Our son recently returned home early from his mission due to anxiety and depression symptoms. His early return was the culmination of weeks of discussions with his mission president and medical professionals who determined that the best thing would be for our son to come home.
In the time leading up to that decision, our son was praying fervently, asking the Lord to permit him to remain on his mission. However, his perspective changed when he remembered the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These were three young men, captives in Babylon, who were being forced to worship the pagan gods of King Nebuchadnezzar. The faithful youth refused to worship as directed and were consequently sentenced to death by fire. Our son was only a few years older than the likely ages of these youth. The mighty king confronted them, asking, “Is it true that you refuse to worship my gods, knowing full well that the punishment for such refusal is death?” The situation would have been terrifying.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego exercised courage beyond their years. They told the king they would not bow down to his gods. Further, they expressed great confidence in the fact that their God would be able to deliver them from the flames. “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king” (Daniel 3:17). But what they said next holds a critical key for our ongoing happiness and well-being. “But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Daniel 3:18, emphasis added).
This is the thought that came to our son’s mind the night before he knew he would return home early from his mission. Although he had asked the Lord in prayer to be able to stay, he said, “But if not, please bless me that I’ll be able to get through this and become the kind of person I need to be.” It brings me to tears to think about that sacred moment, our son on his knees, turning his will over to his Father in Heaven. When he returned home, I clearly remember seeing him walk down the airport security exit and feeling overwhelmed with pride and love. Surely this is a taste of what our own experience will be like when we exit this life and ultimately return to the presence of our Heavenly Father.
But If Not
These three critical words made a tremendous difference in our son’s experience. What are the implications of these three words for our own lives, particularly when we are dealing with challenging mental health and relationship issues? We are taught in scripture to ask and we will receive, but at the same time, we are taught to make our will secondary to the will of God. Think about the time the Savior spent in the garden of Gethsemane. Those critical, remarkable hours were likely some of the most excruciating of His perfect life. As the weight of all human suffering from sin and other human frailties began to exert its crushing load, our Elder Brother practiced the same principles of prayer He had taught. First, He asked: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). In that moment, the Savior clearly wondered whether it was essential for Him to have that experience right then. Was there another way? All He could do was ask to see if His loving Father would honorably excuse Him from this very difficult task. Yet, before finishing His plea, He humbly concluded with another essential principle of prayer: “Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). Put into the language of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, it could read, “I know you are able to deliver me from this trial, but if not, I will continue to do as you have asked.”
Oftentimes I find my prayers are heavy on “ask and ye shall receive” and light on “not as I will but as thou wilt.” I have known many, many people who have questioned why they suffer from mental health issues. They are faithful members of the restored church of Jesus Christ who are striving to keep their covenants. They have prayed in faith. Some of their pleas might sound similar to yours:
Heavenly Father, why do I feel so depressed? Please bless me so that I can be happier and not so sad all the time.
Heavenly Father, I’ve tried to be a faithful wife/husband and yet my spouse still has issues with pornography. Please bless them so they will stop looking at such things.
Heavenly Father, my anxiety keeps me from going to church. Please take my fears away so I can do those things I should be doing.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for such righteous desires—as we’ve already discussed, we’ve been commanded to. God will bless us with those things that we need and that are best for our eternal development, which is the “receive” portion of asking. However, the timing of those blessings can be frustrating. What if we started adding but if not to each of our pleas? I think that simple addition, if done in faith and humility, could lead to greater patience and understanding. For example, let’s add it to one of the statements above. “Heavenly Father, why do I feel so depressed? Please bless me so that I can be happier and not so sad all the time. But if not, I will continue to keep thy commandments and try my best to improve daily.” That modest inclusion makes a dramatic change to the overall feeling and essence of the prayer. Here are two ideas on how adding these simple words can help us progress.
Humility Yields Peace
There is an explicit act of humble acceptance in the but if not statement. As someone who has always wanted a large degree of control in life, I find myself praying frequently for certain things. I ask the Lord to bless my family in specific ways. I ask Him to prosper my business. I ask Him for inspiration in what to say when I write articles and books. I don’t have a problem with asking. I have a small problem in waiting for the answer. The period of time between the asking and when I feel I get an answer can be a long time of anxiety and stress. My mind is filled with thoughts such as: Is He going to answer my prayer? Will it work out like I want it to? What will happen if it takes longer than I think or if the Lord goes in another direction? Those times can be pretty tough to manage. Yet by adding but if not to my pleas, it shows I’ve already prepped myself for the answer that I don’t really want. Whereas before, I was anxiously fearing the undesired outcome, now I can more peacefully acknowledge that I can be content with an alternative that was not what I hoped for. And in my deepest places of testimony and faith, I truly believe that Heavenly Father loves me and will never do something that is going to hinder my growth. Even though I don’t fully understand His ways, I trust they are for the best. His interventions for all of His children are perfect, merciful, and expertly crafted for our optimal development. As we humbly ask for what we want and need, and with greater humility add but if not, we acknowledge our willingness to accept His will and further receive the peace of knowing things will eventually work out.
Accountability Inspires Action
Sometimes we get stuck in our behaviors, feeling there is nothing we can do to overcome challenges and difficulties. As a psychologist, I see this all the time with mental health issues. People talk about how they have suffered from certain mental health conditions for years, perhaps for as long as they can recall. They reference how their parents and grandparents had similar issues. I don’t debate such histories—the combination of possible genetic influences and certain learned responses can create patterns of behavior that are highly resistant to change. But that does not mean change is not possible; it just means it is more difficult. There is always something we can do to improve our situation and change our behavior. Let’s return to the former example of adding but if not to a prayerful plea. “Heavenly Father, why do I feel so depressed? Please bless me so that I can be happier and not so sad all the time. But if not, I will continue to keep Thy commandments and strive to find ways to manage depression and rely on Thee.” The first part of the prayer asks for help but leaves the assistance portion squarely in God’s control. If that were the end of the prayer, then the person could rightly think, “Well, I’ll see if God decides to lift my depression. If He doesn’t, then I guess there’s nothing I can do.” But if you build the courage and humility to add but if not, the burden of action becomes shared between deity and the petitioner. It may help you think, “I hope that God will help lift my depression. But in the meantime, I will do my best to do my part and keep my covenants.” There is hope in purposeful action. It provides us a measure of control, meaning, and determination that is very different from the feelings that come from passively waiting. Being accountable for our own lives helps us move forward, even as we wait for heaven to answer our prayers.
Our Father in Heaven loves us so much. From the sacrifice of His Only Begotten Son to the incomparable beauty of a simple butterfly wing, the evidence of His love surrounds us. He will answer our prayers. But as we have the faith and humility to prepare for answers contrary to our desires, we will achieve spiritual growth, stronger faith, and increased peace to help us along from day to day.