Sunday, August 4, 2013

It's Okay for Life to be Hard

Let's face it: most of the time, we want life to be easy. We want to sleep in every morning, love our work, have kids (and siblings and parents and in-laws and...) that always get along, be the picture of health despite a few indulgences, have lots of free time and always have enough money for everything. Sometimes falsely imagining that money alone brings a life of ease, we glamorize wealthy actors and athletes who we suppose live such a life and dream about what it must be like. We yearn with Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye: 'If riches are a curse, may God smite me with it! And may I never recover!'

Tevye's prayer concludes with a pleading question to which most of us can relate:

Lord, who made the lion and the lamb,
You decreed I should be what I am;
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan,
If I were a wealthy man?

We know we are on earth to be tested, but must life be so hard sometimes? Would it be so bad to catch a few more breaks?

Elder Oaks answered Tevye's inquiry in a 2003 General Conference address. 'Yes, Tevye, it might,' he said. 'The revelations, for which we are grateful, show that we should even give thanks for our afflictions because they turn our hearts to God and give us opportunities to prepare for what God would have us become... Let us give thanks for what we are and for the circumstances God has given us for our personal journey through mortality.'

The Lord does not allow difficult things in our lives to punish us or make us miserable. Rather, He taught Moroni, 'I give unto men weakness that they may be humble.' If we humble ourselves and have faith in Him, 'then will I make weak things become strong unto them' (Ether 12:27). The Lord has told us we should 'fear not', 'let [our] hearts be comforted', 'rejoice evermore', and 'in everything give thanks' because the hard things in our lives will 'work together for [our] good' (D&C 98:1, 3). He is in control; we can trust Him to make even the bleakest challenge a great blessing in our lives.

One of the bleakest times in Church history was the winter of 1838-39. While the members of the Church were persecuted and being driven from Missouri by the governor's 'extermination order', the Prophet Joseph Smith and five others were held in the cold, damp, cramped and smoke-filled dungeon of Liberty Jail. Joseph called it a 'hell, surrounded with demons... where we  are compelled to hear nothing but blasphemous oaths, and witness a scene of blasphemy, and drunkenness and hypocrisy, and debaucheries of every description'. They were poisoned four times in their food, 'making them so violently ill that for days they alternated between vomiting and a kind of delirium, not really caring whether they lived or died'. Only a little dirty straw insulated them from the cold stone floor while they slept and there were insufficient blankets for what remains the coldest winter in Missouri history. Unable to help their families through persecutions and a forced march to Illinois, the depression became so overwhelming that the prophet pleaded in his prayers, 'O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?'

The Lord responded with some of the most comforting language in scripture: 'My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes... for their bounds are set, they cannot pass. Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.' Again the Lord assured the prophet that the hard things in his life were necessary and not in vain: 'If the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good' (D&C 121-122).

The sacrifices made in Liberty Jail were rewarded with revelations and peace even greater than the suffering. Despite the brutality and vile atmosphere, the prison became a sacred place, a spiritual temple of sorts, where the prophet received revelation for the Church and the faith of the incarcerated men was reinforced an hundredfold as they were protected and sustained by an Almighty God when no other thing prevented them from death. Five months of misery were followed by five years of the peace and prosperity of Nauvoo, a blessing that included many more revelations that may not have come as they did without the prison-temple experience of Liberty Jail.

President John Taylor was among those persecuted and driven from place to place with the Saints. He left his struggling family to serve missions in Europe without purse or scrip, witnessed the murder of the Prophet Joseph in Carthage, walked the plains to the Salt Lake Valley, and spent much of his later life in hiding. He taught, 'We have learned many things through suffering. We call it suffering. I call it a school of experience... I have never looked at these things in any other light than trials for the purpose of purifying the Saints of God that they may be, as the scriptures say, as gold that has been seven times purified by the fire' (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: John Taylor [2001], 203).

The Lord desires to say of us what he has said of John Taylor, Joseph Smith, Abraham, Nephi, Isaiah and others: 'For, behold, I have refined thee, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction' (1 Nephi 20:10). Can we expect to earn the same reward if we are not willing to pay the same price?

We live in an age of convenience and instant gratification. Few of us struggle to survive with what we can grow in gardens or build with our own hands. Our lives are generally easier than the billions who have come before us over the last six thousand years. Despite our many blessings, each of us must spend some time in our own figurative prison-temples.

Often these prison-temple moments are thrust upon us with a diagnosis, the loss of a job, the death of a friend or family member, or the actions of others. Other difficult things in our lives are brought on by our own choices, particularly as we let appetites overcome discipline or as pride engenders ingratitude and entitlement.

In this month's Ensign, President Monson cautioned us all against the dangers of taking life too easy. 'We forget how the Greeks and Romans prevailed magnificently in a barbaric world', he wrote, 'and how that triumph ended—how a slackness and softness finally overcame them to their ruin. In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security and a comfortable life; and they lost all—comfort and security and freedom.'

The descendants of the ancient Nephites that saw the risen Christ fell away because they knew only prosperity and so became proud and abandoned the principles that had brought their successes. We who live in the last gospel dispensation and carry the legacy of the pioneers in the world's most prosperous times cannot afford to meet the same fate.

The Lord has given us the difficult things in our lives to help us be humble and avoid the kind of spiritual and temporal destruction that met the Nephites. Our experiences will help us be disciplined and stand firm for truth and freedom. Our task is not to change the difficulty of our lives, but to have faith in the guidance we receive from God and gratitude for the circumstances God has given us for our personal journey through mortality.

The Lord to whom Tevye prayed loves each of us and wants us to become like Him. The experiences we have are gifts that give us the best possible opportunity of developing those traits that will make us happy and allow us to return to our Heavenly Parents. Therefore the Lord admonishes:

Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks; Waiting patiently on the Lord, for your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament--the Lord hath sworn and decreed that they shall be granted. Therefore, he giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled; and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good, and to my name's glory, saith the Lord (D&C 98:1-3).

1 comment:

  1. My wife had an excellent comment on this point: Eve was aware that leaving the Garden of Eden would bring suffering, trials, and other challenges to her specifically and all of us on Earth generally. In her wisdom, she chose the hard life because it also brought the greater reward. Each of us made a similar choice when we sided with the premortal Christ and chose to come to this earth. We chose to have hardships in our lives because the prize is worth the price; how blessed we are then to have opportunities to reach our eternal goals. It can be hard to have that perspective during times of trial, but perhaps that is just another dynamic part of the challenges we face-- to learn to be grateful for the things that afflict, inconvenience, annoy, hurt and teach us.