I often get questions about the purpose and origin of mental health challenges. Are they part of divine design for our growth? Are they effects of choices made by others that afflict our development? Are they the natural, random outcome of living in a fallen world? In my experience, the answer to all three of these questions is “yes.”
Understanding the beginnings of such issues can bring insight. But ultimately, those who are affected are still left with the long, arduous journey of growth and change that transforms poor mental health into more effective functioning. I don’t believe there is a way around that process. Practically every good thing requires much hard work and years of consistent determination. Advanced education, good health, material wealth, strong relationships; they are all the effects of significant work. Even in the case of those who inherit great sums, someone had to earn that money at some point. Good things require great effort.
Those studying the Come, Follow Me curriculum recently read about the children of Israel creating and worshiping a golden calf. Moses had been called up to the mount to receive the law. He was also being taught of the tabernacle, which was their temple. Moses was learning about how to provide the Israelites with greater opportunities to become closer to God. However, he was gone for a long time. The children of Israel started to doubt.
How could something good come of such a long absence? Was Moses even coming back? They grew weary of waiting for God or His servant; they wanted to take matters into their own hands. They told Aaron, “Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him” (Exodus 32:1). It was only a short time prior they had promised to not serve strange gods or make graven images yet proceeded to break that promise. Because of their disobedience, the higher law was taken from them. They received the lower law to help them prepare for holier things. If they had exercised patience and faith, perhaps they would not have experienced this consequence.
At different times in life, we all find ourselves in similar situations. We pray for relief from difficulty, yet such relief does not come right away. Sometimes we bargain with Heavenly Father, promising obedience or sacrifice in exchange for a better circumstance. Our pleas seem to fall on deaf ears. We know our Father in Heaven loves us—that love is intense and never-ending. Indeed, that love was so significant that it enabled Him to make an almost incomprehensible sacrifice for us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). So why would such a loving Father make us wait for relief, or delay the blessing that we righteously desire? Scriptural examples help us understand.
“Now I Know of a Surety”
Shortly after Lehi and Sariah fled Jerusalem with their family, Lehi received revelation that Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam should return to retrieve the plates of brass. Much is known about the experiences of their foursome. Less is known about the experiences of Lehi and Sariah while their sons were gone. We know that Lehi’s life had been threatened in Jerusalem. Remaining there would have been dangerous for him and for those he loved. For Sariah, I expect the idea of her sons returning to that precarious setting was unappealing. A righteous mother’s love is significant and I’m certain she worried every moment between their departure and return.
We don’t know how long her sons were gone, but it was long enough for Sariah’s worry to turn to frustration and maybe even anger: “For she [Sariah] had supposed that we had perished in the wilderness; and she also had complained against my father, telling him that he was a visionary man; saying: Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness. And after this manner of language had my mother complained against my father” (1 Nephi 5:2-3).
I’m certain Sariah prayed for her sons’ safe return. But what happened when one day led to the next, her sons did not return, and her faith wavered? She supposed they were dead and began to doubt her husband’s mission. Yet her sons did return, restoring her faith and erasing her grief. What Sariah subsequently says is enlightening: “Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them” (1 Nephi 5:8; emphasis added).
Sariah’s testimony was strengthened because of her experience. I imagine that if her sons had returned within a few days, she would have had very little to worry about. Or what if, upon her first anxieties, she prayed for their safe return, and they immediately showed up. That would have eased her distress but provided little opportunity to build faith. It was only in the extended delay, the many prayers that seemed unanswered, the increasing uncertainties of her husband’s prophetic call, that she had the opportunity to choose faith over doubt. Because of these experiences, she was able to achieve her own witness. Such witnesses are often powerful and long-lasting, if only because we remember the extended process of insecurity and the subsequent deliverance. In His desire to help us become like Him, the Lord tests our faith. The more significant the test, the greater potential for spiritual growth.
“Three Hundred and Forty and Four Days”
The Jaredites were promised a new land, a chosen location where they could prosper and serve God. The only problem was there was an ocean between their location and their new home. The brother of Jared used both his own ingenuity and heavenly counsel to create barges for transport across the great deep. We don’t really know the size of these vessels, but we know they were secure and watertight. Not having sails, the only way they could reliably stay on course was for the Lord to cause a “furious wind [to] blow upon the face of the waters, towards the promised land” (Ether 6:5). The effect of this wind tossed their barges to and fro, moving them in a general direction towards their goal. The scriptures record that there were “mountain waves” (Ether 6:6) that broke upon the barges, sometimes sinking them deep into the water. When submerged, the inhabitants were frightened and disquieted. They pleaded to be brought again above the water: “therefore when they were encompassed about by many waters they did cry unto the Lord, and he did bring them forth again upon the top of the waters” (Ether 6:7). They endured the back and forth, up and down, blowing and being tossed, for almost an entire year. “And thus they were driven forth, three hundred and forty and four days upon the water” (Ether 6:11).
That is a long time to suffer such an experience. We know the Lord could have provided easier means for their travel. He could have hastened the journey, shortening it to weeks. He could have instantly transported them from the old world to the new, without as much as a minor inconvenience for any of them. Yet He chose a long path, very likely resulting in anxieties, fears, doubts, depression, and many other emotional conditions that could be caused by the journey. Each of those emotional experiences would provide an opportunity for affected individuals to choose faith over doubt.
Their prayers for relief at times brought temporary deliverance (going from being submerged to being atop the water), but each time there was another submergence pending. It wasn’t until they reached the shores, three hundred and forty-four days later, that their prayers for freedom were finally answered. What was the effect of that long process? “And when they had set their feet upon the shores of the promised land they bowed themselves down upon the face of the land, and did humble themselves before the Lord, and did shed tears of joy before the Lord, because of the multitude of his tender mercies over them” (Ether 6:12). I do not believe they would have had such a reaction if their journey had lasted weeks, or if they had been magically transported from one location to another. It was through the difficulty, through the delay, that they learned reliance on the Lord. They learned to trust Him because of their difficulties.
Why does a loving Heavenly Father allow a mother to suffer as she fears her sons are dead? Why would He lead His children to build barges to cross the sea only to allow them to be blown about for nearly a year? Why does He allow mental health issues, physical disabilities, relationship challenges, troubling circumstances, and so many other things that seem to go on and on despite our pleas for relief? I imagine there are many reasons He does this, but maybe some of them include so we can “know for a surety” of His love and concern for us. Perhaps He wants us to “humble ourselves before Him" and follow His direction with increased faith and less doubt.
Trust in Him. Keep praying for relief but acknowledge His grand, often unknowable designs that are certainly borne of His love for you. Remember that day will come when He will truly “wipe away all tears” (Revelation 21:4). Hang on and trust Him until that blessed day arrives.