lives.” The Gong’s have also tried to make a list of people to reach out to every Sunday—trying to find things to cheer people up and help them, even if they can’t directly visit. His wife spoke of “calling people you have not talked to in a long time or making contact with people you have known only casually.”
And Elder Gong spoke of feeling “deeply connected” with people even from a distance, suggesting that through video calls “it is as if we are visiting homes and families individual by individual. We share deep spiritual feelings and how we are doing.” As he put it, “You don’t have to be in each other’s homes to be in each other’s hearts.”
With extra time in his own schedule, Elder Holland spoke of noticing anew that “it is a tremendously joyful thing to lift somebody else spiritually” as he’s made phone calls and written notes—“doing the unexpected—but much-appreciated and sometimes truly needed—thing to brighten someone’s day.”
“Of course, we get a boost from doing that,” he added, “so everyone is ‘lifted up,’ as the Savior said He was sent to earth to do.”
More than just a personal lift, though, he pointed out that through ministering, we can make sure every individual is cared for. Elder Christofferson suggested the pandemic has created “a great season of opportunity” for us all to “contemplate belonging: Consider what it means to belong, what it feels like. There is a lot we can do for one another if we have a sense of belonging and brotherhood and sisterhood.”
These unique circumstances require “a constant consciousness of the well-being of those around you” he continued—especially those who are single or who don’t have traditional family networks to sustain them. Acknowledging that singles sometimes feel that “nobody has their back,” Elder Christofferson emphasized that “none of us are forgotten” to Christ. “Nobody can say, ‘The Lord is not looking for me.’ . . . No one can say that.” He added, “Every member of the Lord’s Church ought to feel like there are a lot of people supportive and mindful of him or her even in unanticipated matters.”
Encouraging people to “reorient” themselves “a little more toward one another and the well-being of one another,” Elder Christofferson went on to cite an early encouragement from the Lord where he described “every man seeking the interest of his neighbor”—highlighting this as “the underlying philosophy, or sense that there needs to be” in both the Church and our families. While acknowledging how countercultural this is in today’s world of preoccupation about “What about me? What do I need? How am I going to be happy?” he insisted that “constant consciousness of another’s welfare” represents a “coming to Zion or establishing Zion.”
10. Sharing the message of Jesus Christ’s good news is as urgent and timely as it’s ever been. While some have suggested the classic gospel message isn’t what people need to hear right now, these prophetic leaders attest otherwise—suggesting this time is uniquely suited to people receiving this transformative message. As President Nelson taught in April, “The increasing darkness that accompanies tribulation makes the light of Jesus Christ shine ever brighter. Just think of the good each of us can do during this time of global upheaval. Your love of and faith in the Savior may very well be the catalyst for someone to discover the Restoration of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Acknowledging that in current circumstances, some may be a little more open to thinking about religion than in the past, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf witnessed the particular relevance of the gospel message in this moment, teaching that “the answer to the challenges ahead is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of that, missionary work for the Church has a bright future.”
Elder Christofferson witnessed that God would sustain all who seek to trust him in this “great season of opportunity” as we are “conscious of others and produce a harvest of souls, including their own.” He added, “Ministering alongside the Savior— and in His way—will help bring all, including the lonely, safely in.”
Even and especially amidst such upheaval, Elder Uchtdorf asserted the Church and its members will still share God’s truths with His children: “Just as the Apostle Paul traveled by boat, and missionaries centuries later took planes, missionaries of tomorrow may connect with others through many different and often very new means.”
And, in fact, “we are living in a time when we need to learn” and find new approaches for sharing and proclaiming the gospel in more creative and productive ways. He added: “The Lord has promised to ‘hasten His work’ for the blessing of all of God’s children. I feel that we are right in the middle of this process while living through this challenging time.”
The importance placed on sharing this message is underscored by the fact that, amidst this pandemic, these leaders unitedly issued a proclamation that states, in part:
Two hundred years have now elapsed since this Restoration was initiated by God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Millions throughout the world have embraced a knowledge of these prophesied events. We gladly declare that the promised Restoration goes forward through continuing revelation. The earth will never again be the same, as God will ‘gather together in one all things in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:10).
With reverence and gratitude, we as His Apostles invite all to know—as we do—that the heavens are open. We affirm that God is making known His will for His beloved sons and daughters. We testify that those who prayerfully study the message of the Restoration and act in faith will be blessed to gain their own witness of its divinity and of its purpose to prepare the world for the promised Second Coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Why did God the Father reach down to initiate a restoration of the gospel anew, President Nelson asked? “Because our living God is a loving God! He wants His children to gain immortality and eternal life! The great latter-day work of which we are a part was established, on schedule, to bless a waiting and weeping world.” He continued:
I cannot speak of the Restoration in tempered tones. This fact of history is absolutely stunning! It is incredible! It is breathtaking! How amazing is it that messengers from heaven came to give authority and power to this work? Today, the Lord’s work in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is moving forward at an accelerated pace. The Church will have an unprecedented, unparalleled future. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard . . . the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”
No matter what people are facing (and for so many, that’s a lot), we hope these words can offer some comfort and encouragement that, if we look to God during this time, all can be ultimately well.
Special appreciations and credit to Sarah Jane Weaver from Church News for the extensive writing, editing, and work to publish this interview series on which this thematic analysis is based.