Recently, a friend of mine unexpectedly collapsed and died. A few weeks later, another dear friend was taken after a long fight with cancer. And then a few weeks after that, two missionaries serving in our mission were struck by a car and received life-altering injuries. In the wake of all this tragedy, I found the familiar existential questions resurfacing and nattering around me like the soft hum of a crowd before a big performance. I sat waiting for the big reveal, as if a curtain would open and God would answer my questions. Is God the author of our pain? Does he orchestrate our hardships in order to strengthen us spiritually? Or do all these bad things happen because we have fragile mortal bodies and mortality is just fraught with accidents?
Growing up in the Church, part of my testimony rested on faith-promoting stories detailing God’s intervention at crucial moments in response to a desperate plea. I didn’t live too many years before I saw that He does not always come to the rescue. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s protector is the same God who let Alma’s and Amulek’s contemporaries burn.
God is Involved
Maybe it’s because bad things happen because … well, sometimes bad things just happen. Maybe God isn’t involved at all. That would be a viable alternative except that we see evidence in the very first chapter of the Bible that God does play some role in human suffering. When Adam and Eve partake of the fruit He had forbidden them to eat, God tells Eve, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Then He tells Adam, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;” (Genesis 1:16–17). Then there’s the example of Job, whose story—whether literal or metaphorical—illustrates that even if He is not orchestrating our hardships, God is intimately aware of them, and He still allows them to happen. When Satan questions if Job would really be as righteous as God thinks he would be without all of his worldly blessings, God says to Satan, “Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.” (Job 1:12)
Likely the most famous example of God orchestrating a trial is the story of Abraham and Isaac. God tells Abraham “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains” (Genesis 22:2). Abraham finds himself atop a mountain, knife in hand, ready to sacrifice his child - the thing he had most wanted and prayed for in life. At this point, “the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Genesis 22:11–12). Abraham’s story definitely reads as though God planned it all out. So, why?
No A-Team in Zion
Maybe it’s because God gives us trials to make us stronger. I understand how this could be appealing. That would make God like a coach, picking training exercises to strengthen his top players for His competitive team. But trials land so inequitably. One person seems to get a five-pound dumbbell and another lifts a car. When I think of God like a coach, it would be easy to make the leap that he gives “harder” trials to only the most righteous ones, that he trusts them more. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “God gave you this trial because He knew you could handle it”?
That smacks of elitism to me, like God is drafting a select few to be on His team. It insinuates that those who have “lesser” trials are weak and unable to handle adversity; or like God has an A team and a B team. As if He says, ‘B team, good job for trying, but for most of this life, you’ll just be benchwarmers.’ I don’t think the God who is described as “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) by Peter, surely an A-team player in this analogy, would pick his favorites to push hard and then leave the rest to be passive observers. Additionally, we read in the Book of Mormon that the ideal society that formed after Christ left did not have “any manner of -ites” (4 Nephi 1:17). There are no MVPs in Zion.
God's Role Does Matter
The lack of clarity can be maddening, and it is tempting at this point to just throw our hands up and walk away saying, “It doesn’t really matter anyway.” But the answer to these questions actually does matter! It determines how we connect with Deity, when and how we go for help, and whether we believe that God can or will help us when we call. For example, if I believe that God orchestrates my pain and heartache, turning to the one who is causing my pain could feel like a victim turning to her abuser for comfort. So I may not even want to talk to Him.
On the other hand, if He is a coach-God designing my trials like a workout plan, making me run until I puke in the name of spiritual growth, I may feel guilty when I am weak. I mean, if I were a better player, I’d be able to handle the pain more gracefully, right? In that case, a plea to the Coach for help may be met with a proverbial pat on the back and an injunction to “get back out there” and be stronger. Or consider a God who had nothing to do with trials in our lives at all but just observes and comforts. This God feels like a caring father who gently embraces us as He rocks us to sleep next to the fire, but if we really wanted him to do something, he would not—or could not?—help us. A God like that would feel wonderful to turn to for a hug, but powerless to intervene on our behalf.
So now what? Where and how do we find resolution to this age-old query? One of my mentors, Clayton Christensen, often said that “finding the right answer is impossible unless we have asked the right question” (SUU commencement speech, May 6, 2011). So maybe in this situation, if we are not getting a clear answer, it is because we have not yet asked the right question.
Maybe the right question is not: is God involved in our pain? Maybe a better question is: why did God bake trials into earth life in the first place? Seeing that a perfect man—Jesus Christ—endured trials indicates that opposition’s purpose is not solely for spiritual growth (since He did not need it), but that it is somehow inherently crucial to our purpose on earth. What would that purpose be?
Trials Reveal Our True Nature
I have two guesses, both of which can be illustrated with stories. My first guess: in a world where we cannot remember who we were before, trials can reveal our true character. I saw this lesson in action firsthand with my four-year-old daughter’s swim class. Her teacher took “sink or swim” to heart and would often let the kids swim without any assistance for far longer than most of the moms sitting on the pool deck could watch without sweating. One day, the teacher had each of the kids jump off the diving block into the deep end holding on to nothing but a kick float, a small rectangle of foam intended to help buoyancy, but certainly not big enough to keep someone above the water. He told them to swim to the end of the pool. Keep in mind: these kids could not swim! The only way they could make it from the deep end to the shallow end was if they kicked properly while holding on to their floats. All the kids struggled, and all the moms watched nervously from the pool deck. One little boy kept dipping under the water in rapid succession and had a hard time catching his breath. He was getting really agitated, just on the cusp of panic. The swim teacher casually swam down to him, clearly in no hurry even though his mom was about to jump in herself to get him. When the teacher did help him, it was only briefly, correcting his legs and then letting go. When the boy arrived at the end of the pool, spluttering and breathless, he was so mad. He burst into tears and yelled at the instructor, “WHY DIDN’T YOU HELP ME?” The teacher took his arms and looked right into his eyes and said, “Did you drown? Are you dead?” The kid sniffled and said, “No.” The teacher said, “You swam the whole length of the pool. You did it by yourself, and I knew you didn’t need me to help you.” Pretty soon, the tears stopped and I heard the child say, “Mom, I swam the whole pool all by myself!”
While this teaching method may be debatable, the takeaway is not. Sometimes we need to struggle in order to see our own capacity. Knowing who or what gives us our trials doesn’t really change our ability to overcome them.
Trials Invite Unity
My second guess as to why we have trials: unification. Most trials cannot be experienced without affecting others in some way. This is true physically. For instance, if I broke my leg, I’d need someone to set it. When I’m bedridden, I need help attending to my basic needs. Similarly, if I’m emotionally trapped in generational behavior patterns, I may need others outside my circle to point them out. Or if I am struggling with mental illness, I may need someone to help me find resources for relief. Other people help us access God’s love. The power to help another in pain and heartache, particularly when they are unable to help themselves, is truly the power of Christ’s Atonement in action. Once we help—or are helped by—another, bonds of love build a strong foundation of respect and gratitude. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland recently related the words of a friend who described “the experience of love for others, the experience of being loved and served by others” as “the heart of the gospel.” (“Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults with Jeffrey R. Holland and Sister Patricia T. Holland,” Jan 8, 2023).
Here's an example of this. My oldest daughter, Madi, was taken from us almost five years ago. She died at age 12 from brain cancer as we all rushed around futilely for 10 months trying to save her. We miss her influence in our lives immensely as we try to sort through the question of why God would give us that trial. Recently, my daughter Becca (who is three and a half years younger than Madi) remarked to me on the way home from church, “Mom, sometimes I really just wish I had an older sister. I wish I had someone to give me their cute hand-me-downs or offer sisterly advice or just talk to me about my life.” I choked back the tears as I tried to reassure her that Madi was still her sister and able to help her, even if it was in a different way. Not long after we got home, Becca got a text from her ministering sister, a young woman almost exactly Madi’s age. She said, “Hey, Becca. I just want you to know that I’m here for you. If you ever need to talk or need help in like a big sistery kind of way, give me a call.” When Becca showed me the text, we both got teary. When we told her ministering sister about the conversation that had taken place before the text, she also felt humbled that God had sent her to Becca so quickly in response to her pain. Becca and her ministering sister now have a new, stronger bond.
Paul gives the analogy that members of the Church are like parts of the body of Christ. He says, “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26) Pain helps us work, as a body does, to learn how to heal.
Trials may come from God, or they may be a product of mortality. Or a little of both. Maybe it doesn’t really matter where they originate. Maybe the most important thing is that trials help us understand who we really are and are a unifying force of empathy and action. When we connect, even if it’s about our shared misery, we are more likely to treat each other respectfully and increase our love toward one another. In the absence of the physical presence of God, we are invited to be an extension of Him, to see Him in our natures. And when we do that, we not only learn our capability to help others, but we learn a lot about how He must feel in helping us. We learn in a very practical way what it means to be Godlike. That’s a pretty brilliant plan, even if it does hurt a little in the process.