Zacharias and Elisabeth were good people: “they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6). They were very old –now well stricken in years–and were grieved because they had no children. Think of the time Elisabeth and Zacharias waited. How many years and decades passed with the continuing cycle of apparently unanswered prayers? And they were both righteous! The story offers no hint that their childlessness was the result of any lack on their part.
Finally, in the temple, Zacharias saw Gabriel and “the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son” (Luke 1:13). Were they still praying? The language suggests that in their old age, when Zacharias was “an old man, and [his] wife well stricken in years” (Luke 1:18), they were still praying!
Clearly, God withholds some blessings because there are lessons he wants to teach that go beyond the obvious exercises in repentance and righteousness. Elder Holland, when he was President Holland at BYU said, “God wishes us to be strong as well as good.[i] That is great theology! And God needed strong parents for John the Baptist. I do not know what God wanted those two ancient saints to learn, but I believe that the years of waiting and praying must have refined them and prepared them and strengthened them in important ways for the birth of the man who would prepare the way for the Savior. I also believe that when Elisaabeth held John to her breast and when Zacharias received his voice again and offered that astounding prophecy about his Son’s mission, there were no regrets.
And waiting must teach some of the best lessons of all, because God allows a lot of it. Think of Abraham and Sarah waiting for Isaac. What about Joseph in Liberty?
“O GOD, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?” (D&C 121:1 – 3, emphasis added).
“HOW long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalms 13:1 – 2).
Remember the woman with the issue who had been bleeding for 12 years? (see Mark 5). And the woman bowed together with an infirmity for eighteen years? (Luke 13: 10-12, JST). And the man at the pool of Bethesda, who had suffered with his infirmity for 38 years? (John 5). What about the man born blind in John 9, or the forty-year old cripple in Acts 3 and 4?
Twenty-five times in the scriptures the Lord says he will do things in his “own due time.” That phrase shows up eleven times in the Book of Mormon, thirteen in the Doctrine and Covenants, and once in the Pearl of Great Price. I can’t find it in the Bible. Our own inabilities to see past the end of the hour or the top of the hill are often frustrating. We are certain that we know what is best for us, but a God who sees the end from the beginning and for whom all things are present (see D&C 38:2) will often require us to wait for assistance that we think is instantly essential.
Thinking about the waiting imposed on Zacharias and Elisabeth caused me to think about the registrar in heaven who prepares the class lists and course outlines for the University of Mortality. All of us are assigned to our own curriculum and I suspect that many of the courses are not of our own choosing. I have had courses in bad hair and bad eyes and bad feet and bad breath . . . My wife has terrible headaches. Two of my children have diabetes. Our adopted daughters have their birth Mom with her problems. My mother had her cancer and her car wreck and her macular degeneration.
I imagine I can hear some of the students struggling through the problems on the test of life and crying out, “I didn’t sign up for this subject! Why is this happening to me? I’ve been good!” In fact, there is an entire chapter of the book of Job in which he asks the Lord what he has done wrong, and what the purpose his awful problems might be (see Job 31).
We must allow the Creator, and he polishes us in his careful ways, to organize our experiences in order to maximize our potential for exaltation.
Elder Packer taught:
“Some are tested by poor health, some by a body that is deformed or homely. Others are tested by handsome and healthy bodies; some by the passion of youth; others by the erosions of old age. Some suffer disappointment in marriage, family problems; others live in poverty and obscurity. Some (perhaps this is the hardest test) find ease and luxury. All are part of the test, and there is more equality in this testing than sometimes we suspect@ (AThe Choice,@ Ensign, Nov. 1980, 21).
President Hunter observed:
“Obviously, the personal burdens of life vary from person to person, but every one of us has them. Furthermore, each trial in life is tailored to the individual=s capacities and needs as known by a loving Father in Heaven” ( ACome unto Me,@ Ensign, Nov. 1990, 18).
I was a branch president at the MTC, and I remember a missionary who came to me and tell me that his companion claimed to be perfect and to be able to speak telepathically with his girlfriend in California. “Why did I get assigned to him?” he wanted to know. Two reasons: first, God wants you to learn something, and second, God wants you to be strong as well as good.
One of my senior companions only wanted to read paperback books, go to movies, and visit members. Oh! And he wanted to have the landlord’s daughter—a stunning 17-year-old give him guitar lessons on Tuesday afternoons while I waited in our room. He actually did have one lesson, while I sat close by and observed. After that he gave it up.
I had what seemed to be a precious insight at the end of the production of Savior of the World when Thomas was lamenting his absence at the time the Savior appeared. He expressed his doubts about the reality of the experiences described by the others. These three words formed themselves in my heart and mind: You are Thomas. I had the feeling that his experience was in part a message to all of us who have not seen but have been invited to believe.
It is so easy to get this wrong. The disciples did not believe the testimony of the women nor of the two disciples who traveled to Emmaus. They had to see for themselves (see Mark 16:9-14). The play pointed out that Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. The two disciples traveling to Emmaus thought him a stranger in Jerusalem with a great knowledge of the scriptures. While he was preaching and performing miracles, people thought he was John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet (see Matthew 16:14).
Peter knew who he was, but he did not learn it from the deaf who heard nor the lame who walked nor the blind who saw. Even the dead who lived again did not give Peter his testimony. He knew it by revelation. We are all Thomas, blind and unsure and doubtful, in spite of the evidence and testimonies of others, until the Spirit teaches us the truth about Jesus Christ.
Part of that insecurity and doubt must flow from the obscurity of God’s purposes and timing in our personal challenges. We have discovered that God’s clock and ours are rarely synchronized, and that we are not often permitted to take a peek and his planner.
“Indeed, when we are unduly impatient with an omniscient God’s timing, we really are suggesting that we know what is best. Strange, isn’t it—we who wear wristwatches seek to counsel Him who oversees cosmic clocks and calendars” (Neal A. Maxwell, “Hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 63).
[i] “For Times of Trouble,” New Era, Oct. 1980, 10