The anecdote from Lorenzo Snow’s life that begins this lesson is a charming story of President Snow finding a way to take his fellow Saints minds off their troubles as they waited in the destitute camp of Mount Pisgah for their opportunity to move west. It wasn’t an easy time for Snow; he and his wife Charlotte had an infant daughter die, and they spent the winter in a log cabin with a dirt floor. But holding evening readings there with lanterns made of turnips and sheets draped on the walls made their guests feel “as happy as though they were not homeless.”
This story speaks to the importance of finding sources of good cheer during trying times, but the title of the lesson is faithfulness in times of trial, not cheerfulness in times of trial. Faithfulness and cheerfulness are not the same. Perhaps faith will help lift our spirits, but I think it’s important to recognize that grief, sadness, or disappointment are natural feelings in response to trials and it’s OK to feel them. Feeling bad doesn’t mean you’re not faithful.
That said, this lesson also highlights the challenge of maintaining faith when trials come. I think in our post-Enlightenment world where we are accustomed to materialistic explanations for so many things, the relatively new problem of materialism combined with the very old problem that not all prayers are answered can combine to sow the seeds of some serious doubt. I have certainly felt my faith shrink in the face of trials. When I was a graduate student with a new baby and a failing research project, I reached a point where I felt I couldn’t do it anymore and nearly dropped out of my Ph.D. program (6 years into it). My husband and thesis committee chair talked me out of quitting, but I felt that if I was going to ever get the publication I needed to finish my degree I needed God’s help. It seemed like a worthy enough desire, I had faith that God heard my prayers, and I sincerely prayed and fasted for my research to give results. But it didn’t happen, and I was pretty devastated. I was eventually able to graduate on a paper resulting from a backup project, but my output from grad school was so poor, my relationship with my advisor so weak, and my love for science so dead by then that I couldn’t continue a career in research. I stopped believing my prayers were heard, and stopped praying at all for a while. I’ve since healed from that time, and I pray again, but now differently.
So where do trials come from, and how can we maintain faith during them to hopefully emerge with stronger faith?
Trials Help Us Grow
It is impossible for us to work out our salvation and accomplish the purposes of God without trials or without sacrifices. There is no other way in which the Saints can make spiritual improvement and be prepared for an inheritance in the celestial kingdom than through tribulation.
These words remind me of 2 Nephi 2:11 – “For it must needs be, that there is opposition in all things.” This sense of dualism is to me one of Mormonism’s most profound doctrines and it really resonates. But where does the opposition come from?
The Lord has determined in His heart that He will try us until He knows what He can do with us. He tried His Son Jesus.
To me there is a big difference between “He will try us” and “we will experience trials.” In the “He will try us” model (like in the story of Job), God engineers trials for people and deliberately inserts them into their lives. I find this explanation for trials to be extremely problematic. How can loving Parents engineer and execute this world’s many disasters, even for the purpose of their children’s growth? I believe our imperfect world inhabited by imperfect people provides all the fodder for trials that is required to give us opportunities for spiritual development.
Elder Quentin L. Cook said, “Some challenges result from the agency of others. Agency is essential for individual spiritual growth and development. Evil conduct is an element of agency.” I would add my firmly held belief that nature itself has a form of agency, not that the elements make decisions, but that they operate in a sphere largely independent of divine manipulation, governed by natural laws. Natural disasters and disease fall into this category of trial.
So if there is no way to grow without opposition, how do we turn our trials into growth?
The Lord Strengthens us to Overcome Temptations and Endure Trials
Many of you may have severe trials, that your faith may become more perfect, your confidence be increased, your knowledge of the powers of heaven be augmented… Yet at such times the Lord blesse[s] us and [gives] us sufficient of His Spirit to enable us to overcome the temptations and endure the trials.
I notice that this quote mentions ways in which we are changed by trials, but not ways in which the trial itself is changed or removed. While I don’t say all trials last forever or that God never intervenes in the world, my experience is that when I seek for divine help, the trials are not removed, but rather I can be blessed with resilience and resourcefulness, and with healing. Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” (Luke 4:18, emphasis mine). We are usually not rescued from trials, we are fortified for them.
Have you made it through a trying situation better than you had thought possible?
Have you learned coping strategies that are transferrable from one trial to another?
Trials Can Change Us for the Better
The Lord has strengthened us and increased us in our growth. Like the infant, when it grows up it knows not how it received gradual strength and the manner in which it increased in stature. It is larger this year than last. So in regard to our spiritual advancement. We feel stronger today than we did a year ago.
In an interview, Chieko Okazaki said her mother taught her, “No matter what you do, there is always a struggle. But when you pass that struggle, you have reached a new level of perfection in your life.” I think this is what Alma is talking about when he asks “Have ye spiritually been born of God?…Have ye received this mighty change in your hearts?” (Alma 5:14). How we respond to our trials turns our hearts slowly into who we are, and responding well refines us and can teach us truths we can’t fully appreciate any other way. Coming through my trial in graduate school taught me that God is not a vending machine, and that the purpose of prayer is to change me, not to change externalities. It would be nice if I hadn’t needed to suffer in the process of learning that important truth, but I can say with confidence I learned it well and won’t forget it.
Have you learned specific lessons through trials? Do you think you could have learned them any other way?