Christian Harrison is a long-time friend of the blog, and we’re glad to feature this guest post from him.
Earlier this month, I taught a lesson on adversity that was largely based on Chapter 3 of “Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter.” The following essay approximates my lesson.
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In today’s Sacrament meeting, a story was shared by the speaker about a discussion he had with a professor of his from the Religion Department at BYU: “What,” he recalled asking his mentor, “did it all mean?” With the succinctness of hindsight, the professor replied, “I can sum it all up with one word: obedience.”
I have to admit that I cringed when I heard that. I think the Lord would have something to say to that professor about “what it all means” and how best to “sum it all up.”
Then one of [the Pharisees], which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” [And] Jesus said unto him, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’—this is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:35–40)
Love. Love of God… and love of all mankind, because God is Love (1 John 4:8).
So what is this fascination with obedience?
You see, when I write a law—when we write laws—we write them to be obeyed. Obedience is an inescapable quality of lawmaking, but it’s not its thrust, its meaning. When I write a law about littering, I want people not to litter: I want to live in a world where litter doesn’t clog our gutters, pollute our waterways, tumble through majestic vistas. But you see, not everyone obeys, so if obedience was really the thrust, then I’d make easy laws or I’d find ways to brutalize rule-breakers. But that’s not the reason we write laws. Obedience isn’t its own reward, because the value of obedience is directly tied to the value of the law. Obedience to a good law is… good. Obedience to a bad law is… bad.
So let’s set that aside for a bit, and turn our attention to adversity. Let me start out by making two points:
• Adversity is not indicative of sin.
• Adversity is not indicative of righteousness.
The first point is straightforward. Of course adversity isn’t indicative of sin. We’re told—time and again and in so many different ways—that this is true. Why, Elder Eyring, in a Conference talk entitled “Adversity,” from April of 2009, reminded us of this very thing. And yet, we insist on making comments to the effect that adversity is somehow directly tied to unrighteousness. And we heard that very thing from the pulpit today, when another of our speakers read from the journal of one of his ancestors a passage wherein the ancestor recounts losing two horses and then opines that it must have been because he had chosen to work on the Sabbath.
The second is also straightforward, and yet how many times do we hear, “Oh, I’m feeling so much opposition; this path must be the right one!” I’ve heard this one a lot, recently, as people make the laughable leap of logic that it’s a sign that the Church is on the right course because it is getting so much flak (for this, that, or the other).
No. Adversity is indicative of neither sin nor righteousness. It is, simply and completely, a force of nature—an important and pervasive aspect of mortality.
You’re driving down the road: it’s a road near your home. Your car is in good working order; it’s not particularly new, but it’s aged well. Perhaps you’ve named it (I named a car once; his name was Duke—I miss that car). At any rate, no matter how you drive, where you are, or where you’re going, you risk being in a collision with another driver. You might be rear-ended; you might be side swiped. You might be t-boned, or experience a head-on collision.
Which of these scenarios do you think is the most common? According to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), out of the 6 million car accidents that happen on US roads every year, over 40% of them (2.5 million) are rear-end collisions. Two people, going in the same direction, somehow manage to collide. I think there’s a lesson in there, somewhere. But it’s a lesson for another day. Suffice it to say that adversity comes at us from all directions.
So let’s continue with that story a bit, and let’s say that you’re in an accident.
There’s this seductive (there’s that word again) notion that adversity (in this case, a car accident) necessarily evinces the machinations of a supernatural being. If you were on your way to church, you might say that it was the will of the Adversary. If you were on your way to the bar, you might say that it was the will of God. You laugh, now, but you’ve made this very same assertion. I know you have.
I certainly have. Not often and not recently, but I have.
You see, the picture this paints of the scope and meaning of life is small, petty, and mean—and it runs contrary to our understanding of agency and its central role in the plan of our Heavenly Father. It not only makes reason stare; it makes a mockery of the love of Our Father in Heaven.
God creates an ocean and He creates a ball. The ocean is vast and, at turns, is tame or turbulent. The ball is small and delicate, like a ping pong ball. It has fine cracks in it and many small pores—not much larger than a molecule of water. Over time, water finds its way into the interior of the ball and displaces the air; the ball becomes less buoyant and eventually sinks to the ocean floor where it is dashed against the rocks and pulverized.
We are like this ball. With two important differences: we have agency and we have the tools to repair the cracks and fill the pores. We are, each of us, tossed into mortality and buffeted by the waves of adversity. We roll to one side or another to keep the water out. We spit out the water that creeps in, and we patch the holes that the water points out to us.
At no point does the ball imagine that this or that drop of water was meant just for it: the ball knows it’s in an ocean and understands that any drop of water will do damage, if it’s allowed to remain—if it’s allowed to fester. The ball doesn’t waste time wrapping the water drops in sentiment or giving them carefully printed labels; the ball is too busy for such indulgences. It has work to do.
It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it’s the beginning of understanding.
Let’s open our manuals to Chapter 3; it starts out with a story:
At the April 1980 general conference, Elder Howard W. Hunter, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told of joining a large crowd to watch the long-boat races in Samoa.
The crowd was restless, and most eyes were turned toward the sea, watching for the first glimpse of the [boats]. Suddenly there was a roar from the crowd as the boats came into sight in the distance. Each of them had a crew of fifty powerful oarsmen dipping and pulling the oars with a rhythm that forced the crafts through the waves and foaming water—a beautiful sight.
The boats and men were soon in full view as they raced toward the finish. Even though these powerful men pulled with their might, the weight of a boat with fifty men moved against a powerful adverse force—the resistance of the water.
The cheering of the crowd reached a crescendo when the first long-boat crossed the finish line.
After the race, Elder Hunter walked to where the boats were docked and spoke with one of the oarsmen, who explained that the prow of the long-boat “is so constructed that it cuts through and divides the water to help overcome the resistance that retards the speed of the boat. He further explained that the pulling of the oars against the resistance of the water creates the force that causes the boat to move forward. Resistance creates both the opposition and the forward movement.”
Elder Hunter used the boat race in Samoa to introduce a talk about the purposes of adversity. During his ministry as an Apostle, he spoke about adversity many times, offering counsel, hope, and encouragement. He spoke from personal experience, having endured life-threatening illnesses and other trials. He testified with firm conviction that in times of trouble, “Jesus Christ possesses the power to ease our burdens and lighten our loads”.
In our trials, the Savior extends to each of us the invitation He extended to the man at the pool of Bethesda: “Wilt thou be made whole?” (John 5:6).
The lesson then divides our discussion into fifths:
- Adversity is part of God’s plan for our eternal progress.
- Our mortal tribulations are for our growth and experience.
- We have every reason to be optimistic and confident even in times of difficulty.
- When we come to the Savior, He will ease our burdens and lighten our loads.
The last of these, is a discussion of “the last days,” which I think is silly. We’ve been talking about the last days for twenty-one centuries. Probably longer. The only last day that matters is your own—and who knows; maybe today is your last day.
Sections one through three really don’t have much to offer. I think it’s pretty well-trod ground. But section four is special.
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30)
We’ve heard this before. But do we know what it means? I think, perhaps, that we slip on past the details and slide into the notion—seductive, as so many are—that Christ’s way is the easy way, or, at the very least, the easier way. But that makes no sense at all. Or why would we need an entire lesson dedicated to adversity?
In biblical times the yoke was a device of great assistance to those who tilled the field. It allowed the strength of a second animal to be linked and coupled with the effort of a single animal, sharing and reducing the heavy labor of the plow or wagon. A burden that was overwhelming or perhaps impossible for one to bear could be equitably and comfortably borne by two bound together with a common yoke.
And some of us know this bit. We remember this from a lesson on the pioneers, or from an episode of Little House on the Prairie, or maybe from reading some Stegner or Louis L’Amour. But somehow we get the crazy idea that the creature in the other bow is Christ. That Christ is the other ox. But Christ isn’t the other ox. It’s His yoke; He owns it. In this metaphor, Christ is the driver.
So who’s in the other bow? Well, that’s brings us all the way around to where we began.
We are taught from a very young age that we are the Lord’s hands, that God accomplishes His work through us. We are, every one of us, yoked to each other—with Christ’s yoke. We are yoked through covenant, and, more importantly, through love.
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I speak a great deal about the Body of Christ. It’s a powerful image, really. A powerful way to understand the work of God. There’s the scripture in 1 Corinthians 12:21: “the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” And there are others of course. But there are literally billions of us, and since the Body of Christ has only two eyes, two hands, one head, and two feet, I’d like to submit that we are probably more like cells than organs or appendages.
So it’s no surprise that nearly every church lesson is (or should be) a discussion of histology: the knitting of souls, one to another, like cells into tissue, tissues into organs, organs into systems, and the systems into the organisms—children of God, knit together into the Body of Christ.
And how are we knit together?
One of the things that knits us together is how we react to adversity. Do we take on the Yoke of Christ? Or do we take another path? Do we “mourn with those that mourn”? Do we “comfort those that stand in need of comfort”? Do we “stand [in the place] of God at all times and in all things, and in all places”? (Mosiah 18:8–10).
Adversity really is part of God’s plan for our eternal progress. It’s a personal crucible that burns away our impurities, that points up the cracks in our shells. But it’s more than that, really. Adversity is an opportunity for us to seek out others, and together build the Body of Christ.
That ball, in my metaphor, eventually sinks — alone in the great ocean. And Christ comes, eventually, to gather it into His rest. But if it chooses not to weather the storms alone, and instead knits itself together with others it meets along the way (Colossians 3:14), it discovers that it weathers the storms so much better, as it is now a great raft of souls, buoyed along in the Hope of Christ and by the physics of Godly Love (1 Corinthians 13; see also my post “Where Can I turn for Peace“).
And these thoughts I leave with you, in the name of Him who saves, Jesus Christ, amen.