Years ago I attended a BYU education week talk by songwriter and speaker Deanna Edwards on the subject of grief. The main thing I remember about her presentation are the words: “Joy is not the absence of pain, but the presence of God.” At the time, I wasn’t sure I fully understood what she meant. Still, the truth of the idea entered my heart in a powerful way-maybe because I was going to need it so much.
A few months later my stake president was visiting with me at the hospital; my spouse had been critically injured in a plane crash. He said something like, “I was worried, but now I know you will be all right, because I can feel that the Comforter is here.” Ahhh! That explained why this hard thing that had brought so much pain was, at the same time, a spiritual high.
Up until that time I had had a great fear that I wouldn’t be able to hold up under tragic circumstances. I simply hadn’t known that in the very moment of need, the Lord is there. Ever since, some of my most spiritual experiences have come at the saddest, most painful times in my life.
Feeling God’s Love in the Toughest of Times
How does that work? It works because when our need is great and we turn to God, along with the help comes an assurance of His love, which is “the most desirable above all things. . . and the most joyous to the soul” (see 1 Nephi 11:22-23). I suspect it is impossible to feel the Spirit, without feeling at least an inkling of God’s love–and there is nothing more joyous than that. When we feel His presence and His love, all is well, no matter if the world is turning topsy-turvy. Without it, there is no true joy, regardless of how “favorable” our outward circumstanced may be.
That is why the oft-quoted words of the elderly man who came across the plains with the Martin handcart company make sense: “We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives, for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities . . . Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay.” Is any price too high for the blessing of “becoming acquainted” with God and feeling His love and caring?
“We became acquainted with Him in our extremities” . . . what a thought-provoking phrase. I’ve now lived long enough and gained sufficient perspective to recognize the great gifts of feeling His love and intervention in my life in my darkest hours. For example, I will be eternally grateful for spiritual strength I’ve received as I have struggled with the difficult consequences of divorce.
Would I have chosen that trial ahead of time? Hardly. At least not with my limited mortal perspective. But would I now trade the spiritual lessons I’ve learned or the absolute testimony I’ve gained of God’s loving concern for all of us in order to be spared that pain and sorrow? No, I would not.
Afflictions “Swallowed Up in the Joy of Christ”
Down the road a bit, it seems that most of us feel that whatever it takes to open our hearts to Christ is worth it. “Joy is not the absence of pain, but the presence of God”-feeling His Spirit in any way. So many times, our afflictions can literally be swallowed up in the joy of spiritual closeness to the Lord.
In Alma 31, verse 38 we read: “yea, and he also gave them strength, that they should suffer no manner of afflictions, save it were swallowed up in the joy of Christ. Now this was according to the prayer of Alma; and this because he prayed in faith (emphasis added).” Their afflictions were not removed, but were “swallowed up in the joy of Christ.” I can’t think of a better blessing. I think the joy of Christ has a lot to do with His perfect empathy. He is the only one who really understands, who can strengthen with His enabling power to do that which we could never do on our own. (See “Grace” Bible Dictionary, 697)
Brigham Young said: “You that have not passed through the trials and persecutions and drivings, with this people, from the beginning, but have only read of them, or heard some of them related, may think how awful they were to endure, and wonder that the Saints survived them at all.
The thought of it makes your heart sink within you, your brains reel, and your bodies tremble, and you are ready to exclaim, “I could not have endured it.” I have been in the heat of it, and I never felt better in my life; I never felt the peace and power of the Almighty more copiously poured upon me than in the keenest part of our trials. They appeared nothing to me.
What an amazing statement, but I suspect that all of us who have felt the peace and power of the Almighty poured out in the midst of trials can begin to understand his words.
Sorrow Can Lead to Light
One of Deanna Edward’s songs teaches us that to avoid sorrow, we’d “have to take the lovin’ out of life.” Joy and sorrow are flip sides of the same coin, and choosing only one side of the coin is not an option. There could be no sweet reunions without sad partings. There could be no resurrection without death.
As strange as it may seem, whenever I want to regain a feeling of true joy, I just think about the circumstances surrounding my mother’s death. Let me summarize. Three weeks before my elderly mother died in my home, I went into her room at 7:00 a.m. and she was wide awake, her face glowing-which was a drastic change because she had been very depressed. She told me there had been “people” in her room and one said to the other, “Look at Fern. She’s almost ready. We’ll come and get her in three weeks.” Our home was filled with light and love from that moment on, and three weeks later-to the hour-my mother took her last breath and passed peacefully to the other side. I’ve never had a sweeter experience than being in the same room where angels had been.
The day before Mom’s viewing I went to the funeral home to finalize arrangements and they kindly allowed me to spend time with her. I expected to stay a few minutes. I ended up staying all afternoon because I could feel her spirit so strongly. As I sat beside her still form, the Comforter taught me who my mother really was. I was shown her nobility, beauty, and strength. I felt like I was standing on holy ground. I felt joy, not because of the absence of pain, but because of the presence of God.
Can We Choose to Focus on the Lord, Even in the Presence of Pain?
Yes! The Lord explains to us how that works, and has given us the formula in so many scriptures such as D&C 6:36: “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.” Alma 37:36 says, “Let all thy thoughts be directed unto the Lord.” D&C 121:45: “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly.”
Light rules over darkness. Christ has power over Satan, but Satan has no power over Christ.
Regardless of the outer circumstances, Christ is ready and willing to fill our minds and lives with His light and love. He will give us the joy of
His redeeming love even in the midst of our greatest trials!
Pain and Joy in My Latest Writing Project
The last few months of my life illustrate the theme of this article. They have been some of the most difficult, but most satisfying I’ve ever lived. Since early this year I’ve devoted every moment possible to finishing a book of comfort for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. It is called, After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go on. The pain of my experience of losing my son gave me motivation to seek the Spirit with greater intensity than ever before. Writing this book about that spiritual journey gave me plenty of both pain and joy.
My task loomed large, like a mountain I could not climb without the Lord’s help. The emotionally taxing subject of my book brought up not only the pain surrounding Brian’s suicide, but all my personal issues.
Still, I had a great desire to persevere because I knew from experience how few resources there are for grievers of suicide and how great the need for comfort. I knew it was part of my personal mission to write this book.
As I put one foot in front of the other, day by day, something wonderful began to happen that I simply didn’t expect. As I began reading reams of material I had written and gathered about this experience, I got back in touch with my feelings-including feeling the Lord’s love for me and for my son in a deeper way. I also felt the Lord’s infinite concern for all His children who are going through the pain of grieving a suicide. I remembered the saying that depression is when pain is greater than purpose. My sense of purpose was definitely over-riding the pain!
In June, things began falling into place with both the text and the cover. After many of my own ideas that didn’t gel, my designer sent me an idea that felt absolutely right! At last we had a cover!
As my deadline approached (the book needed to be finished and printed before LDS bookseller’s convention this first week of August) I learned that I would not be able to get permission to use many of the quotes that seemed crucial. I was tempted to give up the whole idea of a printed book, but the encouragement of friends and the continued promptings kept me going. Somehow I knew I had to find a way to move ahead to finish this project!
The demands of rewriting and revision and final proofreading with such a tight time schedule were intense and difficult. Some mornings I was so tired, and at one point sick, that I was in tears and wondered how I could go on. My husband, Doug, was so supportive during those hard days; he prayed for me repeatedly and encouraged me to focus, and not to worry about anything else. Feeling so weak, sensing in an overwhelming way my need for the Lord’s help, my motto became, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.” I felt great joy the day I sent the final files to the press.
O Remember, Remember
In retrospect, working on this book has been an exercise of remembering the Lord’s tender mercies and kind tutoring, of how joy has overshadowed pain.
The necessity of deleting quotes and rewriting more with my own words and experiences motivated me to go back and read entries in my journal that I’d never taken time to read since the day I wrote them. I could hardly believe how much I’d forgotten-in just this short period of time! I’d even forgotten startling, important things such as the following entry I wrote about nine months after my son’s death:
June 5, 2005: “Had a special study time with conference talks and scriptures in the morning and was left with a burning desire to know if Brian is accepting the gospel and feeling what I am feeling, is knowing the truth of God and Christ and the Atonement and the Restoration. Went into the kitchen to get a drink of water and the Spirit washed over me and I KNEW, I KNEW Brian has chosen Christ, is repenting and making great progress. I can’t begin to express the joy this brings me. There is absolutely nothing I have desired more than to know that.”
How could I have forgotten that? Yet I had, and I had often lapsed back into wishful thinking and pensive wondering about Brian’s situation in the spirit world. We deprive ourselves of so much strength and joy when we neglect to record, re-read, and remind ourselves of the great spiritual moments of our lives. Surely it is one of the adversary’s best devices to snatch away these moments of pure light and joy from our remembrance and get us to focus instead on current frustrations or past grief.
I typed the words “remember, remember” into the search field of the scriptures on LDS.org and page after page of scriptures came rolling across my screen: all counseling us to remember the words of God, the revelations, the promptings of the Holy Ghost, our testimonies and personal witnesses received.
And so, these past months have been a sacred time of remembering, and my heart is full of gratitude for all I’ve remembered.
So, I have to say that the most amazing thing about my experience with writing this book is what a spiritual high it has been. It has been like a refresher course of remembering things the Lord has taught me and spiritual blessings I’ve received since Brian died. For that very reason I have, inexplicably, unexpectedly, felt joy and a greatly increased sense of gratitude and well-being.
I think our life review in heaven will be like that-we will recognize and remember the Lord’s intervention and kindness. Our perspective will be enlarged, enlightened, painted with the brush of spiritual truth that will give us new joy and will eclipse the pain.
As we traverse the varied landscape of our mortal lives, we all have ample opportunities to experience both pain and joy. Through it all, let’s remember that joy does not require the absence of pain-it only requires the presence of God, feeling His Spirit, feeling His love. Relief Society Magazine, January 1948, p. 8.
Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v 1, p. 313.
For more details about Darla’s new book visit her web site: darlaisasckson.com
Darla has been a published writer for over three decades and a regular columnist for Meridian since 2001.