Can We Make Sense of Suffering?
by Darla Isackson
The Kidron Valley at Nightfall
I attended a marvelous musical production called Civil War, recently presented at the Rodgers Memorial Theater in Centerville, Utah. The production was an artistic masterpiece for community theater, in my opinion, and I was deeply moved. However, near the end they projected on a screen the numbers killed in the various battles of the war, and I was gripped with the enormity, the stupidity, the evil of war. How can rational, thinking human beings, children of God, take sides, and line up with the express purpose of killing each other? The horror of it all could bring delight to no one but the adversary. My first response was to withdraw and emotionally shut down. Next I became angry, and when I returned home I vented to a surprised husband who hadn’t expected me to come home from a musical in that state of mind. Then I cried for all the innocent young men who never wanted to be in that war, never wanted to kill or be killed–and for their families who suffered so intensely from their loss or injuries.
Because I feel things so intensely, I sometimes tend to philosophize in an attempt to hide from the kind of emotional pain that comes from the realization of outright evil in the world. There is nothing so painful to me as the kind of evil that brings harm to innocent people–terrorist attacks, wars, kidnappings, murders, whatever. I’ve never done well at reconciling myself to man’s inhumanity to man.
Wayne E. Brickey, in his book Making Sense of Suffering said in his introduction “The God of perfect love is a God of perfect wisdom, and he is nearby. But his plan permits suffering in his universe. Without apology, he keeps sending his spirit children into the thick of things. In his long view, suffering makes sense. It can never make much sense to us, however, until we see things his way.
“Oddly enough, our vision sometimes improves when our conditions worsen, creating an occasional windowpane, or window of pain, in the veil. A paralyzing problem can bring the stillness that causes us to pause and, for a change, reverently look at the whole scene, which is the smallest scene we can trust.” Brother Brickey suggests that “in the end, we need both pain and pondering.”
Although he has covered the subject masterfully in his book, I want to explore it briefly here. Partly because my niece called me recently, distraught because of the kidnapping of fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart, bringing my own pain to the surface. Every parent has to ponder at such times, feeling the distress of that family, wondering how we would deal with the situation if it happened to us. We cannot philosophize the pain away and no trite phrases or profound quotes can make the situation less grievous than it is. However, in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Prophet said, “It is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of God in our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence . . . It is a subject we ought to study . . . If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything, it is for knowledge on this important subject.” My soul yearns for that knowledge. I feel such gratitude for the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, and for the gospel of Jesus Christ that offers the healing balm of the scriptures to increase our understanding.
Hard Questions, Scriptural Answers
We all tend to ask, when faced with inexplicable and difficult situations: “How can such things happen?” We may wonder “Where was the Lord?” Even an agonized Joseph Smith said, “O God, where art thou?” and “How long shall thy hand be stayed?” in D&C 121. Joseph pleaded with the Lord in mighty prayer to remember the suffering saints and stretch forth his hand in their behalf. The Lord’s response has become a classic, a spiritual primer I love to turn to in time of suffering. The Lord, in great compassion and perfect charity, says, “My son, peace by unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.” He goes on to chronicle the consequences of wickedness, the necessity of handling the rights of the priesthood with principles of righteousness, and the great gifts promised those who live with charity, virtue and faith. I love studying this whole chapter, finding my faith strengthened every time I do. I love to be reminded of God’s all-encircling care. Another scripture that deepens my comprehension of that care is D&C 88:41: “He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever.”
I pray constantly for a deepened assurance that, whatever happens, He will give me the strength I need to endure. I put in my arsenal memorized verses such as “Fear thou not, for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea I will uphold thee with my the right hand of my righteousness.” (Isaiah 41:10) When my faith is challenged by horrendous happenings, I say to myself, “Do you believe those promises or not? Can you trust God or not?” Whenever I turn toward Him, not away from him in my distress, my faith in His promises is strengthened, my recognition of His constant care heightened.
When I read the scripture “Wherefore I desire that ye faint not for my tribulations for you, which is your glory” I remember times I felt so weak, so frightened, I thought I would faint. At such times, if I remember to pull out of my memory bank words like “for God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)” just saying the words over and over can renew the Spirit’s strengthening influence.
The sacrifice required of us in this dispensation is a broken heart, and so many times the very trials that have broken my heart have become my greatest blessings. Wayne Brickey said, “Suffering places us behind a door and hides us somewhat from the view of others. The privacy allows adjustment, renewal, and transformation. The fortunate interruption allows us to break old chains.” Oh, how grateful I am to be rid of the chains that the Lord had broken for me through my suffering. I have never gleefully embraced a heart-wrenching trial, yet if the volume of my pleadings to God has been turned up, so has the volume of God’s voice to me. In its aftermath, I can often feel the soul-growth. Joanna Macy said, “the heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing.” The broken heart is open to the tutoring and comfort of the Spirit, open to receive the love and caring of God and fellow mortals.
All Things Work Together for Good
Because my thoughts are not His thoughts, nor my ways, His ways, I cannot comprehend the good that can come of fearsome evil, although we have been told both in the Bible and the D&C that all things work together for good to them that love God..
Art Berg was paralyzed in an accident while travelling to finalize his wedding plans. He said, “Someone once candidly asked me, ‘How can you talk positively about something that happened to you which was so bad?’ My answer is simple. Can good come of evil? If this accident and the experiences I have had because of it can be regarded as ‘evil,’ than my answer is yes. . . . Innocence and ignorance expect only good things to happen to them. It takes a greater understanding to realize that the man or woman of Christ expects good to come from all things. There is a difference. The apostle Paul understood the difference perfectly when he wrote that ‘All things work together for good to them that love God.'” Art truly saw–and created–much good from the evil of his tribulations and his recent death has affected thousands who loved him.
In regard to good coming from tragedy, I can’t help but think of the Steve and Claudia Goodman family who lost several children in an automobile accident, yet stayed strong in the faith to see their experience open many doors to them. They have been able to bear witness around the world of the goodness of God and the truths of the gospel that have sustained them.
A New Dimension of Trust
I find it easy to trust the Lord when the sun is shining in my patch of sky and each member of my family is well and accounted for; the problem comes when everything in my world seems to be falling apart. I’m reminded of the analogy of the board–how easy to walk along it when it is sitting on solid ground. But what about when it is stretched across a chasm, when my very life must be trusted to it? Or the analogy of the rope–it easy to say I trust its strength when it is coiled on the ground, but what about when I am stuck on a ledge and my only hope of rescue is to grasp the rope, give it my whole weight, trust in its strength as I am pulled up, and up.
I’ve had a few experiences of chasm walking and rope dangling. Once I have crossed the chasm or felt the relief of being heaved onto solid ground after having dangled from a seemingly flimsy rope, my perspective of the board or the rope can never be the same. When perilous experiences are thrust upon us by the misuse of agency, by the simple tragic consequences of natural law, or even by the chastening hand of the Almighty, we have much to learn from them. And the most important is that God is there, that He does care; His plan of agency is, after all, the best plan.
Retain a Hope Through Faith
I don’t see the big picture, but I’m learning to look further down the road. I have a sister who is ten years older than me who also married much earlier than I did. She had teenagers by the time I had my first child. As adults we became best friends and ever since I have learned from her experiences. I have observed the way the Lord has worked with her family, how many times the most heart-rending situations were improved dramatically in days, weeks, or years.
I still tend to be short-sighted when it comes to comprehending the Lord’s purposes in my own life, or on the world scene. Too often I see only current suffering. How can you tell a parent who has just lost a child to some form of evil that “good will come of this?” People drowning in a sea of grief are not capable of seeing the distant shore. However, over a lifetime of experiences I understand so much more about that shore. The longer I live, the deeper my trust becomes. For instance, I know now that through my heart-breaking trials of divorce and problems with my children, my heart has been softened and my vision clarified of the areas I need to repent. Those trials have brought forth my experiences with the Lord’s mercy and love in an irrefutable way. I have also seen and experienced the same principle at work in the travails of the world scene. Even though the Lord allows evil people to misuse their agency in ways that bring unspeakable suffering, He is always there to bring the most amazing good, as was evidenced in the months following the September 11th tragedy.
“For I reckon the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
The more times I experience such things, the easier it becomes for me to “Retain a hope through faith.” (Alma 25:16) The Lord, in His infinite wisdom has taught me so much from suffering, and long-term, He can bring so much good to the world even from the most horrific happenings.
“And not only so, but we glory in tribulation also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” (Romans 4: 3-5)
How little did I realize, when I looked with longing eyes into the garden of the Lord, desiring His closeness, His counsel, His presence, that the way to His side would lead through my own Garden of Gethsemane. I still need such frequent reminders, especially in the face of seemingly senseless death and destruction, that the presence of God can bring joy even in the midst of the deepest pain. The law of mortality is opposition. God gave all men agency to choose what to learn from experiencing the difference between light and darkness, pleasure and pain, health and sickness, good and evil. Even as I suffer from the consequences of choice and natural law, I am told to learn from my experiences and not to counsel the Lord that conditions in mortality should be different than they are.
President. Spencer W. Kimball said, “The basic gospel law is free agency. To force us to be careful or righteous would be to nullify that fundamental law and growth would be impossible.
Should we be protected always from hardship, pain, suffering, [or death?] . . . If mortality be the perfect state, then death would be a frustration, but the gospel teaches us there is no tragedy in death, but only in sin.
We know so little. Our judgment is so limited. We judge the Lord often with less wisdom than does our youngest child weigh our decisions.”
In one of my own Garden of Gethsemane experiences, when none of my heartfelt prayers seemed answered, I wrote:
God Is Not on Trial
In times of grief and disillusion
I cry to heaven for relief.
Feeling no comfort, I shake my fist
And say, “God, where are you?
Why don’t you answer me?
I’ve just put you to the test
And you failed.”
A still small voice enters my mind:
“My time of testing is long past, child.
I know the answers, I live the laws.
This life is your school, not mine.
When the heavens are brass over your head,
I have not moved away . . .
In every situation, I know what’s best
The only question is: will YOU pass the test?”
Will I Pass the Test?
Because of the conditionals of mortality, we are often left with sorrow, uncertainty, yearning to know the Lord’s will. I’ve heard that we can only feel the degree of positive emotion that we experience the opposite. Christ descended below them all–and so experienced the greatest joy. If I numb out and refuse to go deeper into sadness, when sadness is appropriate, we also shut ourselves from joy. Honest sadness and grief are free flowing, alive, never giving up on faith. Depression and despair, however are blockages, bondage. They come from the ego, the natural man, the willful man who says “my will, not thine, be done. If I had chosen to stay numbed out when I saw the Civil War play, or pondered the current kidnapping trauma, if I had refused to go deeper into sadness, I would have shut myself out from the joy of feeling the Lord’s comforting Spirit as I’ve pondered it all. As I accept the need to be willing to feel, to accept what is, to feel the freeing emotion of grief, I can turn away from the binding emotions of depression and despair. Rob, a burn victim, said, “I would not now wish one thorn less on the path I’ve been on. The path has helped me to know that my Redeemer and my Heavenly Father live and love me. I have begun to really enjoy the peaceable things of the Spirit. . . I testify that the Lord does support those who love and serve him in their time of affliction and that he eases their burdens according to his infinite love and wisdom.”
It always helps me to remember the analogy of the silversmith. The Lord said, “I will sit as a refiner of silver.” A silversmith does sit and watch the furnace-for even a few seconds too long in the furnace will harm the silver. In like manner the Lord watches over us. Our trials are not random, but tailor-made to refine us. The silversmith knows when the process is finished, “When I can see my own image reflected in the silver.” And so does the Lord.
So may we say, with Paul, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)
The Promises Are Sure
There is great hope for all those of us who cling to faith, who cling to the Savior through all the trials and adversities of this mortal existence.
“These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple, and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, or any heat.
For the Lamb, which is in the midst of the throne, shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe all tears from their eyes.” (Revelation 7: 14-17.) I bear my solemn witness that these inspired words are true for each of us.
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