Latter-day Saint psychologist: What the war chapters teach on turning fear to trust

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Some years ago, I was taught by Elder David A. Bednar in a stake conference. It was one of the spiritual highlights of my life. Among other counsel, he invited us to study the war chapters in the book of Alma. But his invitation was not to study these events as past history, but as a prelude to coming events. From such chapters, many are familiar with the account of Helaman and his stripling warriors. We take courage from their remarkable success and miraculous protection during battles. But as we look closer at their story, their situation was not always so blessed. After the momentous, initial battle where all of their lives were spared, they faced a new task to capture the Lamanite city of Manti. Helaman knew his armies were insufficient to take the city by force. He requested help from other Nephite armies as fortification. Yet the troops did not come quickly. Months passed as Helaman waited for support, while his soldiers were weakened by periodic skirmishes with the Lamanites. On top of all that, their supplies were running short, so not only were they being constantly threatened by their enemies, they were also slowly starving to death.

Help finally arrived, but it was far less than sufficient. Helaman recounts, “But it came to pass that we did receive food, which was guarded to us by an army of two thousand men to our assistance; and this is all the assistance which we did receive, to defend ourselves and our country from falling into the hands of our enemies, yea, to contend with an enemy which was innumerable. And now the cause of these our embarrassments, or the cause why they did not send more strength unto us, we knew not; therefore we were grieved and also filled with fear” (Alma 58:8–9; emphasis added).

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? Being faced with a challenge, you’ve done your part and prayed for additional help, and either no help or less than needed help arrives? Such moments can be disheartening. I’ve known many individuals who struggle with mental health issues, with difficulties that often last for years, and they feel like they get no relief. These experiences contribute to feelings of distress and worry. In some cases, they even lead to feelings of doubt and disbelief. What can we do in these trying situations? We can follow the same pattern established by Helaman and his faithful troops.

Continue To Ask For Help

“Therefore we did pour out our souls in prayer to God, that he would strengthen us and deliver us out of the hands of our enemies, yea, and also give us strength that we might retain our cities, and our lands, and our possessions, for the support of our people” (Alma 58:10).

In the face of a serious predicament, Helaman counseled his followers to pray diligently for heavenly support. I’m sure their prayers were very sincere and intense, as prayers often are during times of trial. When things are going well, sometimes we forget to ask for blessings and assistance. Or if we do ask, our petitions are less urgent. I know I’ve said many prayers that seem to bounce off the ceiling, not because there is no celestial listening ear, but because my sincerity was lacking. There have been other times when, in deep distress, I have prayed with diligence and felt love and comfort from Father in Heaven. Prayer is a skill, and like all skills, will improve with practice and learning. Yet it can be particularly frustrating if we feel we have prayed diligently, sincerely, and consistently, and still the requested blessing does not come. As Helaman waited for weeks and months for support, starving in the process, I imagine he was discouraged. I wouldn’t blame him. I’ll bet Satan temped him to stop praying, whispering things like, Why do you still pray to a God who won’t answer you? You are wasting your time and energy.

Conversely, the Spirit whispers to pray always and not faint (see 2 Nephi 32:9). When trials persist, don’t stop seeking help. Many times, the Lord is trying to teach us habits of endurance and persistence. Consistent prayer helps us stay humble. Reaching out to others for appropriate assistance gives them the opportunity to act and to be blessed. No matter how long the blessing is delayed, please continue to ask for strength to endure your burdens.

 You may also like: What we may be misunderstanding in the Savior's command to ‘Doubt not, fear not’

Trust in the Lord's Assurances

“Yea, and it came to pass that the Lord our God did visit us with assurances that he would deliver us; yea, insomuch that he did speak peace to our souls, and did grant unto us great faith, and did cause us that we should hope for our deliverance in him” (Alma 58:11).

After enduring their trials for months, after extended and consistent prayers for relief, Helaman and his people received an answer. But their answer did not come in the form of physical deliverance such as more troops or food supplies. It came in the form of an invitation to believe. The Lord assured that he would yet deliver them, asking them to trust in His timing and power to save.

The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s where we must build our foundation for learning and progress. Because this process is primary to our spiritual growth, the Lord usually provides ample situations to develop faith. In almost every case, these situations consist of opportunities for us to strengthen our faith, which requires work on our part. The exercise of our faith is an active, intentional process which involves choosing to believe when such a choice is difficult. It involves believing the Lord will save us when all signs point to the contrary. Those difficult, desperate moments have significant potential to increase our faith, but we must do our part. The scriptures contain statements of reassurance and comfort. Do we take the Lord at His word? Do we really believe those scriptures, or we doubt whether they could apply to us? When the Lord speaks peace to our souls, even in the midst of trials, we need to believe Him and strive to “hush our fears” (see Mosiah 23:28).

Move Forward in Faith

“And we did take courage with our small force which we had received, and were fixed with a determination to conquer our enemies, and to maintain our lands, and our possessions, and our wives, and our children, and the cause of our liberty” (Alma 58:12).

Notice the change in Helaman’s perspective over just a few verses. In Alma 58:9 he and his people were “grieved and filled with fear.” In verse 12, they “took courage.” It appears to be a complete turnaround. What is important to realize is that their circumstance had not changed that much. They had a little more food than before, a few more soldiers, but still faced the almost impossible task of fighting an army described as innumerable. It wasn’t the additional troops or baskets of food that changed Helaman’s fear to courage. His choice to believe the Lord’s assurance changed his emotional reaction. This is a powerful cognitive tool that can be applied in almost every situation. When we change the way we think about things, we change the way we feel about things. Helaman and his armies were eventually delivered by a powerful Nephite force, culminating in the end of the war. But Helaman did not wait until those troops arrived to feel relieved and confident. He acted in faith, trusting in the Lord’s promise, and was able to experience peace even during desperate times. Similarly, we will ultimately be delivered from our trials. Such deliverance will happen sooner or later, following the timing of our wise and powerful Father in Heaven. Do we wait until our trials resolve to experience relief? Or do we choose to experience such relief now, trusting in the Savior’s promise to redeem? Like Helaman, we can take courage and choose faith, no matter our situation.

Helaman’s pattern shows the way to change perspective and find peace even during tribulation. I don’t believe this is an easy process. I don’t think it was easy for Helaman and I don’t think it will be easy for any who choose to follow the pattern. Easy tasks rarely produce powerful results. It is daunting to act in faith when every forecast predicts problems. But these are the very situations that can strengthen our belief in the Savior and help us trust Him more completely. “And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6; emphasis added).

May we all have the courage to endure the trials of our faith.

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