I spoke on the assigned topic, “How we can rely on the Lord for all of our needs,” today in my Salt Lake City ward.
We don’t have a written record of the prayer Joseph Smith offered in a grove of trees in the spring of 1820, when the Father and the Son appeared to him and told him his sins were forgiven. But we’re fortunate to have the words of another prayer the Prophet offered, a prayer much more troubling, a prayer we’ve all become familiar with since it was placed in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants:
“O God, where are you? And where is the pavilion that covers your hiding place? How long will you stay your hand, and your pure eyes behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of your people and your ear be penetrated with their cries? O Lord, how long will they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions before your heart will soften toward them, and your bowels be moved with compassion toward them? O Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven, earth, and seas, and of everything in them—stretch forth your hand; let your eye pierce; let your pavilion be taken up; let your hiding place no longer be covered; let your ear be inclined; let your heart be softened, and your bowels moved with compassion toward us” (D&C 121:1-4).1
I imagine it was cold the day Joseph dictated this prayer to God in the middle of a letter to the Latter-day Saints who were being driven from their homes in Missouri. Joseph and a few other friends described the ironically named Liberty Jail as a “hell surrounded with demons.”2 There was no pillar of light, but the Spirit whispered to the Prophet that his troubles would continue for an unspecified season. It was one of the darkest times in Joseph’s life. Ten thousand Mormons who believed his revelations, who forsook friends, family and homes to gather to a new promised land, were being forced to flee in the middle of the winter. . Despite our faith-promoting histories of these events, the saints weren’t free of fault in these troubles, but nothing could have warranted this forced mass exodus. What about the revelations? What happened to their Promised Land? Joseph, their prophet, couldn’t find God at the moment he most needed him. Some of the saints later described following bloody footprints in the snow.3
I was asked to speak about “How we can rely on the Lord for all of our needs.” How can we rely on the Lord for all our needs? Should we? It’s a difficult question. In fact, I should confess that I don’t often feel like the Lord is providing me with all my needs. You might call it ingratitude, or a lack of faith on my part. My mom has the kind of faith that helps her see the hand of God in all things, but that’s a spiritual gift I haven’t been blessed with. Maybe a few of you feel like I do. It’s not that I don’t feel grateful to God for the many things I’ve been blessed with, it’s that I have a difficult time knowing when God is involved in the process, and there are times when I don’t feel my needs are met and when no number of prayers can help.
I don’t frequently feel like I’m seeing the whole picture. The prayer I offer, when I can bring myself to offer it, is like our hymn that says “Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom, lead Thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home, lead Thou me on! Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene—one step enough for me.” Even that one step, though, sometimes takes place in darkness. So I try to step anyway, or other times I falter. Why can’t I feel God’s hand guiding me on, lighting the path?
There’s a passage in the gospel of Matthew that I tend to fall back on:
“Beware of practicing your charity before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they’ve received their reward. But when you give alms, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (NRSV Matthew 6:1-4).
Jesus warns his disciples against ostentatious displays of good works, he says they should serve without the need for open recognition. I figure if anyone is good at pulling this off, it has to be God. So that’s one reason I’m still standing here, still trusting and worshipping God even though I’m unsure about how much my blessings can be directly attributed to God. There are too many people worse off than I am—too many people better than I am and more faithful, with more difficulties—for me to feel like I’ve earned anything special. When it comes down to it, my belief in Heavenly Father—however imperfect—does something more for me than provide for all my needs. More often I find myself surrounded by inscrutable blessings and curses, and I feel like Job, who said “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” I’m uncertain I can blame God for the bad any more than I can be assured he’s directly caused the good. Maybe you feel like I do.
Think again of that passage in Matthew, Jesus is speaking of doing good works, asking his disciples to love one another, to serve one another. During his mortal ministry he couldn’t provide for everyone’s needs, and he sometimes even outsourced his work blessing others to his disciples, even though they sometimes stumbled (Mark 9:28-29). When I stop to think about it, this is the most obvious way I’ve seen the hand of God working in my life after all. Jesus said “As I have loved you, so should you love each other. This is the way to let your light shine, this is how people will know you’re my disciples.” Tertullian, one of the early Christian Fathers writing in the first century after Jesus died, put it this way: “[When] thou hast seen a brother, thou hast seen thy Lord.”4 According to Tertullian, seeing the face of another person is like seeing the face of the Lord. This puts a different emphasis than we’re accustomed to noticing in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We see the face of God in the face of another, in the face of those we serve and those who serve us. President Harold B. Lee put it like this: “You can see only that which you have eyes to see… Only if you are the pure in heart will you see God, and also in a lesser degree will you be able to see the “God” or good in [other people] and love [them] because of the goodness you see in [them].”5
Spencer W. Kimball put it like this:
“God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs. Therefore, it is vital that we serve each other in the kingdom. The people of the Church need each other’s strength, support, and leadership in a community of believers as an enclave of disciples. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read about how important it is to “… succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). So often, our acts of service consist of simple encouragement or of giving mundane help with mundane tasks, but what glorious consequences can flow from mundane acts and from small but deliberate deeds!”6
How can I rely on the Lord for all my needs? Even though I’m not sure, I believe the Lord relies on me to help others with their needs. Of course, that feels like a lot of pressure to put on someone. This story from President Henry B. Eyring has encouraged me:
“…all of us will be sent by the Lord to succor those in need. …[W]e will feel the influence of the Spirit increase our power to serve. You will find yourself more able to recognize pain and worry in the faces of people. Names or the faces of people … will come into your mind with the impression that they are in need.
Bishops have that feeling come to them during the night and each time they sit on the stand looking at the members of their ward or thinking of those who are not there. It can happen to them when they find themselves near a hospital or a care center. More than once I have heard the words when I walked in the door of a hospital: ‘I knew you would come.’
We need not worry about knowing the right thing to say or do when we get there. The love of God and the Holy Spirit may be enough. When I was a young man I feared that I would not know what to do or to say to people in great need.
Once I was at the hospital bedside of my father as he seemed near death. I heard a commotion among the nurses in the hallway. Suddenly, President Spencer W. Kimball walked into the room and sat in a chair on the opposite side of the bed from me. I thought to myself, ‘Now here is my chance to watch and listen to a master at going to those in pain and suffering.’
President Kimball said a few words of greeting, asked my father if he had received a priesthood blessing, and then, when Dad said that he had, the prophet sat back in his chair.
I waited for a demonstration of the comforting skills I felt I lacked and so much needed. After perhaps five minutes of watching the two of them simply smiling silently at each other, I saw President Kimball rise and say, ‘Henry, I think I’ll go before we tire you.’
I thought I had missed the lesson, but it came later. In a quiet moment with Dad after he recovered enough to go home, our conversation turned to the visit by President Kimball. Dad said quietly, ‘Of all the visits I had, that visit I had from him lifted my spirits the most.’
President Kimball didn’t speak many words of comfort, at least that I could hear, but he went with the Spirit of the Lord as his companion to give the comfort.”7
So no, I’m not always sure I can rely on the Lord for all my needs. Our lives are full of ups and downs, and I’m not the type who thinks God orchestrates every single thing. But I believe I’ve received refractions of the Spirit when I’m directly engaged in doing what I understand to be God’s will, when I’m keeping covenants to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those who need comfort, rejoice with those who feel to rejoice, serve those who need service, accept service from those willing to offer it, and even when I feel chastised at the moments when I fail to do any of these things. I hope one day I’ll be able to look back, like Nephi did: “My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep” (2 Nephi 4:20).
But for now, I’m still scratching my way through the thickets; I’m still swimming. If you ever feel to say, like Joseph did in Liberty Jail, “Oh God, where are you,” I pray someone will be there to lift up your hands. And I pray you’ll do the same when your time comes to serve, and that together you’ll see the face of God.
2. Dean C. Jessee, “‘Walls, Gates and Screeking Iron Doors’: The Prison Experience of Mormon Leaders in Missouri, 1838–1839,” in Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, New Views of Mormon History: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 25; Justin R. Bray, “Within the Walls of Liberty Jail,” Revelations in Context, lds.org.
3. “The Saints Petition to Congress,” November 1839, in History of the Church, 4:24–38; the mention of bloody footsteps is on p. 36; Lyman O. Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints (Logan, UT: Journal Company Printers, 1888), 72–73. See William G. Hartley, “The Saints’ Forced Exodus from Missouri,” in Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 347–90.
5. Harold B. Lee, Decisions for Successful Living (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1973), 59. This and the Tertullian reference are from Jacob Rennaker, “Everyone…Even the Atheists,” John Adams Center blog, June 12, 2013.