During the recent conference my interest was piqued when two speakers both advised us not to ask, “Why,” but instead ask “What?”  Susan Porter suggested that if we want knowledge we should “ask Heavenly Father not why but what.”  Elder Paul Pieper recommended that rather than asking why, “ask what we can learn.”

Clearly these statements jumped out at me because I’m one who asks, “why?”  I understand that knowing the answer to the “why?” will not change what I am experiencing.  If I have an illness, knowing why I have the illness will not make it go away.  I understand that as long as I have this trial, I might as well make the best of it and learn what it has to teach me.  However, knowing “why?” because it brings me a level of comfort.

Sense of Control

When bad things happen to us, we feel the shock of the event, but we may also feel the fear of being out of control if we could do nothing to stop it.  If you’ve ever hit black ice and felt your car spinning, you know the awful feeling of being out of control.  We ask “why?” because it gives us a sense of control.  Knowing why you got in a wreck doesn’t undo the effects of the accident, but knowing why the accident happened gives you the illusion you could have done something to prevent it.  I could have driven more slowly.  I could have taken another route.  “Could haves and should haves” don’t put the car back together, but they help us feel less vulnerable.  When we have no idea why something happened, we feel helpless and fearful that it might happen again.

When my granddaughter was three years old, she had a habit of asking “why?” every time she hurt herself.  She craved answers.  “Why did I fall?” she asked.  “Because the ladder was slippery.”  “Why did I burn my tongue?  “Because you picked up the pizza when it was still hot.”  “Why did I cut my finger?”  “Because you put your finger on the sharp part of the scissors.”  Discovering the “why?” to her desperate questions gave her hope she could avoid getting hurt in a similar way in the future.

Tragedies such as school shootings or acts of terror inevitably prompt the question, “why?” We seek answers to this question in hopes of preventing future tragedies.   If we believe the tragedy happened because we aren’t sensitive to mental illness, we will do a better job of screening for mental illness.  If we believe it happened because guns are too easily available, we will examine gun laws.  If it happened because airport security is too light, we will tighten security protocols.  We want to know “why?” so we can have control over such happenings.  A sense of control gives us a greater feeling of security.

Assigning Blame

When trials come our way, another tendency, although unfounded, is often to blame ourselves.  Again, believing that trials are somehow our fault gives us the illusion that if we had done something differently, we could have prevented the trial.  This belief may stem from a misunderstanding of the scriptures.  The Book of Mormon often repeats the theme, “Those who keep the commandments will prosper in the land and those who don’t will be cut off from God’s presence.”  We interpret this to mean we have some control over what happens to us.  If we keep the commandments, we too should get rich and enjoy material blessings and if we don’t get rich, we wonder what commandment we weren’t keeping.

However, “prosper” does not necessarily equate with riches.  In The Book of Mormon “prosper” means the opposite of “cut off from God’s presence.”  The opposite of “cut off from God’s presence” is “enjoy God’s presence.”  Therefore, if we keep the commandments we will enjoy God’s presence.  Some scholars believe “prosper” means have “good fortune,” not necessarily in terms of wealth.  Good fortune could come in the form of health or posterity, an invention, or a problem solved.  Others believe “prosper” means “a sense of peace and contentment.”  If we keep the commandments, we will have a sense of peace and contentment.  Ironically, by blaming ourselves for a trial, even when we are obedient, we rob ourselves of peace and contentment.  This is a tragedy because obeying the commandments entitles us to peace and contentment.

Assuaging Guilt

If we are of the belief that our obedience can ward off trials we may ask “why?” to clear our conscience.  We want to make sure that this trial wasn’t due to our misbehavior.  We ask “why?” because we want reassurance that the trial was not due to our own poor choices.  In this case “why?” is a very productive question because sometimes trials are the result of our own poor choices.  If the answer to “Why did I get in a car accident?” is “because I was driving under the influence of alcohol,” then the trial makes sense.   When our own actions clearly contribute to the trial, we can do something to prevent such events in the future.

However, much of the time there is no one to blame.  The trial wasn’t our fault and had nothing to do with our obedience.  With our limited understanding it just doesn’t make sense. 

Let Go and Let God

Bad things happen to good people all the time.  Therefore, we can’t create a mathematical formula to explain the “why?” of all trials.  We can’t discern which trials will come our way and we can’t create a list of all the things we should do to prevent such trials.  When the trials are brought on as consequences of our own choices, we can create a list of things we need to do in order to prevent these trials.  However, many trials come due to no fault of our own.  We can’t anticipate them and we can’t prevent them.

Regardless of all the “whys?” we don’t know the answer to, I believe there is one “why?” we can answer that is applicable to all trials.  “All these things shall give thee experience and be for thy good.”  (D&C 122:7). This is the answer Joseph Smith received when incarcerated in Liberty jail.  This could be the answer to all our “whys?”  We need experience.  We need to experience opposition and trials will ultimately be for our good.

“Therefore, What?”  This is the question Sister Porter and Elder Pieper urge us to ask instead of “why?”  What will I do with this trial?  Will I complain and blame?  Or will I trust The Lord, and acknowledge His ways are just.  Will I “Be still and know that [God is] God.” (Psalm 46:10)

In most cases we are already hurting enough from our trial, be it physical, emotional, financial, or spiritual, that the last thing we need is to feel abandoned by God.  Feeling abandoned by God just exacerbates the pain of the trial.

Knowing that God loves us and the Savior is by our side during our trial makes it infinitely more bearable.  Knowing that The Savior hurts for us during our trial, helps us to recognize trials are not punitive.  When we recognize trials can be for our good, we may look back on our trials and be grateful for them.  At that point we can see the blessings that came as a result of the trial.

JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Mental health Counselor.  She has written four books on family relationships.  For more information consult her website, www.smithfamilytherapy.org