Nelson: “I Have Learned to Suffer With Joy” #LDSConf

During the winter of 1838, Mormons were forced to flee from Missouri’s infamous extermination order. On one freezing cold night, Eliza Snow and her family stayed in an overcrowded, underinsulated log cabin. In recalling that night, Pres. Snow wrote:

Not a complaint was heard—all were cheerful, and judging from appearances, strangers would have taken us to be pleasure excursionists rather than a band of gubernatorial exiles. That was a very merry night. None but saints can be happy under every circumstance.

We have a long history of our ancestors and/or church predecessors being happy in what were frankly horrendous circumstances; if they could be happy freezing in a log cabin in the Missouri winter, I should be happy in my modern comfortable situation, right? In fact, I may feel like I have a religious obligation to be happy. 

But Pres. Nelson complicates this easy (and, frankly, unhealthy) narrative. Although Pres. Snow said they were “happy,” Nelson reads this happiness as “joy.”

inside-outAnd, in Nelson’s telling, sadness is not inimical to joy. Rather, the two can coexist. We can have joy, he assures us, “even while having a bad day, a bad week, or even a bad year!”

I don’t think the desire to appear happy is uniquely Mormon. I mean, even science tells us that if we smile—even when we don’t feel like it—we’ll become genuinely happier.

And that may be true, but replicating those studies has so far proven elusive.

Moreover, there is no sin in being sad. Sadness is natural (and, if we believe Pixar, even necessary). Sin can certainly make us unhappy, but so can tragedy. And brain chemicals. And tons of other things. We live in a fallen and imperfect world, and sadness is the natural and necessary result of many of the fallen and imperfect things that happen in our world.

But joy, Nelson tells us, is independent of what’s happening in our lives. Joy comes from Christ, and we can find joy by focusing on Him and following His example.

If we do that, will we be shielded from unhappiness? Of course not. Even Jesus, who, as the source of joy presumably has better access to it than us, was betrayed by one He loved, and was crucified for us. But he endured the pain in part through experiencing joy.

In short, the Gospel won’t always make us smile. And not smiling is no indication that we’re doing anything wrong. The sadness, the depression But even through our tears, the good news of Jesus Christ can bring us an underlying and enduring joy. And that joy can stay with us through seasons of happiness, of sadness, and of all of the emotions in between.[fn]

[fn] (including fear, anger, and disgust)


  1. This talk broke my heart for the countless people in and out of the Church who will read this article because the premise is false: sorrow and sadness are part of living, even for the “righteous.” The Savior is described by Isaiah as a man of sorrows,acquainted with grief.” To place guilt on people who do not experience joy continually–and few, if any do–is a terrible and unnecessary burden.

  2. My 26 year old brother passed away two months ago. I’m still in the midst of deep grief. While I have hope in the atonement and hope that I’ll see him again, there is no joy in early death. I am not looking for things to be offended over, but this talk made my soul ache.

  3. KWW, I’m so sorry for your loss, and there’s nothing I can write that would take away that rightful pain.

    And I was afraid as I listened to the talk that it was going to go in the direction of, Because of the church, you should always be happy. I was pleasantly surprised when he didn’t. Because you’re absolutely right: there is no happiness or joy in early death. But I think he’s making a rhetorical shift here. It’s one that won’t dull the pain of losing a brother, but it’s one that allows room for that pain, without treating the pain as evidence of insufficient faith in the Atonement.

    What I would say is you’re certainly right: there is no joy in early death. But there can be joy in the Atonement that coexists with the pain we endure (and, for that matter, coexists with the happiness we enjoy).

  4. davidferg says:

    KWW: My mother passed all to early. Years later, and i still miss her deeply. I wouldn’t pretend to say I understand what you’re going through. Everyone’s loss is different in its own way. It’s hard to know what joy means in the face of terrible loss. I personally have found solace in Elder Wirthlin’s “Sunday Will Come.” And I think that has helped me have a joy of sorts. Elder Wirthlin seemed to grasp it in ways Elder Nelson can’t describe.

    OP: I do appreciate that Elder Nelson changed happiness to joy. Happiness is elusive. You can’t chase it. You can’t keep it. A happy life is not a full life. But i think there is so much more to joy than Elder Nelson covered, and perhaps more than any single person could cover.

  5. David, I certainly think you’re right. He introduces a separation between happiness and joy, and he talks about joy, but I don’t see any reason to believe that he covered the full range of joy. Like you said, there is plenty more depth for us to dig into.

  6. That talk by Elder Wirthlin is a true classic.

  7. I’ve listened twice to President Nelson, and what he said still rankles. I think his remarks make it easy for, maybe even encourage, those of us who don’t have joy and happiness every day to think we must be doing something wrong. I have a testimony of Jesus Christ as God’s Son and the savior and redeemer of mankind. I have a testimony of the Atonement and the Plan of Salvation. I firmly believe that one day, Christ will wipe away all tears. But the pain and heartache of watching a daughter in her 30s struggle still with the trauma of having been raped at the age of 7 is not swallowed up in the joy of knowing that Christ paid the price of our sins and rose from the grave. As Chris1 said Christ was described as a man of sorrows. His joy in giving us the gift of repentance and life after death had to have come after he rose from the grave. That’s when I think man is meant to have continuous joy – in eternity.

  8. I hope that those who found little comfort in Elder Nelson’s talk might find it somewhere else in this conference. For myself, I was moved by Elder Schmutz’s sermon on suffering and grace. He talked about hope and faith in ways that I found true to my own experiences of unspeakable, enduring loss.

  9. I have been living the most miserable decade of my life. All things indicate it’s about to get worse. I have had a very hard time being happy.

    When I listened to Elder Nelson’s talk, I began to feel all the same things that others have expressed. Guilt. Self-recrimination. Frustration. Pain. Alienation. Inadequacy. Grief.

    But then I started thinking about all of that in terms of knowing God. My relationship with Him right now is strained, frayed to the point that I worry it will break. Yet, despite that, I “know in whom I have trusted.” I trust that the pain is worth it, that He is shepherding me. I trust that He loves me, and that even though I hurt…at times, unbearably…it is for a reason.

    Because of that faith, I have been learning things about joy that I never could have comprehended without the pain my life has become.

    I think that is what Elder Nelson was trying to do. He wasn’t judging. He was inviting. Pain is part of life, no matter who you are or what you believe. But if you come to know God, the joy brought by His love flows underneath all the sorrow. Instead of simply being in pain, your suffering can be consecrated to Him.

    Discipleship does not promise happiness. But it can lend strength and peace. And yes, even joy. This is Elder Nelson. He knows that as much, perhaps better than, any of us.

  10. Thank you, Silver Rain! You explained what Elder Nelson was saying in a way I can understand. I’m sincerely sorry for your suffering, and am profoundly grateful for your insight..

  11. As it happens, when Elder Nelson began speaking my mind slipped to Buddhist teachings about suffering and I ended up ‘translating’ the whole talk in my mind. I have the most simplistic outsider’s understanding of Buddhism, but in that naïveté, I found that it worked remarkably well. (Hence this ‘remark.’) (Setting aside the inevitable Mormon exceptionalism lines, of course.)

  12. He knows that as much, perhaps better than, any of us.


  13. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    What Loursat said.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    Christian (8:51) I think there are lots of parallels here between Mormonism and at least some major strains of Buddhism. (Adam Miller’s actually written a fair bit on this) Part of this is part of the general set of parallels between existentialism and Buddhism. I think major parts of Mormon thought end up being existentialist in nature. (If only due to the divide between God and existence that doesn’t appear in most traditional philosophy or western religion)

    I think Elder Nelson’s talk really reflects that existentialist element that is strong in Mormonism. The idea that we can give meaning to events. Indeed a common view of Christ’s atonement and grace is that by binding ourselves to Christ we are able to transform events giving them new meaning. In part that is how God is able to heal us from our sins and oppression. The emphasis of Christ’s coming to know us in Gethsemene which is so commonly the crux of the atonement in Mormon thought rather than the cross is tied to his being able to be one with us and thereby transform our life.

  15. I echo Silver Rain’s last two paragraphs. I thought Pres. Nelson’s talk was a paraphrasing of Christ’s invitation: “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Being of good cheer, or focusing on joy through Christ, is a choice we make daily regardless of our circumstances while knowing that He–for us–descended below all things and overcame all things.

  16. Let me take this opportunity to thank Silver Rain for all she shares. I have a hard time commenting on her posts, but love her writing. In my sufferings I have joy because I trust God’s love for me and I know all will turn out well.

  17. I believe that Elder Nelson did swing the pendulum too far in his talk. If you go off of just his talk, one would think that if a Saint felt anything but happiness, they’re sinning. And that’s just not true. But, I’m sure some people really need to hear a talk with so much emphasis on happiness. A more realistic balance will have to be worked out in Gospel Doctrine.

  18. I believe Eliza could write about the joy of Saints in desperate conditions as refugees specifically because they were united together as a community while simultaneously being united individually with Christ.

    I assume the joy would have diminished if they were alone.

    But what’s interesting to me is I approached this point as the spirit added further light personally for me. While clearly the absence of that light just led to disagreement from others. That doesn’t reflect poorly on President Nelson, but on those who aren’t watching with an intent to receive, understand, and sustain.

  19. John F., he’s lived life and had a great deal of sorrow. He’s also dedicated the end of his life wholly to the service of his God. He has reason to know both sorrow and the joy that comes from knowing God.

    Tina, thank you. I’m glad it helped. It was a tough conference for me, too.

    Tiger, thank you. I agree completely.

    Kris, thank you. I’m so glad that some of the things I’ve said have helped. I hope that by being willing to talk about my own struggles, maybe others can stay in the fight a little longer, too. It’s worth it, no matter how hard it gets.

  20. Sam: Thank you for your reply. I have never before lost someone so close, so I have learned so much about grief. Unfortunately, I have already been told that I should feel less sorrow because he is now in a better place. That’s not comforting to me. I know he’s with God and is hopefully at peace, but I still wish he was here.

    davidferg: I have read that talk already many since since his death, and it does bring me a lot of peace. I love Elder Wirthlin.

    Silverain: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s been a rough year for me too. I’m sorry you’re in the middle of a rough decade. The idea that I have learned from this pain things I would not have been able to learn otherwise, and that I believe I’m a better person for it, does bring some peace. But unlike Paul, I am not yet grateful for the pain. Maybe I will be as more time passes. I wish things didn’t have to play out how they did, but I do think that God’s hand has been in it all.

    Loursat: I too found that talk to be very comforting. It was one of my favorites.

    GSO: Not that I need to defend myself, but I did approach conference with a heart wanting to be comforted. Believe me. I wanted a balm to my soul.

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