Solving the Equation of Our Own Suffering

20160422_190517
Sometimes there are metaphorical boulders that fall in our path to peace, other times there are actual boulders that block our way.
When we suffer, the question we often ask is why. Why did event X happen? However, in the equation of our own suffering, why is not the variable we are trying to solve. The scriptures teach us why things happen. Nephi taught “[God] doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world” (2 Nephi 26:24). And the Lord himself revealed that “[His] work and [His] glory” was “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Thus the variable, for which we must solve, is how event X manifests God’s love to us or brings about His work and His glory through our experiences.

Instructively, the idea for the creation of algebra was not to dishearten future students, but to simplify problems so that we could solve them. The Lord does not give us problems we cannot solve either. Paul taught the Corinthians that “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Nephi was okay with “not know[ing] the meaning of all things” because “[he knew] that [God] loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17). Our faith in God can give us hope even amidst trials. This is likely why Nephi could be bound unjustly with cords helplessly watching the ship he built be thrashed around in a storm, and yet surprisingly comment, “I did look unto my God, and I did praise him all the day long; and I did not murmur against the Lord because of mine afflictions” (1 Nephi 18:16). Focusing disproportionately on comprehending what only the Lord can comprehend could be paralyzing instead of catalyzing our faith to action.

Although the word faith is more commonly used as a noun, in the grammar of the gospel, it is a verb whose object is God. Our faith in God inspires us to not only “hope for a better world” (Ether 12:4), but propels us to make this world better-one faithful act at a time. Sadly, sometimes our understanding of gospel grammar might allow a trust in faith’s object if only the subject were different. We may think, “sure ‘all things are possible to him that believeth’ (Mark 9:23), because the “him” in this scriptural sentence surely means someone else’. Mathematically speaking; however, the scriptures can say all things are possible to you and I, because no matter how small we think our all is, anything multiplied by an “infinite atonement” would equal infinity (see Alma 34:8-12). Through the enabling atonement of Christ we can all “come off conqueror[s]” (D&C 10:5) against our trials, if we believe.

Photo provided by my friend Brandon. This article is under consideration by the Ensign for future publication.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Advertisements

“The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth”: Following the Spirit

In the Gospel of John we read:

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3: 8).

Here Jesus imaginatively employed the mysterious movement of the wind to elucidate the apparent elusiveness of the spirit. While we struggle to understand the Spirit’s movements—i.e., “whence it cometh, and whither it goeth”, the Spirit knows where it comes from and where it goes. Thus, ideally, we can trust the Spirit and exchange our desired destination for His.

But realistically, man is not always willing to part with his willfulness. The “natural man” is, after all, the natural “enemy of God”. He does not “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3: 19), but goes astray pursuing what he thinks is “his own way” (Isaiah 53: 6). And “his own way” it may be, at least in the beginning. But every step he takes away from the strait and narrow, is a step off the refuge of the rock of the gospel, and soon he will know what it means to be exposed to the forces of nature. For Satan’s storm will come with its “harrow[ing]…whirlwinds” and he shall “be driven with fierce winds whithersoever the enemy listeth to carry them” (Alma 26: 6). The natural man left to himself is just a natural disaster waiting to happen.

Man’s stripping off the armor of God for more unrestrictive movement, in the end just becomes a uniform change. Of course, the armor Satan provides is the type of chain mail that does not protect, but instead connects you to his misery, which is described as awful. And being bitter from sipping the bitter cup, the natural man wants nothing more than “to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God” (D&C 121:38). The natural man does not become an enemy of God, just because he does not yield to the spirit, but because he yields to the quintessential enemy of God, “that awful monster the devil” (2 Nephi 9:19).

Sadly, Satan’s hold on man is so widespread, that this enmity with God is considered natural. Satan, the father of lies, is the world’s greatest salesman and advertiser. Who else could take fire and brimstone and package it as prime real estate? He is not only persuasive, but pervasive to the extent that there are few places you can go to escape his noisy sales pitches and eye-catching advertisements. Truly, with the enemy combined there are loud voices everywhere saying; “lo here or lo there”. Amidst this rowdy ruckus how are we ever to hear the still small voice?

We must often leave the world and go “into the wilderness to be with God” (Matt. 4: 1, Joseph Smith Translation). Sometimes this wilderness is no further than a finger movement to turn off some type of electronic device and sit in silence. We may be surprised at the many things that only silence can say.

Then again there are many who after expending much effort towards contacting the spirit are left baffled at the spirit’s elusiveness. Even so, let us not confuse elusiveness with aloofness. For God is very concerned about us to the extent that he has “the very hairs of [our] head[s] numbered” (Matt. 10: 30). I think that sometimes we confuse the promise of “always hav[ing] his spirit to be with [us]” (Moroni 4: 3) with the Spirit always waiting upon us or with the Spirit always speaking to us.

We cannot expect the spirit to answer at our beck and call, for it is us that must always be willing to be “led by the spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [we] should do” (1 Nephi 4: 6). And perhaps we are meant to be baffled and to feel lost at times, but this does not mean the spirit is not with us. Perhaps, we are just having a Spirit-supervised moment where we are meant to understand that “man doth not comprehend all the things, which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4: 9), and must wait for his arm to be revealed (see D&C 123: 17).

Although we should not expect constant revelation, we are expected to be constantly ready for revelation, so that when it comes we are in a position to receive it. This requires us to be worthy. We all know that “the Spirit of the Lord doth not dwell in unholy temples” (Helaman 4: 24). So if we have been wounded by sin, we must seek out the savior to be made whole again. The flaws or missing pieces in the armor of God that allow Satan’s fiery darts to pierce us are not existent in their original design, but occur due to our lack of maintenance or misusage. Continual repentance is a big part of maintaining our armor’s integrity. This way we can heal the wounds from past sins as well as mend the chinks in our armor, so we will not succumb to the same temptations in the future. A suit of armor that is whole is required to keep our souls holy.

Although everyone has the ability to feel the spirit, not many people develop this ability into a highly trained skill, and thus become highly sensitive to the Spirit. In fact, two of our best training exercises, scripture study and prayer are often under utilized both in frequency and in intensity. These exercises require us to regularly reach past our past spiritual plateaus to new peaks of spiritual awareness. This is true particularly of prayer.

Sometimes prayer can seem like a hit or miss phenomena. If we feel something is lacking, we should work on our prayer. We need to realize that “prayer is a form of work” (Bible Dictionary, 753), it is not supposed to be done effortlessly and by rote. Furthermore, we sometimes forget the purpose of using Christ’s name in prayer. According to the Bible Dictionary, “We pray in Christ’s name when our mind is the mind of Christ, and our wishes the wishes of Christ…we then ask for things it is possible for God to grant” (Bible Dictionary, 753).

Prayer is not primarily a dialogue where we offer our list of wants and wait to hear if they are accepted. It is however a spiritually submissive activity from the start, where we seek the will of the Lord well before we rattle on about this blessing or that blessing. In prayer the “Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8: 26). According to Doctrine and Covenants 50, when we are holy, “[we] shall ask whatsoever [we] will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done. But know this, it shall be given you what you shall ask” (D&C 50: 29-30). Accordingly, our prayers are major opportunities to recognize and follow the Spirit.

But desire or will, in the end, is much more important than technique or ability. That is why the natural man falls short; he is unwilling to surrender his will to the father, because he sees it as a defeat, and it is—the defeat of the natural man that makes possible the birth of a spiritual man or woman. This defeat or surrender should happen in our prayers. Consequently, the purpose of mentioning phrases like “thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 5: 10) is for us. God’s will will be done whether we pray for it or not. But our praying for His will to be done, establishes an atmosphere during our prayer that makes it possible for us to know His will and be a part of it being done. Our prayers should be less about us telling God about our will, and more about us searching for His will and submitting ours to His.

Obviously it is okay to express ourselves to a loving Heavenly Father, but when we cry out for our will to be done, we should remember the “nevertheless” from Gethsemane. For it was not Christ’s will that was done in the garden, but Heavenly Father’s. Christ’s submission in the garden did not diminish Christ’s manliness, but rather makes him the kind of man that all mankind should follow. And when we follow his voice and his example, we are following the Spirit and are just like the wind…

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3: 8).

A lightly edited excerpt of a Sacrament meeting talk originally delivered in 2010.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Scriptural Landscapes

I recently drove by trees in full autumn splendor, their multi-colored leaves blurring as I sped past. The organic rustling of red, orange, and yellow was a fire around me that burned but did not consume. In this moment, as in many others, Earth became heaven in my eyes. I parted the painting and glimpsed the Painter, and I felt that I should take off my shoes as Moses did (see Exodus 3:1–5). God manifests himself through nature (see Alma 30:44 and D&C 88:45-47), revealing the Earth as a landscape of his love for those with eyes to see.

Like the Earth, the scriptures have their own vivid landscapes. However, just as we can move through the Earth’s environs and remain unmoved, so can we also miss the magic of scriptural landscapes.

Our experience with scripture is influenced by our approach. We can observe it from a distance with detached analysis. Or we can inhabit the text, walking in the words and making personal connections with the people and events. Our rhythm matters: sometimes there is value in skimming through a narrative for a quick overview. Other times, it is worth stopping to pluck a word from the contextual ground, to listen to the melody the words make as they run through the stream of our consciousness, or to feel the warmth of the Spirit spread in our hearts as the flame of our understanding is lit.

When we are moved by passages of scripture, we can create landmarks that help us find our way back to these features so that we can remember sacred moments. Then, if we are ever lost in the “valley of the shadow” (Psalms 23:4), we can find a path back to the light.

Throughout our explorations, new trails will spontaneously—almost serendipitously—link to the features we have marked, allowing us to map out a labyrinth of textual trails that teach us we are not alone in the word.

Though we sometimes confuse the life we bring to the scriptures as the only life they possess, scriptures are living documents. The “still small voice” of God’s spirit breathes life into them, giving us words we can “feel” (1 Nephi 17:45), allowing us to “testify that [we] have heard [his] voice, and know [his] words” (D&C l8:36). God’s light shines through scriptural landscapes; his voice cries out in the wilderness (D&C 88:66-68) beckoning us toward him.

If the Spirit hallows our passing through scriptural landscapes, even seemingly ordinary text can burn with sanctifying power. The landmarks and trails we weave through these landscapes will eventually lead us back to the Landscaper, who waits with open arms to receive us.

This article was published in Sunstone: Mormon Experience, Scholarship, Issues, and Art, Spring 2016, 59. A thank you to my mom for the picture of Whiteface mountain in Autumn.

This could be considered to represent part one in a series on the scriptures. Part 2 of this series is The Spell of the Gospel: the Convergence of Poetry and the Spirit in the Scriptures, or click here.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.