Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Why Bad Things Happen to Good People
For some, life's perceived unfairness can fuel doubts that grow into significant stumbling blocks to their faith. On the other hand, when we seek answers to even our most profound questions through prayer and a study of divinely-appointed sources we find answers that build our faith. The specific answer you or I may need at a particular time will most likely come through the Holy Ghost as we diligently seek to learn God's wisdom; but there are also some general principles that can guide our thoughts.
For example, consider the role of opposition in the lives of the faithful. Prophets like Moses, Nephi, Abraham and Joseph Smith all faced seemingly insurmountable opposition to their righteous efforts. Meanwhile, the Israelites, Nephi's brothers and others seeking the path of least resistance appear to have had less faith but also to have faced less opposition.
Lehi had a comfortable and prosperous life in Jerusalem. Had he ignored the Lord's commandment to go into the wilderness, he would've likely kept his prosperity for a time. He would have avoided the difficult journey across the wilderness and near death experiences when there wasn't food or when the storms threatened his ship. He would not have experienced the anguish of waiting and not knowing when he sent his sons to recover the brass plates from Laban. Perhaps even some of the conflict with Laman and Lemuel would have been entirely avoided had he only decided to do what was more comfortable and convenient.
Without such opposition, it is also very possible that none of us would have ever heard of Lehi. He would have been killed or taken captive by the Assyrians along with thousands of other Jews in Jerusalem, never obtaining the brass plates or making it to the promised land. It was his faith to obey the Lord's voice, knowing it would be a more difficult path, that helped him cross the ocean almost 1600 years before the vikings and provide the foundation for the Book of Mormon. He shared his thoughts on the matter with his son Jacob:
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad... It must needs be that there [is] an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter. Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other (2 Nephi 2:11, 15-16).
Opposition gives us meaningful choices. Those choices always have consequences. Sometimes the bad things (and good things!) that happen to us or to those we love are simply the natural results of an earlier action. Infidelity or angry outbursts may lead to a painful divorce. One person's dishonesty in the corporate world may lead to sanctions and layoffs that affect thousands of employees. One group's public preference for a particular false doctrine may yield negative consequences for an entire society, including those standing for truth, as that doctrine is adopted in public opinion and policy. And one man's faith in God's commandment to lead his family into the desert can be the beginning of two mighty nations and the restoration of the gospel that has blessed millions.
In the apparent chaos of all our choosing and reaping consequences, there is order. The Lord is in control. He promises, "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). And again, "All things will work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28).
How do the hard things in life work together for our good? President John Taylor once explained:
I heard the Prophet Joseph say, in speaking to the Twelve on one occasion: 'You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God, and (said he) God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.' ... Joseph Smith never had many months of peace after he received the truth, and finally he was murdered in Carthage jail" (John Taylor, Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, Aug. 21, 1883, p. 1).
The apostle Paul wrote that "we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" and declared that as many as believed despite opposition were ordained to eternal life (Acts 14:22, 13:48). If the faithful must be tried as Abraham to inherit the Celestial Kingdom, it follows that some of the opposition we face in life may actually be blessings for earlier faithfulness and/or to inspire greater faithfulness. Just as athletes that excel have opportunities to face better competition and employees have more professional development opportunities as they climb the corporate ladder, disciples of Christ experience greater opposition to their faith as they come to know and rely on his teachings and Atonement.
Some of these experiences may be like what President Henry B. Eyring described when he explained how his father's prayers during a losing battle with cancer taught him about the deeply personal relationship between God and His children:
When the pain became intense, we found him in the morning on his knees by the bed. He had been too weak to get back into bed. He told us that he had been praying to ask Heavenly Father why he had to suffer so much when he had always tried to be good. He said a kindly answer came: 'God needs brave sons.'
And so he soldiered on to the end, trusting that God loved him, listened to him, and would lift him up. He was blessed to have known early and to never forget that a loving God is as close as a prayer ("Families and Prayer," Ensign or Liahona, Sept. 2015, 4).
Elder Eyring's dad had served others as a professor and priesthood leader most of his life, yet there was a valuable lesson for him about God's love that he could only learn through a difficult life experience of his own. That experience enhanced his prayers, reaffirmed and enriched his knowledge of who he was and God's love for him, and gave him the courage to face the end of his life.
Speaking of a man who was born blind, the Savior taught, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but [he was born blind] that the works of God should be manifest in him" (John 9:3). This hardship was not the result of anyone's prior action but was given as a gift to inspire sufficient faith to lead the blind man and those around him to salvation.
Other times, the hardships we see others facing may be as much about teaching us to serve as they are about opposition for those involved. Elder Robert D. Hales has taught:
As the Savior's latter-day disciples, we come unto Him by loving and serving God's children. As we do, we may not be able to avoid tribulation, affliction, and suffering in the flesh, but we will suffer less spiritually. Even in our trials we can experience joy and peace...
As we follow Jesus Christ, His love motivates us to support each other on our mortal journey. We cannot do it alone. You have heard me share the Quaker proverb before: Thee lift me, I'll lift thee, and we'll ascend together eternally. As disciples, we begin to do this when we are baptized, showing our willingness to 'bear one another's burdens, that they may be light' (October 2016).
It is often said that one of the primary purposes in life is to be tested and tried. That is true, of course, but this phrase is also often misconstrued to mean that God will throw curveballs just to see if he can strike us out. God is "perfect, has all power, and knows all things" ("God the Father", Gospel Topics). He has a perfect love for each of us. He already knows what we would do in a given situation and he has no interest in embarrassing us unnecessarily; rather, his work and glory is to mold and refine us until we are prepared to inherit all that he has.
Each of us has known someone who has tried our patience. Perhaps it was a coworker, another driver on the freeway or one of our children. When we say that our patience has been tried, usually we mean it has been pushed to or even slightly beyond its normal limits. We may feel in those exasperating moments that we don't have any patience at all, but more often than not we have been even more patient than we normally consider ourselves capable and we are feeling the effects of being stretched to something more than what we were before. This is how the Lord tries us and makes us better.
There is a story by an anonymous author about a group of women studying the Book of Malachi in Bible study that illustrates how the Lord uses opposition in our lives. As they read in chapter three, verse three, they read: "He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver." This verse puzzled the women and they wondered what the statement meant about the character and nature of God.
One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible study. That week, the woman called up a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She watched as the silversmith held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that, in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest so as to burn away all the impurities.
The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot - then she thought again about the verse: He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.
The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, "How do you know when the silver is fully refined?" He smiled at her and answered, "Oh, that's the easy part-- when I see my image reflected in it."
Speaking to an audience of missionaries, Elder Holland taught:
I am convinced that [a disciple's life] is not easy because salvation is not a cheap experience. Salvation never was easy. We are the Church of Jesus Christ, this is the truth, and He is our Great Eternal Head. How could we believe it would be easy for us when it was never, ever easy for Him? It seems to me that [we] have to spend at least a few moments in Gethsemane. [We] have to take at least a step or two toward the summit of Calvary.
Now, please don't misunderstand. I'm not talking about anything anywhere near what Christ experienced. That would be presumptuous and sacreligious. But I believe that [all of us], to come to the truth, to come to salvation, to know something of this price that has been paid, will have to pay a token of that same price.
For that reason I don't believe [a disciple's life] has ever been easy, nor that conversion is, ... nor that continued faithfulness is. I believe it is supposed to require some effort, something from the depths of our soul ("Missionary Work and the Atonement", Provo MTC, 20 June 2000).
Life is hard because it is supposed to change who we are. Bad things happen to good people, at least some of the time, because they are ready to be put in the fire and refined into someone who reflects the image of our Savior in their countenance. They are ready to take a step or two toward the summit of Calvary and an eternal life in the Celestial Kingdom of God.
The real question then isn't why life is hard, but how we are responding to the opposition in our lives. Are we willing to give up all that we have to walk the more difficult path of a true disciple? When we are in the midst of the flames, are we willing to trust that the silversmith knows better than the silver when it has been refined?
Like Elder Eyring's father, we can get the answers we need in a difficult time through prayer and the Holy Ghost. As we come to realize that many of the hard things in our lives are actually blessings to try us, refine us and qualify us to have a seat next to Moses and Nephi in the presence of God, it becomes increasingly clear that God is in control, he is our perfect judge, and unfair as it may be, all things work together for good to them that love God.