This life is a probationary state in which we are to be tested and taught. Unfortunately, many of life’s important lessons are not easily learned. Nevertheless, when properly learned, these lessons can become stepping-stones toward happiness in this life and eternal glory in the world to come.
The following experiences taught me two of the most important lessons I have learned.
It was a cold, blustery Sunday afternoon. I was away from home serving in the South African army, and the 10 men of our section had gathered in our tent to visit and relax after having just completed some chores. Unfortunately, much of the conversation became crude, as often happens among young men in such circumstances.
I was uncomfortable and thought about leaving. My eyes turned toward the tent door, which was flapping wildly in the wind and failing to hold back the chill of winter. The sight immediately convinced me it would be foolish to leave, so I decided to remain inside and read my scriptures. Although it had not been uncommon for me to read from them in the presence of these men, on this day it would prove to be difficult. The discussion soon took a turn for the worse as my friend, something of a ringleader in the group, began telling some dirty stories.
My immediate impulse was to object out loud. However, I was checked by the thought that others might consider me self-righteous and accuse me of trying to spoil their fun. After a few troubling moments, I decided to do the only thing I thought possible under the circumstances: shut my ears and concentrate on my reading. This approach worked somewhat. Yet I could not shrug off a feeling of uneasiness.
Time has a way of clouding our memories, and within a few weeks I forgot about the experience. Then, two years later, my friend did something that brought the memory of that day back into focus. We were in the presence of a number of soldiers who were drinking beer. In the group was a man I didn’t know. He began teasing me for not joining them in drinking a little alcohol. My friend rose to my defense and added with an earnestness that surprised me, “Chris Golden is the only true Christian in our group.” Others who knew me joined my friend in defending me, which silenced my critic.
Later, as my friend and I walked back toward our foxhole on a gray, half-moonlit night, he suddenly stopped and looked at me with a seriousness I had not been accustomed to during our friendship. He recalled the event of earlier that evening and said, “I meant what I said. In fact, I have never met an individual who has been more true to his faith in God than you, Chris!”
This was unexpected. Even though I had always tried to live the gospel, I felt I had not done more than many Latter-day Saints would have done in similar circumstances, and I had always tried to do it without drawing attention to myself.
Still, he had more to say: “You have let me down only once.” My shock at his matter-of-fact accusation was matched only by the speed with which my mind raced through all of the events we had shared together. I finally remembered that blustery, cold Sunday two years earlier. My friend’s words exposed painful memories of a day I would rather have forgotten.
He continued, “Do you remember that cold Sunday afternoon when we were sitting inside our tent and telling stories, some of which I now feel quite embarrassed about?”
I nodded a little numbly in acknowledgment. Standing opposite him, I hoped that the shadows of the night hid my discomfort.
He said, “While I was talking, I had been silently praying that you would ask me to stop telling those dirty stories—but you did nothing.”
During the long silence that followed his stinging condemnation, a deep sense of disappointment welled up within me. I had let not only him down, but I had failed the Lord—and myself.
Ever since that day, I have tried not to make the same mistake. I was taught an important lesson about the true meaning of the Lord’s command to “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Observing that “no man can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24), the Savior counseled us, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).
Another lesson I have learned came from an experience I had as a missionary many years ago in the South Africa Johannesburg Mission.
One particular day had been discouraging. My companion and I had met with no success from our proselyting efforts, even though we had worked long and hard in a spirit of fasting and prayer. It was past the time we usually left for home when we turned our bicycles toward a nearby store. Our only thought was finding something to eat. Unfortunately, it was late and the store had already closed for the night. As we debated what to do, I remembered a store on the other side of town that might be open. We both felt impressed to go there. To our delight, we found it open.
I was bending down to select a chocolate bar when I felt a tap on my shoulder. On turning around, I looked into the smiling face of a woman I had not seen for many years.
In speaking with her, we learned that during the past several years she had become less active and had married someone who was not a member of the Church. Recently she and her family had moved into an area about nine miles (15 km) from our proselyting area. She was feeling lonely and missed her association with the Church, but she was a shy person and was reluctant to make contact with strangers. So she had been asking the Lord to bring her into contact with someone she knew well who could introduce her family to the ward they now lived in. She felt our meeting in this store was an answer to prayer, as this was her first visit to this particular store and her decision to visit had come to her suddenly.
On the following Sunday my companion and I gratefully welcomed her and her husband to the local ward.
Many years after this event, she sent me a detailed summary of all the members of her family who in some way had been affected by this experience. Before she returned to Church activity, all of her extended family who were members of the Church were less active. Because of her renewed activity in the Church, her husband was baptized and together they raised their children in the gospel. Since her activation, more than 20 family members have been activated or baptized. Many of them have been married in the temple. Some have also served full-time missions. Three have served as bishops.
I continue to marvel at the faithfulness of this sister and at the graciousness of the Lord in responding to her humble prayer. The store we met in late that evening was out of the way and a long distance from both of our homes—and yet the Lord used it to perform a great work.
When I think of that experience, I see in my mind’s eye two tired, discouraged missionaries and a fulfillment of the Lord’s promise: “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say” (D&C 82:10).
Isn’t it interesting that the Lord wants us to bind Him in fulfilling His promises? We put ourselves in that position simply by doing what He asks and trusting that He will do what He has said He will. Perhaps that is one of the most important lessons we can learn in life.
As I learned from these and other experiences, God watches over each of us in a very personal way. It is natural that He does, because we are His sons and daughters. We are precious to our Heavenly Father, and often, prompted by His infinite love, He allows us to have difficult experiences that help us become more like Him.