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Recently I heard of an elderly brother who had served for decades in responsible priesthood leadership callings and was seen as a stalwart saint and example as a servant-leader for thousands. Yet he suddenly started to question much in his life (including God’s love, etc.) and his faith seemed to dwindle significantly. The goodness of his heart remained, but his outlook on life and the future seemed full of gloom. Members of his family became very concerned that he would not pass this “final test,” as the situation was interpreted. Later, it was found that this brother was suffering from a mental illness due to old age, which was causing all the surprising “gloom”, etc. The illness turned out to be sufficiently treatable that his former positive outlook on life and faith returned to a great extent—an outcome very exciting to his loving family. 

Elder Lawrence E. Corbridge of the seventy in an address given at the BYU Devotional, 22 January, 2019, said, “When you act badly, you may think you are bad, when in truth you are usually mistaken . . . The challenge is not as much closing the gap between our actions and our beliefs. The challenge, rather, is closing the gap between our beliefs and the truth.” He went on to explain that mistaken beliefs cause much of our suffering. Could it be that one of those “mistaken beliefs” is that most adversity is some kind of “test”?

Let’s apply Elder Corbridge’s wisdom to this situation. There was no need to interpret the elderly man’s experience a “test.” When this good brother’s family closed the gap between that belief and the truth—that the old man was suffering from a mental illness—all fear of his seeming loss of faith was swallowed up in the truth. Such improved understanding may bless us in our personal lives, as well. Our burdens (individual challenges as well as life in this fallen state as a whole) become easier to bear when we view them from a gospel perspective. Applying a gospel-based definition on the word “test” in connection with the purpose of our lives will allow us to steadfastly press forward in faith, while being drawn closer to God every step of the way.

Thought-Provoking Reflections of a Friend

A few months ago, I began an interesting email correspondence with Markus Gappmaier, a native of Austria currently living near Bern, Switzerland, and serving as a counselor in the mission presidency of the Alpine German-speaking mission. Brother Gappmaier has been articulate in expressing a sincere concern in regard to the idea that all mortal difficulties are somehow part of God’s “test” of us. He has given me permission to share his ideas and quote from his emails.

Brother Gappmaier feels strongly that severe challenges such as a debilitating, incapacitating illness (especially mental illness which surely decreases accountability), can accurately be called a trial, but should not be labeled a “test.” He says, “A more accurate vision of a specific situation closes the gap between our beliefs and the truth.” He is concerned that the term “test” is mentioned VERY often in our gospel rhetoric inside and outside of classes and meetings. He has a great desire to show that we all need a more precise, gospel-based definition of life’s challenges, or “tests,” when they are called that. Brother Gappmaier believes the word “test” is only one possible interpretation of a challenging situation. When we call an adverse experience in life a “test” we choose to wear a certain set of glasses, mostly influenced by secular experiences. And since the word “test” carries multiple meanings, it may not help us see clearly when clarity is most helpful. It seems wise to choose clearer terms or an explicitly gospel-based definition of the word “test” based on scriptures and words of the prophets. The gospel use of “test” usually means “trial, refining fire, or learning by experience.” So much of our gospel doctrine indicates that difficulties are primarily for learning. Life is a school, and if we have spiritual “tests,” they are not in any way like secular pass/fail tests. He says, 

If this life could really be compared to pass/fail tests (as we have known them since our childhood) then the result would be a given: only one would pass—the Only Begotten in the Flesh, the Son of God, who really did “all things He was commanded by His father.” (see Abraham 3: 25; emphasis added). All the rest of mankind would fail. Fortunately, the Great Plan of Happiness paints a far different picture, due to the Atonement of our elder brother Jesus Christ. I fear the word “test” (which is not part of our scriptures) often clouds our understanding of the divine goodness of the Great Plan of Mercy that makes this life so much different than a secular testing center. And this is why this issue is so important to me: Other words, definitions, metaphors, etc., are needed to prevent us from suffering from detrimental misunderstandings in this matter.

The remainder of this article will be a summary of Brother Gappmaier’s thoughts and my responses.

What Keeps Us from Turning to the Lord?

How we see the reasons behind our suffering impacts us daily, and either helps us feel the Lord’s help or hurts us by promoting the idea that we are alone in our pain. The Prophet Joseph’s scriptural analogy for life as a process like the “purging of gold”1 does not reflect the characteristics of testing center pass/fail tests: The goal, or “success,” of this process is defined so differently: purity at the end of a change and growth process. We are never alone in the process (our Father makes sure that our challenges will not overwhelm us; He and His children reliably help us). We get as much time as is needed in this preparatory state and the role and intent of our perfect Father is to divinely “bring to pass” the desired result of our eternal life, making sure that we will not perish, as long as we do not give up and turn away from truth but remain willing to accept the divine Atonement of Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of Almighty God.

Brother Gappmaier said, 

Some time ago a young man, “pioneer stock” from a strong member family, spoke in Sacrament Meeting after having received his mission call. As he was standing there at the pulpit, recounting the many challenges connected with his preparation for his mission, he talked about being tested by God every second of his life. Fear made him almost shake physically as he expounded the difficulty of passing all of them alone, and possibly failing before God in spite of his very best efforts. The overwhelming weight of his interpretation of the purpose of life and how much he dreaded to fail in the countless tests yet to come in the remaining years was visible to everyone.

I felt that interpreting his anguishing circumstances as “testing center pass/fail tests” showed a misunderstanding that was harming his relationship with God. (For more clarity on how adversity in life should not be viewed, see movie “Arabian Horse.”2) When we interpret adversity that way, we risk “losing” God by excluding him as the source of much needed help when we need it most. Why? The danger comes when we see tests as something we have to pass alone, as in a testing center setting. We may imagine Deity in the “grader’s seat” ready to judge, not help us. If so, we tend to assume that we may not expect heavenly help any more than we could expect help to pass a tough test in a testing center. This misunderstanding of life’s challenges may result in going through the hardest phases in life without turning to God in faith, which would please only the adversary.

Does Life Teach or Test Us?

The words of many Church leaders support the idea that the seemingly endless painful experiences in life have many sources. Some come as a result of our own poor choices, some from the incorrect choices of others, and some from the fallen nature of our world —such as fires, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes and death of loved ones. 

I recently listened to a talk titled, “A Great Wonder in Heaven” given by Michael Wilcox (and published by Deseret Book in their Time Out for Women series). Brother Wilcox told of his late wife’s love of learning and how difficult it was for him when she passed away. Then he said, “Life is not a test for me. Life is learning. There is only one question that matters: what have you learned from life?” 

Learning through life’s challenges seems to be part of a gospel-based definition of “test.” Sister Wendy Nelson recently suggested, “By the way, have you noticed that our testing often involves learning . . . ?”3 Elder Robbins put it that way: “Mistakes are a fact of life. Learning to skillfully play the piano is essentially impossible without making thousands of mistakes—maybe even a million. … With his invention of the light bulb, Thomas Edison purportedly said, ‘I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”4 Yes, life suggests that what we often call “test” or even “failing a test,” may frequently be times of our greatest learning, and thus truly heavenly blessings

When I was a young mother I often started my day feeling that I was on trial: that my whole life was a test and I was often failing. It was not a happy way to live! As my life unfolded in ways I had never expected, I often thought: if life is a test to see if I can create the ideal, I have failed. But if life is about learning, then I have truly created an ideal environment for that! One of the most important things I ever learned is that life is truly about learning and that I am not moment by moment “on trial.” 

Let’s examine this idea that unlike pass/fail tests in secular testing centers, mortal life really presents constant challenging experiences to teach, not evaluate or rate us. I think of Joseph Smith’s pleas to the Lord when he was languishing in Liberty Jail, knowing the Saints were suffering. The Lord’s reply in D&C 122:7 is crucial to our understanding. The Lord gives a list of the most devastating things that could happen to anyone, ending with, “If the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give experience, and shall be for thy good.” The Lord can turn all experience to our good, our progress, our learning. Because Joseph turned toward the Lord and stayed open to the tutoring of the Spirit, he learned. Those closest to the Prophet said he was different afterwards, stronger in his spirit, that his trust in the Lord was complete and his leadership even more loving and steady.

Why then do so many label all difficult experiences as “tests”? In one email Brother Gappmaier, using quotes from recent Conferences, suggested that: 

they might more accurately be seen as “growing pains,” allowing us to become more like our Heavenly Father, from whose state of being, Deity, we are “only one generation” away.5  These purging challenges are meant to help us “grow up spiritually” and to prepare us to “join Him in the family business” as “heirs in His kingdom.”6 We “are not meant to perish spiritually”7 under the influence of what President Oaks recently called “life’s contesting forces” (see complete quote in endnote)8 but to be “purged like gold” in the midst of them (the Prophet Joseph, as quoted earlier), “growing from failure to failure,” failing on an ever-higher level, “without losing enthusiasm.”9 These numerous individual and challenging experiences many Saints unfortunately interpret as pass/fail tests while they are supposed to “prepare” us for blessings to come, allowing us to prove ourselves willing to receive them in this “probationary” and “preparatory state” of mortality again (which doctrine we find in both the Book and Mormon and Pearl of Great Price).

The Savior Offers Rest, Not Tests

Adversity in life, due to necessary opposition (“contesting forces”) in mortality, often is very burdening. Everybody experiences countless challenges in life, sometimes severe. Misunderstandings concerning the characteristics of adversity make it harder to live through hardships gracefully and faithfully, may make them continue longer than necessary, and may even prevent us from learning from them what we were supposed to learn. Life is hard enough for most of us already without the consequences of such misunderstandings. What could benefit us more than “closing the gap between our beliefs and the truth” (Elder Corbridge) in this crucial matter?

For some, the word “test,” incorrectly defined, is like a trigger or a button pushed that may seem to significantly increase the weight of an already heavy burden. It seems so much wiser to focus instead on Christ’s invitation to come to Him and let go of our heavy burdens. Matthew 11:28-30 says: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden . . . and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  

Not Alone But “Yoked”

We would all benefit from understanding the phrase: “take my yoke upon you.” Some think of a yoke as a heavy burden that must be borne alone. By very definition, however, a yoke connects two animals together and has the express purpose of sharing the weight of the load between the two. Christ is telling us He will never leave us alone, but will be “yoked” with us in order that His strength and divine help may make up for our weakness. He is saying we never need carry our burdens alone. And that being connected, or yoked with Him we will always end up bringing forth good fruit (see John 15) even when stumbling or even failing at times along the path of “becoming.”

I love the wording of the scripture in Romans 8: 35, 39: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Lord never forsakes us, never forgets us. He says, “I have graven thee on the palms of my hands” (1 Nephi 21: 16).

The following scriptures also remind us that God is always near to help and support us through the hard times and make our burdens light:

Alma 33:23  And then may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son. And even all this can ye do if ye will. Amen.

Mosiah 18:8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

Mosiah 24:15 And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord.

What Does “Prove Them Herewith” mean?

But what about Abraham 3:25 that says, “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” Doesn’t that wording support the “test” and “testing center” idea?

In a January 6, 2015 Devotional address Kevin J. Worthen, current BYU President, explains it well:

This earth, the setting for our mortal existence, was created so that we could “prove” ourselves. But I believe we may not appreciate the full meaning of the word prove in that scripture. In everyday usage the word prove means to demonstrate something that already exists. Thus we take final exams to prove what we already know about the material we have been studying that semester. But the Oxford English Dictionary provides an additional meaning for the word prove. It indicates that prove also means “to find out, learn, or know by experience.”

I believe the opportunity we have to prove ourselves in this life was not designed to allow us to demonstrate to God how obedient we already were before we came to earth. He, and we, already knew that. God formed this earth and gave us this mortal existence so that we could “prove” ourselves in the other sense of that word—so that we could “find out, learn, or know by experience” truths that we did not already know and that we could not learn in any other way.

I believe there are certain things, some of them essential to our exaltation, that we can learn only through experience. We could not have remained in our premortal condition, memorized all the attributes of godhood, and then, after passing a written exam, become like our heavenly parents. We came to earth to “prove” ourselves, to learn from our own experiences how to know good from evil and other important lessons we could learn only by our own experience.

Conclusion

I keep wondering why anyone would conclude that God’s primary purpose would be to “test” us anyway when He knows the end from the beginning and all our choices are before Him as an eternal now. (See 1 Nephi 9:6, “The Lord knoweth all things from the beginning.”) Any “testing” must be for us to learn more about ourselves, since God already knows all the answers.

I will conclude with Brother Gappmaier’s powerful testimony: 

The Savior does not provide some difficult “test” that brings us anguish, then leave us alone to pass or fail. Rather, our mortal life provides countless learning experiences, many of which are difficult; and all may be experienced in the presence of our Heavenly Father. Through them all, He walks with us and offers to be “yoked” with us in order to best share His love, support and guidance. Connected with God this way, the strong headwinds in life we all experience only lift us closer and closer to Him.

I am so grateful for endless second chances in this phase of learning and becoming (as Elder Robbins put it recently). I am grateful that my faith in Christ can be improved through life’s adversities and that I can prove my willingness to trust in and follow Him when things are hard or easy. I am very glad that we are, due to our Father’s perfect love, only tried “as silver is tried” (Psalm 66:10), with our names inscribed on his palms to be never forgotten in this hard process of our “becoming” (Isaiah 49: 16). One day we will be able to stand pure before Him, through the Atonement of our Lord and Savior.

Our choices here are as crucial as were our choices in our premortal existence. We chose Christ then; choosing Christ here again will keep us safely preparing for our receipt of God’s eternal blessings, becoming step-by-step willing from the depth of our hearts to follow Him. While our decisions in life count, and may have an eternal impact (just like in pre-existence), this does not automatically make life a testing center, and life’s challenges pass/fail tests.

So many of our current definitions of the word “test” seem to do us more harm than to help us press forward in our faith in our Savior. Seeing more of the truth, we can come to clearly see His helping/rescuing hand in all our trials. That hand needs to be accepted, even grabbed to be of most help. The better we understand the true meaning of our mortal suffering and God’s loving, attentive, never-failing help, the less often we will feel alone and overwhelmed in the hardest hours of our lives.

And that is why Brother Gappmaier and I have come to believe that life is much more like a Learning Lab than a Testing Center! That perspective brings comfort and assurance of God’s constant desire to be with us in every step of the learning. “Therefore, let your hearts be comforted; for all things shall work together for good to them that walk uprightly” (D&C 100:15).

Notes:

1 Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 135–36.

2 “https://www.lds.org/media-library/video/2011-03-100-arabian-horse?lang=eng

3 President Russell M. Nelson and Sister Wendy W. Nelson, Worldwide Youth Devotional June 3, 2018, Ensign, “Hope of Israel,” August, 2018,

4 Elder Lynn G, Robbins, April General Conference, Ensign , “Until Seventy Times Seven,” May 2018

5 Sister Michelle D. Craig, Oct. General Conference, Ensign , “Divine Discontent” November, 2018, p. 54

6 Elder Dale G. Renlund, Oct. General Conference, Ensign , ”Be Not Troubled,” November, 2018, p. 104

7 Elder Neil L. Andersen, Oct. General Conference, Ensign, “Wounded,” November, 2018, p. 84

8 “To be meaningful, mortal choices had to be made between contesting forces of good and evil. There had to be opposition and, therefore, an adversary, who was cast out because of rebellion and was allowed to tempt God’s children to act contrary to God’s plan.” President Dallin H. Oaks, Oct. General Conference, Ensign, Truth and the Plan, November, 2018.

9 Elder Lynn G, Robbins, April General Conference, Ensign , “Until Seventy Times Seven,” May 2018