Tragedy or Destiny?
“Chapter 2: Tragedy or Destiny?,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, (2006),11–21
When we face the apparent tragedies of sorrow, suffering, and death, we must put our trust in God.
From the Life of Spencer W. Kimball
Early in his childhood, Spencer W. Kimball suffered the pain that comes with the death of loved ones. When he was eight years old, his sister Mary died shortly after her birth. A month later, Spencer’s parents sensed that five-year-old Fannie, who had been suffering for several weeks, would soon pass away. Spencer later told of the day Fannie died: “On my ninth birthday Fannie died in Mother’s arms. All of us children were awakened in the early night to be present. I seem to remember the scene in our living room … , my beloved mother weeping with her little dying five-year-old child in her arms and all of us crowding around.”1
Even more difficult for young Spencer was the news he received two years later, when he and his brothers and sisters were called home from school one morning. They ran home and were met by their bishop, who gathered them around him and told them that their mother had died the day before. President Kimball later recalled: “It came as a thunderbolt. I ran from the house out in the backyard to be alone in my deluge of tears. Out of sight and sound, away from everybody, I sobbed and sobbed. Each time I said the word ‘Ma’ fresh floods of tears gushed forth until I was drained dry. Ma—dead! But she couldn’t be! Life couldn’t go on for us. … My eleven-year-old heart seemed to burst.”2
Fifty years later, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, found himself far away from home, recovering from major surgery. Unable to sleep, he recalled the day his mother died: “I feel like sobbing again now … as my memory takes me over those sad paths.”3
Facing the deep sadness of such experiences, Spencer W. Kimball always found comfort in prayer and in the principles of the gospel. Even in his childhood, he knew where to turn to receive peace. A family friend wrote of young Spencer’s prayers—“how the loss of his mother weighed so heavily upon his little heart and yet how bravely he battled with his grief and sought comfort from the only source.”4
In his ministry, President Kimball frequently offered words of solace to those who mourned the loss of loved ones. He testified of eternal principles, assuring the Saints that death is not the end of existence. Speaking at a funeral, he once said:
“We are limited in our visions. With our eyes we can see but a few miles. With our ears we can hear but a few years. We are encased, enclosed, as it were, in a room, but when our light goes out of this life, then we see beyond mortal limitations. …
“The walls go down, time ends and distance fades and vanishes as we go into eternity … and we immediately emerge into a great world in which there are no earthly limitations.”5
Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball
In His wisdom, God does not always prevent tragedy.
The daily newspaper screamed the headlines: “Plane Crash Kills 43. No Survivors of Mountain Tragedy,” and thousands of voices joined in a chorus: “Why did the Lord let this terrible thing happen?”
Two automobiles crashed when one went through a red light, and six people were killed. Why would God not prevent this?
Why should the young mother die of cancer and leave her eight children motherless? Why did not the Lord heal her?
A little child was drowned; another was run over. Why?
A man died one day suddenly of a coronary occlusion as he climbed a stairway. His body was found slumped on the floor. His wife cried out in agony, “Why? Why would the Lord do this to me? Could he not have considered my three little children who still need a father?”
A young man died in the mission field and people critically questioned: “Why did not the Lord protect this youth while he was doing proselyting work?”
I wish I could answer these questions with authority, but I cannot. I am sure that sometime we’ll understand and be reconciled. But for the present we must seek understanding as best we can in the gospel principles.
Was it the Lord who directed the plane into the mountain to snuff out the lives of its occupants, or were there mechanical faults or human errors?
Did our Father in heaven cause the collision of the cars that took six people into eternity, or was it the error of the driver who ignored safety rules?
Did God take the life of the young mother or prompt the child to toddle into the canal or guide the other child into the path of the oncoming car?
Did the Lord cause the man to suffer a heart attack? Was the death of the missionary untimely? Answer, if you can. I cannot, for though I know God has a major role in our lives, I do not know how much he causes to happen and how much he merely permits. Whatever the answer to this question, there is another I feel sure about.
Could the Lord have prevented these tragedies? The answer is, Yes. The Lord is omnipotent, with all power to control our lives, save us pain, prevent all accidents, drive all planes and cars, feed us, protect us, save us from labor, effort, sickness, even from death, if he will. But he will not.
We should be able to understand this, because we can realize how unwise it would be for us to shield our children from all effort, from disappointments, temptations, sorrows, and suffering.
The basic gospel law is free agency and eternal development. To force us to be careful or righteous would be to nullify that fundamental law and make growth impossible.6
With an eternal perspective, we understand that adversity is essential to our eternal progression.
If we looked at mortality as the whole of existence, then pain, sorrow, failure, and short life would be calamity. But if we look upon life as an eternal thing stretching far into the premortal past and on into the eternal post-death future, then all happenings may be put in proper perspective.
Is there not wisdom in his giving us trials that we might rise above them, responsibilities that we might achieve, work to harden our muscles, sorrows to try our souls? Are we not exposed to temptations to test our strength, sickness that we might learn patience, death that we might be immortalized and glorified?
If all the sick for whom we pray were healed, if all the righteous were protected and the wicked destroyed, the whole program of the Father would be annulled and the basic principle of the gospel, free agency, would be ended. No man would have to live by faith.
If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given the doer of good, there could be no evil—all would do good but not because of the rightness of doing good. There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no free agency, only satanic controls.
Should all prayers be immediately answered according to our selfish desires and our limited understanding, then there would be little or no suffering, sorrow, disappointment, or even death, and if these were not, there would also be no joy, success, resurrection, nor eternal life and godhood.
“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things … righteousness … wickedness … holiness … misery … good … bad. …” (2 Nephi 2:11.)
Being human, we would expel from our lives physical pain and mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort, but if we were to close the doors upon sorrow and distress, we might be excluding our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering, and self-mastery. …
I love the verse of “How Firm a Foundation”—
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
[See Hymns, no. 85]
And Elder James E. Talmage wrote: “No pang that is suffered by man or woman upon the earth will be without its compensating effect … if it be met with patience.”
On the other hand, these things can crush us with their mighty impact if we yield to weakness, complaining, and criticism.
“No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God … and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven. …” (Orson F. Whitney)
There are people who are bitter as they watch loved ones suffer agonies and interminable pain and physical torture. Some would charge the Lord with unkindness, indifference, and injustice. We are so incompetent to judge! …
The power of the priesthood is limitless but God has wisely placed upon each of us certain limitations. I may develop priesthood power as I perfect my life, yet I am grateful that even through the priesthood I cannot heal all the sick. I might heal people who should die. I might relieve people of suffering who should suffer. I fear I would frustrate the purposes of God.
Had I limitless power, and yet limited vision and understanding, I might have saved Abinadi from the flames of fire when he was burned at the stake, and in doing so I might have irreparably damaged him. He died a martyr and went to a martyr’s reward—exaltation.
I would likely have protected Paul against his woes if my power were boundless. I would surely have healed his “thorn in the flesh.” [2 Corinthians 12:7.] And in doing so I might have foiled the Lord’s program. Thrice he offered prayers, asking the Lord to remove the “thorn” from him, but the Lord did not so answer his prayers [see 2 Corinthians 12:7–10]. Paul many times could have lost himself if he had been eloquent, well, handsome, and free from the things that made him humble. …
I fear that had I been in Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844, I might have deflected the bullets that pierced the body of the Prophet and the Patriarch. I might have saved them from the sufferings and agony, but lost to them the martyr’s death and reward. I am glad I did not have to make that decision.
With such uncontrolled power, I surely would have felt to protect Christ from the agony in Gethsemane, the insults, the thorny crown, the indignities in the court, the physical injuries. I would have administered to his wounds and healed them, giving him cooling water instead of vinegar. I might have saved him from suffering and death, and lost to the world his atoning sacrifice.
I would not dare to take the responsibility of bringing back to life my loved ones. Christ himself acknowledged the difference between his will and the Father’s when he prayed that the cup of suffering be taken from him; yet he added, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” [Luke 22:42.]7
Death can open the door to glorious opportunities.
For the one who dies, life goes on and his free agency continues, and death, which seems to us such a calamity, could be a blessing in disguise. …
If we say that early death is a calamity, disaster, or tragedy, would it not be saying that mortality is preferable to earlier entrance into the spirit world and to eventual salvation and exaltation? If mortality be the perfect state, then death would be a frustration, but the gospel teaches us there is no tragedy in death, but only in sin. “… blessed are the dead that die in the Lord. …” (See D&C 63:49.)
We know so little. Our judgment is so limited. We judge the Lord’s ways from our own narrow view.
I spoke at the funeral service of a young Brigham Young University student who died during World War II. There had been hundreds of thousands of young men rushed prematurely into eternity through the ravages of that war, and I made the statement that I believed this righteous youth had been called to the spirit world to preach the gospel to these deprived souls. This may not be true of all who die, but I felt it true of him.
In his vision of “The Redemption of the Dead” President Joseph F. Smith saw this very thing. … He writes:
“… I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth … but behold, from among the righteous He organized his forces … and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel. …
“… our Redeemer spent His time … in the world of spirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits … who had testified of Him in the flesh, that they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead unto whom He could not go personally because of their rebellion and transgression. …
“I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption.” [See D&C 138:29–30, 36–37, 57.]
Death, then, may be the opening of the door to opportunities, including that of teaching the gospel of Christ.8
In times of trial, we must trust in God.
Despite the fact that death opens new doors, we do not seek it. We are admonished to pray for those who are ill and use our priesthood power to heal them.
“And the elders of the church, two or more, shall be called, and shall pray for and lay their hands upon them in my name; and if they die they shall die unto me, and if they live they shall live unto me.
“Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die, and more especially for those that have not hope of a glorious resurrection.
“And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them;
“And they that die not in me, wo unto them, for their death is bitter.
“And again, it shall come to pass that he that hath faith in me to be healed, and is not appointed unto death, shall be healed.” (D&C 42:44–48.)
We are assured by the Lord that the sick will be healed if the ordinance is performed, if there is sufficient faith, and if the ill one is “not appointed unto death.” But there are three factors, all of which should be satisfied. Many do not comply with the ordinances, and great numbers are unwilling or incapable of exercising sufficient faith. But the other factor also looms important: If they are not appointed unto death.
Everyone must die. Death is an important part of life. Of course, we are never quite ready for the change. Not knowing when it should come, we properly fight to retain our life. Yet we ought not be afraid of death. We pray for the sick, we administer to the afflicted, we implore the Lord to heal and reduce pain and save life and postpone death, and properly so, but not because eternity is so frightful. …
Just as Ecclesiastes (3:2) says, I am confident that there is a time to die, but I believe also that many people die before “their time” because they are careless, abuse their bodies, take unnecessary chances, or expose themselves to hazards, accidents, and sickness. …
God controls our lives, guides and blesses us, but gives us our agency. We may live our lives in accordance with his plan for us or we may foolishly shorten or terminate them.
I am positive in my mind that the Lord has planned our destiny. Sometime we’ll understand fully, and when we see back from the vantage point of the future, we shall be satisfied with many of the happenings of this life that are so difficult for us to comprehend.
We sometimes think we would like to know what lies ahead, but sober thought brings us back to accepting life a day at a time and magnifying and glorifying that day. …
We knew before we were born that we were coming to the earth for bodies and experience and that we would have joys and sorrows, ease and pain, comforts and hardships, health and sickness, successes and disappointments, and we knew also that after a period of life we would die. We accepted all these eventualities with a glad heart, eager to accept both the favorable and unfavorable. We eagerly accepted the chance to come earthward even though it might be for only a day or a year. Perhaps we were not so much concerned whether we should die of disease, of accident, or of senility. We were willing to take life as it came and as we might organize and control it, and this without murmur, complaint, or unreasonable demands.
In the face of apparent tragedy we must put our trust in God, knowing that despite our limited view his purposes will not fail. With all its troubles life offers us the tremendous privilege to grow in knowledge and wisdom, faith and works, preparing to return and share God’s glory.9
Suggestions for Study and Teaching
Consider these ideas as you study the chapter or as you prepare to teach. For additional help, see pages v–ix.
• Why doesn’t the Lord protect us from all sorrow and suffering? (See pages 13–-14.)
• Study pages 15–16, looking for what we would miss if the Lord did not permit us to experience trials. How should we respond to our trials and suffering? How has the Lord strengthened you in your trials?
• Read the paragraph that begins “There are people who …” on page 16. Why is it so difficult to see loved ones suffer? What can we do to avoid becoming bitter or discouraged at such times?
• Review pages 16–20, looking for teachings about priesthood blessings. When have you witnessed the healing or comforting power of the priesthood? In what ways can we respond when we learn that it is not the Lord’s will for a loved one to be healed or for death to be postponed?
• How would you explain President Kimball’s teachings about death to a child?
• President Kimball taught, “In the face of apparent tragedy we must put our trust in God” (page 20). When a person trusts in God, what might he or she do in a time of trial?
[picture] Spencer W. Kimball and his siblings, about two years before his sister Fannie died. Standing, left to right: Clare, Ruth, Gordon, and Delbert. Seated, left to right: Helen, Alice, Fannie, and Spencer.
[picture] “Had I limitless power, and yet limited vision and understanding, I might have saved Abinadi.”