Hundreds of crises ebb and flow around us every day. We hear of them on the radio, see them depicted on television, mark them among our friends and neighbors. Human nature being what it is, resolving the crises is easy—as long as they are someone else’s. But when the tribulations are ours, resolution becomes much more difficult.
In my own struggles, and in the instances when others who are struggling have asked for my counsel, I have found that understanding a few specific concepts helps immensely. Understanding these principles will strengthen us and ease our pain and suffering, although they will not make the trials go away.
Just knowing, for instance, that our Heavenly Father wants us to be happy now, in this life, can make a great difference in how we view our circumstances. If we also understand how trials and tribulations fit into the plan of salvation, we can deal with them more effectively. Preparing for times of crisis by building character and testimony can safeguard us from being emotionally devastated when trials arise. Furthermore, understanding the real causes of our crises and seeking help—both divine and human—can help us weather them successfully.
A few years ago, while I was serving as a stake president, I interviewed a woman for a temple recommend. Even though she answered the questions satisfactorily, I sensed that she was not really happy. As we talked, she began to weep and then confessed that she and her husband did not love each other. The two had decided to continue living together without love in their marriage. She felt certain that if they suffered through this life together, the Lord would give them new companions in the Millennium whom they could love.
Obviously, she was confused. She seemed to feel that happiness is reserved for the future, that only when we reach the celestial kingdom will we be truly happy. Hence, she accepted a miserable relationship, unmotivated to improve her marriage and make it happy here and now.
The first concept we need to understand in order to weather our trials is that the Lord wants us to be happy in this life as well as in the life hereafter. Lehi reminded his children, after years of hardship in the wilderness and on the ocean, that “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Ne. 2:25.)
Joseph Smith, who was also well acquainted with hardship, wrote that “happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976, pp. 255–56.)
Although in this life we will experience sorrow, injustice, and unhappiness, the Lord does not expect us to drift through life passively submitting to conditions that bring us misery. We must understand that the gospel has the power to bring joy into our lives now, not just in the hereafter.
The second concept we need to understand is that trials and tests are an essential part of the plan of salvation and help prepare us for exaltation in eternity. Just as Joseph of Egypt, Moses, Job, Joseph Smith, and even the Savior himself were sorely tested, we, too, must be tested. Spiritual strength and maturity come from overcoming opposition. (See 2 Ne. 2:11–29.) It is as Orson F. Whitney said:
“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 came here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven.” (As quoted by Spencer W. Kimball, in Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972, p. 98.)
While on a lecture tour some time ago, I noticed that one of the other lecturers had attended my discussion on adversity for three consecutive days. After the third lecture, she told me, “I’m concerned that I’ve never had a real trial or test in my life. It’s almost frightening to contemplate.”
We talked for a while about the fact that we have little control over when trials come to us, but great control over how we respond to them. I observed that we need not seek trials; over a lifetime, we will have our share of them. And although we have been assured that the Lord will not require more of us than we are capable of handling (see 1 Cor. 10:13), we need to prepare by gaining a solid understanding of the Lord’s plan and develop a faith that can carry us through our crises.
Little did this good woman realize how soon she would be faced with a tremendous test. Only a few months later, she and her husband stood at the side of a small casket containing the body of their only son. As her friends filed by to see the infant, killed in a freak farm accident, the woman was the one who buoyed up the compassionate viewers. She and her husband sorrowed, but they did not make accusations of injustice or react bitterly. Rather, they displayed a quiet strength born of the Spirit.
The third concept we must understand is related to this woman’s experience. We will be able to handle our crises more effectively if we build a deep and abiding testimony of Jesus Christ and the restored gospel. Elder Marion D. Hanks has written, “We shall not fully avoid tribulation and trial, separation and sorrow, distress and difficulty. But through faith and understanding and courage we may truly ‘prosper’ in the Spirit of the Lord.” (In Messages of Inspiration, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957, p. 319.)
If we have built our testimony on sound eternal principles, we can have the assurance that our crises will become stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks.
A fourth concept we should understand is that many people suffer needlessly because they have not identified the real reasons for their crises. Some people mistakenly feel that all their problems are the result of sins that have have been committed. Others place the blame at God’s feet and turn from him in bitterness. Before we can deal with the tribulation effectively, we must determine its causes.
Most crises fit into one of five categories: (1) natural disasters, (2) sickness and pain, (3) the mistakes of others, (4) our own sin and wickedness, or (5) tests and trials ordained of God. We cannot always separate or identify the causes of our crises. But recognizing that they may have come to us for reasons beyond our control can relieve us of feelings of guilt and encourage us to turn to God for help.
Many of our crises come to us as a result of living in a world where accidents happen and where physical law operates. Many people who suffered the loss of their homes and possessions in the Teton Dam disaster in Idaho several years ago were relieved to hear a prophet of God say that wickedness did not cause the flood in the Upper Snake River Valley. It is a terrible mistake to think that all, or even many, the earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or other natural disasters result from the sins of the victims.
Disease, too, afflicts both the innocent and the culpable. It is as big a mistake to blame God for all sickness as it is to blame him for all natural disasters. It is true that some diseases occur because of sinful activities, but most people become ill simply because the mortal body is subject to natural law and is heir to pain, disease, and death.
At other times, our misery is due to the actions of others. We may be injured by a drunk driver, victimized by a criminal, or abused by the powerful. The Savior taught that the innocent would be offended (see Matt. 18:6–7), but he also taught us not to return the evil (see Matt. 5:38–44). Instead, we need to be like Jacob’s son Joseph. Even though he was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he still loved and forgave them. He was willing to accept his situation and move on, and many years later, he understood how the harm done to him had helped to advance the Lord’s purposes. He may also have understood that a bitter, unforgiving heart can fester and eventually harm us more than the original offense had.
Although we often suffer for reasons not of our own doing, there yet remain times when the sorrow we feel is a consequence of our own mistakes and our own sins. If the misery we suffer is due to our sins, there are choices we can make that will restore our happiness. We can repent. Rationalization, self-justification, and rebellion might temporarily give us feelings of relief and success, but they do not provide the cure. That cure is found only in coming to Christ with a broken heart and contrite spirit, seeking forgiveness.
Because of the many causes of tribulation, thinking that all sorrows are tests designed by a loving God borders on neurosis. Nevertheless, we should realize that our Heavenly Father does test those whom he loves. In Israel’s history, many of God’s tests came in the form of commandments that were difficult to keep. Abraham, for example, was commanded to sacrifice Isaac, and King Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem were told to ignore Assyrian demands in the face of overwhelming odds. Prayer can be a great aid in ascertaining whether a test is from the Lord. Prayer is also a great aid in helping us meet such tests, for they are often designed to draw us closer to God and prepare us to receive greater gifts from his hand. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, pp. 150–51.)
The final concept is perhaps the most crucial: we need to realize that help is available and seek it. Few, if any of us, are capable of handling a severe crisis without help. When confronted with crises, we need to know that the Lord will strengthen and guide us if we turn to him. This is, after all, one of the predominant themes in the scriptures.
Many years ago, I had an experience that taught me the importance of going to the Lord for help. It was in January 1952, during the Korean conflict. My battalion had replaced a unit from the Twenty-fourth Infantry Division, and we had been firing our 105-caliber howitzers for many hours. Eventually, there was a break, and we laid down in our bunker to get some rest. Soon I was fast asleep.
The next thing I knew, a mail clerk stood over me, thrusting a letter from my bishop into my hand. I learned that my father had been operated on and that his abdomen was filled with cancer. No one expected him to live more than two weeks. The bishop told me that arrangements had been made to fly me home and instructed me to contact the Red Cross.
I took the letter to a Red Cross representative, to verify the seriousness of my father’s condition. But by the time they had made contact, my father had passed away. I was informed that, inasmuch as he was dead, no useful purpose would be served by sending me home.
When I returned to my unit, they were in the middle of another firing mission. I felt angry and bitter and deeply hurt. Desperate, I slipped off to a small grove and dropped to my knees. I pleaded with the Lord to release me from those terrible feelings. Soon my whole bosom filled with the most peaceful feeling I had ever felt. It spread until it encompassed my whole being, and I felt assured that all was well.
How helpful this experience was for me twenty years later when my wife and I stood outside a hospital emergency room in Idaho Falls! We had waited for hours as several doctors probed for any feeling in the lower part of our sixteen-year-old daughter’s body. She had been in an automobile accident and had been seriously injured. Our bishop and his wife joined us, along with the stake president and his companion.
When a doctor stepped out of the X-ray room, his voice choked as he told us that our daughter’s spinal cord had been severed and that she would never walk again. My sweetheart and I embraced as she cried out, “Oh, no, no!” Our friends wept with us.
Later, as we drove home, we wondered how we could break the news to our daughter. We wondered, too, whether it would have been better for our Heavenly Father to have taken her home. A few hours later, we returned to the hospital. As I leaned over to explain to our daughter, I could not contain the tears.
She opened her eyes, thrust out her arms, and exclaimed, “Don’t cry, Daddy. Look, I’ve got my arms, I’ve got my heart, I’ve got my mind, and I have all eternity to run around in.”
What a great blessing to be members of Christ’s church! The scriptures and the gospel provide the insight we need to meet our crises, and our leaders and other members support and bless us emotionally, temporally, and spiritually. Most of all, our Heavenly Father assures and comforts us through the Holy Ghost. It was he who loved us so much that he permitted his Only Begotten Son to suffer unto death for our sins that we might return to him. (See John 3:14–17.) We can truly trust in God and his Son to help us.