Life is hard. This isn’t news to anyone.
But what if “life is hard” also means that “life is good” and meaningful and full of depth? And what if our struggles can help us live more deeply and more joyfully?
Melissa Inouye—a writer, mother, and scholar who has battled cancer from a young age—has spent much of her time pondering the ways in which life can be challenging, why struggle is an inherent part of life, and also why that struggle is truly sacred.
“Just because everybody … knows life is hard,” says Inouye, “doesn’t mean they feel great” when going through struggles. In her latest book, Sacred Struggle: Seeking Christ on the Path of Most Resistance, Inouye aims “to express the ways life can be hard and to validate those experiences and give value and appreciation to them as these sacred opportunities to become more like God.”
Accepting our hardships as an inherent and important part of life is not easy, but understanding that our struggles are sacred is part of being on what Melissa calls “Team Jesus.” To help Latter-day Saints find joy and peace in their choice to be on Team Jesus, Melissa shares five profound truths.
1. We Chose to Be on Team Jesus
Understanding the plan of salvation is the backbone to finding acceptance, and eventually peace, with our struggles, beginning with our premortal lives. “Satan offered us an easy life—a safe, easy, and guaranteed-successful life,” she explains. “And God, backed up by Jesus, . . . offered us a difficult, painful, and potentially really messed up life. And we chose the latter.”
The plan of salvation “looks full of struggle, and we believe we signed up for it, and the alternative for which we often so fervently wish is actually Satan’s plan—a life with no struggle.”
“In theory, we’re on Team Jesus. We’ve got Jesus to help all that’s hard. When you think about Jesus, was His life a prescription for easiness and automatic success and no pain? I don’t think so. Being on Team Jesus means being on team discomfort, pain, and feeling despair.”
2. Struggles Can Create Meaningful Connection
The plan of salvation also sanctifies our struggles and helps us find meaning by encouraging us to keep reaching out to others, even when it’s hard. This belief, in addition to her professional studies, have made Melissa an exceptionally good fit as a historian for the Church History Department, where her work focuses on the histories of Latter-day Saints across the globe. She, for instance, worked on the global histories currently found on the Church’s website and the Gospel Library app.
She and others also work with local Latter-day Saint historians in regions around the world and collaborate with them to tell their stories. “We have a worldwide membership,” says Melissa, “but I don’t think we have a worldwide collective memory yet.” These stories can help Latter-day Saints broaden their perspective and feel more connected to the body of the worldwide Church.
“Now that the Church has had such a global presence for so many decades, it’s really important for us to have some more stories so that we can kind of get a sense of who we are.” According to Melissa, these global histories “contribute a broader sense of the difficulties involved in being a Latter-day Saint.”
This is one way in which learning of others’ struggles can help us find more meaning in life. In a somewhat ironic but beautiful way, focusing on others’ burdens broadens our perspective so that we can more fully experience the joy of the gospel.
Focusing on others’ burdens broadens our perspective so that we can more fully experience the joy of the gospel.
“At baptism, one of the most basic covenants we make is to bear one another’s burdens and to mourn with those that mourn,” says Inouye. “But, like Jesus said, you can’t serve a master you don’t know. We can’t bear the burdens of other people if we don’t know what they’re dealing with, and what people in other places deal with can be extremely different from the kinds of burdens we’re used to dealing with here.”
Trying “to understand and get onto our radar screen the burdens and faith of our fellow Latter-day Saints in other countries … helps put our own burdens into perspective as well, and it helps things feel more balanced because sometimes we can get stuck in our narrow, local political or cultural views, and that kind of becomes our whole world.”
“We have members in most of the world’s countries, and therefore we have a ton of political and cultural and economic differences that really separate us, and … our experiences can be very far apart from each other.”
These differences are an invitation for us see beyond ourselves, reach out and help others, and reexamine our own struggles from not just a global, but an eternal, perspective. Despite our differences, we all on the same team—Team Jesus.
3. Pain Changes Us in Beautiful Ways
Of course the struggles of life are never more pressing than when they are happening to us. I’m sure that almost everyone reading this has gone through something that made them think something akin to “Why me? I don’t want to do this. Why doesn’t God fix this? It hurts too much.”
Melissa is the first one to acknowledge that sometimes when life is hard, there is no easy way to just flick a switch and feel better again. “Sometimes we don’t have the power to shift out of those horrible places. Sometimes we just have to wait until we’re not there anymore.”
“But once we’re not there anymore,” we can perhaps begin to recognize that “those experiences of suffering hollow us out. That’s good because then we have more capacity. We have more capacity to love and … more capacity for empathy—to see what other people are struggling with, maybe anticipate what other people might need.”
For instance, “If you’ve never been extremely weak before, you don’t know how useful it would be to have a chair with a back. … It’s a really joyful thing—to be able to help someone that I wouldn’t have even noticed before as needing help.”
And even though we don’t like to think about when our next hardship will come, “when we get hollowed out, … we probably develop a slightly greater capacity for pain, so we can take more of it next time.”
4. Joy Comes from Living Deeply, Not the “Prosperity Gospel”
To try and make sense of life’s hardness, many Latter-day Saints may be tempted to cling to the “prosperity gospel,” which Melissa defines as “if we do X, God will give us Y.”
According to Inouye, the prosperity gospel is such an easy trap to fall into because it’s “tangled in these really positive things, like gratitude.” “Gratitude feels great, and God wants us to be grateful,” but the feeling of gratitude can sometimes turn into something transactional, “like, ‘Thank you so much for this wonderful blessing. … Because I did X then I got Y, and I’ll keep on doing X. Keep on bringing the Y.’”
The prosperity gospel is also tied to keeping the commandments, which we all know is something we should do and something that can save us from some big mistakes. For instance, says Melissa, “keeping the Word of Wisdom does indeed save you from lots of potentially risky situations. However, it does not ensure that you won’t get cancer, because I did keep the Word of Wisdom, and I got cancer at a very young age.”
“We know that God loves us and wants to bless us and has in many times come in and supported us.” But “it doesn’t work like a machine,” says Inouye. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson said, “We ought not to think of God’s plan as a cosmic vending machine where we (1) select a desired blessing, (2) insert the required sum of good works, and (3) the order is promptly delivered."
So if our good behavior is motivated by the promise of specific blessings that we may not actually receive, we may be setting ourselves up for frustration and disappointment. How do we change our perspective so that we are motivated by the right intentions? Melissa offers profound and satisfying answers.
Struggles help us find joy in simple, everyday things. “It’s … a really joyful thing for me, on days when I’m not feeling super weak, to just be outside in nature, walking with my dog, and just seeing everything … in this big network of life. … You just live more deeply when you’ve had suffering.”
“We accept life with that bitterness and the joy. … We know that they kind of lead into each other. … We will be let out of suffering. On the other side of that, we have joy. And when we’re feeling joyful, we can also remember not to pity or scorn or belittle people who are having a hard time because we know, someday again, that’s going to be us.”
5. Peace Comes from Simple but Profound Truths
Melissa recalls a time when, shortly after giving birth to her first child, she asked her mother-in-law a question: “[She] “an extremely experienced early childhood educator. So she was like an expert. She had been teaching for decades little kids. So I said, ‘What’s your advice?’ And she said, ‘The older I get, the less advice I have.’”
“I feel kind of the same way, which is that the more I go through these difficult processes, the less sure I feel about … how exactly everything fits together. I just have less confidence about what I can actually understand in terms of how God works.”
Yet, “I know God works. I know God lives. I know God loves us. I really don’t have a lot of understanding of how things work, and I think that’s OK because when you are going through hard things in life, you don’t need to know how the whole system is running or what part fits where. … You just need to know that you’re loved, and I have felt that directly from God and also through the people of God.”