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Afflictions are the process by which God cultivates growth. Rather than dread our difficulties, we can learn to welcome them. We can learn to see them as blessings from heaven.
Since marriage is God’s finishing school, we should expect more afflictions or challenges in marriage than in any other arena of life. I think of some of the challenges among couples we know:
- She doesn’t trust his judgment so she undermines all his decisions. He feels powerless and carps endlessly.
- He uses calm reasoning to organize his life—and judge his wife. She reacts emotionally and defensively to the judgments.
- She likes things organized. He takes a devil-may-care attitude. Both are chronically irritated with each other.
- He wants to make his wife happy. She has impossible dreams. He is endlessly in a frenzy trying to meet her needs.
- She is task-oriented—always working on a perfect home. He wants unlimited attention and admiration.
- He is gentle and deliberate. She races to decisions without giving him time to participate.
Regardless of who we marry, there will inevitably be irritations. For example, one common difference is the acceptable level of tidiness and cleanliness. One person might feel that everything must be wrapped, sealed and protected from the pollution, chemicals, and carcinogens that are ever-present in the world. She worries about the microorganisms that conspire to spread ghastly disease.
She is likely to be married to a guy who will drop his peanut butter sandwich face down on the filthy garage floor and will gladly scrape it up and eat it. He might remove large contaminants—like cockroaches and hubcaps, but anything smaller than that he doesn’t worry about. She will not eat anything that has been out of the fridge for more than 15 minutes. He would cook up road kill. The opportunity for irritation and judgment is vast! He may see her as neurotic. She may see him as irresponsible and foolish. How do any of us survive each other?
The Essential Tension
In every relationship there is an inevitable tension. It is often worse in marriage than other relationships in part because we share so much—money, time, food, space—even our own bodies. Marriage is not only intense but also can last for decades. As we are challenged to form our own little Zion, the natural man resists. “For the natural [spouse] is an enemy to God [and partner], and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever . . .“ (Mosiah 3:19).
Our untamed, uncivilized, unconquered, unchanged natures are ill-suited for the Zion life. We have limited choices in marriage: to chafe and struggle in unsatisfying relationships, or put our natures on the altar for God to change, or we can depart Zion disenchanted. Those are the options. Man remains forever enemies to God and marriage—“unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).
This choice and change is not a once-and-for-all decision. Most of us are quite determined to love perfectly when we initially make covenants to each other. But we must put off the natural man if the resolve is to last. Even if we have had a mighty change of heart—even if at some time in our lives God has filled our souls—every day we decide anew whether to live by the guidelines of the mind of Christ or the imperatives of the natural man. Every day, every hour we decide whether we will continue to sing the song of redeeming love—or whimper (even howl) in discontent.
With practice, the choice to sing the song of redeeming love will become easier and more automatic. Yet every day we must choose: “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (Nephi 2:27).
Learning from this Earth’s First Couple
Adam and Eve are the models or archetypes for our life experience. Where they have led, we follow. What they have done, we are expected to do. So we study their lives for direction.
Adam and Eve had every reason to be gloomy about life in this world. They had lived in serene and peaceful abundance. Then they were evicted and sent to the slums. Eve’s sorrow was multiplied and the ground was cursed for Adam’s sake.
Was this a tragedy? No. It was a brave step toward eternal accomplishment. Note the encouraging truth nested in the words of the curse: “Cursed shall be the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” (Moses 4:23, emphasis added).
The curse was and is a blessing. Through our labors and struggles, we will learn to know good from evil. We will suffer the bitter taste of evil. We will learn to enjoy the sweet fruits of goodness. We can learn to choose and cherish the good.
Following their Example
Imagine the terrible loneliness and emptiness that assaulted Adam and Eve as they left their garden home for an unknown and hostile world where thorn, thistle, and noxious weeds tormented them.
We have all felt as Adam and Eve felt. At times we miss our idyllic Home terribly. We long to be there. But we are shut out. The yearning creates a continuing pang of loneliness. Even in their loneliness, Adam and Eve were an example to us. “And Adam and Eve, his wife, called upon the name of the Lord” (Moses 5:4).
The Only and Sure Remedy
The only remedy for our bracing loneliness is to call upon God. When we feel hopeless, lost, and desperate, we should call upon Father. In return we, like Adam and Eve, will be shown the path for our journey Home. “And [God] gave unto them commandments, that they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. And Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord” (Moses 5:5).
Adam and Eve were to offer God their very best, the “firstlings of their flocks.” I wonder what the firstlings of our flocks are. Is it our cherished free time that we must put on the altar? Is it our love for sports, games, reading, shopping, clothes, or money that must be sacrificed?
Paying heaven’s price
Most of us want the prize without paying the price. We want to have a close, loving marriage, but we’re not willing to give up our pet affections. But God has required us to make sacrifices if we are to enjoy that which is most valuable. John Taylor quoted Joseph Smith as making this statement about sacrifice:
You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as
necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God,
and God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and
wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be
fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.[i]
We cannot steal the fire of love from heaven. We must buy it with soul-stretching payments.
Daily Installments on Heavenly Goods
In the continuing story of Adam and Eve, God has given us further directions for our growth in marriage. “And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:6).
It is clear that Adam and Eve were obedient. Even as they daily faced privation and desperation, they continued to worship God and make sacrifices. They continued to trust God’s counsel. Faith is fundamental, just as H. E. Fosdick observed: “We must believe that there is a purpose running through the stern, forbidding process. What men have needed most of all in suffering, is not to know the explanation, but to know that there is an explanation. And religious faith alone gives confidence that human tragedy is not the meaningless sport of physical forces, making our life what Voltaire called it, ‘a bad joke.’”[ii]
Faith is the stubborn resolve to see God blessing us in all circumstances. Even in our struggles and disappointments, faith requires us to believe God is ministering to us.
Being led along the path
In return for their obedience, their trust in God, Adam and Eve were taught from on High. “And then the angel spake, saying: This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth” (Moses 5:7).
Wow! So much truth in one verse! When we make sacrifices, we are following the example of the Savior, who sacrificed everything in order to rescue us. The making of holy sacrifices is full of grace and truth. The willingness to put our preferences on the altar in obedience to God and service of our partner is a sacrifice filled with grace and truth—goodness and eternal vision. Our sacrifices are the key to our growth and eternal possibilities.
So it turns out that our sacrifices are not sacrifices, but purchases. We “sacrifice” our puny preferences and God rewards us with eternal joy. What a bargain! In Heaven’s economy, so much is gotten for so little!
As Elder Dellenbach taught us: “Sacrifice is defined as ‘the act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else more important or worthy.’ Sacrifice comes in many forms and may not always be convenient. Latter-day Saints make a covenant with the Lord to sacrifice. By doing so, we surrender our will to His, dedicating our lives to building up His kingdom and serving His children” (October 2002).
We often go into marriage under a false premise. During the courtship it seems that we have never had such an effortless way to have fun. Happiness comes so easily. We laugh, giggle, and share from the bottom of our hearts. The satisfactions flow freely.
Yet the full experience of marriage will demand regular payments across time. What seemed so easy at first will later feel impossible. We may feel cheated when we discover that this bargain requires so much of us. Character and companionship do not come without consistent investment. Yet, if we continue to make payments on our relationship, we will be amazed what we get for our “sacrifices.”
God knows that what we obtain too easily we esteem too lightly. In His own words, “all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified” (D&C 101:5). To become heavenly, we must endure earthly challenges—including the unexpected ones in marriage.
When Jesus visited America, He told the people that he no longer accepted their sacrifices and burnt offerings. He wanted a new kind of sacrifice. “And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit ” (3 Nephi 9:20, emphasis added).
I feel sure that Jesus is not asking that we be depressed and miserable. I think He is asking that we surrender our demands that things be done our way. In place of being demanding we become agreeable, submissive, cooperative, and appreciative. This is the natural result of allowing Jesus to transform the natural man to the man of Christ.
This change may be most evident in our expectations. Often we hold our partner to some set of mythical standards (which are both unreasonable and unexpressed!). Inevitably he or she falls short. We feel discontent. We judge our companion as flawed and inferior. Over time this subtle discontent grows into the cancerous conviction that our partner is fatally flawed. With time we can easily convince ourselves that the marriage was a mistake.
The cure for cancerous expectations is humble submission—a broken heart and a contrite spirit. This mindset helps us to be better appreciators and more willing learners. If we listen carefully and learn humbly about our partners’ points of view, we will be enlarged and enriched.
[More to come on the principle of sacrifice]
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[i] Journal of Discourses. Edited by George D. Watt, et al. 26 vols. Liverpool: F. D. Richards, et al., [1854-1886], 24:197-98.
[ii] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith, New York: Association Press , 20, emphasis added.