Latter-day Saint Life

Latter-day Saint Psychologist: 3 Spiritual Strategies for When Trials Seem Overwhelming


When I was younger, I remember hearing people say, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” I quickly found that was not the case in every circumstance. One of my childhood friends lived a 20-minute bike ride from my home, which seemed like a long time to me. As I watched the birds fly so speedily, I thought: wouldn’t it be quicker if I could make some wings and fly? I tested a hastily prepared set of cardboard wings on the ground. Thankfully, I did this before executing my ultimate plan to use them to jump from the roof. I quickly discovered I could not do anything I set my mind to, with personal flight via homemade wings being a prime example. The slower bike would have to suffice for my transportation needs.

We often find ourselves in similar circumstances. While we typically avoid using old boxes to take flight, we believe if we just try hard enough we can cope with all the challenges that come our way. In my work with Latter-day Saint clients who struggle with mental health issues, we often refer to the familiar and hopeful words of Nephi: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7). My clients press forward with confidence. Based on Nephi’s testimony, they are confident they will succeed. Yet in so many cases, they return defeated. I empathize with them, as I find myself in similar territory on a regular basis. Some personal problems and mental health issues appear to be too challenging, and we can’t seem to manage them. One begins to wonder, Was Nephi incorrect? Are some of life’s difficulties simply impossible to overcome?

The answer to the question lies in a more careful study of Nephi’s claim. Look again at the scripture: “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (emphasis added). Note how he is referring to the Lord’s commandments and His designs, which often differ from our own goals and methods. As we gain greater insight into the Lord’s will and His possible solutions, we can find additional strength and ability to deal with personal challenges, mental health issues, and any other issue that causes us grief. Here are three insights that can help us develop greater spiritual strength to cope with seemingly insurmountable challenges.

1. His ways are not our ways.

Years ago, we received notice that our son would return home early from his mission service. We were instructed to fly to his mission and bring him home with us. I did not want him to come home because I knew the grief that it would cause him and consequently the family. I prayed very sincerely, pleading with Father in Heaven that He would change the minds of those in charge so they would permit our son to stay. My prayer was not answered, and we brought our son home. Although there was much grief in the months that followed, there was also much joy and happiness. Ultimately, we received great blessings and gained much knowledge and experience through our trial. My initial pleadings to avoid having my son return home early were misguided. I knew what I wanted at the time, but the Lord knew what I needed and what would bring the greatest growth and satisfaction. My ways were definitely not His ways.

Key in Nephi’s declaration are the following facts: The Lord gives the commandments and He prepares the way for their fulfillment. He sets the destination and He marks the path to get there. Can you see how Nephi’s promise becomes inert when we substitute our own goals for the Lord’s commandments and our own methods for His divinely appointed ways? Often times the Lord’s ways seem improbable, but they are always better. I thought it would be best for my son to stay on a mission and not have his service interrupted; Heavenly Father knew better and kept us on His course. My testimony was strengthened to know that when we follow the Lord’s strategies to accomplish the things that He has commanded, a path to success will always be provided.

As we struggle to cope with life’s difficulties, let’s examine two key issues. First, is the direction we are headed in harmony with the commandments of the Lord? If the answer is no, then we need to change course immediately. Success is very unlikely to be found if our goal is contrary to the will of God. Second, we should consider the methods we are using to address our problems. Do they stem from our own conceptions, or are they divinely revealed and/or approved? In some cases, the Lord will clearly show the way. In other cases, He will ask us to propose a strategy that He will either approve or reject (see D&C 9:7-9). In either scenario, we can have confidence that our approach is the Lord’s way. If our problem-solving approach is not consistent with our Heavenly Father’s will, it will not likely be successful in the long term. In dealing with life’s challenges, first make sure you are on the straight and narrow path and then verify you are using methods approved by the Holy Ghost.

2. Humility is key to spiritual growth.

Prior to our son coming home early from his mission, I had never conceived such a thing would happen to our family. We tried to be obedient to the commandments and felt entitled to blessings, one of which I expected to be having a son that fulfilled a two-year mission. To my shame, I admit I was hastily judgmental in too many areas of life. One Sunday, after our son’s return, we were doing our best to hide in the back of the chapel during sacrament meeting. I had a profound spiritual experience where I saw the folly in my previous judgments of others who were in situations similar to mine, and whom I had deemed less diligent or obedient. I felt great shame for my pride and wept like a child. I believe this was the beginning of the Lord’s efforts to teach me greater humility. I will never forget that moment.

We must be humble in order to progress spiritually. King Benjamin warned that our base natures are proud and rebellious. In order to become like God, our natures must be transformed to become humble and teachable (see Mosiah 3:19). For most, it becomes easy to forget the goodness of God when things are going well in life. Yet when trials increase, we find ourselves more frequently on our knees, pleading for help and deliverance. After the Lord had chastened me for my pride and humbled me, I felt broken. Yet, it was in that very moment that the potential for real and lasting change became a reality in my life. Personal trials can be very helpful in creating fertile ground for humble growth.

As we find ourselves in the midst of personal difficulties, we can take time to examine our own lives and what changes could be made. Instead of bemoaning the existence of the trial, let’s ask our Father in Heaven what He is trying to teach us. If He has a specific goal in mind, which I believe He always does, then the trial is unlikely to end until we have achieved at least a portion of His intended outcome. I do not believe Heavenly Father wants us to suffer, even for a minute. However, if temporary suffering can be a means to our spiritual growth and an eventual return to live with Him, I think He will use such strategies frequently. If we try to view our trials as learning and growth opportunities, seeking insight and revelation on how to personally improve, our trials will seem less burdensome.

3. Some burdens persist.

After our son came home from his mission, we had no idea what to expect. I truly hoped it would be a quick turnaround and he would be back in the field in short order. However, a few weeks later we received word from the mission department that our son would need to be home for a minimum of six months before a return date would be considered. We were shocked, frustrated, and upset. The weeks that had already passed seemed like eternities; how could we be expected to endure this for months? I had no choice in the matter and tried to humbly accept the will of the Lord. In the months that followed, things got better. Our son found a full-time job, which occupied his time and helped him prepare for the future. My wife was also able to find part-time employment, which helped her channel energy into something besides worry and stress. I did my best to remain focused on what was important and try to be a good example to my son.

Even though things improved to a certain extent and the overall level of emotional discord had decreased, we were still in the same situation. Our son was still home. We were still in limbo regarding when or if he would return to mission service. I was reminded of the account of the people of Alma the Elder. They were trying to do what was right but got taken into bondage by the Lamanites. They had to bear heavy burdens and were commanded not to pray vocally. The Lord heard their silent prayers and made their burdens light. Yet they remained in bondage for a time, until their ultimate deliverance. My situation was similar. The Lord did not remove my burden but did lighten the load. After about one year of carrying that burden, the Lord saw fit to deliver us and our son returned to the mission field. He had a wonderful experience and was a far better missionary than he would have been were it not for these trials.

As we struggle to cope with weakness and difficulties, remember this truth: some burdens persist. In His infinite wisdom, God will create the perfect mix of trials, successes, strengths, and weaknesses in order to best facilitate our growth. I know He will help us lift those burdens, just as He did with the people of Alma, if we will ask in faith. But I also know there are times when we will be required to carry the weight, even with divine assistance, for a very long time. The learning we can achieve from these heaven-sent challenges will be indispensable and worth every moment of temporary suffering.

Our Heavenly Father loves us. He loves us enough to bless us with what we need, which is often contrary to what we want. He loves us enough to endure watching our suffering, knowing a far greater purpose can eventually be served through the process. Trust in your Father in Heaven. Do not buy the lies that He has forgotten you, is angry with you, or believes you are not worth saving. All who humbly seek to do what is right, notwithstanding their missteps and weakness, are beloved and cherished by God. As you face your personal trials, join hands with the Savior, learn of His ways, accept His will, and move forward with faith. Victory is on the horizon for all who so choose.

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