A talk I recently gave in Church:
I recently had some meetings for work in Ireland. We had taken a red-eye flight from Newark, New Jersey to Dublin. As the plane landed after the six hour flight, the passengers in the area towards the back of the plane where I was sitting, heard a little Irish three-year-old girl begin to break down and throw a fit. The little girl was obviously tired and sick of being in the plane and just wanting to be home. In an attempt to comfort her that the trip was over and they were home, her father said, “We’re here in Dublin!” She quickly responded bitterly in her adorable Irish accent, “No we are not, we’re not in Dublin!”
The exchange was cute and several people chuckled and grinned. Regardless of whether or not we were in Dublin, this little Irish girl just needed to vent her frustration at being cooped up on United Airlines. Given United’s recent mishaps where videos showed United security dragging a passenger out of his seat and off the plane that damaged their “Fly the Friendly Skys” brand, we joked, “Enterprise — we pick you up! United — we beat you up!”
Sometimes life leaves us feeling somewhat like this little girl, frustrated, cooped up, and wanting to yell out that we’re not where we want to be and “Why me!?”
When hardship or suffering befalls us, whether it be by our own decisions, the decisions of others, or the simple randomness of happenstance, it’s often one of the first questions that aches out of us… why me or why her? Why does Heavenly Father let bad things happen to good people?
It’s normal and not wrong to ask why. It can be helpful to know or bestow some meaning behind our suffering; ultimately though, I believe there is a more excellent way, a better question to ask that I’ll get to later.
Why does Father let bad things happen to good people?
- To teach us or drive us to remember Him.
We read in Helaman 12:2-3:
“Yea, and we may see at the very time when he doth prosper his people, yea, in the increase of their fields, their flocks and their herds, and in gold, and in silver, and in all manner of precious things of every kind and art; sparing their lives, and delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; softening the hearts of their enemies…yea, and in fine, doing all things for the welfare and happiness of his people; yea, then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One—yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity.And thus we see that except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions, yea, except he doth visit them with death and with terror, and with famine and with all manner of pestilence, they will not remember him.“
Why does Father let bad things happen to good people?
2. To test us — we come to earth to gain a body and TO BE TESTED.
Abraham 3:25: “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;“
Why does Father let bad things happen to good people?
3. So that He can show forth His power in delivering us and can visit us in our affliction:
Perhaps one of the most beautiful stories in all of scripture is that told in Mosiah 23 and 24. The story starts with a wicked priest named Alma. He’s essentially a “yes-man” in wicked King Noah’s court. But his heart is pricked when Abinadi teaches and testifies in front of King Noah and his priests. He believes, is thrust out of the court, and the king sends soldiers to kill him. Alma writes and teaches the words of Abinadi. Some people believe him. They repent and are baptized in the waters of Mormon. The king sends more soldiers to kill the people of Alma. They leave their homes and follow Alma into the wilderness. These are all good people. They are led to a beautiful land they call Helam. The Lord blesses and prospers them. This could be the “And they lived happily ever after” portion of the story — they believed, repented, sacrificed their homes and belongings and were led to their own little land of promise. Yet the story doesn’t end there and here Mormon inserts:
“Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.Nevertheless—whosoever putteth his trust in him the same shall be lifted up at the last day. Yea, and thus it was with this people. For behold, I will show unto you that they were brought into bondage, and none could deliver them but the Lord their God, yea, even the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob. And it came to pass that he did deliver them, and he did show forth his mighty power unto them, and great were their rejoicings.” Mosiah 23:21-24.
The Lamanites come to Helam. They’re lost after chasing after Limhi’s people who –having suffered under severe taxation and defeats and the loss of many of their men in war in trying to escape this bondage by the Lamanites–had just been delivered by the Lord. Alma makes a deal with the Lamanites, I’ll show you how to get back home if you will leave us in peace. The Lamanites say, “Deal” and promptly renege on their part of the deal. They place Alma’s people in bondage and put task master’s over them to work them with heavy burdens on their backs. Yet Alma’s people are strengthened such that they cannot feel the burden’s upon their backs.
“And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.” Mosiah 24:14
Eventually the Lord delivers Alma and his people by causing a miraculous and unnaturally deep sleep to come upon all of the Lamanites and Alma and his people are able to leave with their flocks and herds and their possessions right under the noses of the Lamanites.
The beautiful thing here though is that every one of those people KNEW in their extremity that it was the Lord God that delivered them and that HE visited them in their afflictions and that they came to know Him through that suffering.
This reminds me of the story of the old man in Sunday School who commented about his experience coming across with the Martin Handcart Company…
He said, “Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it. … We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities [difficulties].
“I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it. … I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.
“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, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company” (quoted in David O. McKay, “Pioneer Women,” p. 8; emphasis in original).
Sisters and Brothers, think for a minute about the toughest experiences in your life, through them did you become acquainted with God? Did He visit you in your afflictions?
My senior year of high school I fell in to a spiral of deep depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive behavior. I would put on a mask that all was fine at school, but inside I was a wreck and I’d come home retreat into my room and just cry. I would wake up in the morning and literally feel a cloud of gloom and anxiety just descend over my mind. This continued for months with my angel mother being my heaven-sent source of support. I know my parents said many prayers on my behalf. I was hesitant to take any medication to help with my emotional and mental condition. I was afraid that if I did so, it would affect where I would be called to serve on my mission.
If I put on my mission papers that I had taken medication for depression, would they send me? Or would it limit where I would have been called if I hadn’t taken the medication?
So I foolishly held out continuing to plead for respite from my emotional and mental anguish. It wasn’t until one night as I read the letter of Moroni to Pahoran as Moroni chastised Pahoran for not making use of what was available to him that things began to change:
“Or do ye suppose that the Lord will still deliver us, while we sit upon our thrones and do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us?” Alma 60:21
And the spirit spoke to me and in that moment I knew that I was just sitting upon my butt and wasn’t making use of the medication and means that the Lord had provided for me. And that was the beginning of the Lord helping to deliver me from bondage and was Him visiting me in my affliction.
Neal A. Maxwell taught beautifully. In fact, many times we might all be better off just reading one of Neal A. Maxwell’s talks as he had a wonderfully wise and rich way of teaching. He taught,
“Certain mortal “whys” are not really questions at all but are expressions of resentment. Other “whys” imply that the trial might be all right later on but not now, as if faith in the Lord excluded faith in His timing. Some “why me” questions, asked amid stress, would be much better as “what” questions, such as, “What is required of me now?” or, to paraphrase Moroni’s words, “If I am sufficiently humble, which personal weakness could now become a strength?” (see Ether 12:27).(“Applying the Atoning Blood of Christ” — Neal A. Maxwell)
Knowing why can be helpful, but as G.I. Joe taught as I grew up, “Knowing is half the battle.” The other half, perhaps the more important half is the question, “What now? Or better yet, What’s Important Now?” This is the more excellent question.
One of my favorite aphorisms to live by is “Life is 10% what happens to me 90% how I react to it.”
One of the most well known stories of this principle is the story of Viktor Frankl. A Jewish psychologist who endured the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl remarked, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” And “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.“
Understanding the Why can give us meaning to move forward in DOING what is necessary and important now and in the future.
One of the most powerful scriptures in all of Holy Writ in my opinion is where Christ describes in His own words His suffering at the threshold of the atonement:
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink— (D&C 19:16-18)
Neal A. Maxwell taught, “…As we confront our own lesser trials and tribulations, we too can plead with the Father, just as Jesus did, that we “might not … shrink”—meaning to retreat or to recoil (D&C 19:18). Not shrinking is much more important than surviving! Moreover, partaking of a bitter cup without becoming bitter is likewise part of the emulation of Jesus.”
I love this. It is so important and yet so hard to do. To partake of the bitter cup of suffering and yet not allow it to make me bitter. To go through life and to rid myself of accusing or negative feelings toward anyone –be that my wife or my children or colleagues at work or just that random English lady who told off a group of us to come down from exploring the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland because she didn’t want us in her pictures. Such negative feelings we often hold on to in order to help ourselves feel justified in feeling that way or in being right.
Neal A. Maxwell taught, “Mortality presents us with numerous opportunities to become more Christlike: first, by coping successfully with those of life’s challenges which are “common to man[kind]” (1 Cor. 10:13). In addition, there are also our customized trials such as experiencing illness, aloneness, persecution, betrayal, irony, poverty, false witness, unreciprocated love, et cetera. If endured well now, “all these things” can be for our good and can “greatly enlarge the soul,” including an enlarged capacity for joy (D&C 122:7; D&C 121:42). Meek suffering often does the excavating necessary for that enlarging! My admiration goes to my many spiritual superiors who so exemplify for us all. In the world to come, to these, the most faithful, our generous Father will give “all that [He] hath” (D&C 84:38). Brothers and sisters, there isn’t any more!”
Elder Bednar shared a story of John and Heather. John and Heather were just recently married and shortly thereafter John was diagnosed with an agressive cancer. Elder Bednar became aware of their plight and visited them. In that visit he was prompted to ask them if they had faith NOT TO BE HEALED. Meaning did they have sufficient faith to accept if the Lord’s will was that John pass to the spirit world. Heather wrote:
“This day was filled with mixed emotions for me. I was convinced that Elder Bednar would place his hands on John’s head and completely heal him of the cancer. I knew that through the power of the priesthood he could be healed, and I wanted so bad for that to happen. After he taught us about the faith to not be healed, I was terrified. Up to that point, I had never had to come to grips with the fact that the Lord’s plan might include losing my new husband. My faith was dependent upon the outcomes I wanted. In a manner of speaking, it was one-dimensional. Though terrifying at first, the thought of having the faith not to be healed ultimately freed me from worry. It allowed me to have complete trust that my Heavenly Father knew me better than I knew myself, and He would do what was best for me and John.”
Elder Bednar taught,
“We recognized a principle that applies to every devoted disciple: strong faith in the Savior is submissively accepting of His will and timing in our lives—even if the outcome is not what we hoped for or wanted.” He continued, “Righteousness and faith certainly are instrumental in moving mountains—if moving mountains accomplishes God’s purposes and is in accordance with His will. Righteousness and faith certainly are instrumental in healing the sick, deaf, and lame—if such healing accomplishes God’s purposes and is in accordance with His will. Thus, even if we have strong faith, many mountains will not be moved. And not all of the sick and infirm will be healed. If all opposition were curtailed, if all maladies were removed, then the primary purposes of the Father’s plan would be frustrated.”
Think for a moment about a time in your life when you’ve asked, “Why me?” Or “Why did this happen to so and so?” Think about an area of your life in which you may have drank the bitter cup and have shrunk to become embittered. Think of this area and then listen to the promptings of the Spirit in how and what you can do to move from a “Why me?-embittered” attitude to more of a submissive, “What’s important now?” attitude. Then Do it.
We’ve discussed in generalities why mortality comes with hardship, but sometimes that answer seems insufficient. The unfairness seems too blatant. I don’t know all the reasons or meaning behind the real or perceived inequalities of the mortal experience. But some things I absolutely do know.
I know that God lives and that He loves us. I know that his Gospel, His plan of happiness is the blueprint to true and lasting happiness and real success and growth in this life and in the life to come. I know that life is supposed to be hard. No one gets a free ride through mortality. We’re all going to have times of heartache or suffering.. I don’t believe we’d look back with any sense of gratitude toward our Savior or in accomplishment for what we will do in our lives if it were not hard and did not require “all we can do.” I know that the Book of Mormon is the word of God and I know that Jesus Christ suffered for the sins, infirmities, depression, anxiety, and suffering of each and every person who ever lived and will live on this earth. I don’t know how that all works.
I don’t know how the time aspect of suffering — of a person enduring years of a debilitating illness or handicap is summed up and experienced in several hours to a day by Christ in the garden and on the cross. But I know that Christ knows how to succor us according to our infirmities. And I know that with His help and with the spiritual gifts that our Father in Heaven is willing to grant us if we ask, we can experience all the hurt, suffering, and loss that mortality has or will offer us and not shrink and become bitter–but instead we can allow our will to be swallowed up in the Father’s– nevertheless not my will, but thine be done.
Brothers and Sisters, if you’re in a place in life where you feel like that little Irish girl after a long red-eye flight, –or worse–you might be thinking, “redeye flight, that’s a cakewalk compared to what I’m going through”– you feel like breaking down and yelling out that life isn’t what or where or how you want it to be, it is my hope that you might remember just for a moment the why of the suffering and bad things in life–let that give you meaning and purpose–and then move on and ask, “What’s important now?” Pray for the enabling power of the atonement on your behalf and then act in a way that you will not shrink and become bitter. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.