GOD STRIVES WITH US IN OUR TRIALS
Excerpt from: ‘Spiritual Contradictions and the Quest for the Lord Jesus’
“As things happen to us that disorient us spiritually, we do not feel ‘spiritual’ – especially if we think we’ve created the trouble ourselves, or if we’re angry at someone else who has made trouble for us, or if we do not understand what the Lord is doing.We often do not see or feel a spiritual purpose in what is going on. What shows up in our lives seems somehow contradictory to reason or expectation. Here are some things we might feel in the midst of spiritual contradictions:
- That the Lord has breached our trust in him. We may be tempted to abandon our faith or refuse to serve or cooperate with this God – to want to keep our distance from him. We may even try to manipulate him by being angry and petulant and uncooperative. 20
- That our trials are a sign that we are being punished or are somehow inferior spiritually or unworthy of the presence of the Lord, that there is something intrinsically wrong with us, or perhaps that spiritual experience is for other people, not for us.
- That we have ruined something beyond repair, that we threw something precious away by our own foolishness or rebellion and that it is irretrievable.
And now with these perceptions it can be difficult to trust the Lord, because we seem to live in a world where anything can happen. How are we to understand and trust this God? Elder Richard G. Scott taught that adversity is of two different kinds: that which comes as consequence of our disobedience and that which comes because the Lord sees that we are ready to grow. In a way, these two reasons for adversity can overlap. Both are trying to teach us spiritual principles that we may have ignored or do not know. As long as we are human beings, we will make mistakes that come from either ignorance of spiritual law or ignoring it. I’m speaking not of the obvious ‘big’ sins, but of those that we barely acknowledge as sin, or may not acknowledge at all. To a much greater degree than we may have recognized, the universe is dedicated to bring to our attention, through our experiences, that which we have not yet faced or dealt with – even things we might consider inconsequential.
For the Lord to get our attention and for us to feel the need to change, these experiences must have impact. All this for one main purpose – a divine universe prods us to recognize and fulfill all righteousness so that, as at the Savior’s baptism, the powers of heaven can be manifested. Our experiences are designed to teach us to go the distance, to come up to the full measure of our godly creation, to ‘fulfill all righteousness’ – again, so that the powers of heaven can be manifested. Jesus went the whole distance; for us there is a distance yet to go. Our spirit knows when we’re not going the distance in a relationship, a responsibility, a trust, or a commandment. This knowledge may be buried in the unconscious, but one’s spirit, connected to the Father, never forgets. This unconscious knowing about our failures clouds our spiritual processes and constitutes the mists of darkness. A benevolent universe conspires to bring to pass the experiences which will jolt our conscious mind into awareness. Why? It wants to show us what is not working. Without conscious awareness of the patterns that are not working in our life, we cannot change. But conscious awareness can be followed by a better choice. And what if we don’t make a better choice? When we’re behaving badly, we feel the Spirit say to us, ‘You could change this behavior right now and avert the painful consequences which must come.’ Not to make a better choice means that sooner or later, one way or another, we will be kicked very hard from behind. Therefore, we might say that we make choices and then the divine universe responds. 20
Our Father loving us with a perfect love will do whatever is necessary to bring us to awareness, change, growth, and the capacity for joy. One of the most important functions of life’s experiences is that they reveal ourselves to ourselves – if we are open to the truth.’20
Elder George Q. Cannon wrote: ‘If any man or woman expects to enter into the Celestial Kingdom of our God without making sacrifices and without being tested to the very utmost, they have not understood the Gospel. If there is a weak spot in our nature, or if there is a fiber that can be made to quiver or to shrink, we may rest assured that it will be tested. Our own weaknesses will be brought fully to light, and in seeking for help the strength of our God will also be made manifest to us.’
Not every trial represents the consequence of past neglect. The Lord may be strengthening faith or stretching the capacity of a person to sacrifice for someone else’s benefit. We see in the scriptures accounts of trials that the righteous are subject to in order to bless or teach someone else. But, each trial is doubtless designed to expand awareness and sensitivity to spiritual things, and to carry us with power toward greater godliness. Adversity can also prepare one to hear the word of God and to overcome ‘dullness of hearing’. 20
Elder Neal A. Maxwell says, ‘Given all you and I yet lack in our spiritual symmetry and character formation, no wonder God must use so intensively the little time available to develop each of us in this brief second estate. One’s life, therefore, is brevity compared to eternity. For the serious disciple, the resulting urgency means there can be few extended reveries and recesses and certainly no sabbaticals – all this in order to hasten God’s relentless remodeling of each of us. Reveries and special moments may come, but they are not extended. Soon the drumroll of events, even difficulties, resumes. There is so much to get done in the brief time we have in this mortal classroom. God is very serious about the joy of His children.’
Our loving God requires some tough challenges of us in order to make us into what we were foreordained to be, because ‘all intelligent beings who are crowned with crowns of glory, immortality, and eternal lives must pass through every ordeal appointed for intelligent beings to pass through, to gain their glory and exaltation’. Every being who has attained to godhood had to pass first through trials in a fallen world.
Elder Maxwell explained, “If everything in one’s immediate context were constantly clear, God’s plan would not work. Hard choices as well as passing through periodic mists of darkness are needed in order to maintain life’s basic reality – that we are to overcome by faith.’ Someone asked Pres. Brigham Young, ‘Why are we left alone and often sad?’ He replied, ‘To practice being righteous, even in the dark.’
Our Heavenly Father also is dedicated to our godly development and has a perfect understanding of how that is to be accomplished in each individual case. So he shapes our individual growing and sanctifying experiences to include light and dark, clarity and contradiction. And then – and this is the most important part – in the midst of those orchestrated trials, He strives with us and is striving with us to see us through this often painful, refining process. We are at times required to trust without understanding. Whatever has come upon a person is not random. The Lord has allowed it and will give us grace to bear it and benefit from it for our advancement. 20
We can begin to see that we could even look at our painful experiences, as well as the people who participated in them, and not only thank the Lord for being honest with us, but thank the other person for being our friend, for serving us, for helping us to see a truth we needed. 20
I have heard people say,’The Lord has brought this on me to humble me.’ Perhaps that is so, but often what the person seems to mean is that the Lord has brought on this trial to smash him, to defeat him, to squash him like a worthless worm. But this I know: Our trials, whatever their source, have a spiritually strengthening purpose only and are the evidence that we are worth preparing for exaltation.20
Much of what happens in this world can only begin to be understood in the context of arrangements made in the premortal world. There each of us accepted a work that entailed certain good each of us would do here – much of it in the face of opposition. A point of doctrine: If the Lord were to do all that good for us, by the eternal law of restoration (i.e., Alma 41:15,’For that which you do send out shall return unto you again, and be restored’), good would be restored to Him. He is trying to help each of us make and keep covenants and, in spite of earth and hell, to do our own premortally covenanted good, so that good can be restored to us. The Lord is trying to help us to accomplish what we covenanted to do in the life before because our exaltation rests on its accomplishment.20
We can make our trials much worse than they have to be. Paying attention to the dark side can make hard trials harder or create trials where there don’t have to be. We remember that in the premortal world, the battles of good and evil were fought, not with weapons as we know them, but with mental warfare: powerful intelligence raid to recruit less experienced intelligences to the dark side. In the mortal probation, the same battle continues. It still consists of mental and emotional warfare from seen and especially unseen representatives of the dark side. Satan is enticing each of us to consider his things – his temptations, worries – trying to demoralize us; and he succeeds as we consider his voice and his thoughts so that we waste a part of our energies and reserves. Satan’s thoughts are made very compelling even though many of them are thoughts of misery or lead to misery. But here is one of life’s major tutorials of eternal significance: we have the power to turn Satan off. We learn to say, ‘No, I will not consider that thought’. We substitute higher thoughts and prayers. Satan will attempt to drive upon us and he will rage and he will not accept this. He will come again and again. Satan comes in on us uninvited with a thousand capabilities. We must use our agency; God will not intercede unless we invite the Spirit. When we learn to keep the mind occupied with God’s things, gradually the Spirit comes and takes up residence, bringing comfort and direction and fulfilling ancient promises.20
We must understand that there are only two spirits abroad in the world. We do not live at any time in a vacuum. While the Lord’s Spirit is striving with us to help us do our good, the spirit of the adversary is seeking constant access to the mind, heart, and spirit. If we are not consciously under the influence of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are taking our signals from the adversary and paying a heavy price without knowing why.
If we are not deliberately allowing Christ to lead us, we are driven by our own appetites and by the adversary. It is a matter of what one is tuning to, to what one allows time and space in one’s mind. Satan would have us believe that we are victims of our own emotions, and these emotions represent reality. But none of us is a victim – we were given dominion over Satan and over his thought-world; many of our emotions reflect only the miserable influence, delusions, and programming of the adversary. One’s mental world is very powerful – maybe all-powerful.
Here is an important question: What am I immersed in mentally – the world spirit, or the Christ spirit? We can take in large doses of the world through its various media if we choose, but we will pay in a diminished amount of faith and diminished control over the quality of our emotional and spiritual lives. The mind of the world is continually seeking access to our mind. It is aggressive and sometimes subtle. So one needs to take care not to feed one’s mind with the media: television, movies, videos, magazines that speak for the telestial world. These will fill the mind with the spirit of the world and neutralize our faith – they are the agents of the adversary. I’m not speaking only of that which is blatantly ugly and obscene but also of that which is spiritually shallow – which means that there is really not much that the world spirit has to offer us. If we want effective faith, we must learn to guard the mind carefully and be very picky – to allow in – insofar as possible – only that which is Christlike in all its wonderful possibilities for nobility, beauty, humility, and compassion.
Another thing that the adversary seeks to get us to do is to obsess over problems and deprivations, this mental path is made very compelling. Many of us are drawn to negative thoughts and memories unless we have practiced otherwise. But really, obsessing, worrying, stewing over things won’t change them; going over and over them in our minds finally deepens the mists of darkness that blind the eyes and harden the hearts of men.
We are free to choose what we will think about, but it is very helpful – maybe essential – to learn thought substitution and to practice flooding the mind with urgent prayer so as to block the fiery dart of the adversary. We can sense that the adversary’s missile is approaching before it penetrates its target (one’s spirit). We must quench it before the assault affects our physical and spiritual chemistry, setting up hormonal and other emotional processes that can be so hard to recover from. “Father, help me, help me!” This flooding with urgent prayer puts up the shield of faith deflects the fiery dart, and protects the follower of Christ (D&C 27:17).
And we can have thoughts ready to substitute. We all have things treasured up that bring up our spiritual energy and remind us of who is really in control in the universe. We don’t have to give our power to Satan.
It’s important to know that we could not protect ourselves against Satan if it were not for the priesthood and the Atonement. Satan would have swallowed us whole, and we would even now be angels to a devil were it not for the power of the Atonement, which makes it possible to protect ourselves from being recruited by Satan. One of the purposes of the mortal probation is to identify and reject him in all his manifestations. The adversary is always seeking access to us, trying to bring us down; ‘he seeketh that all men might be miserable’ (2 Nephi 2:27).
With a little effort, each one of us can identify our own personal demons. Which thoughts take me on that downward path? Those are my demons, and we are not talking figuratively. Jesus came to ‘cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwell in the hearts of men’ (Mosiah 3:6). Everyone is more or less under the adversary’s influence until we make a conscious decision to escape.
We must feed the mind continually with God’s things or we will not endure the testing of the mortal probation. We can transcend the natural-man thought world with careful selection of thoughts. We know how to identify the enemy’s thought world: spiritual carelessness, untruths, hatred in all its shades, despair, fear, lust, greed, willfulness, selfishness, careless behavior with other’s feelings, being critical and prideful, and enmity in all its forms. With the help of the Spirit of the Lord, we can live mentally and spiritually in a dimension apart from the spirit of the world – or we will be sucked into its negative emotional states.
Our happiness is our own responsibility. The decision to be happy and trust the Lord opens one’s spirit to the counsel and comfort and the presence of the Lord.
Reality and life are fluid and powerfully influenced by our choices, ever reconfiguring themselves. As we change inwardly, our Circumstances change outwardly. When we begin to give ourselves to full discipleship, our circumstances do change. Then the focus of our lives becomes the quest of the Lord Jesus Christ. The more we are Consumed in Christ the more we see that things are working together for our specific blessing and that setbacks are only apparent – that there is a benevolent purpose.20
Unless we are on the path of honest, deliberate, determined Discipleship willing to sacrifice and forgo the deadliness of the world to find Christ personally, willing to deal with the lessons with which the Lord is confronting us, willing to align ourselves with the higher purposes of our existence, we will not have the fullness we want – we will languish on the periphery. These are the magic words: ‘Father, I will serve thee, no matter what.’ The pursuit of discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ – and all that that entails – is finally the only thing that gives life meaning.
Finally, consider all those gathered at the throne of God; they will be those like you and me, ordinary people, who have tried to endure the crosses of the world as well as powerful temptations, perhaps the trials of singleness or the pain of failed relationships. They will be those who may have sinned serious sin but who have been led by the Savior to repent and be faithful, to develop in godly ways, and to do their good in the midst of encircling darkness. There won’t be one person there who hasn’t suffered contradictory trials, a profound sense of inadequacy, and periodic mists of darkness. It will have been the Savior, with his incomparable grace, often unacknowledged by the very one he was helping, who pulled each one through the tutorials of the mortal probation, making it possible to be fitted for the greater things of the world to come.
I know that we can have experiences with the Lord which lift the veil a little, and that when it is lifted, we understand that he understands and knows it all, and has been striving and participating with us all along.
By M. Catherine Thomas