Famous Latter-day Saints

The Profound, 11-Word Lesson Elder Maxwell Learned from Chemotherapy

Elder Neal A. Maxwell was a beloved disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. He served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for 23 years, from 1981 to 2004. The spiritual power of his teachings and his example of faithful discipleship blessed and continue to bless in marvelous ways the members of the Savior’s restored Church and the people of the world.

In October 1997, Susan and I hosted Elder and Sister Maxwell at Brigham Young University–Idaho. Elder Maxwell was to speak to the students, staff, and faculty in a devotional assembly. Everyone on the campus eagerly anticipated his visit to the university and earnestly prepared to receive his message.

Earlier in that same year, Elder Maxwell had undergone 46 days and nights of debilitating chemotherapy for leukemia. Shortly after completing his treatments and being released from the hospital, he spoke briefly in the April general conference of the Church. His rehabilitation and continued therapy progressed positively through the spring and summer months, but Elder Maxwell’s physical strength and stamina were nonetheless limited when he traveled to Rexburg. After greeting Elder and Sister Maxwell at the airport, Susan and I drove them to our home for rest and a light lunch before the devotional.

During the course of our conversations that day, I asked Elder Maxwell what lessons he had learned through his illness. I will remember always the precise and penetrating answer he gave. “Dave,” he said, “I have learned that not shrinking is more important than surviving.”

His response to my inquiry was a principle with which he had gained extensive personal experience during his chemotherapy. As Elder Maxwell and his wife were driving to the hospital in January 1997, on the day he was scheduled to begin his first round of treatment, they pulled into the parking lot and paused for a private moment together. Elder Maxwell “breathed a deep sigh and looked at [his wife]. He reached for her hand and said, ‘I just don’t want to shrink” (Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple’s Life, 16).

In his October 1997 general conference message, Elder Maxwell taught with great authenticity: “As we confront our own . . . trials and tribulations, we too can plead with the Father, just as Jesus did, that we ‘might not . . . shrink’—meaning to retreat or to recoil (D&C 19:18). Not shrinking is much more important than surviving! Moreover, partaking of a bitter cup without becoming bitter is likewise part of the emulation of Jesus.” (Apply the Atoning Blood of Christ,’” 22).

The Savior did not shrink in Gethsemane or on Golgotha.

Elder Maxwell also did not shrink. This mighty Apostle pressed forward steadfastly and was blessed with additional time in mortality to love, to serve, to teach, and to testify. Those concluding years of his life were an emphatic exclamation point to his example of devoted discipleship—through both his words and his deeds.

Editorial note: Elder Bednar was called to fill the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles created by the death of Elder Maxwell.

I believe most of us likely would expect a man with the spiritual capacity, experience, and stature of Elder Maxwell to face serious illness and death with an understanding of God’s plan of happiness, with assurance and grace, and with personal peace of conscience. And he surely did. But I bear witness that such blessings are not reserved exclusively for general authorities or for a select few members of the Church.

Righteousness and faith certainly are instrumental in moving mountains—if moving mountains accomplishes God’s purposes and is in accordance with His will. Righteousness and faith certainly are instrumental in healing the sick, deaf, or lame—if such healing accomplishes God’s purposes and is in accordance with His will. Thus, even with our strong faith, many mountains will not be moved. And not all of the sick and infirm will be healed. If all opposition were curtailed, if all maladies were removed, then the primary purposes of the Father’s plan would be frustrated.

Many of the lessons we are to learn in mortality can be received only through the things we experience and sometimes suffer. And God expects and trusts us to face temporary mortal adversity with His help so we can learn what we need to learn and ultimately become what we are to become in eternity.

I do not know why some people learn the lessons of eternity through trial and suffering, while others learn similar lessons through rescue and healing. But some things I absolutely do know. I know some of the greatest blessings of mortality are to not shrink, to allow our individual will to be “swallowed up in the will of the Father” (Mosiah 15:7), and to receive “peace of conscience” (Mosiah 4:3).

Though I do not know everything about how and when and where and why these blessings occur, I do know and I witness that they are real.

Every human soul yearns for peace—even peace of conscience and the peace that passeth all understanding. This blessing is not obtained with worldly wealth or through professional accomplishment, personal prominence, prestige, or power. The Lord Jesus Christ is the only source of enduring personal peace. Faith and hope in Him, obedience to His commandments, and pressing forward valiantly in the journey of mortality invite the spiritual gift of peace into our lives. And His peace fortifies us to face adversity with assurance and perspective—and helps us to “continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away form the hope of the gospel” (Colossians 1:23).

Lead image from Mormon Channel

To learn more about spiritual patterns for pressing forward with a steadfastness in Christ, read Power to Become by Elder David A. Bednar. 

As followers of Christ, our desire is to become like Him. In fact, we have been commanded to do so. But how?

In Power to Become, Elder David A. Bednar explores how the Savior makes possible His divine commission, "Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect" (3 Nephi 12:48).

Chapters in this thought-provoking book highlight the importance of the Atonement, the spiritual gift of personal peace, the importance of priesthood ordinances, and the responsibility we have to obey willingly and endure valiantly.

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