Latter-day Saint psychologist: Navigating the (sometimes) rough road to happiness


Our youngest child just graduated from high school. It was a strange experience, sitting in the same football stadium where we had watched her five older siblings celebrate the same accomplishment. Walking to the car, my wife and I reflected on the rapidly approaching end of our full-time parenting. There have been times of joy. There have been times of sorrow. There have been times when I wished I could crawl into a hole and not come out. There have been times when I gushed with tears of gratitude for the privilege of being a father to such amazing children. Coming to the end of this portion of the journey, I can truly say the overall experience has been happy and blessed. So, if my destination was joy, why was there so much difficulty, grief, and sorrow along the way? 

The answer comes from an analysis of opposites. Consider Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They had no adversity. Flowers bloomed and fruit abounded. Everything was very copesetic until Lucifer arrived. With all the drama he caused, one wonders; how did he get there in the first place? Why didn’t Father in Heaven prevent his entrance, knowing he would likely spoil our first parents’ peaceful existence? God Himself answered that question millennia later, through the Prophet Joseph Smith: “And it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet” (D&C 29:39). How does experiencing the bitter enhance our appreciation of the sweet? Let’s look at two more scriptural examples.

The Brother of Jared and his people were assured they would receive a promised land. Nevertheless, there were thousands of miles and an ocean between them and their inheritance. In His infinite power, the Lord could have instantly transported the company to their new homes, sparing them the grief of travel. But He didn’t. Instead, He required them to build barges. He asked the Brother of Jared to figure out how to light them. He caused a relentless wind to blow them across the ocean. “And thus they were driven forth, three hundred and forty and four days upon the water” (Ether 6:11). 

Three hundred and forty-four days. That’s just three weeks shy of a whole year. That is an extremely long time to be stuck in a small, windowless craft that was constantly being blown, submerged, and otherwise tossed about. Why make them go through such difficulty to reach their destination? The scriptures record why: “And they did land upon the shore of the promised land. 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; emphasis added). I don’t believe the Jaredites would have felt so humble and grateful if the Lord had simply transported them instantly to their destination. After having experienced the bitterness of 49 weeks in a small barge, the sweetness of arrival and deliverance was incredible. 

The people of Alma the Elder were faithful and diligent. They had formed a church, taught the gospel to each other, and were industrious. But there was yet room to grow, and adversity can be a powerful teacher. In the middle of their prosperity and righteousness, they were discovered by a Lamanite army and taken captive. “For behold, I will show unto you that they were brought into bondage, and none could deliver them but the Lord their God, yea, even the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob” (Mosiah 23:23). Being forced into slavery, they were subject to carry heavy burdens. They were threatened with death if they prayed for deliverance. In time, the Lord eased their burdens, yet they remained captive. Ultimately, they were miraculously liberated from their captors. How did the people react to this seemingly undeserved captivity and eventual redemption? “They poured out their thanks to God because he had been merciful unto them, and eased their burdens, and had delivered them out of bondage; for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them except it were the Lord their God. And they gave thanks to God, yea, all their men and all their women and all their children that could speak lifted their voices in the praises of their God” (Mosiah 24:21-22; emphasis added). Again, I don’t believe Alma’s people would have “poured out thanks” if they had simply gone on living in peace and harmony. The difficulties of the trial created a better appreciation for their blessings. 

With those examples, does it make more sense why Heavenly Father permitted Lucifer to infiltrate the garden? Does it help us understand why we are subject to wars, droughts, famines, and pandemics? With such understanding, do our personal challenges such as mental health, divorce, illness, and singlehood seem to fit more fully into the great plan of happiness? For every war there is an eventual armistice. For every drought there is concluding rain. All of our trials will end at some point. What will be the ultimate outcome of our sorrows? “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4). I can scarcely think of a more blessed situation than our loving Father in Heaven gently and compassionately wiping away the last tears of our mortal probation. 

It is through the grief that we can gain perspective and additional happiness. Many years ago, my wife and I were in the throes of active parenting. One of our sons was giving us a run for our money. He was unhappy, and in his unhappiness, he made things somewhat difficult around the house. One Sunday I was fasting and praying to know what to do to help him. While at church, I received as distinct a revelation as I’ve ever had. The voice of the Spirit came clear to my mind, and said, referring to my troubled son, “he is going to be okay, just not right now.” I understood that to mean that there were still going to be difficult times ahead, but eventually, he would straighten out and things would be better. Many years later, that revelation has completely come to pass. Our son is a remarkable man, living a responsible life, and striving to keep his covenants. When I reflect on his current efforts, I feel proud and grateful. But I can truly say that my pride and gratitude are greatly amplified by knowing just how far he has come, realizing that troubled aspect of our past behind us. “For if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet” (D&C 29:39) has proven completely true in this situation.

Remember, being righteous does not prevent trials. If anything, at times it seems to encourage them. It’s like the coach who wants to push a player on their team. The coach is likely to have that player run more laps, attend more practices, and push herself to the limit in order to improve performance. Knowing of the player’s dramatic potential, the coach provides him or her with chances to grow. I think our spiritual progression is no different. As we strive to keep covenants and grow closer to God, He responds by providing additional growth opportunities. Some of these opportunities come by way of challenges and trials. They are the bitter experiences that pave the way for the sweetness to follow. If you find yourself burdened by hardship, take heart. You are being refined. You are being coached to greater heights. You have been selected by Father in Heaven as one worthy of purification and celestial promises. Someday you will reach your metaphorical promised land. And then, like the Jaredites, you will shed tears of joy and gratitude for the long journey, the Lord’s preservation, and the growth you achieved in the process. In the meantime, we can all strive to be thankful for and find joy in the roughness of our personal roads of redemption.  

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