I knew one man who claimed that he would be perfect by the age of thirty. He set out on a deliberate program, organized his goals according to a ten-year, five-year, one-year, monthly, weekly, and daily plan. He pushed and pulled and stretched and reached spiritually, as much as any person I have known. But he was not perfect at thirty. You cannot force spiritual things. I am acquainted with a woman who announced to several of our friends that she would make her calling and election sure by the time she was fifty years old. She has been faithful in the Church. She has long since passed the age of fifty and is terribly discouraged because the goal of her existence, so far as she knows, has not been realized. You cannot force spiritual things.
Endless prayers, lengthy scripture vigils, excessive fasting—all of these, though at first well-intended, may come to be more a curse than a blessing. Gospel growth must come slowly, steadily, gradually. In that same spirit, we ought to be careful about setting goals for ourselves or others in areas over which we have limited control. Elder Boyd K. Packer has warned: “Such words as compel, coerce, constrain, pressure, demand do not describe our privileges with the Spirit.
“You can no more force the Spirit to respond than you can force a bean to sprout, or an egg to hatch before its time. You can create a climate to foster growth; you can nourish, and protect; but you cannot force or compel: You must await the growth.
“Do not be impatient to gain great spiritual knowledge. Let it grow, help it grow; but do not force it, or you will open the way to be misled.”
Our present must not be held hostage by the mistakes or misdeeds of the past. One wonders just how frustrated and soul-sick Saul of Tarsus and Alma and the sons of Mosiah must have been as they sought diligently—with a zeal known only to those who have been reborn from darkness to light—to repair the wrongs of their past. These men had gone about to destroy the church of God, had proven a major stumbling block to the progress of the kingdom of God. Then they had been stopped in their tracks, turned about, and redirected in their zeal. They did their best to make things right but in the end had to leave it all with God and move on.
The past is gone. The future is not here yet, and so it doesn’t belong to us. All that we have is now. We cannot afford to live our lives in the past, to waste away our hours in fond reflection of simpler times or when things were much less complicated. Nor can we allow our anticipation of a brighter day to becloud our present and make ineffective the limited time we have here. In short, although many, many aspects of life are out of our control, there are things we can do to change the world and, perhaps more important, to change ourselves. For example:
1. We can learn to adapt to change in a “living Church”
In the preface to the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord speaks of “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased” (D&C 1:30). Elder Neal A. Maxwell has observed that “when the word living is used, it carries a divinely deliberate connotation. The Church is neither dead nor dying, nor is it even wounded. The Church, like the living God who established it, is alive, aware, and functioning. It is not a museum that houses a fossilized faith; rather, it is a kinetic kingdom characterized by living faith in living disciples. . . .
“The living Church is one that responds to stimuli, that has movement, and that has the capacity to reproduce itself.”
“The doctrines will remain fixed, eternal,” Elder Packer stated. “The organization, programs, and procedures will be altered as directed by Him whose church this is.”3 Policies change. Procedures change. Auxiliaries change. Calls come and releases come, and men and women of differing capacity and varied strengths and aptitudes serve for a season and then are called to serve elsewhere. Tragically, too many gifted men who were closely associated with Joseph Smith and had a place at his side in the very beginning of this dispensation could not adapt to change. As Church membership grew and as the organization of the restored Church began to unfold line upon line, precept upon precept, they simply could not deal with the fact that a living God in heaven, operating through a living tree of life on earth, could and would make alterations in his inspired kingdom.
2. We can learn to say to God, “Thy will be done,” and mean it
This is tough. It’s hard not to be in control of things. But one of the lessons of life that is beginning to dawn on me as I find myself closer to the casket than the cradle is this: God really is involved in the detail of our lives. He really cares. And he knows us—our needs, our challenges, our points of weakness, our strengths—far better than we know ourselves. He can thus do far more to make our lives positive and productive—if we let him, for we can prevent him if we choose—than we could ever do. That is why it’s just plain smart to learn to yield our hearts to him (Helaman 3:35). The promise in scripture is that if we have an eye single to the glory of God he will fill us with light and empower us to see everything more clearly (D&C 88:67–68).
It is true that praying “Thy will be done” may entail submitting to difficult or challenging circumstances ahead. C. S. Lewis provides a slightly different approach to this scripture: “‘Thy will be done.’ But a great deal of it is to be done by God’s creatures; including me. The petition, then, is not merely that I may patiently suffer God’s will but also that I may vigorously do it. I must be an agent as well as a patient. I am asking that I may be enabled to do it. ...
“Taken this way, I find the words have a more regular daily application. For there isn’t always—or we don’t always have reason to suspect that there is—some great affliction looming in the near future, but there are always duties to be done; usually, for me, neglected duties to be caught up with. ‘Thy will be done—by me—now’ brings one back to brass tacks.” Further, Lewis explained, “Thy will be done” may also imply a readiness on our part to receive and experience new and unanticipated blessings. “I know it sounds fantastic,” he added, “but think it over. It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good.” “Thy will be done” thus represents our petition that the Almighty work his wonders through us, that he soften our hearts to new ideas and new avenues of understanding, and that he open us to new paths and new doors of opportunity when it is best for us to move in another direction.
3. We can learn to rely more upon our infinite and incomparable Redeemer
Though such matters as self-reliance and self-confidence may prove to be valuable in some of our dealings in this life, the reciprocal principles of submission, surrender, and having an eye single to the glory of God are essential if we are to acquire that enabling power described in scripture as the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It is as if the Lord inquires of us: “Do you want to be a possessor of all things so that all things are subject unto you?” We, of course, respond in the affirmative. He then says: “Good. Then submit to me. Yield your heart unto me.” The Lord asks further: “Do you want to have victory over all things?” We nod. He follows up: “Then surrender to me. Unconditionally.” Odd, isn’t it? We incorporate the great powers of divinity into ourselves only through acknowledging our own inabilities, accepting our limitations, and realizing our weakness. We open ourselves to infinite strength only through accepting our finite condition. We in time gain control through being willing to relinquish control.
I am haunted by the words Paul wrote in his second epistle to the Corinthians. As you know, Paul was, sadly, required to spend a significant amount of time defending his apostolic calling. Having been a zealous Pharisee and even a persecutor of the Christians before his conversion, and not having been one of the original witnesses of the resurrection of Christ, he felt the need to testify to his detractors that his call had indeed come from God. In doing so with the Corinthian Saints, he went on to describe some of the marvelous spiritual experiences the Lord had given to him. “And lest I should be exalted above measure,” Paul hastened to add, “through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And [the Lord] said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then remarks: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10; emphasis added).
No one really knows what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. Was it a lingering sickness, perhaps malaria, so common in Galatia? Was it a memory of his past, a hellish reminder of who he had been? Was it an evil spirit that dogged his steps and wearied him in his ministry? Perhaps one day we’ll know. All we know for sure is that whatever it was, it kept Paul humble and forced him to his knees. His inabilities and his impotence in the face of this particular challenge were ever before him. I rather think that when Paul states that he “besought the Lord thrice” for the removal of the thorn that he is not describing merely three prayers but instead three seasons of prayer, extended periods of wrestling and laboring in the Spirit for a specific blessing that never came. Indeed, as he suggests, another kind of blessing came—a closeness, a sensitivity, an acquaintance with Deity, a sanctified strength that came through pain and suffering. It was up against the wall of faith, when shorn of self-assurance and naked in his extremity and his frightening finitude, that a mere mortal received that enabling power we know as the grace of Christ. As the Savior explained to Moroni, when we acknowledge and confess our weakness—not just our specific weaknesses, our individual sins, but our weakness, our mortal limitation—and submit unto him, he will transform our weakness into strength (Ether 12:27).
We all have times in our lives, painful times when we have broken something, spiritually speaking, which we cannot repair. President Packer explained that “sometimes you cannot give back what you have taken because you don’t have it to give. If you have caused others to suffer unbearably—defiled someone’s virtue, for example—it is not within your power to give it back. ...
“. . . If you cannot undo what you have done, you are trapped. It is easy to understand how helpless and hopeless you then feel and why you might want to give up, just as Alma did.
“The thought that rescued Alma, when he acted upon it, is this: Restoring what you cannot restore, healing the wound you cannot heal, fixing that which you broke and you cannot fix is the very purpose of the atonement of Christ.
“When your desire is firm and you are willing to pay the ‘uttermost farthing’ (Matthew 5:25–26), the law of restitution is suspended. Your obligation is transferred to the Lord. He will settle your accounts.”
4. We can learn to “wait on the Lord”
One of my favorite scriptures comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul acknowledged to the Saints in Corinth that when he visited them he “came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom” but rather he “determined not to know any thing among [them], save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” In sweet humility this learned and impressive orator then added this treasure: “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:1–2, 9).
That expression is a comforting assurance to each and every one of us, a reminder that while there are moments of intense joy and peace in this world, the glories and feelings and transcendent associations of a future world are even grander. As powerful and encouraging as these thoughts are, they are not Paul’s property alone: they were spoken first by Isaiah, and, incidentally, in a slightly different manner. “For since the beginning of the world,” Isaiah declared, “men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him” (Isaiah 64:4; emphasis added; compare D&C 133:45).
To wait on the Lord is closely related to having hope in the Lord. Waiting on and hoping in the Lord are scriptural words that focus not on frail and faltering mortals but rather on a sovereign and omni-loving God who fulfills his promises to the people of promise in his own time.
Hope is more than worldly wishing. It is expectation, anticipation, assurance. We wait on the Lord because we have hope in him. “For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith” (Galatians 5:5). Thus, we wait on the Lord—not in the sense that we sit and wring our hands and glance at our clocks periodically, but rather that we exercise patience in his providential hand, knowing full well, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that the Father of Lights will soon transform a darkened world, all in preparation for the personal ministry of the Light of the World (1 Corinthians 1:4–8).
To be impatient with God is to lose sight of the fact— and thus require regular reminders—that our Heavenly Father loves us, is mindful of our present problems and daily dilemmas, and has a plan, both cosmic and personal, for our happiness here and our eternal reward hereafter. To wait on him, on the other hand, is to be “confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of [the coming of] Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). That is, to wait on the Lord is to exercise a lively hope that the God who is in his heaven is also working upon and through his people on earth. As it was anciently, so it is in our day: the spiritual regeneration required of individuals and whole societies that results in the establishment of Zion takes place “in process of time” (Moses 7:21). Elder Neal A. Maxwell declared that “since the Lord wants a people ‘tried in all things’ (D&C 136:31), how, specifically, will we be tried? He tells us, I will try the faith and the patience of my people (see Mosiah 23:21). Since faith in the timing of the Lord may be tried, let us learn to say not only, ‘Thy will be done,’ but patiently also, ‘Thy timing be done.’”
It is especially difficult to witness the seeming prosperity of the perverse, as wickedness widens and malevolence multiplies. But the scriptural counsel is to “rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass” (Psalms 37:7). Or, “Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the Lord, and he shall save thee” (Proverbs 20:22). Indeed, the glorious assurance, particularly to those of us who live in the midst of crime and indecency, is: “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:28–31).
There are certain constants in a world of change, constants on which we can lean in desperate moments. For example:
God lives, as does his Beloved Son, the risen Redeemer
We are the spirit children of God, his sons and daughters, and we have limitless possibilities and unlimited potential to do good and accomplish his purposes.
God has a plan, a plan of salvation that provides meaning and purpose to our existence.
Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, our Savior and Redeemer, who came to earth to suffer and bleed and die and rise again from the tomb, to atone for the sins of all humankind.
There are absolute truths and absolute values, rights and wrongs that transcend custom or social consensus.
The Church of Jesus Christ, together with its doctrines and priesthoods, has been restored and reestablished once again on earth.
We are here to gain experience, to develop and enhance valued relationships, and to prepare our souls for what lies ahead.
The family is the most important unit in time and in eternity. The perpetuation of that family into eternity is a vital part of eternal life, the greatest of all the gifts of God (D&C 14:7).
When we die, we do not cease to be; we merely cease to be in this sphere. Life continues after the transition we know as death. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we have hope in the immortality of the soul and the inseparable union of body and spirit.
We could go on and on, but the above list seems sufficient to remind us that in a world that is too often built on shifting sand, there are truths and certainties and absolutes that we may depend upon with great confidence. In my own life, I have found especial comfort in knowing of and turning to the cleansing and enabling power of Jesus Christ. At those times when I have been in the greatest agony, I have found myself reflecting on and even echoing the words of Alma as he faced the challenge of proselytizing among the Zoramites: “O Lord, wilt thou give me strength, that I may bear with mine infirmities. For I am infirm, and such wickedness among this people doth pain my soul. O Lord, my heart is exceedingly sorrowful; wilt thou comfort my soul in Christ” (Alma 31:30–31). Truly, as Paul exulted, “I can do all things through Christ [who] strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13; compare Alma 26:12).
“It is as demonstrated in Christ,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught, “that ‘charity never faileth.’ It is that charity—his pure love for us—without which we would be nothing, hopeless, of all men and women most miserable. Truly, those found possessed of the blessings of his love at the last day—the Atonement, the Resurrection, eternal life, eternal promise—surely it shall be well with them.” In short, “Life has its share of fears and failures. Sometimes things fall short. Sometimes people fail us, or economies or businesses or governments fail us. But one thing in time or eternity does not fail us—the pure love of Christ.”7
Just as we must not allow the few unsettled questions in life to blind us to the almost limitless number of answers to be found in the restored gospel, so we must not permit the things out of our control to control us, to cause us to slip or stumble. There is an inner peace and a quiet strength that flow into the lives of those who lean upon and trust in those truths we know for sure, those matters upon which we can rely with undeterred certainty. God is in control, and that’s enough for me.
Lead image from Pixabay
Why do bad things happen to us? Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? And how can we have peace in a time of turmoil? Robert L. Millet helps us find timely answers to these timeless questions by focusing our attention on the beauty and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Filled with insights from the prophets, both ancient and modern, and further brought to life with personal examples, I Will Fear No Evil is a timely and thoughtful book to calm our fears and sustain our faith in times of distress.