Opposition, Joy, and the Nice Life


Mortality presents us with a necessary mixture of righteousness and temptation, happiness and misery.

We once had two beautiful long-haired kittens at our house. They lived in a Garden of Eden because of the way we pampered and spoiled them. They loved it—all that food and warmth and tender loving care. About the worst opposition they had to endure was being dressed up in doll clothes, which they didn’t seem to mind very much.

One Saturday morning the kittens, along with our children, were relaxing sleepily in front of the television, enjoying their nice life. As we turned off the television and began giving out assignments for Saturday morning housework, our eight-year-old daughter looked longingly at the still-purring pets. “I don’t want to do my work,” she declared. “I would rather be a kitten.”

There are days when we would “rather be a kitten,” but our first parents left the innocence and “nice life” of the Garden of Eden for one glorious reason—that they might find joy. (See 2 Ne. 2:25.) Not days of constant leisure. Not yawning and stretching and lounging in front of a television throughout eternity.

Opposition is a central part of mortal life. It may be the primary difference between what life would have been in the Garden and what it is in mortality. It is the difference between being green, untested, and inexperienced and becoming ripe, seasoned, tested, and having a mature understanding. How different from innocence, for if there is only innocence, there is little meaning.

When Father Lehi said there “must needs be … opposition in all things” (2 Ne. 2:11), he spoke not merely of the need for choice and agency, but of the way opposing forces combine to give meaning to righteous choices. Without the taste of bitter in our experience, we do not appreciate the taste of sweet. We are without context, without a frame of reference, and even the sweet things of life are without meaning and purpose. Mortality presents us with a “compound in one,” a deliberate mixing of righteousness and temptation, holiness and misery, without which there could be “no purpose in the end of [life’s] creation” (2 Ne. 2:11–12).

Unexpected Trials

Some of life’s most difficult challenges can come when opposition appears in places where we don’t expect it—such as when we think we just finished with it. For example, frequently we must overcome great opposition as the price of admission to a promising opportunity: going on a mission or being married in the temple. Many Latter-day Saints are caught off guard when they discover opposition in what they thought would be a trouble-free environment. “Christianity without tears,” in the words of one writer, is the state that some of us hope for.

Eliza R. Snow addressed the lines of a provocative pioneer hymn to those who were coming to Zion in the belief that they were leaving the afflictions of the world behind. Her words are also appropriate for all of us who embark on new experiences in which we expect to find “a nice life.”

Think not when you gather to Zion,
Your troubles and trials are through,
That nothing but comfort and pleasure
Are waiting in Zion for you: …
Think not when you gather to Zion,
That all will be holy and pure;
That fraud and deception are banished,
And confidence wholly secure: …
Think not when you gather to Zion,
The prize and the victory won.
Think not that the warfare is ended,
The work of salvation is done.
No, no; for the great prince of darkness
A tenfold exertion will make, When he sees you go to the fountain,
Where freely the truth you may take.

(Hymns, 1948, number 21.)

A Necessary Link

There is opposition in Zion, because there is opposition in all things, even those experiences that seem to promise better times ahead. Consider the example of marriage. Many people assume that if they can just get married, all their problems will be solved. One new bride reportedly said to her mother on her wedding day, “Oh, Mom, I’m so happy! I’m at the end of my troubles.”

“Yes, dear,” replied the wise mother, “but which end?”

We vividly remember our own experience in marrying each other and having our first baby. After we became parents, we began to discover what Lehi had been talking about when he said that if Adam and Eve had remained in the Garden and had had no children, “they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery” (2 Ne. 2:23).

That scripture seems to say that if they had had no children, they would have known no misery. Only the parents of two-year-olds and teenagers can understand that! But it also says that without children and misery, they would have had no joy. How important is joy? Within two verses, Lehi tells us that “men are, that they might have [that very] joy” (2 Ne. 2:25; emphasis added).

In our case, here is what all that meant in a very down-to-earth sense. During her first pregnancy, Marie was sick—an odd way to be showered with joy. For part of each day for several months, she felt just terrible. It was morning sickness ad nauseum.

Then about four weeks before delivery she threatened to miscarry, which sent her to bed for several days, causing serious complications in the classes she was taking and those she was teaching. But when the big day finally came, even the hours of labor were worth it as she lay there in the hospital bed holding that beautiful baby boy.

Nothing could be more wonderful than this, she thought. Surely the world stops for such a beautiful baby.

The day after the baby was born, she was cuddling him happily in her hospital room when her doctor came in. A plain-spoken man, he looked at them and said cheerily, “How does it feel to have the easiest part over with?”

“Easiest part?”

“Why sure,” he replied. “It’s the next twenty years that are going to be tough.”

Now, more than twenty years later, we have discovered, right there among mortality’s thorns, the sweet fruit of having joy in our posterity. After all the diapers, the bruises, the washing, the cheering, the cleaning up, the pleading, the nail biting, the crying, the laughing, the pacing, and the praying, we understand. We feel about raising children the way Ammon felt about missionary work:

“And this is the account of Ammon and his brethren, their journeyings in the land of Nephi, their sufferings in the land, their sorrows, and their afflictions, and their incomprehensible joy” (Alma 28:8; emphasis added).

There, in Alma’s words, is Lehi’s paradoxical compound in one. There is a link between sorrow, affliction, and incomprehensible joy. Without opposition, “they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery” (2 Ne. 2:23).

As Our Testimonies Grow

Another area in which we sometimes experience opposition after “gathering to Zion” is in the development of our testimonies. Actually, most of the questions we face as our testimonies grow are signs that we are learning more, not less, about the truth.

I learned from the late Elder Theodore M. Burton of the Seventy a valuable insight about the growth of a testimony. He said that often when we first realize the gospel is true, the amount of spiritual truth we know could be symbolized by drawing and coloring in a tiny circle about the size of a pinhead.

As our understanding of the gospel progresses, the circle grows. When our knowledge develops to a certain point of maturity, the circle may be the size of a coin, many times bigger than our first little pinhead of knowledge. When we compare those two circles on a piece of paper, the tiny testimony and the larger testimony are surrounded by large areas of white, representing the unknown.

As our knowledge grows in relation to the unknown, something unexpected happens. The larger circle has a much broader circumference around the edge, which is in greater contact with the unknown. Thus, there are many more points at which questions can arise. But it is by the “growing pains” of dealing with that opposition that our knowledge and understanding increase geometrically, especially in the first few years of our experience in the Church.

A Believing Heart

One young member began having some questions about the gospel, questions that he encountered in his extended study of a particular subject. The more he studied, the more he found new questions to which there were inadequate answers. He became frustrated because he was determined to find a complete answer to every question that came up, but he was unable to do that.

He began thinking that if he couldn’t solve every puzzle he found, perhaps he was violating his integrity to remain active in the Church. At the same time, he loved the Church and had a deep and enduring faith in the reality of Jesus Christ.

After months of struggling, he decided to put aside his unresolved questions and exercise his faith. He would simply have a believing heart. His faith began to grow again, not so much from new information, but rather from new experiences with other people. He shared the gospel with a friend or two at work and accepted a teaching assignment in his ward. He found that his attempts to help others understand the gospel increased his own understanding. His renewed appreciation for the many knowns in his testimony soon outweighed his frustrations about the unknowns, and the joy he had earlier felt began coming back to him. Fortunately, he refused to give up when he met opposition. He learned through his struggles and grew stronger. The turning point for him came when he stopped being so concerned about his own troubles and began trying to help others with theirs.

A Lifelong Struggle

We find in the life of President Spencer W. Kimball a further poignant illustration of that specialized kind of opposition that haunts us even when by all believable odds we should be beyond it.

President Kimball endured a lifelong struggle with opposition of many kinds. He experienced so many serious medical problems that he once wrote a poem to his “friend, pain.”

At one point, Brother Russell M. Nelson, then a practicing heart surgeon, was asked to examine President Kimball, who was then serving as President of the Quorum of the Twelve. President Kimball desperately needed open heart surgery, but because of President Kimball’s advanced age, Dr. Nelson told the First Presidency he could give no assurance that the surgery would be successful.

When the First Presidency told President Kimball they felt he should have the operation despite the risks, he told them his greatest fear was that he might emerge from the surgery in some partially incapacitated state, unable to do his work.

But he followed their counsel and submitted to the risky surgery. The Brethren gave Dr. Nelson a special blessing. During the surgery, which went flawlessly, Dr. Nelson received a strong spiritual impression that President Kimball would one day be President of the Church.

After that miraculously successful operation, President Kimball continued on, against the odds, raising his cancer-stricken voice like a beacon in the night. How we all loved him! How we prayed in gratitude that his life was spared so many times!

But he did not live happily ever after. For several years before his death, he was physically unable to speak to the Church or to go about his regular duties. That which he most had feared indeed came to pass—his failing health prevented him from carrying his full share of the load. How his heart must have ached! If someone as faithful as President Kimball continued to experience opposition at this stage of his life, it is not surprising that the rest of us must as well.

During President Kimball’s waning years, there was a special quality of love in the tender feelings of Church members for their modern prophet. There was an appreciative remembering of the days when the piercing quality of that unique voice sounded such a clear call at general conference, a kind of loving admiration for his courage, almost of that intimate kind felt only among members of the same family.

Consecrated His Sorrows

In all this, there was more than a trace of joy and insight for the members of the Church—we discovered the rich meaning that comes from having been together in combat, the kind of joy born of sheer gratitude for a friend who touched and changed one’s life. In such a personal and compassionate context, we found deeper meaning in reflecting on his counsel over the years about missions, cleanliness, repentance, the miracle of forgiveness, and universal access to the priesthood. We were happy and sad at the same time, full of hope yet full of sorrow. It was the compound in one, as God consecrated his sorrows for our gain.

In joining the Church, marrying, having children, serving a mission, or developing our testimonies, we must often overcome tremendous odds even to embark upon the experience. For that reason, it is only natural to believe that once we have won the right to the experience, we should live happily ever after. But such is not to be the case.

New experiences may surely lead toward living joyfully; but joy, like grace, comes only “after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). Indeed, joy, like grace, usually comes in the midst of contrary experience, for it is a real part of life’s complex fabric. Joy is not an alternative to opposition, it is part of a compound that comes out of our coping with the challenges and conditions of mortality.

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson

Bruce C. Hafen is provost at Brigham Young University. His wife, Marie, serves on the Young Women General Board.