Travail


“Look, the baby is blind. It doesn’t have any eyes!” Incredulously the nurses crowded around to see the newborn infant just beginning to pink up after his journey into this world. Yes, it was true. The baby was blind. There were no eyes where blue eyes belonged. The mother, a beautiful nurse, and the father, a medical student, would have to be told. How would they react?

As a physician, I, like the writer in the Old Testament, “have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.” (Eccl. 3:10.) I have also seen and carefully watched the way the “sons of men” have responded to that travail—the afflictions God has allowed them to have. It is apparent that the Father doesn’t promise us any immunity from trouble. In fact, God’s promise may be exactly the opposite, for he tells us, “For whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth.” (Heb. 12:6.) Study the scriptures; you will soon realize that those close to God, like David who was a friend of God, have had great trouble.

Consider for a moment Job, whose name is synonymous with affliction. He lost his lands, his wealth, his friends, his boys, his girls. He was covered with boils and infected with skin worms, and yet, he wavered not. And even when his wife suggested to this tormented man that he should curse God and die, his response was a positive reaffirmation of his faith. God did not shield Job from misfortunes, even though this prophet had demonstrated a high degree of faith and righteousness. God’s promise to Job, as it is to all of us, was blessings unmeasured in the eternities if he made the right choices, kept his faith, and abided by the commandments. God would comfort him in his suffering, would sustain and reassure him as he held fast until death. This promise is repeated throughout the scriptures.

While on earth the Savior taught in parable the need to be tested and to withstand. He told of one man who built his house on the sand and another who built his house on the rock. The trouble came, the wind blew, the storm descended, and one fell, but one stood. The determining factor was the foundation, like the foundation of faith that sustained Job.

Certainly in our dispensation, the Prophet Joseph, also a friend of God, was exercised in much travail. Recall the tribulation at Liberty Jail where he was torn from his wife and family, shackled to the cell wall for months, subjected to all kinds of deprivations, and twice offered human flesh to eat. Finally he cried out to his Father in heaven: “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed?” (D&C 121:1–2.) God did not tell Joseph he would be turned loose or that he would be restored to his family. He promised the Prophet that he would not be forgotten or deserted and that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7.)

No, our Father doesn’t promise us immunity from trouble, and so it was with the mother and the blind baby. That child was accepted with love, cared for with kindness, and I was fortunate enough to be present in the fast meeting in which the child was blessed. Both parents stood and thanked God for his trust and confidence in them that they should be allowed to care for such a special child. Because the mother was a nurse and the father a medical student, they could perhaps provide better care for that little child of God. I have watched that couple grow. They are more empathetic, more concerned, more Christlike because of their response to a heartrending problem.

How well I can recall a sweet, young patient whom I first saw years ago for a premarital examination. She had been born with one arm missing. Just a few small rudimentary fingers were apparent on the small stub of the missing arm. Noticing that she had identified herself as a stenographer on her medical history record, I asked, “You’re a secretary?”

“Are you surprised?” she chuckled in return. “I can type with one hand as fast as many girls can with two. As early as I could comprehend, my mother told me that I have been given a deformity so that it might strengthen me, and that I was to learn to do things as well with one hand as everyone else did with two. I have never found my limitation to be a real handicap.” I have watched this young patient. She has since had a heart operation and a child of her own for whom she cares with tender love. A beautiful response to affliction, and God is pleased, I am sure.

I remember another mother who also had a baby born with an arm missing. After a few minutes of tears, her response was identical: “I have four other children, so this child will have to learn to take care of herself in competition with the other children. Perhaps I can do a better job than a mother who had never had other children. For God’s trust in me, I am grateful.”

Let me share with you two contrasting responses: The patient was a 36-year-old woman; I’ll use the name Mary. She announced that she was certain she had cancer. When asked why, she said, “My mother died of cancer, my sister died of cancer, another sister now has cancer, and I have just found this big lump in my abdomen, so I know I have cancer.” I attempted to reassure her, but when we operated on Mary, we found malignancy, not localized, but spread throughout her entire abdominal cavity. When I faced Mary the next morning, she asked soberly, “I have cancer, don’t I?” My reluctant response was, “Yes, you have cancer.” Her next question was, “How long do I have to live?” I explained the impossibility of setting an exact time. She hoped I wouldn’t misunderstand her question. She was not afraid to die, she said, for she had made peace with her Maker.

Her response was similar to the one Thoreau made on his deathbed when asked if he had made peace with his Maker. He replied, “I never knew that we had quarreled.” (August Derleth, Concord Rebel, Chilton Co., 1962, p. 201.)

Mary was at peace with her Father in heaven because she had just completed a special course for senior Aaronic Priesthood bearers. It was called “Project Temple.” She spoke of her husband and her teenage daughter who had not been active in the Church until the three of them had attended the “Project Temple” meetings. At the conclusion of the experience, the bishop had assured them that in six months they could go to the temple if they would do the things they knew they should. Mary’s plea was to stay alive for that six months so she could go to the temple and be sealed to her family. “If I can stay alive that long, then I will die without complaining,” she would tell me. Mary stayed alive for that six months. During her entire stay in the hospital, she was cheerful and seemingly without pain, even though her body was riddled with a disease that ordinarily is extremely painful and requires large amounts of narcotics. Mary needed none, and she literally folded her arms and died—without a complaint.

In the 42nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord describes such a state: “And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them.” (D&C 42:46.) It is their faith, their reassurance, their closeness to their Father in heaven that makes death sweet.

At the same time that I was caring for Mary, I had another patient whom I will call Jane. She was 42 years of age. Like Mary, she had a malignancy that could not be cured. Soon after she learned she had a terminal disease, she left home, moved into a local hotel, and followed a life-style in exact opposition to gospel teachings. She visited the bars and drank heavily, and she tried narcotics. In her own words, she was “living it up before she died.” She died screaming in pain, cursing God.

The 42nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants also says, “And they that die not in me, wo unto them, for their death is bitter.” (D&C 42:47.) It is their lack of faith, their lack of responsiveness to their Father in heaven that makes death bitter.

Here were two different individuals with the same problem. One of them understood well the need for trials in every life as the developer of humility, compassion, and appreciation for the good and the beautiful. The other woman, without this vision, turned away from her Heavenly Father and added greatly to her burden and grief.

It is our belief that the Lord has placed us here on earth to be tested, to be given problems to solve, that we may grow in wisdom and self-discipline. Every time we make a choice, that choice makes us a little different than we were, and it increases the probability of a similar choice in the future. And this mark on our soul will be endured or enjoyed by us forever. The proper response to difficulties is part of the development of our eternal character and mind; hence the more mature and knowledgeable we become, the more worthwhile we are in the economy of God. If everyone went his own way down the road of life, with no bumps, no detours, doing as he pleased, what superficial weaklings we would be! The psalmist says God gave men their heart’s desire but sent withal leanness into their souls. (See Ps. 106:15.) Each of us is here with the determination to become the best possible person we can be so that we might have sufficient righteousness to dwell in the holy presence of our Father in heaven and be useful to him as we possess eternal life. It is expedient for all of us, each time there are serious difficulties in our lives, to search our inner being, determine the kind of response Jesus would make in our place, and then make it, no matter what the momentary cost might be.

We do not want to return to our Father with “a leanness of soul,” so let us get on our knees when trouble comes and ask God to give us the strength to solve or overcome it or even to endure it rather than have it taken away. Yes, God for a good purpose has given the sons of men travail that they might be exercised in it.

[photo] Photo by Don Thorpe