Sometimes the latter days look very bleak. Crime and ugliness are rampant. Iniquity abounds and love has waxed cold, just as prophesied.
One marker for social decline is found in the public schools. A list contrasting the school problems 50 years ago with those today has circulated widely. Reportedly the top problems in the schools 50 years ago were talking, chewing gum, running in the halls, making noise, getting out of line, violating the dress code, and littering. According to the provocative list, today’s school problems are drugs, alcohol, pregnancy, suicide, rape, and robbery. What educational progress!
There are two problems with the familiar school discipline lists. The first problem is that the lists are an invention. They are not the result of research or surveys. The “back then” list catalogues daily disturbances. The modern list is composed of items from a “Safe School” questionnaire. According to Barry O’Neill, who has studied the history of the lists, “as an overall portrait of American schools, this is sensationalist nonsense” (1994, p. 11).
The second problem with the list is more serious. “The natural reaction to this catalog of crimes is to throw up one’s hands in despair” (O’Neill, 1994, p. 11). We feel desperate and powerless. We feel gloom darkening the heavens.
For pilgrims in mortality, the situation has always been the same. The social landscape is littered with misery and foreboding. But believers are not troubled by the snarl and clutter of the mortal scene.
We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; “persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8–9).
In the latter days it seems likely that Satan has unleashed a barrage of desperate ugliness that is unprecedented in the history of the world. But a gracious God never allows the playing field to be tilted in favor of evil. In balance of evil, God has opened the heavens pouring out a flood of truth, light, and goodness. Perhaps the Holy Ghost is more ready to comfort, bless, and sanctify today than ever in the history of the world.
In addition to the spiritual outpouring, there is also a remarkable increase in secular knowledge.
Never in the entire history of the world has there been anything to compare, even in slight degree, with the great flood of worldly knowledge that has swept the globe in modern times. Marvelous advances have taken place in every field—scientific, historical, sociological, artistic, medicinal, governmental, economic, inventive, atomic, judicial, and so on ad infinitum—all of which has been according to the great foreordained plan for man on earth. These advances were withheld and reserved for the final age of the earth’s temporal continuance” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, sv. Signs of the Times, p. 724).
This newfound knowledge can be used to bless or burden, to build or destroy, to polish or corrode. It is a blessing or a cursing as we choose. We may embrace soul-refining scripture and scientific discovery or turn to soul-destroying corruption. Either influence is readily available.
As part of the knowledge explosion, amazing new research on marriage confirms the vital role of kindness and commitment. At the same time Hollywood portrays a simpleminded and sexualized version of love. There has been a scholarly convergence on the importance of loving and attunement in parenting. But filth is delivered to our living rooms, family rooms, and bedrooms through television and web connections. We may choose to be filled with truths that edify or to walk in darkness at noon-day.
At a time of such moral confusion, Satan puts a magnifying glass to our misery; he magnifies foreboding, anxiety, and depression. In contrast Heavenly Father applies the Son to our challenges; when we feel His touch, all is love, joy, and peace.
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
In spite of the latter-day challenges, these are the days long awaited by the ancients. Our experience of the latter days will depend upon the lens we apply in viewing the changing social landscape. This is the dispensation of the fullness of times. We will be full of despair or full of joy depending on our faithlessness or faithfulness.
Thomas Clayton Wolfe effectively described the human tendency to choose misery:
Poor, dismal, ugly, sterile, shabby little man . . . with your scrabble of harsh oaths. . . . Joy, glory, and magnificence were here for you . . . but you scrabbled along . . . rattling a few stale words . . . and would have none of them.
Today’s anxiety and despair have a multitude of practical implications for daily life. For example, it is popular for people to lament that “you can’t let kids play in the neighborhood anymore.” Yet a child is 13,333 times more likely to be beat up by a sibling than to be abducted by a stranger (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994). Clearly the consequences of abduction are more serious than most sibling assaults, but there are only six such abductions per 100,000 U.S. children. The discerning eye will see how evil has become sensationalized to become the common experience of our times—even if our closest brush with actual crime comes through television news. Even if we have real and personal confrontations with crime, we are unwise to let that become the focus of our lives. We will live in panic if we imbibe the spirit of the times; we can live in peace if we are guided by the Holy Spirit.
When our children were young we sometimes hesitated to make the day-long trek to the temple. We worried about their well being. The slightest hint of any problems caused us to scuttle temple plans. As a result we worried too much and went to the temple too little. Eventually we discovered a better way. When the dark cloud of doubt cast a shadow over our plans, we prayed, “Father, we want to go to the temple. We think we have a good babysitter and have taken every precaution. Will you protect our children while we are away?” Invariably the Spirit reassured us. So we went to the temple with quiet confidence. We were blessed by the temple worship and the children were protected. We may seek specific counsel and reassurance from Heavenly Father to deal with prospective evil; rather than live in fear, we can live by faith.
A latter-day prophet has suggested an approach that is not based on dread and fear:
I think it is incumbent upon us to rejoice a little more and despair a little less, to give thanks for what we have and for the magnitude of God’s blessings to us, and to talk a little less about what we may not have or what anxiety may accompany difficult times in this or any generation (Howard W. Hunter, An Anchor to the Souls of Men, Classic Speeches, p. 129).
Still as of old, the antidote for ugliness is beauty. The remedy for despair is faith. The cure for anxiety is faith. The answer to trials is God. The Lord’s latter-day invitation is brim with optimism, confidence, and joy:
Shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. . . . And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers! (D&C 128:22–23)
Perhaps these are the worst of times; surely they can be the best of times.
Finkelhor, D., & Dziuba-Leatherman, J. (1994). Victimization of children. American Psychologist, 49, 173–183.
O’Neill, B. (1994). The invention of the school discipline lists. School Administrator, 51, 8–11.