How do we respond when we are confronted with a task that seems to be impossible?
All of us face obstacles. All of us have challenges. We all walk paths that lead us toward heights we think we cannot reach. Sooner or later we all stand at the foot of cliffs we think we cannot climb.
In 1895 my great-grandfather, Abinadi Olsen, was called on a mission to the Samoan Islands. Obedient to the call of the prophet, he left his wife and four small children, including my maternal grandmother, Chasty Magdalene, in the town of Castle Dale, Utah. He traveled by train and ship to the mission headquarters in Apia, Samoa, a journey of 26 days. His first assignment was to labor on the island of Tutuila.
After many weeks of living in what he called a grass hut, eating strange food, suffering severe illnesses, and struggling to learn the Samoan language, he seemed to be making no progress in his missionary work. Homesick and discouraged, he seriously considered getting on board a boat back to Apia and telling the mission president he didn’t want to waste any more time in Samoa. The obstacles to the accomplishment of his mission seemed insurmountable, and he wished to return to his wife and children, who were struggling to support him in the mission field.
A friend who heard Abinadi Olsen describe the experience some years after his return, quoted him as follows:
“Then one night, as I lay on my mat on the floor of my hut, a strange man entered and in my own language told me to get up and follow him. His manner was such that I had to obey. He led me out through the village and directly up against the face of a perpendicular solid rock cliff. ‘That’s strange,’ thought I. ‘I’ve never seen that here before,’ and just then the stranger said, ‘I want you to climb that cliff.’
“I took another look and then in bewilderment said, ‘I can’t. It’s impossible!’
“‘How do you know you can’t? You haven’t tried,’ said my guide.
“‘But anyone can see’—I started to say in objecting. But he cut in with, ‘Begin climbing. Reach up with your hand—now with your foot.’
“As I reached, under orders that I dared not disobey, a niche seemed to open in the solid rock cliff and I caught hold. Then with my one foot I caught a toe hold.
“‘Now go ahead,’ he ordered. ‘Reach with your other hand,’ and as I did so another place opened up, and to my surprise the cliff began to recede; climbing became easier, and I continued the climb without difficulty until, suddenly, I found myself lying on my pallet back in my hut. The stranger was gone!
“‘Why has this experience come to me?’ I asked myself. The answer came quickly. I had been up against an imaginary cliff for those three months. I had not reached out my hand to begin the climb. I hadn’t really made the effort I should have made to learn the language and overcome my other problems” (Fenton L. Williams, “On Doing the Impossible,” Improvement Era, August 1957, p. 554).
It is hardly necessary to add that Abinadi Olsen did not leave the mission. He labored for three and a half years, until released by appropriate authority. He was an exceptionally effective missionary, and he was a faithful member of the Church for the rest of his life.
When we face obstacles that appear to be impossible to overcome even in the fulfillment of righteous responsibilities, we should remember that when we are involved in the work of the Lord, the obstacles before us are never as great as the power behind us. We should reach out and climb. Handholds will only be found by hands that are outstretched. Footholds are only for feet that are on the move.
We are told that faith precedes the miracle. We have also learned that personal efforts precede it. These words of President Spencer W. Kimball convey that message: “Let’s go forward!”
The scriptures record many instances when the Lord blessed those who tried to do the impossible. Nothing is impossible to the Lord.
When Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, they encamped by the Red Sea. The Egyptians thought the Israelites were trapped. Their backs were to the sea as they faced the pursuing chariots of Pharaoh. “Fear ye not, …” Moses declared, for “the Lord shall fight for you” (Ex. 14:13–14). The Lord then told Moses to command the children of Israel “that they go forward” into the sea (Ex. 14:15). As they did so, Moses stretched out his rod over the sea, as commanded, and the children of Israel went through the sea on dry ground (Ex. 14:16, 22). They had gone forward in faith, and what seemed impossible had occurred.
The brother of Jared faced the problem of illumination in the closed vessels his people had constructed. He sought to have the Lord solve the problem. However, the Lord responded by asking, “What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels?” (Ether 2:23). The brother of Jared began working on the solution to the problem by melting and molding 16 transparent stones. Then, with great faith, he asked the Lord to touch these stones with His finger “and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness … that we may have light while we shall cross the sea” (Ether 3:4). His prayer was answered. The problem was solved by the initiative of a faithful person and the blessings and power of God.
When Nephi was directed to return to Jerusalem to obtain the sacred records from Laban, he went forth in faith to do as he was commanded, even though he did not see how this could be done. Nephi knew that the Lord would give no commandment, save he would prepare a way to accomplish the thing he had commanded (1 Ne. 3:7). Through Nephi’s faith and initiative he accomplished his mission, and generations have been blessed by the outcome.
Nothing is impossible to those who keep God’s commandments and follow his directions. But the blessings that carry us over obstacles do not precede our efforts; they follow them. The Liahona was given to guide Lehi and his children, but it came after years in the desert, not when they were still in Jerusalem. The word of the Lord on the organization of the Camp of Israel (see D&C 136) didn’t come in Nauvoo. It came on the west bank of the Missouri near present-day Omaha, almost a year after the Saints had left Nauvoo.
What do we do when we face obstacles in the fulfillment of righteous responsibilities? We reach out and climb! The blessings that solve problems and carry us over obstacles come to persons who are on the move.