In a talk on trials and faith, President Gordon B. Hinckley once quoted a letter which had originally appeared in the Manchester, England Guardian. He said it was something which he turned to when life was hard and he needed a laugh. The letter was from a bricklayer who had been sent to the West Indies to repair damage to a building following a hurricane. It was addressed to his employers, and read:
When I got to the building I found that the hurricane had knocked some bricks off the top. So I rigged up a beam with a pulley at the top of the building and hoisted up a couple of barrels full of bricks. When I had fixed the building, there was a lot of bricks left over. I hoisted the barrel back up again and secured the line at the bottom, and then went up and filled the barrel with the extra bricks. Then I went to the bottom and cast off the line. Unfortunately the barrel of bricks was heavier than I was, and before I knew what was happening the barrel started down, jerking me off the ground. I decided to hang on, and halfway up I met the barrel coming down and received a severe blow on the shoulder. I then continued to the top, banging my head against the beam and getting my finger jammed in the pulley. When the barrel hit the ground it bursted its bottom, allowing all the bricks to spill out. I was now heavier than the barrel and so started down again at high speed. Halfway down, I met the barrel coming up and received severe injuries to my shins. When I hit the ground I landed on the bricks, getting several painful cuts from the sharp edges. At this point I must have lost my presence of mind because I let go of the line. The barrel then came down, giving me another heavy blow on the head and putting me in the hospital. I respectfully request sick leave.
It's hard not to laugh when reading that, and perhaps equally hard to not feel guilty about doing so. I wonder how long it was before this poor bricklayer could laugh himself about his experience. Sometimes it can be hard to say, “I will look back on this 20 years from now and laugh about it.” Because the thing about trials is… that they are trials.
After reading the above letter, President Hinckley continued his address by saying (emphasis added):
“Life is like that—ups and downs, a bump on the head, and a crack on the shins. It was ever thus. Hamlet went about crying, ‘To be or not to be,’ but that didn't solve any of his problems. There is something of a tendency among us to think that everything must be lovely and rosy and beautiful without realizing that even adversity has some sweet uses.”
Currently, I'm in the midst of learning—anew—that adversity “has some sweet uses”. Is it a hard thing to have to learn? Most definitely. But when we are striving to live up to our divine potential as spirit children of Heavenly Parents, I think that there is great purpose to the adversity that God places in our lives—especially in regards to the realization of that potential.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once gave an address that has pretty much been on my mind ever since. To me, it is the talk on adversity. Titled Lessons From Liberty Jail, it was given as a CES fireside on September 7th 2008. In it, he discusses the time that Joseph Smith and others spent in Liberty Jail, referring to Liberty Jail as a sort of prison-temple. I love the symbolism and insight he shares:
“Certainly this prison-temple lacked the purity, beauty, comfort, and cleanliness of our modern temples. The speech and behavior of the guards and criminals who came there were anything but temple-like. In fact, the restricting brutality and injustice of this experience at Liberty would make it seem the very antithesis of the liberating, merciful spirit of our temples and the ordinances performed in them.
“So in what sense could Liberty Jail be called a ‘temple,’ and what does such a title tell us about God's love and teachings, including where and when that love and those teachings are made manifest? In precisely this sense: that you can have sacred, revelatory, profoundly instructive experiences with the Lord in any situation you are in. Indeed, you can have sacred, revelatory, profoundly instructive experiences with the Lord in the most miserable experiences of your life—in the worst settings, while enduring the most painful injustices, when facing the most insurmountable odds and opposition you have ever faced.
“In one way or another, great or small, dramatic or incidental, every one of us is going to spend a little time in Liberty Jail—spiritually speaking. We will face things we do not want to face for reasons that may not be our fault. Indeed, we may face difficult circumstances for reasons that were absolutely right and proper, reasons that came because we were trying to keep the commandments of the Lord. We may face persecution, we may endure heartache and separation from loved ones, we may be hungry and cold and forlorn. Yes, before our lives are over we may all be given a little taste of what the prophets faced often in their lives.
“But the lessons of the winter of 1838–39 teach us that every experience can become a redemptive experience if we remain bonded to our Father in Heaven through it. These difficult lessons teach us that man's extremity is God's opportunity, and if we will be humble and faithful, if we will be believing and not curse God for our problems, He can turn the unfair and inhumane and debilitating prisons of our lives into temples—or at least into a circumstance that can bring comfort and revelation, divine companionship and peace.”
A Barrel of Bricks
The last few years I have spent living as a student in the UK. It is such a wonderful place filled with such wonderful people. Last spring, nearing what should have been the completion of my PhD in astrodynamics (I'm a bit of a space geek), I felt strongly impressed that I should return home to write up my thesis. And not only did I feel good about it, I was happy to have some time home—after having spent so long away from family—before being off again with a career. And so, at the end of June, I found myself back in the mountains of northern Utah (oh how I love and missed the mountains).
Unfortunately, though, about a year's worth of my PhD research didn't find its way back to me in the move. Of course, fate would have it that I didn't have any backup copies of my research notebooks; I had planned on making copies, but due to the time constraints in making preparations for the move was unable to do so. It was the embodiment of every PhD student's nightmare…
And I would like to tell you that, after much fasting and prayer, my boxes of notes miraculously appeared. Indeed, with absolutely adorable nieces and nephews praying and even fasting that my boxes would arrive, how could they not come? How could God hear such innocent, sincere pleading and not cave in? Nevertheless, it was not meant to be. I spent over three months doing everything I could to find them, to no avail (so much for tracking numbers and priority express mail).
So here I am, racing against a deadline—trying to do twelve months of work in half that time. And to do that work without all of my textbooks, as 50 of them were lost along with the notes (as well as a pair of scriptures [ouch], some personal books, and all of my British scarves; you may laugh about the scarves, but I'm almost as sad about losing my scarves as I am about losing my research—it's nearly impossible to find decent man scarves Stateside).
Admittedly, the situation is a little tough. When you get so close to finishing a project of such magnitude as a PhD, the thought of soon being done is both exciting and encouraging. But to then, at the very end, be set back so far as I have is quite the blow.
And you would think that that would pretty much be enough to have on your plate, but of course when it rains it pours (and here I thought I had left the British weather behind me). Although too personal to go into here, significant adversity has found its way to my family's doorstep; adversity that just keeps on compounding. Just when you think that the next straw will break the camel's back, you're given an anvil. And it's difficult because when things are rough, it's often the strength of others that carries you through. But when everyone around you is being battered by the tempest, it can be hard to find in each other the needed reassurance.
Faith or Bust
I have found that with the greatest of adversity comes an interesting situation. It has to do with faith. Through faith I will often seek from God the blessings I desire in life. Specifically, I approach Heavenly Father in prayer (and at times in fasting) to know if a blessing I desire is what God is willing to grant unto me—and whether there are further blessings he would have me receive. And although I may hope for a blessing, or even believe I will receive it, it is not until God has sent me a witness from the Spirit that he is willing to grant the blessing unto me that I can have faith in it. Faith can only be built on a sure knowledge. And when God promises me a particular blessing, I know that as long as I do my part it will be fulfilled (God always requires us to do certain things on our parts in order to receive some blessing). It has to be fulfilled, because God cannot lie and is powerful to the fulfilling of all his words.
But I tend to imagine in my mind how the blessing will be realized. Yet, it is not uncommon in life that just after God promises a blessing, the way towards its fulfillment becomes hedged up. And as that happens to me, the ways I see the blessing being fulfilled drop out one-by-one as possibilities. And sometimes, when things get really difficult, I'm left without any more possibilities (and I have quite the imagination). Now, if the blessing being sought is a luxury—something wanted but not necessarily needed—this situation might prove to be nothing more than confusing. But when it is something more fundamental, something necessary for you to simply keep going, it's an entirely different story.
And there comes this point, when you are left with no way of seeing the blessing's fulfillment, when you have no crutches left for your faith, where you simply have to make a choice if the one and only thing you have left—your faith—is enough for you to go on. Faith or bust.
It reminds me of the story of Abraham and Isaac. I can't possibly imagine how hard it would be to have to offer up your son (or Son), but it's not Abraham's unquestionable obedience or trust that I want to focus on—it's his faith. Previously, God had promised him certain choice blessings, known collectively today as the Abrahamic covenant, stating that those blessings would be fulfilled through Isaac. These blessing not only pertained to Abraham, but extended to all of his posterity—through Isaac—and even to all the world. But then, before Isaac had any children through whom the blessings could come, indeed, before he was even married, God commanded Abraham to offer him up as a sacrifice.
So there Abraham is, knowing on the one hand that in order for the promised blessings to be fulfilled he must be obedient to all that God requires of him, yet on the other hand realizing that being obedient to God would seemingly preclude the fulfillment of the blessings. Talk about being in a difficult situation (let alone the whole having to offer your son as a sacrifice thing).
But I think that there is a very important lesson to be learned, one that seems to me to be ever so pertinent to the times we live in. In Doctrine & Covenants 101:4 the Lord states that his saints must be “chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.” Does that mean that we will have to offer up our children? No, of course not. But I do think that it means this: that there will come a time in each of our lives when obedience to God's commandments may seem to stand at odds with the fulfillment of our desired happiness and the blessings we seek (and have been promised).
And when that happens we will have a choice to make: to trust in God or to go our own separate way. The crux of the matter may be a doctrine of the gospel, a tragedy that has occurred in our lives, a trial before us we fear we don't have strength sufficient to endure, or uncountably many other things. But the choice is the same. And I can raise my voice in harmony with Nephi's: I know in whom I have trusted; my God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions; he hath filled me with his love; he hath heard my cry by day, and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the night-time; O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever.
I love the hymn
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by thy help I'm come.
And I hope, by thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
I can say for myself, that very personal and sacred experiences come when a child of God, in their extremity, places their full confidence, faith, and hope on their God—without holding anything back. And although the answers to the questions we face aren't guaranteed to come when we make that final no-way-to-back-out-after-this-point commitment, it has been at this point—when I feel I cannot go on and yet am willing to yet trust in God—that I have immeasurably felt the love of my Father flood over me. And when I have felt his love to that extent, the need for answers to questions has simply disappeared in my knowing, my feeling, that everything is going to be alright.
Hold On, Hope On
Sometimes it's not easy to hold on, to keep going, to get back up after being knocked down yet again. Sometimes it's hard to muster the strength you need to have for others, when there is a mountain of adversity in your own path. But when I find myself at that point I'm reminded of two quotes—both from fictitious characters I highly admire. The first one is from Samwise:
“It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going.”
The other quote is from a conversation between Samurai Jack and the Mountain Monks:
Samurai Jack: What is at the peak of this mountain?
Mountain Monk: Truth.
If you are in the midst of a difficult trial in life, I invite you to plan a time where you can be alone and uninterrupted, and then to watch Elder Holland's talk Lessons From Liberty Jail (you can find it on the Mormon Channel here). I say “watch” because it is just one of those talks that needs to be watched and heard, not read. If you're having a bad day, I imagine that you will get a lot out of it. But to those who are at the end of their rope wondering where they will find the strength to go on, this is it—this talk is meant for you.
In the words of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Our destiny is greater than we can imagine. If only we understood who we are and what is in store for us, our hearts would overflow with such gratitude and happiness that it would enlighten even the darkest sorrows with the light and love of God, our Heavenly Father. The next time you feel unhappy, remember where you came from and where you are going. Rather than focus on things that dampen your thoughts with sorrow, choose to focus on those things that fill your soul with hope.”
The time will come when I will see more fully the reasons for the adversity I currently face. With all that he did to lead me to the specific means of sending my research home, I know that God has a purpose in my research being lost and in my being here in Utah longer than anticipated. His hand is so clearly apparent in my life, and I know and trust that he knows what he is doing. And the day will come when I look back on this period of my life not only with understanding, but with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. And when that day comes, I'll write Pt. 2 of this post.
Until then, “Hold on thy way. … Fear not … , for God shall be with you forever and ever” (D&C 122:9).