Several years ago while visiting a dear friend, I saw that he looked unusually discouraged. He is a school teacher, and his wife does not work outside the home. With nine children, they have had rather limited financial resources.
I asked him how he was. He hesitated, not wanting to talk about his troubles. But finally, with tears in his eyes, he told me his worries about his family. One of his sons had dropped out of high school and had moved out of their home; he now spent his time drinking, chewing tobacco, and partying with his friends. My friend’s eighteen-year-old daughter had transgressed and planned to marry outside the temple. His sixteen-year-old son had a serious drug and alcohol problem. My friend’s oldest son was on a mission, but the costs of the sixteen-year-old’s drug treatment were jeopardizing missionary funds and the family’s financial stability.
My friend told me he felt guilty and unworthy. Because of all the strain on the family, he and his wife were blaming each other for their children’s problems, and their marriage was under a great deal of stress. It was obvious that he was struggling, wondering why all these things were happening to his family when he had tried to live the gospel.
Many Latter-day Saints start out on the gospel path with zeal, anticipating happiness; instead, they find themselves overwhelmed by unexpected challenges and difficulties. Some people who have such problems become bitter. They question God’s love and drift away from the commitments they have made. Still others lose their faith altogether and seek relief from their pain in sin.
Those of us who suffer such pain can learn much from Lehi’s experience in the wilderness. Lehi entered into the adventure the Lord appointed to him with zeal. But years later, he revealed the pain and heartache he had suffered in the wilderness when he said, “I speak unto you, Joseph, my last-born. Thou wast born in the wilderness of mine afflictions; yea, in the days of my greatest sorrow did thy mother bear thee.” (2 Ne. 3:1.)
Like Lehi, many people find themselves in what might well be called the “wilderness of affliction.” They become isolated from those they love by circumstances largely beyond their control. They desire peace, but feel only despair.
Yet such experiences can help us grow. Elder Marvin J. Ashton suggested that “greatness is best measured by how well an individual responds to the happenings in life that appear to be totally unfair, unreasonable, and undeserved.” (General Conference, October 1984)
Lehi had provided a comfortable home for himself and his family in Jerusalem. But when he heard the word of the Lord, it filled his heart and filled his soul with peace and joy. His material wealth became less important than the joy and hope he felt as he thought about the love offered him through the atonement of Jesus Christ. That love was like delicious fruit to his soul.
If a man starts out right and proceeds as he began, he will most likely end up right. Likewise, if a man starts out wrong and persists as he began, he will end up wrong. Lehi began right. He exercised faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repented of his sins with honesty of heart, acting no hypocrisy. Repentance brought him forgiveness and the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Having so far lived righteously, Lehi was ready for the “wilderness of affliction.”
Lehi’s journey into the wilderness was an act of faith in the Lord. We read that “he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness.” (1 Ne. 2:4.)
When the family had traveled in the wilderness three days, they stopped and set up their tents in a valley by the side of a river. Here, we read, Lehi “built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God.” (1 Ne. 2:6–7.) Throughout Lehi’s travels in the wilderness, he always remembered the Lord and sought to keep His commandments. In whatever place or situation he was in, Lehi humbled himself, worshipped God, and thanked the Lord for His mercy and blessings. Though some thought Lehi a misguided old man, he trusted in our Heavenly Father, knowing that “all things work together for good to them that love God.” (See Rom. 8:28.)
Even though Lehi started out right, exercising faith in God, with a spirit of gratitude, he was not spared pain. Even as he offered up a sacrifice of thanksgiving, Laman and Lemuel complained against him, calling him a “visionary man” who “had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things, to perish in the wilderness. And this they said he had done because of the foolish imaginations of his heart.” (1 Ne. 2:11.) Like the Jews in Jerusalem, Laman and Lemuel rejected their father’s words.
Lehi was not made of stone. He was a man with feelings. He needed his family’s love and support. He had stood alone against his peers, but his two oldest sons’ rebellion surely must have caused him deep emotional pain.
With great effort, Lehi quieted his oldest sons’ doubts and persuaded them to return to Jerusalem with Nephi and Sam for the brass plates. When they were delayed in returning, Sariah, supposing her sons to be dead, also complained against Lehi, accusing him of being a foolish old man: “Thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness.” (1 Ne. 5:2.)
Few things are as painful as when our spouse, whom we have depended on for support, is separated from us by the spirit of contention and misunderstanding. Lehi loved his wife and children and wanted them to know the ways of God as he did. To see his sons rebel must have been very painful, but to have his wife express the same accusations and fears probably pained Lehi even more deeply. Such moments can be dark with fear and doubt, causing people to question themselves and possibly even God.
In his suffering, Lehi could easily have turned away from God. Instead, he turned to Him in faith and trust. Thereafter he received what we call today, “Lehi’s dream.” In this vision, Lehi was shown that his children had their free agency. They could rebel against him and God and lose the Lord’s Spirit, or they could trust God and taste the same precious fruit of the gospel that he did. The choice was theirs.
Understanding this probably did not take away the pain Lehi felt, but it undoubtedly brought rest from any feelings of guilt and it reaffirmed God’s goodness and personal involvement in the lives of all His children.
Lehi’s experience reminds us that trials and suffering can be tools in the hands of a merciful God by which he molds his children into sons and daughters fit for exaltation. John Taylor, who had his own faith tried, recalled that the Prophet Joseph Smith once said: “God will feel after you, and He will take hold and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.” (In Journal of Discourses, 24:197.)
In our own day, Elder Marvin J. Ashton has noted that God’s hand is in all our doings. He said, “When sorrow, tragedy, and heartbreaks occur in our lives, wouldn’t it be comforting if when the whisperings of God say ‘Do you know why this has happened to you?’ we could have the peace of mind to answer ‘No, but you do.’
“Certainly peace is the opposite of fear. Peace is a blessing that comes to those who trust in God. It is established through individual righteousness.” (General Conference, October 1985.)
As fine steel must be heated and cooled, then heated again, so the sons and daughters of God who would be exalted must be tempered in the fire and tried in the waters of adversity repeatedly. Lehi had been told that he would inherit a land of promise, but it seemed that, instead, he had received strife, sorrow, and pain.
When Nephi broke his bow and several days of hunger threatened starvation, Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael became angry. Even Lehi began to complain against the Lord. The burdens of complaining children, fatigue, old age, endless days of wandering, and the threat of starvation must have weighed his soul down.
The Lord responded to Lehi’s complaints. We read that “the voice of the Lord came unto (Lehi); and he was truly chastened because of his murmuring against the Lord, insomuch that he was brought down into the depths of sorrow.” (1 Ne. 16:25.) After being rebuked by the Lord, Lehi repented and thanked God. He picked himself up and went forward with faith.
After a short stay in the land of Bountiful, Lehi’s family boarded their ship to cross the sea. On the ship Lehi once again was made heartsick by the actions of some of his children. Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael and their wives “began to make themselves merry,” and became extremely rude. When Nephi tried to talk to them, Laman and Lemuel tied him up. Thereafter a great storm arose that threatened to sink the ship.
We read that Lehi and Sariah, “being stricken in years, and having suffered much grief because of their children … were brought down, yea, even upon their sickbeds.
“Because of their grief and much sorrow, and the iniquity of (Laman and Lemuel), they were brought near even to be carried out of this time to meet their God; yea, their grey hairs were about to be brought down to lie low in the dust; yea, even they were near to be cast with sorrow into a watery grave.” (See 1 Ne. 18:17–18.)
Many of us look forward to a time when we will be able to “sit back and relax.” We think that the Lord “owes” us a “happy ending.” Yet for many of us, that happy ending may not come in this life. The challenge is to endure in our trials until they have ended.
In the meantime, the tempering of our souls continues to lead us to experience the forgiveness of God and to receive the comfort that comes from the Spirit. Interestingly, it is the very things that try to separate us from God that often draw us closer to Him. After the Apostle Paul had spent nearly a lifetime suffering persecution and trials, he exclaimed:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …
“Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
“For we are persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
“Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” (Rom. 8:35–39.)
Lehi, too, discovered peace. After wandering through the tribulations of the wilderness and arriving in the promised land, shortly before his death, he wrote, “The Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.” (2 Ne. 1:15.)
The “wilderness of affliction” had done its work, as it does for those who start out right and continue as they began. Lehi’s soul had been purified. He had endured the wrenching of his heart strings, and was now ready to receive the reward the Lord had promised him.
Like Lehi, my friend also came to the end of his own personal “wilderness.” His children have returned to the faith of their parents and are trying to pattern their lives after Christ’s. The struggle wasn’t easy, but they have all endured it well.
Of course, not all stories end as well as we would like. It is sobering to realize that Lehi’s two oldest sons never recognized their father’s virtue. But that did not stop Lehi, Sariah, Nephi, Sam, Jacob, and Joseph from partaking of God’s love.
Exaltation, after all, comes to us individually as we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philip. 2:12.)
Perhaps, amid our own “wilderness,” it will help us to remember the words:
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I cannot, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!
(“How Firm a Foundation,” Hymns, no. 66.)