Thanks Be to God


Neal A. Maxwell

Thanks Be to God

The Lord has described his plan of redemption as the Plan of Happiness (see Alma 42:8, 16). Indeed, it is, but none of us is likely to be a stranger to sorrow.

Conversationally, we reference this great design almost too casually at times; we even sketch its rude outlines on chalkboards and paper as if it were the floor plan for an addition to one’s house. However, when we really take time to ponder the Plan, it is breathtaking and overpowering! Indeed, I, for one, cannot decide which creates in me the most awe—its very vastness or its intricate, individualized detail.

The vastness of it all is truly overwhelming. We are living on a small planet which is part of a very modest solar system, which, in turn, is located at the outer edge of the awesome Milky Way galaxy. If we were sufficiently distant from the stunning Milky Way, it would be seen as but another bright dot among countless other bright dots in space, all of which could cause us to conclude, comparatively, “that man is nothing.” (Moses 1:10.)

Yet we are rescued by such reassuring realities as that God knows and loves each of us—personally and perfectly. Hence, there is incredible intimacy in the vastness of it all. Are not the very hairs of one’s head numbered? Is not the fall of each sparrow noticed? (See Matt. 10:29–30.) Has Jesus not borne, and therefore knows, our sins, sicknesses, and infirmities? (See Alma 7:11–12.)

Furthermore, the eventual purpose of it all is centered not on some other cosmic concern but on us—“to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) President Brigham Young said there are millions of earths like this one so that certain planets, as Isaiah said, are formed to be inhabited (see Isa. 45:18) as God’s plan of salvation is executed and reexecuted! How glorious is our God! Truly, as the Psalmist said, “We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Ps. 95:7.)

Has he not even told us that his “course is one eternal round”? (D&C 3:2.) Are we not also given intriguing intimations such as how “planets … move in their times and seasons” and how “all these kingdoms, and the inhabitants thereof” are to know the joy of seeing the countenance of the Lord—“every kingdom in its hour, and in its time, and in its season”? (See D&C 88:42, 43, 61.)

In fact, has not the Almighty Father, who oversees it all, shared with us almost more than we can comprehend about his work? But we can understand enough to trust God regarding that which we do not understand.

Even so, since God is so serious about our joy, can we be less than serious? Can we safely postpone striving to become like him? Since there can be no true joy for us apart from doing his work, can we risk being diverted by other chores? Dare we stop short of enduring “well to the end”? Can we not be thankful for a “purposeful life” even when we have a seemingly purposeless day? Should we not be grateful for God’s plan for us even when certain of our own plans for ourselves go awry?

Of course, this grand plan and design for our happiness is not something which exists merely to strike awe in us or to evoke gasps of gladness. It does not exist apart from us either, but completely involves us—painfully at times and happily at other times—but relentlessly always.

This plan is underscored by a deep, divine determination, and “there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it.” (Abr. 3:17.)Once the plan became operational (and it was with our enthusiastic consent, by the way), it could not be altered just because you and I (in the midst of an otherwise good life) might have a difficult day or a soul-stretching season in our lives. Such were clearly foreseen by him, and long ago we were deemed, if obedient, adequate to meet all such challenges. Yes, we will often feel inadequate, but fortunately he knows us far better than we know ourselves.

Let us, therefore, feast upon a few of the gospel truths which pertain to Father’s Plan of Happiness.

The implications for this, our second estate, are many, once we realize this life is (1) a divinely designated proving ground (see Abr. 3:25); (2) a circumstance in which those who triumph overcome by faith which is deliberately tried (D&C 76:53); and (3) an unusual environment featuring, among other things, a dimension called time. (See Alma 40:8.)

It seems clear (not only scripturally but logically) that this second estate could not include either the direct memories or the reference experiences of our first estate. If such were to impinge overmuch upon this second estate, our mortality would not be a true proving ground.

In like manner, the veil also stands between us and that which lies ahead, our third and everlasting estate. If, for instance, our association with resurrected beings in this second estate were the order of the day, if they walked with us in the marketplace and conversed with us in the Gospel Doctrine class, no true growth or test, as were envisioned, could really occur.

Therefore, much as we might like to have the curtains parted so that (not only “on a clear day” but all the time) we could see forever, thereby knowing the circumstances, events, and challenges which lie ahead of us—those things are, for the most part, kept carefully from us. Indeed, it appears that such understanding is usually given only to those individuals who have progressed sufficiently spiritually, that they can be trusted with such knowledge, because it will not distract or divert them or cause them to slacken.

To give people spiritual knowledge—in advance of their capacity to understand it or to apply it is no favor. (See Matt. 7:6.) Even yesterday’s righteous experience does not guarantee us against tomorrow’s relapse. A few who have had supernal spiritual experiences have later fallen. Hence, enduring well to the end assumes real significance, and we are at risk till the end!

Thus, the Lord has created this planet—our customized schoolhouse—so carefully in order that it would be environmentally inhabitable. Likewise, God has carefully designed the curriculum to be used therein to be strictly consistent with his proving purposes. Walter Bagehot put it well:

“If the universe were to be incessantly expressive and incessantly communicative, morality would be impossible: we should live under the unceasing pressure of a supernatural interference, which would give us selfish motives for doing everything, which would menace us with supernatural punishment if we left anything undone; we should be living in a chastising machine … the life which we lead and were meant to lead would be impossible … true virtue would become impossible … a sun that shines and a rain which falls equally on the evil and on the good, are essential to morality in a being free like man and created as man was.” (The Works of Walter Bagehot, Hartford, Conn.: ed. Forrest Morgan, The Travelers Insurance Company, 1889, 2:313.)

Thus, while there is a spiritual ecology (and when we violate it we pay a certain price), the costs or consequences are not always immediate nor externally visible.

Thieves are not always brought immediately to justice. A child-abusing parent is not at once restrained. So, in a hundred ways which could be illustrated, the outward judgment of God does not immediately fall upon an erring individual so that this second estate may be a true proving ground; and also, mercifully, so we can, if we will, know the refreshment and renewal of repentance. Without repentance the past would forever hold the future hostage!

This mortal condition affords to all but those who die young (but who die unto the Lord) options to choose among, time enough to choose, and the opportunity to experience the consequences of our choices—“according to the flesh.” (Alma 7:12.) So it is that most mortals live and learn (or fail to learn) “in process of time.” (Moses 7:21, 68.)

Since, for example, “almost all” individuals have a tendency to abuse power and authority—not just a few, not even a mere majority—how are the relevant lessons about the righteous use of power to be learned except in this laboratory-of-life setting? Could we have truly experienced the risks and opportunities of power merely by attending some pointed lectures or doing some directed reading during our first estate? Was it not necessary to experience, “according to the flesh,” what it is like to be on the receiving end of unrighteous dominion? And the necessity of repentance when one has been on the giving end? The general absence, for instance, on the human political scene of attributes such as genuine humility, mercy, and meekness is a grim reminder, again and again, of how essential these qualities are to the governance of self or a nation. (See D&C 121:34–44.)

In some respects, it is easier to govern a whole people than oneself. Of one ancient political leader it is candidly recorded: “And he did do justice unto the people, but not unto himself because of his many whoredoms; wherefore he was cut off from the presence of the Lord.” (Ether 10:11.) One can cater to mortal constituencies but lose the support of the one Elector who matters!

We know that God’s “word of power” brings entire new worlds into being and causes others to pass away. (See Moses 1:35–38). But the powers of heaven cannot be handled or controlled except upon the basis of righteousness. (See D&C 121:36.) Real righteousness, therefore, cannot be a superficial, ritualistic thing. It must arise out of the deepest convictions of the soul, not out of a desire merely to “go along” with the Heavenly Regime simply because that’s how things are done! God’s power—unlike mortal power—is accessed only by those who have developed, to a requisite degree, God’s attributes.

Jesus counseled us, too, concerning materialism and “the deceitfulness of riches” (Matt. 13:22), and of how hard it is for those who trust in riches and materialism to enter into the kingdom of God. (See Luke 18:24.) Another of those scalding but divine generalizations! The relevant mortal experiences permit (but do not guarantee) that we will learn about what should come first in life. Can those who are diverted by riches or the search for riches and thus fail to discern the real purposes of life be safely trusted with greater dominions which call for even greater discernment? “And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations.” (Rev. 2:26.)

Could we truly appreciate the supremacy of spiritual things without experiencing the limitations of material things? Not in just one brief encounter, but day by day?

Since “he that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls” (Prov. 25:28)—how could we learn to govern ourselves without the specific opportunities for growth and failure which daily life affords? In fact, is not managing life’s little challenges so often the big challenge? Those who wait for a single, spectacular, final exam are apt to flunk the daily quizzes!

We are to strive to become perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. (See Matt. 5:48.) But this is not just generalized goodness; rather, it is the attainment of specific attributes.

So it is that, if God intends to use us (and he does), he must school us so that we emulate his attributes and function in harmony with the laws of his universe while yet in this “proving ground.” We do not fully know why our obedience in the here and now is so crucial, but it is no doubt bound up in our usefulness and happiness in the there and then!

Moreover, even when we fail to develop an eternal attribute sufficiently, our mortal experiences will nevertheless have shown us just how precious that attribute is. How much easier, later on, to accept with appreciation the righteous dominion of those who have so progressed. Again, could such appreciation and acceptance have been generated in the abstract?

We are even reassured that our mortal performance will be judged according to what has been allotted to us and how we use our talents within that allocation. (See Alma 29:3, 6; Matt. 25:14–30.) We will not be able to invoke, justifiably, either deprivational or circumstantial evidence in our own behalf later on to show that we were dealt with unjustly. The record will be clear! Perhaps that stark reality will contribute to the response of those who, at judgment time, will wish to be buried under mountains and rocks to hide them from the face of God! (See Rev. 6:16.)

Thus, the whole mortal schooling process has been so carefully structured to achieve results which could be achieved in “no other way.” (Hel. 5:9.) We can come to know the Lord as our loving, tutoring Father and God—but not as a policeman posted at every intersection of our lives!

Hence, our submissiveness to the Lord must be the real thing, not the equivalent of obeying the speed limit only as long as the highway patrolman is there in his pace-car. Indeed, awaiting full development is our willingness “to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us], even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19.) This is a sobering gospel truth about submissiveness! It is a wintry declaration! This truth is not likely to evoke from us an “Oh, goodie” response!

During our schooling in submissiveness, we will see the visible crosses some carry, but other crosses will go unseen. A few individuals may appear to have no trial at all, which, if it were so, would be a trial in itself. Indeed, if our souls had rings, as do trees, to measure the years of greatest personal growth, the wide rings would likely reflect the years of greatest moisture—but from tears, not rainfall.

Most of our suffering comes from sin and stupidity; it is, nevertheless, very real, and growth can occur with real repentance. But the highest source of suffering appears to be reserved for the innocent who undergo divine tutorial training.

Thus we see how gospel truths concerning the plan of salvation are much more than a “tourist guide” for the second estate; they include a degree of understanding of what Paul called “the deep things of God.” (1 Cor. 2:10.) In our moments of deep anguish, suffering, and bewilderment—in those moments when we ask in faith for certain outcomes and are refused, because to give them to us would not be “right” (3 Ne. 18:20)—then our faith is either deepened or slackened.

Yes, even in our prayers, we can, unintentionally, ask “amiss.” (2 Ne. 4:35.) No wonder humility is such an everlasting virtue. For us to accept God’s “No” as an affirmative indication of his love—rather than a lack thereof—and as a signal that we have asked amiss, this is true humility!

How often have you and I in our provincialism prayed to see ahead and, mercifully, have been refused, lest our view of the present be blurred?

How many times have we been blessed by not having our prayers answered, at least according to the specifications set forth in our petitions?

How many times have frustrating, even gruelling, experiences from which we have sought relief turned out, later on, to have been part of a necessary preparation which led to much more happiness?

“And now when Alma heard this … he beheld that their afflictions had truly humbled them, and that they were in a preparation to hear the word.” (Alma 32:6; italics added.)

How many times have we impatiently expressed our discontent with seemingly ordinary and routine circumstances which were divinely designed, shaping circumstances for which, later on, we were very grateful? Alas, have there perhaps not also been those times when we have been grumpy with God or, unlike Job, even “charged God foolishly”? (Job 1:22.) How many times, naively, have we vigorously protested while on our way to a blessing?

Therefore, our faith in and thanksgiving for Heavenly Father, so far as this mortal experience is concerned, consists—not simply of a faith and gladness that he exists—but also includes faith and thanksgiving for his tutoring of us to aid our acquisition of needed attributes and experiences while we are in mortality. We trust not only the Designer but also his design of life itself—including our portion thereof!

Our response to the realities of the plan should not be resignation or shoulder-shrugging fatalism—but reverential acceptance! If, at times, we wonder, we will also know what it is to be filled with wonderment.

Why should it surprise us, by the way, that life’s most demanding tests as well as life’s most significant opportunities for growth in life usually occur within marriage and the family? How can revolving-door relationships, by contrast, be a real test of our capacity to love? Is being courteous, one time, to the stranger on the bus as difficult as being courteous to a family member who is competing for the bathroom morning after morning? Does fleeting disappointment with a fellow office worker compare to the betrayal of a spouse? Does a raise in pay even approach the lift we receive from rich family life?

Besides, even the most seemingly ordinary life contains more than enough clinical opportunities for our personal growth and development. By the way, while mortality features “an opposition in all things” (2 Ne. 2:11), we need feel no obligation to supply opposition or to make life difficult. Sufficient unto each situation are the challenges thereof!

Should it surprise us that in striving to acquire and develop celestial attributes, the greater the interpersonal proximity the greater the challenge? Is not patience, for instance, best developed among those with whom we interface incessantly? The same is true with any of the other eternal attributes! Hence the high adventure of marriage and family life—and why it is that so many run away from these challenges, thinking they can avoid having to confront themselves by losing themselves in other endeavors or life-styles!

Is not gospel perspective about the plan of salvation so precious, therefore, in the midst of “all these things” which are designed to give us experience?

Yes, let us be filled with an attitude of thanksgiving in our journey homeward, but not become too comfortable here, as C. S. Lewis observed: “Our Father [in Heaven] refreshes us on the journey [through life] with some pleasant inns, but [he] will not encourage us to mistake them for home” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, New York: Macmillan, 1967, p. 103.)

Nor should the praise and positions accorded to us by men in the second estate come to matter too much either, as an aging but articulate Malcolm Muggeridge observed of his own mortal journey:

“Now, the prospect of death overshadows all others. I am like a man on a sea voyage nearing his destination. When I embarked I worried about having a cabin with a porthole, whether I should be asked to sit at the captain’s table, who were the more attractive and important passengers. All such considerations become pointless when I shall soon be disembarking.” (Things Past, ed. Ian Hunter, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1979, p. 166.)

And when the gossamer veil called time is “too much with us,” let us recall that, ere long, time will be no more. Time is measured only to man anyway. (See Rev. 10:6; Alma 40:8; D&C 84:100.) Meanwhile, let us make allowance for the rapidity with which time seems to pass, especially when we are happy. Jacob found it so: “And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.” (Gen. 29:20.) On such a scale each of us has but a few days left in mortality!

As men or women of Christ, we can be led by him through this second estate, in the words of Helaman, “in a straight and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked—

“And land their souls, yea, their immortal souls, at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven, to sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and with Jacob, and with all our holy fathers, to go no more out.” (Hel. 3:29–30.)

“To go no more out”! An intriguing promise! For the busy, for those ceaselessly on the move, for the homeless, for the lonely, and for widows and widowers—and for others of us who will become such—does not the prospect of this homecoming in such grand and everlasting circumstances warm the soul? Not, of course, that life hereafter is to consist of unending repose. Rather, for those who attain the presence of God, “to go no more out”—nowhere is really out of his presence, and now is forever! As time is no more, likewise space will shrink irrevocably. For all we know, the speed of light may prove to be too slow to do some of what must be done.

No wonder it is called the Plan of Happiness! No wonder the divine and prophetic exhortations to us are so straightforward and repetitive! No wonder we should be so thankful, so everlastingly thankful! Is God’s Plan of Happiness not a most fundamental cause for thanksgiving this day and always?

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Thanks Be to God,” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a family discussion on the Lord’s Plan of Happiness.

1. In a universe as vast and as complex as ours, how is it possible that God is mindful of each one of us?

2. If God’s work is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man,” what part do we play in the achievement of that goal?

3. What qualities do we need to develop in order to progress toward eternal life? Why is the family environment a good one for developing these qualities?

4. Since Jesus died for our sins, why do we have to be tested? What does testing prove? According to the author what is the highest form of testing?

5. If the plan of redemption is the plan of happiness, why do the righteous endure so much suffering?