My childhood was magical. I had good parents who loved their family and the gospel. I had siblings with whom I had lots of fun. We lived in places that allowed a little boy to explore and discover. I loved to learn and had many opportunities to do it. My world was a beautiful place.
I don’t know just when I first ran up against undeniable ugliness. Though there were little hints of ugliness along the way, the goodness always swamped the ugliness in my early life. My world remained relentlessly sunny.
Yet, little by little, I came to notice the obvious. People hurt other people. People act selfishly. Life often seems unfair. Tragedy touches even the best.
I suppose I ran into undeniable examples when I was in college. (I know. I was a slow learner.) Of course my unconquerable optimism ultimately recast those examples as exceptions.
Then came marriage. Along our family journey Nancy and I experienced a multitude of miscarriages, a score of messed-up foster children, chronic, degenerative physical disorders, mixed up bosses—and most disheartening of all—my own personal failures of character.
It was enough to make a person lose faith.
Loss of innocence
Anyone who has served as a bishop may have had an experience similar to mine. In the first few months of service, as one ward member after another poured out their souls to me, I started to wonder if anyone was happy. Is everyone suffering? Maybe there are just a precious few who manage to put a happy face on it? Then, in a perverse twist from old Scratch, I began to wonder if my own happiness was imagined rather than real. Maybe I was just deluding myself when I thought I was happy and that our family life was good.
As we learn more about the world, is disenchantment inevitable? Do all sensible people lose their innocence with experience? Is cynicism the mark of the informed? Is optimism available only to those who specialize in denial?
Some months ago I got an e-mail from a past student. She was one of those bright and radiant people whom everyone admired in high school. She married a good man and they had children. Then he died. She grieved. Then remarried. But the second husband was not the man she thought he was. In her e-mail she told about some of the struggles in her life. One evening I sat in my study and reflected on her pain. I wept. How could life brutalize such a good woman? It hurt my heart to see the terrible suffering of such a good person. How do I reconcile her suffering with my conviction that God is good?
Yet I take literally the scriptural reassurance:
“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).
As a side note, I think it is always dangerous to try to impose tidy solutions on anyone else’s life challenges. So I will try to speak primarily about my own experience and allow each person to make the application to his or her own life.
It seems to me that God has delivered challenges to my faith in carefully timed and measured increments. He provides a carefully designed progressive education for every one of His children. When I have mastered Kindergarten faith, He sends first grade challenges as an invitation for my faith to grow. As I master first grade faith, He sends second grade challenges as an invitation for my faith to grow further.
With each new challenge I make a choice. I choose to grow my cynicism or grow my faith. Time and again I am forced to choose. I am trying to consistently choose faith. As I do, my faith becomes stronger and richer. I see His goodness in places that used to seem tragic.
My experiences with pain and suffering not only enrich my faith, they also increase my compassion. I hope that I can be more tender with all of God’s children as they process the challenge that they are currently experiencing. I have reason to believe that God is caring for each of His children as patiently and wisely as He is me.
Knowing that God is subtle and that His aspirations for His children are staggering, I expect that challenges will at-least-occasionally knock me off balance. But, having found His perfect goodness at the core of every challenge, I confront new challenges with greater faith.
Actually one of the side benefits of the progressive challenges is that I become ever more certain that I am not able to do all that God expects of me. I simply am not good enough, strong enough, fine enough, spiritual enough, etc. But, following a regularly repeated scriptural pattern, I call on God for the very thing He expects of me. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Lord, I desire to do Thy will; give me the capacity to do what you require.
Recently Nancy and I visited a friend whose health challenges put her in a class with Job. We have a dear friend who has unexpectedly lost a whole career of service and contribution. And we have a friend whose doctors have told her that her fetus is not viable. These are stern trials.
There is no denying that life challenges us. Pain and loss are real. Yet, maybe they are not random and senseless. Maybe they are invitations from a perfect Father to draw more of His power into our lives.
Light shining through the storm clouds
Tony Snow, who was a press secretary in the Bush Administration, announced that he had colon cancer in 2005. The disease took his life in 2008. Prior to his death, he wrote about the spiritual lessons he had learned through his ordeal.
We want lives of simple, predictable ease–smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see–but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension–and yet don’t. By his love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise…
The natural reaction [when faced with trials] is to turn to God and ask him to serve as a cosmic Santa. “Dear God, make it all go away. Make everything simpler.” But another voice whispers: “You have been called.” Your quandary has drawn you closer to God, closer to those you love, closer to the issues that matter–and have dragged into insignificance the banal concerns that occupy our “normal time.”
…You discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft. Faith may be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But it also draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution. The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies… God wrings from our bodies and spirits the most we ever could give, the most we ever could offer, and the most we ever could do… Through such trials, God bids us choose: Do we believe, or do we not? Will we be bold enough to love, daring enough to serve, humble enough to submit, and strong enough to acknowledge our limitations? Can we surrender our concern in things that don’t matter so that we might devote our remaining days to things that do?
We don’t know much, but we know this: No matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter how bleak or frightening our prospects, each and every one of us, each and every day, lies in the same safe and impregnable place–in the hollow of God’s hand.
Along our lives’ journeys, may we take to heart the wisdom that Lehi offered to Jacob: “Thou art my first-born in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness. And behold, in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow . . .. Nevertheless, Jacob, my first-born in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.”
May we be resolute in our submission to God and our appreciation of His purposes. May we be better and our faith stronger as a result of our challenges.
Thank you for your insights. Some of your thoughts remind me of C.S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain” where he poses the question “If the Universe is so bad, or even half bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator?” He goes on to make his point (like yours) that even suffering- especially when the chooser chooses faith- is divinely guided. In retrospect, those who stand in parched deserts will look back and see that “the pools were full of water”.
(As a side note, knowing what I know about you, you are indeed tender with God’s children- and at least one of God’s children is grateful.)