Latter-day Saint psychologist: Why certain challenges persist


I recently received an email from a friend looking for advice. He related how he has been diagnosed with major depression for several decades. Throughout that time, he has gone to counseling, read self-help books, taken antidepressant medication, and done his best to keep his covenants. Still, his feelings of depression never fully resolved and have waxed and waned. Then about five years ago he was diagnosed with a chronic nervous system disease which has increased his suffering and decreased his hope. Although he tries every day to look forward with faith and gratitude, he finds this more and more difficult as his situation deteriorates. I empathized with his situation. Reflecting on his case, I realized he was definitely not alone. I have personally known many individuals who suffer with persistent problems. Despite their best efforts, they are not able to fully overcome their challenges.

This concept was reinforced to me as I reflected on another personal experience. Some years ago, I sustained a debilitating back injury. It was sufficiently severe that there were times when I could not walk without the assistance of a cane. Through painful therapies, I was able to fully recover in about two months. Yet I have a friend who has a similar back injury to the one I had. Her condition has lingered for years. She has had multiple surgeries that have not brought sufficient relief. Because of her chronic pain, she has been unable to work in her chosen profession and must rely on government assistance for support. She is faithful, kind, and eager to serve when she can. Why would my injury be healed while her condition persists? One could argue this situation is inherently unfair. I would tend to agree.

Justice vs. Mercy

In today’s world, it is easy to believe we are getting a raw deal and that things are not fair. We are regularly exposed to the artificially perfected lives of others on social media. We see most of their successes and happiness while seeing very few of their challenges. In contrast, we experience our own failures and weakness in acute relief to our friends’ circumstances. This can lead to a distorted view of things, leading us to feel that others are unfairly blessed while we are unjustly burdened. Other times, there is no distortion at all, and our situations are simply worse than those of others. Some enjoy financial security while we live paycheck to paycheck. Some have perpetually good health while we suffer from chronic conditions. It is very easy to look at these circumstances and complain it’s not fair. 

When considering their situation in relation to others, I’ve often heard people say “I just want things to be fair. I just want what I deserve.” Let me assure you, the last thing we want is what we deserve. Getting what we deserve is the essence of justice. Justice is unyielding and always gets paid. If justice were the prevailing rule, we would only be entitled to what we earned and would be required to satisfy every debt we incur. In our weakness, our measly efforts would yield very little. We would also stack up debt after debt through sin and other poor choices. “Getting what we deserve” would result in a lifetime of suffering, death with no resurrection, and an ultimate consignment to eternal doom. The Savior, in His mercy, intervened. Through His magnificent Atonement, He paid all our debts. He fully satisfied the demands of justice, so mercy could prevail. Now, we can get what we don’t deserve. We receive abundant blessings from meager acts of obedience. We will be raised from the dead despite our absolute inability to earn or do this on our own. Mercy is the antithesis of justice. It is completely unfair. It was not fair for Jesus Christ to pay an incalculable cost for a debt He never owed. It is not fair for Him to freely share what He bought for such a terrible price. It is not fair. It is merciful. 

The Burden Is the Blessing

When it comes to our personal burdens, in Their mercy, our loving Father in Heaven and His Beloved Son allow our trials to continue. They understand the purpose of this life, the growth that needs to happen, and the essential nature of adversity in this process. Such was the plan from the beginning: “And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:24–25). To be “proven” is to be tested. Tests are only as effective as they are rigorous. Our Father in Heaven could choose to give only easy tests, where little effort would result in passing marks. But what would that prove? The proof comes when we are faced with considerable challenges. The greater the challenge, the greater the effort needed to prevail. When one succeeds in the face of true difficulty, this builds character and reveals the true nature of her or his commitment. 

Elder David A. Bednar once spoke of a friend who purchased a four-wheel-drive truck. The friend drove that truck far into snowy woods to cut firewood. Upon arriving at his destination, the truck became stuck in the deep snow and would not move. He figured he may as well do something while stranded, so he cut the wood as planned and filled his truck with the heavy load. Upon completion, he started his truck again to see if it would move. He discovered that with the additional weight from the firewood, the truck had newfound traction and was able to escape the snow and return home. Elder Bednar noted how without the increased burden, his friend would have remained stuck. Likewise, our challenges in life provide us the opportunity to prove ourselves, gain traction, and become more like the Savior as we move through life.

Of course, our Father in Heaven can relieve any of our burdens at any time. I don’t believe it makes Him happy to see us suffer, but He knows that the burden provides the needed weight to enable progression. In speaking of the Savior’s suffering, Isaiah eloquently wrote, “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. . . . Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him” (Isaiah 53:4–5,10). It pleased the Lord to bruise him. I think that means our Heavenly Father knew the blessings that would come from such suffering. He knew the countless number of His children who would be redeemed through this terrible ordeal. When the Savior woefully cried out “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36), I imagine our Father in Heaven wanted nothing more than to intervene, save His Only Begotten, and spare Him such incredible pain. But knowing the benefit that would come, He endured. The Savior endured as well, and we all became the undeserving beneficiaries of this amazing event.

I believe a similar situation plays out on a regular basis in the lives of all who struggle. We each bear some sort of chronic burden. We all plead for relief. Our merciful God sends comfort and support, but most of the time He does not relieve the burden. He knows the pending blessings that will come from the trial. He knows the growth we will experience as we faithfully persist. He knows that attaining the “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) requires many of the same things the Savior Himself did to become as He is. It requires effort, suffering, faith, persistence, and relentless trust during times of distress. Because of this, the Lord does not always relieve our burdens. I truly believe that, in a coming day, we will reflect on our trials and tribulations with tremendous gratitude. When we can see them as vehicles that bore us to amazing results, we will wonder why we ever doubted. The burden is the blessing.

God bless you as you seek to understand the nature and purpose of your burdens and challenges. May you see them as blessings to help you move forward. May you gain strength as you pull and push them over rough terrain, ever looking towards your promised land. May we all have the ultimate experience, forecasted by C.S. Lewis, “[Mortals] say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. . . . The Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven.’”1

1. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 69.  

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