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Latter-day Saint Psychologist: 2 Ways to Find Hope during Times of Despair

In Washington state, we are in our eighth week of our governor’s “stay at home” order to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Personally, I try to look forward to better times, but there is a lot of pessimism out there. I’ve stopped reading certain news outlets because it seems the only information it publishes is dire predictions and dismal forecasts. As a social scientist, I know that statistics can be adjusted to make almost anything appear factual, so it’s difficult to know which reports are accurate and which are exaggerations or half-truths. Sometimes it is hard for me to stay positive and endure well when negativity is often the prevailing sentiment; perhaps you have had a similar experience lately.

“Enjoying to the End” 

The other night, I was on a video call with the sister missionaries as they were teaching about the doctrine of Jesus Christ. One of the sisters talked about the concept of enduring to the end and stated, “I like to think of it more like ‘enjoying’ to the end.” Her words inspired me. Because we need to grow spiritually, life is going to be difficult and grueling at times. But that doesn’t mean we just grimace and suffer our way through this mortal existence. On the contrary, “Men are that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Difficult challenges usually don’t automatically yield happiness; we must actively look for the good. I remember being a young man and a new member of the Boy Scouts of America. Summer approached and scout camp was on the agenda. I was the oldest of my peers at church, so none of my friends were old enough to attend camp that summer. As such, I went with a troop of boys I did not know. I had no friends in the group and would not likely have any contact with them after camp, so forming relationships with these temporary companions was challenging. To top it off, I had not been looking forward to scout camp to begin with, so my attitude was bad from every angle. I have a distinct memory of that week being very, very long. The hours seemed like days. I would sit by myself on a large boulder overlooking the lake and cry. It was miserable. At the same time, all around me there were hundreds of happy boys who were climbing towers and tying knots and sailing boats. Why didn’t I find happiness when it seemed it was all around me?

If life is meant to be lived joyfully, but at the same time will be filled with needed opposition and suffering, then how are those two situations rectified? How can we find happiness amidst the struggle? I have come to believe that the key to this is hope. Hope is a critical spiritual characteristic that does not get much direct treatment in scripture, though Mormon teaches that faith and hope are interdependent upon one another: “Wherefore, if a man have faith he must needs have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope” (Moroni 7:42). 

Most of us understand faith fairly well but have less comprehension of what hope is. Perhaps a simple example will help define what hope means. When I was a young child attending Primary, I sang, “I hope they call me on a mission.” I hope. Now consider the difference if we changed the words to say, “I believe they’ll call me on a mission.” Doesn’t that have a different connotation? With believe, it seems to say, “I understand the mission program and am confident that in time I will be able to apply for mission service.” There is a factual appreciation of the process but an emotional element lacking. With hope, the sentiment seems to be, “I look forward with anticipation to serving a mission and really want to be a missionary for the Church.” Hope conveys positivity and optimistic expectation. When we have faith, we have a conviction that something is true. When we hope, we have an emotional connection to that same truth and joyfully anticipate it. Having faith creates a strong spiritual foundation to help us stay strong and faithful during difficult times. Having hope helps us remain cheerful and positive, “enjoying” to the end instead of simply just enduring. Increasing hope can yield great happiness and joy. Here are two things you can do to increase hope in your life. 

Look Back to Remember

President Spencer W. Kimball reflected that perhaps the most important word in the English language is “remember,” as it helps us stay focused on what is truly important. The future is always uncertain, leaving us vulnerable to worry about all sorts of potential disasters. I recall applying for internships during my doctoral studies at BYU. There was one day when internship sites nationwide would call and extend offers of work. As there were many more applicants than sites, some students would be left out. If I did not get an offer, it would delay my graduation by an entire year, which at that time seemed like an eternity. I was very, very worried and distressed about the possibility of not getting an offer. I sat in the office of one of my professors and expressed to him my fear that I might not get an internship that year. He looked at me intently and said, “David, the Lord has cradled you in His hand your entire life; what makes you think He will stop now?” It was profound counsel and gave me peace. He was correct. As I reflected on my life to that point, I remembered many times when I had been worried about future events. In each case, whether I could see it or not at the time, the outcomes ultimately resulted for my good. 

I believe we can all apply this strategy to develop greater hope. In some ways, it is simply a matter of conducting an objective assessment of the past. Are you distraught about some future event? There is no way you can truly know what will happen, so the best you can do is look back and see how the Lord has guided you through distressing times in the past. As you reflect on your past, what do you see? Because I know the loving, compassionate character of our Father in Heaven, I’m willing to bet that you’ll find the same thing in your past as I do in mine. You’ll find times when you were stressed or in despair, you pleaded for help from God, and then in time He answered your prayers and delivered you from your grief. Likely, you’ve even had similar experiences over and over again each time you have been faced with difficulty. If Heavenly Father has helped you so much, easing your burdens time and time again, why would He stop now? He won’t. As you strive to keep His commandments, He will continue to support you as He always has. With that kind of track record, you can increase feelings of hope that you will also be delivered from any current challenges according to the Lord’s will and timetable. 

Look Forward with Joy

The Book of Mormon people of Limhi and the people of Alma were contemporaries but lived in separate societies. Around the same time, they both ended up in bondage to the Lamanites. Neither of these groups should have had any reasonable hope of deliverance. They were outnumbered and overpowered by their enemies, far away from those who could help. From an objective viewpoint, it seemed a life of servitude was likely. But the Lord had different plans. Following an inspired turn of events, Limhi was able to devise an escape strategy for his people. He addressed his people as follows: “O ye, my people, lift up your heads and be comforted; for behold, the time is at hand, or is not far distant, when we shall no longer be in subjection to our enemies, notwithstanding our many strugglings, which have been in vain; yet I trust there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made.  Therefore, lift up your heads, and rejoice, and put your trust in God” (Mosiah 7:1819, emphasis added). 

Alma’s people had a similar experience, as they received the following revelation while in bondage: “And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came to them in their afflictions, saying: Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage” (Mosiah 24:13, emphasis added). Note the emphasized portions in each account. The people were counseled to “lift up their heads” and “rejoice” or “be comforted.” Remember, they were still in bondage at the time. They had armed guards patrolling their towns and were subjected to physical and emotional burdens. Yet the counsel was to be positive, looking forward with joyful anticipation. Why? Because their deliverance would ultimately come, and that was something to be glad about.

Our future will always be uncertain. While we may have a certain expectation of what we think will happen, we can never know for sure what that will be until it happens. Since the future is truly unknown, it can make just as much sense to look forward with joy as it does to look forward with despair. So then why not look forward with hope and trust? If we can view tomorrow with a positive or negative lens, why not choose the positive? I know this is much more difficult to execute than it is to discuss, but the choice is truly that simple. For some, developing hope takes hard work to change chronically negative mindsets, but with patient effort and heavenly help, it is doable. 

When we think about the future, let’s strive to say, “My life may not be so great right now, but I believe it will be better in coming days. I trust that the Lord will help me. I know He will ease my burdens in time.” Sometimes such thinking is not in our nature or might be considered unrealistic and rose-colored by others, but there is nothing wrong with thinking this way. In fact, it is in harmony with revealed doctrine and what we know about Heavenly Father’s treatment of those who strive to keep their covenants. Developing greater hope requires practice, which involves looking to the future with positivity and trust that things will work out. The future is not written. How we choose to think about it is completely up to us. God bless you as you apply the necessary effort to achieve greater hope.

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David morgan

Dr. David T. Morgan, Contributor

Dr. Morgan is the author of My God Hath Been My Support: Seven Keys to Understanding and Enduring Personal Trials and several other books that can be viewed here. His writings contain insights and solutions to apply gospel principles to emotional challenges. You can see more content, connect with him on social media, or ask questions on his website, www.ldspsychologist.com.

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