~Answer by Michelle**
As we reflect on the events of 9-11, and consider all the current difficulties facing people the world over, we wanted to address this question today — one we have heard often.
This question (or a variation of it, such as “If there is a God, why does He let bad things happen?”) is one that I think most of us struggle with at some level, at some point in our lives. It’s normal to want to have a life relatively free of pain; we are actually wired to want to avoid pain (think “fight-or-flight”). Much in our world (sometimes for good and sometimes for ill) is designed to help alleviate pain, or to at least distract us from it.
It’s hard sometimes not to envy others’ lives that seem to be easier, more “blessed.” Or on the flip side, to be so consumed by the inequalities of life so as to lose hope and feel buried in despair. Or to feel so helpless because we can only do so much to help alleviate the suffering in the world.
Sometimes, to those who believe (or who want to believe) in God, the struggle with pain and the desire for relief from suffering can equate to a trial of faith.
“If God is really there, why doesn’t He intervene?”
“Why haven’t my (their) prayers been answered?”
“How long do I (they) have to wait on the Lord?”
“Does God really care about me (them)?”
“Why does God let innocent people suffer and die?”
The list of questions that sometimes come could go on and on.
There has been much written on this subject, by people of many faiths and persuasions. For each person, finding peace in the midst of trial will probably be a little different.
Following are two clusters of truth that help me not only accept my own challenges, but also process the broader questions about the issue of human suffering. This is not meant to be an exhaustive summary of Mormon doctrine or of my personal perspective. I share only a few things that help me address this question. I welcome your thoughts as well (comments are moderated, so don’t worry if they don’t show up immediately).
1. Mortality was not meant to be easy. The opposition and pain is part of a loving plan — a plan designed to allow us to learn by experience now and to eventually enjoy great eternal blessings.
I recall a time when my oldest was quite young, maybe about four or five. He had watched me, his mother, struggle with chronic health issues (which I have had for several years). He asked a pointed and poignant question: “Mom, why do people sometimes get sick?”
Obviously, it was a loaded question. And obviously, I felt an urgent desire to give him a clear answer that might help his young mind to understand truth.
God did not fail me in that moment. I had a very distinct idea come to mind.
I grabbed a couple of hand weights, and started pumping them. I may have even had him try.
You know where I went with that, of course.
We still will often talk in our family about how we can look at our trials as spiritual weights. Think about the metaphor; we have to literally break down muscle tissue in order to have our muscles strengthened. Our spirits will be tested in similar ways through the pain and struggles of mortality. But like a caring, wise trainer, God will often give us opportunities to stretch, to push through pain, to keep going — beyond where we think our limits might be sometimes — because He knows what benefits lie in spiritual resistance.
There are many scriptures that capture my thoughts on this. One is Romans 8:18: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
Faith to me includes holding onto the fact that even though the pain is real — and I believe God knows and empathizes with that — God knows and understands so much more than we do about the purpose of opposition now, and what awaits us after this life. Because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, there is redemption from death through the resurrection (which will come to us all), and the possibility for glory beyond our comprehension.
Another critical part of this plan of mortality includes what we call agency in Mormon doctrine — the opportunity God gives us to make choices based on knowledge that we have, to learn by experience, to have the opportunity to grow and gain wisdom through trial and error. That fact alone makes mortality very, very messy. We are all imperfect beings. We all make mistakes, and we make them often. Sometimes mistakes are serious, even sinful, and can cause great disruption, pain, and suffering for others — even for those who are innocent. As hard as it is to comprehend, even all this messiness has a place in God’s plan.
Here is my second cluster of thoughts, which build on what I have discussed above.
2. Pain can help us find out more about ourselves, gain compassion for others, and discover more about God and His plan — and about the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Regardless of whether one believes in God, adversity does give one an opportunity to dig deep for the wherewithal to rise to the challenge. Again, books have been written about the triumph of the human soul in the face of severe trial. We can discover that we are stronger than we think we are when we are put to tests of character, patience, endurance, forgiveness, courage and many other virtues. We can learn things that perhaps may not be easily learned any other way but through the “school of hard knocks.”
I discussed this question with a friend of mine today. Jenny shared this thought:
I think God already has a pretty good idea of who we are. But we don’t. Through our experiences in life we come to know ourselves better. When you read an incredible story about someone helping Jews during WWII or running into the World Trade Center to save someone on 9-11 do you ever wonder ‘Would I do that if I were there?’ Well, to me that is some of what life is about. To see what we will do when faced with hard situations.
One of our prophets, Spencer W. Kimball said something that I have leaned on more than once when considering this question:
If all the sick for whom we pray were healed, if all the righteous were protected and the wicked destroyed, the whole program of the Father would be annulled and the basic principle of the gospel, … agency, would be ended. No man would have to live by faith.
If pain and sorrow and total punishment immediately followed the doing of evil, no soul would repeat a misdeed. If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given the doer of good, there could be no evil—all would do good and not because of the rightness of doing good. There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no…agency. … There would also be an absence of joy, success, resurrection, eternal life….
The opposition and unpredictable (messy!) nature of how life unfolds is an essential part of God’s plan for us, for our eternal growth. It’s resistance training at its finest!
Adversity also can help us have compassion for others, and can enable us to serve and help and lift another. Empathy is a powerful tool in healing hearts and lives and relationships. Love can do much to alleviate the suffering of others, and can motivate us to want to help others in need. (Sometimes God won’t intervene because He gives us the chance to step in and serve!) Forgiveness in the face of suffering inflicted by another’s poor choices also expand our capacity for love and compassion.
I am especially compelled by the notion that, if we will let them, our trials can help us find God and His strength and grace, which surpasses anything that we can find or do on our own. A scripture comes to mind from 2 Corinthians. Interestingly, Paul had prayed to have a “thorn” removed from his life. Rather than having it removed, he got this answer from the Lord:
And he said unto me, My agrace is sufficient for thee…
And then Paul shares the insight that changed how he sees his affliction:
…for my bstrength is made perfect in cweakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may drest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in ainfirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in bpersecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am cweak, then am I dstrong.
While it’s definitely not easy to find pleasure in pain (and I think it takes experience to let that gift of perspective distill), I have caught glimpses of that power of Christ, brought into my life through the influence of the Holy Ghost. I have seen and felt that power in the lives of others as well. Even when people don’t realize it, I believe their ability to find light in the darkness comes through Jesus Christ as a blessing from God.
That power in my life can bridge the gap between me and heaven. It helps me understand more about the Savior’s Atonement, and about the deep and abiding love of my Heavenly Father and His Son. As I trust in that power, my faith is enhanced. Hope increases. I feel strength beyond my own. I am able to see trials more as stepping stones, not stumbling blocks.
When Jenny and I first started talking, she summed up her thoughts simply. She essentially said, “‘Bad’ is relative; it’s in the eye of the beholder.” She talked about recently hearing stories about those who suffered severe trials — life-threatening cancer, being involved on the front lines in World War II. There was a theme in these stories, which was, “I’m a better person because of what I suffered.”
I will say again that I don’t think that God is unaware of how hard “bad” things can be. And I believe He doesn’t fault us when we honestly struggle. I think honesty about our struggles can help us face them, find the good, and find God. Too much focus on the pain, however, can bring despair and hopelessness, which at their core are not of God. We don’t have to punish ourselves when we may feel those emotions, but I believe it helps to recognize that fundamentally, God is a God of hope. The message of the Atonement of the Savior, Jesus Christ, is a message of hope. The plan that includes the pain of mortality is a plan of hope. Because we are His children, God can help us find hope in the midst of suffering, and perspective in the midst of trial.
When we try to see some good in our bad times, or at least trust good is there somewhere (or will unfold sometime — now or eternally), glimmers of light can shine through even the darkest times. Any effort to try to choose that kind of light is a step forward. Sometimes that progress comes a little at a time, and sometimes in the moment, it can feel like one step forward and two steps back. But I can’t imagine that any effort at choosing to “find the silver lining” is wasted. The more we choose hope, the more I think we are empowered to choose it again, and the more we recognize and enjoy the perspective and peace amid trial that can come into our lives as we do.
Truly, as Jenny noted, anytime I read or watch a story about someone who has overcome great adversity, that theme of finding some good in the bad is always, always there. This isn’t just about a superficial optimism in my mind, but in digging deep to choose a measure of hope even when it seems nearly impossible to do, and even when things don’t work out as we want.
So, why do good things happen to bad people? I know I don’t come close to understanding it all, but I do know there is a God. He is real. He loves us. Pain is not evidence that He doesn’t care, but is part of an eternal plan for our growth, progress, learning, and development. I hold onto those realities as I face daily pain of chronic illness and other trials, and as I sometimes am weighed down by the pain others experience. In the end, I trust in the truth that Jesus Christ is our “high priest of good things to come” (Heb. 8:6; Heb. 9:11). Because of Him, I — you, we — can have hope.
For more perspective on this topic, see the video below (in English and in Spanish). This video, entitled “Finding Hope,” shares the story of a survivor of 9-11 and how, through his faith in Jesus Christ, he has found blessings in his life in spite of — and even because of — his involvement in that tragedy. (“Una Nueva Esperanza” — Un hombre describe el trayecto recorrido desde la tragedia del 11 de septiembre de 2001 hasta una nueva esperanza por medio de la fe en Jesucristo.)
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My friend Kim (from temporary insanity) and I had a conversation very similar to this today. Interesting. I’m not mormon, I’m catholic,….but Thanks for the insights.
Thank you for your comment. I think our faiths share many beliefs like this.
It’s also gratifying for me to hear of others who have good friends (like my friend, Jenny) with whom they can have discussions about life, and faith, and facing trials, and finding peace amid the craziness that can sometimes exist. For me, good friends make a world of difference in my life journey!
Thank you again for sharing your thoughts! Hope you will do so again. 🙂
I appreciated your emphasis on agency (the freedom to choose) and opposition Michelle. What I also appreciate about mortal life is knowing that God has not sent us here to do or learn more than He Himself was willing to suffer. In a set of scripture we use, called the Doctrine and Covenants, there is a wonderful account of a prayer Joseph Smith uttered during a very sad time in his life. Falsely imprisoned, separated from his family, and with knowledge that mobs were attacking the people he loved, Joseph starts his prayer thusly:
D&C 121: 1 O GOD, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
Oh I wonder how many people have prayed something similar, something along the lines of, “Where are you God? Now, when I need you the most?”
In response to Joseph’s prayer I share some excerpts of God’s answer
My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;
……. know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.
The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?
In Doctrine and Covenants 19:18 Jesus describes His own suffering,
“Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit…”
Two things stick out to me here. 1 that our experiences can somehow be for our good. 2. That Jesus Christ has descended below all of us and suffered death that we might live. If Jesus, blameless and innocent, suffered in this life who am I to think that I can escape bad things happening to me?
It gives me faith in the character of God that He is not a hypocrite. He does not ask us to suffer without having full knowledge of what it means to suffer both in body and spirit. It also gives me hope that if God overcame His suffering, triumphant over sin and death, that with His help I can overcome my adversities as well.
I like this question, and the answer as well – it is definitely connected to our understanding of free will and how we understand the power of the choices we make. But it also helps to have an overarching view of the picture – seen from the third perspective.
I’m not mormon, so take this with a grain of salt (or sugar) but within the scripture wisdom tradition there is an underlying sense that there is righteous action that is life-giving and corrosive action that is self-effacing. The way to long life is a path of knowledge and if a person could walk from point a to point z without distraction, all would be well.
There have been groups in history who believed these were parallels – like a set of black lines and white lines running parallel – but this is a merciless way for a universe to be run. Depending on your path of birth, you were either destined to failure or success. No rehabilitation is possible.
Out of mercy and a sense of risk, a tapestry of crosshatched paths of action was established. Light and dark paths cross by design – not by accident – as a sign of hope that God has for us. The hope is that those who are on a dark path, when confronted with a crisis where righteous or corrosive action can be taken – well they might change course and live for righteousness. This interaction comes with a risk – too – that a person living a righteous life, seeing the dark option at the same crisis, may become enticed to turn from their course and ‘lose themselves.’
This mindset transformed the moral compass of pain and pleasure into an ambivalent tapestry of finding our way – for the hassidim the path of righteousness is the edge of a knife – to one side is sin trying to pull you off the edge – to the other side is the fear of sin trying to pull you off the edge. The way to maintain the path is to fear (revere) God more than anything else in life…
When I find myself in a crisis – a point of critical significance – I try to remember the bird’s eye view and hope that I will recognize the life-giving option.
This is the meaning of the portion of the King’s prayer, “and lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.”
This solution also anticipates the next tough question that comes after the one this post originally answered… “Why do bad people happen to good people?”
Jacob, thanks so much for your thoughts. You have explored some important concepts. Truly, opposition (in all its forms) is essential to our growth.
It’s a wonder to think about what risks God is willing to allow us to face, and wonder at how important the concept of agency — of being able to learn by experience to choose and recognize good from evil — really is to Him. How much an evidence of His love it really is, even as sometimes there are sad results from it all.
Thank you for giving us food for thought, for taking the time to share your perspective and insights.
as i was searching through the net, “googleling” questions of why terrible things happen in life happen i came across this. I am Lds but when my best friend, and the guy i was inlove with died a month ago today… i’ve been questioning everything about this faith and god. i’ve always seen when bad things happen you either grow closer to the church or push away… i always thought when a trial this big would happen i would become closer, the opposite happened. i’ve been so mad at God for taking one of the greatest people i know out of so many lives. i just wanted you to know that i know god put this article in front of me to have peace and to put more faith in him, that he does know so much more than us and trails are to help us grow. it wasn’t a coincidence that i read this today.
God puts things infont of people to help them get though and to let people know we’re not alone…
this is just what i’ve needed and been asking for from the lord. your words are beautiful and i thankyou for sharing this <3
I stumbled upon this post and as I was reading I got a call that my brother and best friend had been in an avalanche. My brother (thankfully) is safe, but his best friend died. This post brought hope through my tears. It gave me strength, and I hope that I can pass to my brother. Thank you.