Relief Society Lesson 3: Adversity — Part of God’s Plan for our Eternal Progress
This lesson is about adversity. The Latin root of adversity is: “vers” means turn and “ad” means toward or against. So adversity is when something is turning against you. We’ll be discussing adversity, the role it’s played in our lives in shaping our characters, and the ways Jesus can partner with us to help us ease our burdens and trials.
(I like to start with an opening question that anyone can answer. This get the class talking and understanding from the beginning that this will be a lesson in which participation is key.)
What is the toughest trial (or one of the toughest trials) you’ve ever had to face? How have you coped with it? While they are thinking about this, talk a little about adversity. (I think it’s a good strategy to ask a question, say “think about it for a minute,” and then talk a little more – this gives them time to come up with something to say.) I would say something along these lines:
- Suffering, trials, adversity, tribulations are universal experiences – everyone suffers at various points of their lives. Afflictions come from many sources – the frailty of the human body, maybe individual mistakes, others’ misuse of their agency, natural world afflicts us too sometimes. We’ve all suffered.
- .Also mention something that you have personally struggled with. If you are vulnerable right off the bat, that opens the doors for others to be vulnerable as well.
Part I: Adversity is a part of God’s plan for our eternal progress.
The subject of trials/adversity/human suffering, and God’s relationship to these things (. Where is God when we are suffering? Why isn’t God stopping the suffering? What’s the point of all this suffering? ) have been subjects of discussion by the greatest thinkers of the last few millennia. It’s called theodicy – the problem of evil, but really, it’s the problem of suffering. Epicurus put it succinctly in 270 bc: “”Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
I think almost everyone who believes in God wrestles with these sorts of questions at some point. Jospeh Smith certainly did. Howard W. Hunter mentions Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail in 1839, when he poured out questions like these to God: God, where are you? Why are you not defending us? Why are you allowing us to suffer like this? These questions later became D and C 121.
If someone asked you these questions – why does God send us trials or allow us to suffer, what would you as a Mormon say?
Expect a variety of answers like: a) the Mormon God is bound God, a constrained God. God can’t or won’t step in and impinge on others’ agency. Agency is the law of the universe, even God must obey it. B) Suffering brings experience, wisdom, growth. Brigham Young said that Smith Joseph progressed to perfection more in 38 years because of the severe tribulation through which he successfully passed than he would have been able to do in a thousand years without it.
Howard W. Hunter focuses on the idea of suffering and adversity as producing refinement. He quotes President Kimball on this subject, who said:
“Being human, we would expel from our lives physical pain and mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort, but if we were to close the doors upon sorrow and distress, we might be excluding our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering, and self-mastery”
What do you think of this? Has it been your experience that suffering or trials makes people better human beings? Why or why not?
Personally, part of me, is very attracted to this idea – that struggle refines and teaches and ennobles. I love this quote by Sister Joan Chittister, a prominent Catholic nun, who elucidates for me the both the scope of suffering and the connection between suffering/struggle and growth.
“There is no one who has not known what it is to lose in the game of life, to feel defeat, to know humiliation, to be left standing naked and alone before the cold and staring eyes of a world that does not grieve for your grief…. Indeed I have seen person after person broken by the breaking open of life’s great fissures. And I have also seen them survive. I have learned through them all that struggle is not destructive. I have come to understand from them that it is not struggle that defeats us, it is our failure to struggle that depletes the human spirit. …. All struggle is not loss. All those who struggle do not give way to depression, to death of the spirit, to dearth of heart. We not only can survive struggle, but, it seems, we are meant to survive in new ways, with new insights, with new heart.” P. 2-3 of Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope.
She sees suffering or struggling leading to transformation.
Part 2: Our mortal tribulations are for our growth and experience.
President Hunter goes on to echo some of these themes about the positive sides of trials and adversity. He says:
When [the difficulties of mortality] humble us and refine us and teach us and bless us, they can be powerful instruments in the hands of God to make us better people, to make us more grateful, more loving, and more considerate of other people in their own times of difficulty.
He also says:
If you have troubles at home with children who stray, if you suffer financial reverses and emotional strain that threaten your homes and your happiness, if you must face the loss of life or health, may peace be unto your soul. We will not be tempted beyond our ability to withstand [see 1 Corinthians 10:13; Alma 13:28; 34:39]. Our detours and disappointments are the straight and narrow path to Him.6
I like this idea that our detours and disappointments are the straight and narrow path to God. usually I think of the straight and narrow path to God precluding detours and disappointments – but the idea that it is in fact our detours and disappointments that lead us to God is compelling to me.
Can you think of any examples of detours and disappointments leading people to God, perhaps in unexpected ways? Has that been the case for you?
I think of Mother Theresa, who clearly heard God call her to serve the poorest of the poor in India … and then went for decades upon decades begging God to speak to her again, only to receive silence. She describes herself as living in spiritual darkness throughout these decades, and yet, she continued on with her commission, working tirelessly to love, serve, and ennoble the most rejected of society. This is an example for me of a disappointment or a detour contributing to the refining of her character as she worked so hard for people, despite her own spiritual devastation.
So this is a very positive take on adversity, and as I said, there’s something about this idea of trials leading to a positive refining of self that I really like. However, I want to acknowledge a different perspective. I taught a D & C lesson on Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail a few years ago, the subject being suffering and adversity, and I remember one man in the class pointing out that maybe suffering wasn’t always ennobling and good, that maybe the whole point of the atonement is that God doesn’t want us to suffer. That Jesus was there to take our suffering upon himself so that we wouldn’t have to. This also resonated with me.
What do you think about this point? Do you agree that there are times when suffering isn’t refining and good? That’s it’s just awful, that God wants us to find a way out of our and other people’s suffering, and that the point of the atonement is to take our suffering away from us? Is there a way to reconcile both the positive view of adversity (that it does good things for our character) and the negative view (that God doesn’t want us to suffer)?
One reason I personally really appreciated this man’s perspective is because I do sense some dangers in holding up suffering and adversity as an unadulterated good. For instance, could ideas like “suffering ennobles; suffering teaches you great qualities” be used by privileged people in society towards disadvantaged people to support their own privileged status quo? In other words, could telling poor people who deal with societal injustice, “suffering will make you good,” simply perpetuate injustice? Could it breed passivity in people that should be working and acting to change societal problems? I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I think they are interesting to consider.
Part III: When we come to the Savior, he will ease our burdens and lighten our loads.
President Hunter addresses the question of Jesus towards the end of his lesson. He quotes Jesus saying,
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28–30.) …
President Hunter goes on to say:
Why face life’s burdens alone, Christ asks, or why face them with temporal support that will quickly falter? To the heavy laden it is Christ’s yoke, it is the power and peace of standing side by side with a God that will provide the support, balance, and the strength to meet our challenges and endure our tasks here in the hardpan field of mortality.
So President Hunter seems to see Jesus as functioning in something of a partnership role. Jesus will stand with us and love us and help us get through our problems. Hunter speaks of how a yoke functions, making something that is impossible for one animal to do to do it relatively easily when yoked alongside another animal.
Has Jesus functioned for you in this way? Do you feel that your burden are more easily borne because you are a Christian, have a relationship with Jesus, and feel his support and love?
One of my favorite Mormon examples of Jesus standing with someone in her moment of anguish is related to the hymn “Where Can I Turn for Peace” by Emma Lou Thayne. She wrote this hymn when her daughter was struggling with bulimia, and you can see from the lyrics the peace and solidarity she feels when she thinks of Jesus understanding her and standing with her in her sorrow and anxiety.
(If you need to use up time, consider having the class sing the hymn, or having a soloist come in and do it.)
Part IV: Latter-day Saints need not fear the tribulations of the last days.
President Hunter ends his lesson by encouraging us to have hope even in the midst of worries and trials.
We will have our difficulties the way every generation and people have had difficulties. But with the gospel of Jesus Christ, you have every hope and promise and reassurance…. When we have faith in God we can hope for a better world—for us personally, and for all mankind.
This lesson helps to give me hope that suffering and struggle are not in vain, that they can lead to new perspectives, new compassion, a new better self, and a stronger connection to Jesus, who stands with us in our pain.
I’ll leave you with one more thought from Sister Joan about this metamorphosis that can happen when we suffer and struggle.
“[There is a] price to be paid for becoming new. To struggle is to begin to see the world differently. It gives us a new sense of self. It tests all the faith in the goodness of God that we have ever professed. It requires an audacity we did not know we had. It demands a commitment to the truth. It leads to self-knowledge. It builds forbearance. It tests the purity of heart. It brings total metamorphosis of soul. …. Enduring struggle is the price to be paid for becoming everything we are meant to be in the world.” p.3 of Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope
May we have the strength to endure our struggles with grace and compassion and to become everything we are meant to be in the world.