Church leaders have implemented a set of goals and objectives within North America to strengthen church members. The four goals are: 1) live the gospel of Jesus Christ, 2) gather Israel through missionary work, 3) care for the poor and needy, and 4) enable the salvation of the dead. To meet each of these four goals we have specific objectives set to reach those goals. For each objective we have specific stake and ward plans of action. One of our objectives is to strengthen faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ by regularly studying the Book of Mormon. As a ward [in Gainesville, Florida] we are tracking Book of Mormon story reading by putting leaves on a tree. Our tree is getting greener and greener. At this past General Conference Pres. Monson did not talk for long but he emphatically exhorted us to read the Book of Mormon every day. There is little else we can do that will bring greater strength to our lives than regularly immersing ourselves in the Book of Mormon.
With this in mind, I will use the Book of Mormon as a foundation upon which we can build our knowledge of the Plan of Salvation. Or, as Alma the Younger called it, the plan of happiness (see Alma 42:8). God has a plan of happiness for us so why is there so much sorrow in the world and in our own lives?
Last year I walked through the Public Garden in the heart of Boston. It’s a peaceful place – at least in wintertime – surrounded by flowing arteries of traffic and people. There is a 40 foot tall statue on the northwest corner of the Public Garden. On top of the statue is a doctor, sculpted to represent the good Samaritan. He sits, supporting an injured man over his left knee. The doctor holds cloth in his left hand, having just applied the anesthetic medication ether. Inscribed on the base of the monument are the words: “To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain. First proved to the world…in Boston, October…”. The monument also includes a quote from Revelation 21:4: “Neither shall there be any more pain.” The pillar of stone is called the Ether Monument; it stands as testament to the medical advancement of anesthetic medication, which has benefited billions of people. Can you imagine surgery before anesthetics? Terrible, sharp, cutting pain inflicted to hopefully relieve other pain.
After viewing this monument, I reflected on the roles pain and suffering play in our lives. Some people ask why God doesn’t prevent suffering. Why didn’t he stop an injury or a death or an attack? Why didn’t He stop a plane crash? Why didn’t He stop hundreds of thousands of people from perishing in a horrific tsunami? Why doesn’t God take away my depression or cancer or financial stress or any number of afflictions? While such questions often come from the honesty of intense pain and suffering, I think they are not the questions we should really ask. What can we ask instead? We can ask “why does God allow suffering?” Or maybe: “Why does God require suffering?” To start an answer we must first turn to the example of the Savior. If our Heavenly Father didn’t prevent suffering in the life of His perfect Son Jesus Christ, how can He prevent it in our lives? Are we better than the Son of God? We have been encouraged many times to be good Samaritans – to bind up the wounds of others but the good Samaritan really is a type – a metaphor – of Christ. He binds wounds and cleanses with oil; He holds and houses. He saves lives and succors needs. If the Savior is the Good Samaritan, we are the beaten and robbed man on the road. He heals our wounds through wounds of His own. We suffer but Jesus Christ suffered above all.
The ancient Book of Mormon prophet Nephi wrote: “For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet. Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; I say, trample under their feet but I would speak in other words—they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels…. And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.” (1 Nephi 19:7-9; emphasis added). Our Savior suffered terribly because He loves us. He is kind, He is loving, He is long-suffering. Through His suffering we can be healed. Now of course, the Savior experienced much joy and happiness, but He was persecuted, afflicted, and acquainted with grief. He suffered so we might be saved. While the Messiah’s sufferings can sancity us, our own sufferings can also be sanctifying. Suffering is vital to our lives. This does not mean we seek it but we can seek for meaning and understand the blessings of suffering.
Lehi, speaking to his son Jacob, said “Thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.” (2 Ne. 2:2). “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so…righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery [note the interesting and important juxtaposition of those two], neither good nor bad.” (2 Ne. 2:11). Why are misery and holiness placed in opposition? Holiness is consecration; it is purity and sanctification. Does that mean that there is no sadness for one who is holy? No, but I’d encourage you to spend time reflecting on the relationship between holiness and misery. The contrast is important. “Wickedness never was happiness” as Alma said (Alma 41:10), and sin will always bring misery but there can be misery and sorrow for the holy too. The length of misery and sorrow can differ for the holy because the natural state of holiness is joyful.
When Pilate killed a group of Galilaeans, some wondered if they deserved their fate. The Savior taught on the relationship between suffering and sin, “Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay” (Luke 13:2-3). He continued by telling the listeners, “But, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3). Those who suffer do not necessarily sin but those who sin and don’t repent, will suffer. What is unfortunate is when people suffer as a result of their own sins. It’s unfortunate because suffering caused by sin is preventable. None of us is or is expected to be perfect – we all sin but we are also free to make better choices than we sometimes do.
Our lives are full of opposition. This opposition is necessary. It can bring sorrow but it can also bring joy. The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi said, “It must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter” (2 Ne. 2:15). If Adam and Eve did not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge “they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin” (2 Ne. 2:23). We must know bitter to know sweet. We must know misery to know joy.
While we don’t seek suffering we also don’t shy away from it when we understand the meaning and purpose of suffering. Suffering can be sanctifying but some suffering is not. Much suffering in this world results from sin – our own or others. We cannot control the behaviors of other people. What we can control when we suffer as a result of the sins of others is how we bear the suffering and what we will learn from it. Suffering caused by sin can even be positive when it leads to repentance. This was taught in the book of Alma: “For many of [the Lamanites], after having suffered much loss and so many afflictions, began to be stirred up in remembrance of the words which Aaron and his brethren had preached to them in their land; therefore they began to disbelieve the traditions of their fathers, and to believe in the Lord, and that he gave great power unto the Nephites; and thus there were many of them converted in the wilderness” (Alma 25:6).
Jesus told a parable of a young man who wanted to see the world and experience life. He felt tired and bored by a provincial life – the young man wanted fun and adventure. He went to his father for money and then left to experience his own coming of age story. This young man then spent all his money pursuing pleasure. Money and pleasure were his gods – he wasted his strength worshiping them. When the son spent all his money, he looked around for more. Finding none, he thought he might get a job; however, he had few employable skills. He spent all of his money “living it up” and no longer had any for the necessities of life. He was miserable and suffering. He felt ashamed of what he had done. At first he was too ashamed to return home. The man became so destitute he begged for food; he even ate scraps of food pigs rejected. Finding no solace, no sustenance, he finally ceased his pride, accepted responsibility for his actions, and started the journey home in humility. He thought his father might accept him as a servant, for he felt unworthy to be called son. When the prodigal approached, his father saw him and ran to him. In a moving show of joy and forgiveness, the father embraced his son and wept upon his shoulder. The son expected to be a servant but his father welcomed him back as an heir.
We are all prodigal sons and daughters in our own way. Prodigal means imprudent or wastefully extravagant. How misguided or foolish are we? How much do we waste our inheritance from God? How careless are we with commandments and talents? How far do we stray from the Light?
One moral of the parable of the prodigal son is sin and selfishness produce sorrow and suffering. The prodigal son was not happy in his pursuit of pleasure. He experienced moments of happiness but quickly began to suffer for his sins. As he expressed contrition and penitence, the prodigal son found joy in his return home; he found forgiveness and love. He once again partook of a meal in covenant with his father.
Not all suffering, of course, is caused by sin. When Joseph Smith was a boy he caught typhoid fever. After some days of suffering and treatment by physicians, the infection spread, becoming osteomyelitis, a bone bacterial infection. Joseph’s mother recalled the pain “shot like lightening (using his own terms) down his side into the marrow of the bone of his leg, and soon became very severe. My poor boy, at this was almost in total despair, and he cried out ‘Oh father! the pain is so severe, how can I bear it!’ His leg immediately began to swell and he continued in the most excruciating pain for 2 weeks.” ( Proctor and Proctor, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 72–73., as cited in https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/volume-10-number-3-2009/joseph-smith-s-childhood-illness). Joseph Smith would have died without treatment. Various doctors visited the Smith family, including Dr. Nathan Smith [no relation], a renowned physician and founder of Dartmouth Medical College. The Smith family did not want Joseph’s leg to be amputated – the common treatment for similar infections – so Dr. Smith agreed to try an experimental procedure he developed. Dr. Smith was one of the only – if not the only – surgeons who had the skills to stop the infection and save Joseph’s leg. During the operation – without pain medication or anesthetics – the surgeons dug into Joseph’s leg and removed infected bone. This surgery wouldn’t become standard medical procedure until more than 100 years later. Through a miraculous set of circumstances and a painful cutting edge surgery, Joseph survived with a whole leg and only a slight limp. Joseph was able to later walk, run, ride, and go where the Lord asked him to go as the prophet of God because of the surgery.
Just as it was for Joseph Smith, suffering is a part of all our lives. Once we understand this we no longer need to be upset when we suffer; rather, we can seek to find the meaning in our suffering. We can choose our attitude toward suffering; we can choose how we will bear our crosses when they invariably come. The Savior, who lived a perfect life, suffered more than any other person. Through His suffering He brought salvation to humankind: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9). Christ provided the way to overcome suffering. Christ learned obedience through His suffering; through His suffering He became the Way to eternal life and salvation. In and through Christ we find strength and power to overcome suffering in this life. John the Revelator told of the comfort the Lord gives unto those who follow Him and endure unto the end: “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17). In this life and the next, the Lord is there to mourn with us when we mourn and to wipe away our tears.
Even though pain might be intense, through faith in Christ we can have joy during our suffering. We can have joy when we have an eternal perspective. That does not mean we enjoy our suffering; rather, we rejoice when we understand suffering and make it a sanctifying process. The apostle Peter taught: “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (1 Pet. 4:13). We are blessed by the Savior’s sufferings; we will be blessed by our sufferings. When we are righteous, the Lord promised we will “reap eternal joy for all our sufferings” (D&C 109:76).
Through the gospel of Jesus Christ we find strength and power to overcome suffering. As we read the Book of Mormon every day, we will better understand why there is sorrow in the Plan of Happiness. Some day suffering will end; there will be an end to pain through the anesthetic of the Atonement. That end is reached by following the Savior as He beckons unto us and then carries us Home.