These Things Shall Give Thee Experience

Standard

I spend much of my time working with people who are dealing with end of life issues. While not generally in the acute stages of end-of-life,many of the people I interact with are struggling with major medical challenges, neurodegenerative diseases, and loss of independent function. These are challenges for them and challenges for their family and friends. At times there is unspoken grief and pain. At other times the grief flows freely. I see fear and fatigue and failure. But I also see joy, gladness, love, resolve, and faith. Some people face the future with considerable fear. They see the unknown of a dementia or other irreversible process and are afraid. Others face the same challenges with a resolve of strength. They want to celebrate what time they have left and be grateful for what they have.

Facing an unknown future or heavy trials with such strength reminds me of the verse in Alma where Alma expresses many great desires of his heart but then takes a moment to temper his grand desires: “I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me” (Alma 29:3). Do we face the trials in our lives with contentment and with gratitude towards God for the blessings He has given us? Or do we face our trials with fear and loathing; do we curse God and die?

There can be goodness, help, hope, and happiness in the midst of the severest trials. We are promised that as we bear our trials we will be blessed – in this life and in the next. “And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou…that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).

Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that all our sufferings will be for our good? How can chronic pain or debilitating disease or psychological suffering be for our good? It depends on how we define good and if we understand God’s plans for us. Those who can find meaning in suffering can bear any suffering. Those who know that God will eventually bless us for our sufferings in this life, have caught a glimpse of God’s plan and goodness. None of this minimizes the intensity of trials and suffering to those in the midst of it but each tear of sorrow and heartache and pain we shed in this life can be matched with many tears of joy in the life to come.

Hope in the Resurrection

Standard

I recently started a new phase of my graduate school training where I spend most of my days working with older adults who are neurologically compromised, or at least are suspected to be compromised. Working with this population of individuals is interesting and rewarding but also disheartening; it’s difficult seeing people whose brains have stopped working as they should (of course, I don’t think many of our brains quite work like they should – there’s certainly much more potential we all have that will not be reached in this life). What is comforting is knowing that as all of the people I interact with approach the end of their lives there is hope in the resurrection.

“The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame.” (Alma 40:23).

It is important to keep in mind that our sufferings and trials only last a short time (this life is short – eternity is a long, long time): “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.” (D&C 121:7-8). Our foes might be our own brains.

That’s a glorious promise to remember as we struggle through adversity or watch those around us struggle through adversity! Pres. Uchtdorf recently offered additional words of comfort to those who struggle: “The Psalmist says, ‘This is the day which the Lord hath made; we [should] rejoice and be glad in it’ (Psalm 118:24). Amulek reminds us that ‘this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors’ (Alma 34:32; emphasis added). And a poet muses, ‘Forever—is composed of Nows.’1 Being always in the middle means that the game is never over, hope is never lost, defeat is never final. For no matter where we are or what our circumstances, an eternity of beginnings and an eternity of endings stretch out before us. We are always in the middle.” (Uchtdorf, Always in the Middle, Ensign, July 2012).

Watching individuals and families struggle with dementia or other devastating disorders is difficult – there’s very little to offer in terms of comfort clinically – but that’s where knowledge of the Plan of Salvation is comforting for those of us who know of it. It is our responsibility to share this knowledge with others – it would do much to assuage much grief in the world by offering hope in the future.

Mary and Suffering

Standard

Mary and Joseph were required to travel to Bethlehem as part of the census (taxation). Here was a governmental requirement that might have seen onerous at the time. It required Joseph and Mary and a lot of other people to travel to the hometown of their ancestors in order to be counted and maybe pay a tax. This was a journey of about 90 miles for the expectant Mary, not an easy task at that time. It would have been easy for Mary to simply not go (she probably could have made the excuse and either sent someone in her stead or had Joseph just go); but Mary went. She suffered in order to fulfill prophecy. Mary might have known that Jesus was supposed to be born in Bethlehem – there is much we do not know about what Mary knew. It is clear that she knew much but kept most of what she knew to herself; it was sacred knowledge. So Mary suffered and prophecy was fulfilled – Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Suffering can be like that in our lives – it can (and usually does) have purpose. We might not know beforehand what the purpose of our suffering is, in fact, we rarely do. The Prophet Joseph was comforted in his sufferings with these words: “And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, 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?” (D&C 122:7-8).

Difficulties and suffering can give us experience; we can learn from them. There is much growth in adversity. Just as the adversity and resistance of weight training builds muscles, so can life adversity strengthen us. Or, we can let adversity destroy us. What we know from the scripture verses I quoted though is that adversity and trials give us experience; they help us. In addition, they are for our good. What we suffer will benefit us in the long run. In effect, the Lord will make it up to us in this life and/or in the next. Of course, much of our suffering might be due to our own sins. We can learn from our mistakes and sins. It would be better if we didn’t sin but we all do. Thankfully, the Savior provides the way for us to overcome our sins.

Jesus suffered more than anyone else who ever lived on earth. He descended below all so that He might comprehend all and atone for all. He was born in and through suffering and died in suffering but He rose triumphant from the grave. I’m sure his special mother, Mary, taught Him about suffering and how to faithfully bear it.

Human Anguish and Divine Love

Standard

Truman Madsen gave a talk entitled Human Anguish and Divine Love as part of his Timeless Questions, Gospel Insights lecture series. In this talk he covered the age-old question of “Why do we suffer?” What follows is a partial transcript of his talk.

“[The book of Job] speaks of a man who had not been unrighteous in any way and yet loses everything; his flocks and herds, his family, and finally his health – and is covered with boils. His comforters come, with the presupposition that there is no other explanation [for suffering] except sin, and ask him, ‘Alright Job. Be honest. Out with it! What have you done wrong?’ And Job replied, “I haven’t done wrong and yet I suffer.” And that’s the dilemma we still face. What about innocent suffering?

“So we go down to the other side of the triangle and ask ‘Well what can we say about the power of God?’ Do we – must we – acknowledge that God does not have all power? And therefore, that some evils are irremediable? Now I enter at least hip deep into deep water, which is in some ways unique to us [Latter-day Saints], to our tradition. See, it isn’t sufficient to ask, ‘Could God have prevented the blindness that afflicts that newborn child?’ ‘Could God have healed such and such a person who was born without a spine?’ ‘Could God reverse the ravages of disease in those who are suffering from all these forms of terminal cancer?’ Of course He has the power to do those things! Then, why doesn’t He? Ah, because we don’t ask the right question, which is, ‘Can He do compossible things? Can He achieve the purposes of mortality in our lives and at the same time eradicate all suffering and evil?’ And the answer is, ‘No, He cannot.’ When the famous dam broke up north in Idaho. An earthen dam first cracked and then broke. Then a huge wave of swirling water swept down and in that incredible turmoil destroyed houses, barns, drowned cattle and some human beings. When it’s all over and people go back and find just a chimney left or a frame, they sit down and ask the hardest question, and it’s not academic, ‘Why us? Why did this happen to us?’

“Elders Spencer W. Kimball and Boyd K. Packer went up and held a meeting with these people who literally had been wiped out. Brother Packer’s reported to have said something like this, ‘You have been asking the question, ‘Why us?’ Well I’ve come to tell you.’ By the way they [those affected] had said the things most of us would have said, ‘Well, I’ve tried to live a good life, I certainly have faith in the purposes of the Lord, and etcetera.’ ‘I’ve come to tell you the answer,’ said Brother Packer, ‘It happened to you because the dam broke.’ Now you may consider that a fairly superficial answer but he was saying something really quite profound. We elected – you and I, and that’s a unique view [to Mormons] – we elected, prepared for, even were trained for the experiences of mortality. And we knew very well as best we could as mere spectators – and now we are participants – we knew very well it would involve the kinds of things we face every day including sacrifice, suffering, service.

“If the question then is raised, ‘God, why did You get me into this?’ The Mormon answer is, ‘Why did you get you into this?’ You elected and we are told we shouted for joy at the prospect. Imagine that! Shouting for joy! But couldn’t God being all powerful have arranged a plan of redemption that would enable us to become what we really have it in us to become without going through such a struggle? And the Mormon answer to that is, ‘No, He couldn’t!’ To achieve the growth and the overcoming that are essential to a condition like unto His, we have to submit to the operation. I repeat, our understanding is: God Himself is powerless to get us to total fulfillment except through the operation we call mortality. And that involves freedom, and much of the evil of the world derives from freedom, but not all of it. And furthermore, apparently in the spiritual world, we faced the same realities we do in the physical; namely, suppose you want muscle. You want to develop strength. You’re too young to have known the ads that used to appear, not just in the sports and athletic magazines but in others. Uh, it was always a picture of Charles Atlas. Charles Atlas, uh, with his barrel chest, flexing the biceps. And underneath it said, ‘I was – stress was – a 98 pound weakling.’ Well, that got your attention if you were like myself, a 45 pound weakling. And you see his fine physique. And so he had a course called Dynamic Tension. Well, imagine writing to Charles Atlas and saying, ‘Send me the equipment.’ And then 6 months later writing, ‘Dear Charles, I am returning your equipment and there has been no change but please send muscles.’ Can you put muscles in boxes?

“The U.S. Army tried during the period of the Second World War to find a way of quickly enhancing muscle and strength without exercise. Maybe we can do it with pills. Maybe we can do it with nutrition. Maybe we can do it with sun lamps, but somehow we’ve got to build an army and we haven’t got time to go through all these logistics of exercise. Well, they failed. The only way you can develop muscle is stress. And apparently, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only way you can build character and sanctify souls is through distress and pain. No woman has ever given birth to a child, I submit, without some pain. We call them labor pains. My suspicion is that all the books on painless childbirth have indeed been written by men. Jesus takes that exact simile and says, ‘When a woman is taken in labor and travail, she hath sorrow because her hour is come.’ He said again and again in His life, ‘Mine hour has not yet come’ but then it did come.

“The sequel to the verse is, ‘But when she is delivered of a child she hath great joy because a son is born into the world.’ Strange thing to call up a woman who is 8 months pregnant as I did once and said, ‘Uh, any labor pains yet?’ She said, ‘No, darn it!’ Here’s a woman who wants to have the pains. Why? Because beyond them is deliverance and not only that – new life! That’s exactly the analogy of the purposes of mortality and Jesus talks about our being reborn. Who paid the price and went through the labor pains so we could be reborn? He did!

“I turn to a related point that I suppose no one else in the philosophical and religious world would affirm. You remember the story of the three Nephites who, having known great frustration and failure earlier in their attempts to bring others to meaningful lives, now yearn to stay, to endure further and longer in the world in order to help. There’s something like that, by the way, in the Buddhistic notion of the bodhisattva, the fully enlightened one, who has now the right and the power, if you will, to enter into the condition of Nirvana but deliberately chooses to stay behind and help others, thus to postpone his own fulfillment. That is a Christian motif. Three Nephites ask and receive. The key line in our context is, we are told that they will be spared – by some sort of transformation – any more of the pains of mortality with one exception: they would still have sorrow for the sins of the world. And we read later, so they did.

“Well, you can take another approach. You can argue – some have – that the whole point of life is to become indifferent to the condition of others. Don’t get involved. Do not think about, do not witness. Build as it were a moat around yourself and care only for your own ataraxia, which means a kind of calm resignation. That’s avoidance! And you can make a life. But what happens, really in the end? Well, I’m suggesting to you to consider that perhaps contrary to the standard view, which is when Jesus said on the cross, ‘It is finished!’ And that meant that forever His suffering was over; contrary to that notion the pronoun ‘it’ referred to His submission to death and the end of His mortal sojourn but even as a resurrected and glorified Being in the image of His Father, He is still super-sensitive to the sins of this world! And is still sorrowed and is still capable, as is the Father, of weeping when His children deliberately, sometimes ignorantly, but always tragically run away from Him instead of toward Him. Even now His sorrow is in some respects greater, precisely because He paid the infinite price to enable us to avoid needless suffering. There is needless suffering as well as suffering. That is a solemn thought and yet there is such a thing as pure joy even in the midst of affliction. And that leads me to my last two points.

“There is a movement in our time, I’ve referred to it twice before, known as Existentialism. The term is hard to pronounce. But what is held by all of them together is a negative assessment of life to the point of maintaining that it is finally absurd. So you have the phrase of Sartre: life is a useless passion. You have the expression of Camus who reviews all of the ills of life and then concludes, there is only one problem: suicide. You have the view expressed by Heidegger, whatever we then do in our life, in his view, is authentic, otherwise merely superficial, temporary, and fleeting. As Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian was for most of his life unhappy, as he made clear in his writings. But ended by saying that all this is necessary; somehow, he wants to hold onto something of the Christian message. It’s as if you become most free, and for him, redeemed only when you acknowledge that there is nothing! That everything is absurd and then somehow you accept Christ. Well I submit that in some ways that’s exactly upside down. It is only, ultimately through Christ that we find and hold on to meaning. Not only in life but in death.

“To dwell on, to exaggerate suffering to the point of holding that life is meaningless – you see if it is, if it is totally absurd, I just point out in passing, if it is totally absurd then it cannot be meaningful to say so. And by the way, existentialists usually look pretty happy when they get literary prizes. Celebrating despair becomes heroism – passes for, at last, complete honesty and I suggest to you, on the contrary, it is the most sophisticated form of cowardice. That it is the hallucination of sick minds, and therefore Freud and Marx both had it exactly backwards. The healthy-minded sees for health what the sick cannot see at all. And the sick are incapable at this point of seeing meaning.

“Excuse me but there’s another phrase from Herman Wouk that haunts me. He observes that, ‘Many say that life is not worth living and many say that they would much rather die than be crippled or have a long stay in the hospital’ but Wouk’s point is that we notice that most of them still hold on after they’ve said that; not all, but most. In a wheelchair a dear friend of mine is coming down the hall of the hospital, troubled that she’s had to spend a week in the hospital. And then she, uh, out of the corner of her eye sees a women in bed; her hands are not exactly folded because she has crippling arthritis. She stops, rolls in, notices something about the woman’s face – serenity, calmness, even beauty. ‘How long,’ she asks, ‘have you had crippling arthritis?’ ’25 years.’ ‘How long have you been in this condition, in the hospital?’ ’12 years.’ ‘How can you stand it?’ She had faith and she had found meaning.

“I have here the handwritten note of one of the finest philosophers of our time, Prof. John Cobb, Jr. I have a P.S. to a letter after he and I together wrote an article for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. I say to him, ‘Is not the Atonement of Jesus Christ the most acute and sensitive problem of theodicy? Here, meaning in Christ’s life, innocence is subjected to incomparable suffering. In your own heart-thinking, how is this reconciled with a God who, if He has all power could surely have coped in another way, sparing His Son and/or Himself?’ And in his own pen he writes, ‘My heart-think is, that God does not have all power. John.’ That’s also the Mormon view. He has all the power it’s possible to have in a universe that self-exists and amidst intelligences that are free. The minute you acknowledge that Man is free, you have to say that evil is possible. And the minute you observe around you the use of freedom, you have to say, it is actual. But now to Brother Brigham.

“This is the year we have talked a great deal about the plains. Here are two glimpses that have not only impressed me but shaken me, deeply. Brigham said, he’s looking back, this is 1860, so not yet 2 decades being in the valley. Said, ‘The sufferings of the wicked in crossing the plains have been far more severe than what had been endured of the Saints of the Most High. And when we talk of the difference in regard to the pangs of death, there is no comparison.’ Stegner observes, in comparing the Mormons who faced ever West, who sometimes had their hands frozen to the crossbar of the handcarts, who some of them died in each other’s arms, were not the same as the Donner party, who facing mountains of snow at Donner Pass finally lapsed into cannibalism. The sufferings of the wicked, he [Bro. Brigham] says, were much greater than the sufferings of the Saints. Why? Well, he then says, ‘In speaking of the paths of the righteous and the wicked, in the right hand there is joy, peace, comfort, light, and life while in the left hand there is nothing but darkness, misery, sorrow, and death. And while it is joy and peace to be a servant of God, it is sorrow and affliction to be wicked.’

“Another quote, ‘The faith I have embraced has given me light for darkness, ease for pain.’ He doesn’t say total removal. ‘Joy and gladness, for sorrow and mourning. Certainty for uncertainty, hope for despair. We talk about having grace to endure and we pray, ‘Oh, Lord. Give me grace to endure the pains I receive in this thorny path.” William Clayton’s phrase, remember? ‘Grace shall be as your day.’ Enough, each day! ‘This thorny path, which leads to heaven. Help me endure the scoffs and snares of the unfriendly world that I may bear the name of Jesus honorably while I live. It is right to pray for grace. But let me shape this prayer a little differently and ask God, my Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ to open the eyes of my understanding and teach me the truth as it is. Then I shall see that I am walking in the light and not in the darkness.’ Then spake Jesus again unto them saying, ‘I am the Light of the World. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.’ The true people of God are far removed from that pain, which the sinner and ungodly constantly endure.’

“There was a moment when the 3rd company west, in 1847, led by Jedediah M. Grant, had first lost nearly 30 of their horses and cattle to an Indian raid and then comes the returning company of Brigham Young from the valley going back to Winter Quarters. And they learn from first-hand witnesses that there is a valley, and you’re getting close, and we’ve started to build our city, and it’s beautiful, and they rejoice! In their very rejoicing they let down their guard and Indians raid and 40 more of their horses and teams are driven off. They spend a day and travel 30 miles to try to recover them. They fail. And then it’s very clear to Brigham, that the only way Jedediah’s company is going to reach the valley is if they, every one of his party, surrender their animals. And so he stands up on a wagon and in his own account says, ‘I didn’t look at their faces. I said, ‘Brethren, give all of your horses to Jedediah Grant’s company.” And I remind you that we are only about 900 miles at that point from Winter Quarters, while shows he also a sense of humor, he says, ‘At 9 o’clock, we saw Jedediah’s hundred’ – and it wasn’t just a hundred bodies, it was a hundred, including families – ‘we saw them heading for the valley. And then I invited my brethren to take a walk with me to Winter Quarters.’ This is the same man that Elder Neal Maxwell’s quoted to whit, ‘I say God is the author of life and of all joy and comfort. He is the author of all intelligence and of all good to us. Then become satisfied to obey Him. Seek to get more and more of His nature and learn more of Him. This will give us greater sensibility and we shall know how to enjoy and how to endure. I say, if you want to enjoy exquisitely, become a Latter-day Saint! And then live the doctrine of Jesus Christ. The man or woman who will do this will enjoy and endure most. And if they will be humble and faithful, they will enjoy the glory and the excellency of the power of God and be prepared to live with gods and with angels.’

I bear my witness that evil is real. I bear my witness that God is good. I bear my witness that He does all within His power to enable us to avoid needless suffering. And finally, I bear my witness that He will be with us as our companion in the suffering of which, in the fulfillment of our missions, is unavoidable.”

I transcribed this portion of Truman Madsen’s talk – it’s only about half of it – because he said much about why God allows us to suffer. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do people die prematurely? Why is there so much suffering? It’s because there is freedom. I should also add that perhaps, we are not as good as we might think we are. Is there really any good but God? [Yes, but we are not good apart from God]. We have agency, we can do what we want to do. God allows it because He has to. There is no other way for us to grow and progress in order to become more like Him. I’ll repeat the key line: “In the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only way you can build character and sanctify souls is through distress and pain.” That doesn’t mean we should seek out distress and pain, it just means that we should persevere through the pain and distress, knowing that God is good, knowing that some day, like a mother in labor, we will be delivered and experience a rebirth into a glorious world of light and peace. Peace amid suffering comes from faith in God and in His purposes. Strength of character comes from resisting the distress and pain – not necessarily fighting it but in not letting it take over our lives. Just like lifting weights. The strength comes from the resistance, not from giving in.

Suffering is very real but we need not despair. We can have faith and hope in Christ. That – He – is our salvation! He is what gives meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence. That is what the Existentialists have correct – life would be meaningless without, and this is key, the Atonement of Jesus Christ. But Christ did atone for our sins and sorrows and sicknesses. We all will overcome death and can overcome Hell. Thus, life is not meaningless. All suffering can have purpose and meaning. If we can find the meaning in suffering, then it has a purpose. If we do not find meaning in our suffering, but instead let it overwhelm us and cause us to despair, then it is needless suffering. Suffering caused by sin is also needless but it happens. It is up to us to try to make the best situation we can wherever we are. That’s not easy but prayer, righteousness, and faith in Jesus Christ will give us the strength we need to overcome all trials and sorrows. The light will come; it always comes to those with faith and with endurance.

Faith, Psychology, and Therapy

Standard

While I spend most of my time doing research (both testing participants and dealing with the MRIs of their brains), I also spend time conducting therapy with clients. The more I learn about common mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, the more convinced I am of the benefits the gospel of Jesus Christ can have for mental illness. I find that at least some of the time in every session I find myself thinking, “The gospel sure could help with this problem.” I am not implying that the gospel is a panacea for issues such as depression but it can benefit a person tremendously.

I am going to focus on a narrow range of psychological disorders in this post. As psychologists we are most concerned about people with depression who state that they feel hopeless. It is usually a precursor to suicidal thoughts and intent, at least in the United States of America (depression manifests differently in different cultures). That is why when someone states or acknowledges that they feel hopeless, we become quite concerned. There might still be other things that are keeping people from killing themselves but hope is one of the most important keys. Those who are without hope despair (see Moroni 10:22) and have a tendency to act in desperation. However, there is a cure for this despair.

The gospel of Jesus Christ and faith in Christ provides one thing that makes mental illness – be it depression or anxiety or even something more severe – bearable. The gospel and faith provide hope. Hope is not always happiness but it can exist even if happiness is gone; hope can exist even when the inner calm is gone. For someone who is suffering from a mental illness, I believe that illness can become more bearable when faith in Christ leads to hope – hope for a better and brighter day and hope for a life when there will no longer be sadness and sorrow, at least not quite like we experience here in mortality.

It would be inaccurate to state that much sorrow and even depression was not caused by sin and other wickedness; after all, Moroni wrote, “Despair cometh because of iniquity” (Moroni 10:22). Also, “Wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10). People will not always find happiness in sin (see Mormon 2:13), whether in this life or the next, they will sorrow. Sometimes sorrow is good – it can help spur people to repentance (see 2 Cor. 7:10) – sometimes people become so ingrained in wicked habits that their sorrow is not unto repentance (see Mormon 2:13).

If you do a scripture search for the word sorrow you find many instances of the word; in most of the cases sorrow is juxtaposed with sin – the people’s own or some one else’s (see Mormon 5:9,11; 2 Nephi 1:17; Alma 31:2). The righteous can be sad and feel down because of the wickedness of those around them and those they love. The cure, at least in the scriptures, for most sorrow is repentance.

I want to repeat that in no way do I think all depression is caused by wickedness but I also not deny that wickedness can play a large role in the sorrow and depression people feel. It is not possible to live a wicked lifestyle and remain happy over time; we all have a divine spark within us that is offended by wickedness. As that flame burns dim, it affects how we feel. I have to add that any member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who is depressed should receive treatment from a competent mental health provider (and preferably one who respects one’s religious beliefs). Sometimes a bishop can be involved if the person feels that he or she has unresolved issues but the gospel is not a panacea for depression. As Elder Wilford Andersen stated at the April 2010 General Conference: “I do not wish to minimize the reality of clinical depression. For some, solutions to depression and anxieties will be found through consultation with competent professionals. But for most of us, sadness and fear begin to melt away and are replaced by happiness and peace when we put our trust in the Author of the plan of happiness and when we develop faith in the Prince of Peace.” (Andersen, Apr. 2010 Conference).

Now I want to shift gears for the rest of this post. Within the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are built many tools that while not explicitly established as treatment for mental health issues, can be beneficial for a range of psychological problems. One frequent contributing factor in depression are feelings of loneliness. All LDS Church members should be assigned home teachers (two men or a combination of a man and a young man 14-18 years old) who are supposed to visit monthly. All members of the Relief Society (women 18 and over) are also assigned visiting teachers (two women who are part of the Relief Society as well). In theory no one in a ward or branch (and thus the whole church) should feel completely isolated because they should be visited regularly by fellow church members. This program is not perfect but there are many people who fulfill their responsibilities every month. Related to this, all church members are also either a part of a Primary class (for the children), a Priesthood quorum (young men and men), a young woman’s class, or the Relief Society. Thus, ideally there should be a number of people who are involved and interested in each church member (in addition to the Bishop or Branch President). People are not perfect so this organization does not always work as it could but the organization is sound, even if the people are not always sound.

In addition, all church members are ideally assigned a responsibility – from librarian to Elder’s quorum president to Primary teacher to Bishop to General Authority to ward usher. All should have some level of responsibility and should (I’m dwelling in an ideal world for this post) feel needed. Some callings are busier than others – most bishops spend at least 20 hours per week fulfilling their responsibilities whereas a ward greeter might only spend a few minutes each week with his or her calling. Regardless of the level of responsibility, if a person has the right attitude he or she will feel needed. Even something as simple as that can alleviate symptoms of depression.

One thing that we often teach people who are depressed is that they should do something active every day, even if it is only for a few minutes. The Church provides numerous opportunities for people to be active and involved with other people. The Church provides a social situation where friends can be made. These social interactions are also key in helping people feel less depressed. That gets back to feelings of isolation or aloneness that so many people who are depressed feel.

Now what about other mental illnesses? I want to focus briefly on social phobia (performance anxiety or anything else related). The best and most lasting treatments for phobias are behavior treatments and in particular, exposure therapy. Exposure does not work for everyone but it is generally very effective. If someone has performance anxiety (specifically about public speaking) there are opportunities to overcome that anxiety. A person might be called as a teacher in church and have to teach every week. A person also might be asked to give a talk in Sacrament Meeting or bear his testimony or say a public prayer. Doing any of these these can serve as an informal exposure therapy. In addition, many young men and women in the Church serve full-time missions where they spend 18 to 24 months interacting with complete strangers. If you want a good situation to get over any social phobia one might have – that is a great time to overcome a phobia. With repeated exposure things become normalized and easier to do. This does not mean all anxiety will go away but it can be alleviated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Fear comes not of faith – faith replaces fear. Fear is at the root of a lot of anxiety disorders and faith can help someone overcome that fear. Again, I do not want to downplay the role that competent professionals can play but I think there are a lot of blessings that come through believing and living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Certainly we will not be free from sorrow or psychological or medical or neurological problems but through faith we can find meaning in such adversity and have hope to overcome.

Gospel Weekend Warriors – Part 3

Standard

Something important to understand is that endurance is a trait of the righteous. There is no endurance in wickedness. The hardening of the endurance process is not the hardening of hearts experienced by the unrighteous. Enduring is resisting evil, not subsisting on it. In weight training, strength and growth come from resistance exercises; it’s in the resistance that strength comes, not in giving in or giving up. Enduring is more than just strengthening, it is also “going the distance.”

When I was 12 or 13 I went on a 4 day, 40 mile backpacking trip with my father, younger brother, the Varsity scouts, and some leaders. It was memorable and enjoyable but it was not easy. We hiked through a canyon and along a river called the Paria (there is no “h” on the end). Just as the name implies – we were in the middle of nowhere in Arizona in what is some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Much of our hike consisted of following the river through the canyon; this meant that we also spent a lot of time walking through the river. We enjoyed pure water from springs that seeped and poured from the canyon walls. We enjoyed the confluence of the Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the world. At the meeting of the two canyons we found a patch of quicksand that we played in (here is a link to a photo of someone {I just found the photo using Google – that’s not me or anyone I know} playing in the quicksand). Once we started to near the end of the canyon it opened up and heated up. Soon we found ourselves away from the springs and shade. We had to hike through sand and cacti and heat. Shade was found only infrequently and we had to purify our water from the river. The hike that had been pleasant turned more arduous. At one point one of the young men got tired enough that he started asking when the hike would be over. One of the leaders said, “It’s just around the next bend.” After a few of those questions and responses the young man finally blurted out, “It’s not around the next bend; it’ll never be around the next bend!”

Life can be like that. It can be hard, long, and tiring. The path to eternal life is similarly long. We might feel to cry out, “It’ll never be around the next bend!” but if we stick with it we will end up at our destination. As we hiked through the Paria Canyon, we had to endure to the end. We had to press through and press on even though we were tired and hungry. We had to press on in part because there was nowhere else to go. We could have gone back to the beginning and to the car we left there but that was not the best option. The best thing we could do was press forward to our destination – the Colorado River. We could have done it grudgingly and had a miserable time or we could have endured and enjoyed our time. In all we do we can choose to be strengthened by the trials we endure and not merely suffer through them. However, regardless of how we get through our life and our trials, it is important to go all the way through them. This reminds me of the old question: “How far can you run in a forest?” to which one clever answer is: “Halfway, because then you are running out!” It is important to not just run in the forests of our lives, we also have to run out of them. We need to endure to the end.

We read in the Book of Mormon: “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:20). I will return to how I started this essay by asking the following questions: Are you a gospel “Weekend Warrior?” Do you fight the good fight, and bravely, but only on Sundays? Are you a strong stripling warrior as long as you are at church but nowhere else? Do you have a marathon gospel study session and then enter an early retirement from scriptural and spiritual sports? Are you trying to endure to the end or are you fighting only a portion of the battle and finishing only part of the race?

Gospel Weekend Warriors – Part 2

Standard

The word endure in common usage means to last or to sustain (through). If we look at its root, endure comes from the Latin indurare, meaning to harden. Things need to be hardened if they are going to undergo significant stress or trials or pressure. Our word durable has the same root as endure. Metal is hardened or tempered to make it stronger, more durable. The process of hardening is just as important as the final hardened state; if the hardening is not done properly, flaws can be introduced, resulting in a relatively weak or actually weak product. When I think of endurance I think of the Savior. “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Jesus endured trials, tribulations, sorrows, sufferings, hate, spitting, hitting, and crucifixion. He endured the travesties of the lies brought against Him; He was hated and persecuted. Those who follow Him covenant that they are willing to follow His path, even though they be “hated of all men for [His] name’s sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Mark 13:13). We are commanded to endure just as the Savior endured.

The gift given unto those who endure is great, even the greatest gift possible. Jesus said, “And, if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C; 14:7). He also promised, “And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes” (D&C; 121:8). Again, suffering is implicit to endurance but those who endure are strengthened against and through suffering. But what is important are the promised blessings that come unto those who endure. “If thou endure it [adversities and afflictions] well, God shall exalt thee on high.” What a beautiful promise! Endurance leads to exaltation.

There is a beautiful passage in Hebrews illustrating God’s love for us through His chastening of us. Some may question how God’s chastening of us is an expression of His love. How can His causing our suffering be loving? This passage from Hebrews explains: “If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?” (Hebrews 12:7-9). How can a parent say he or she loves his or her children and not discipline them? Children are inherently good but children are not always good. They do not always act with kindness unto others; they do not spring out as perfect and wise beings who know all right from all wrong or the good from the better from the best. Of course, it is possible for parents to be overbearing in their chastening and discipline but children need discipline and chastening. However, God is perfect – He does not make mistakes in His chastening of His children. God does not allow us to be tempted more than we are able to bear (see 1 Cor. 10:13), surely He will not chasten us more than we are willing to bear. The more we feeling we are being chastened by God – the more we may deserve it but also the more we can know that God knows that we can handle it as we trust in Him.

Lessons from Life – Part 4: Sunburn

Standard

A number of years ago I floated on an inner tube down the Salt River in Arizona with a friend. We had a nice time enjoying the hot sun and cool water. We floated at a leisurely pace – taking a couple hours to reach our destination. It was a great day with my friend (and the thousands of other people around us on the river).

Before going out in the intense Arizona sun it is a good idea to put on sunblock – it is particularly a good idea for someone with skin of an alabaster hue like mine. I’ve never been very tan in my life (except for a couple times when I spent a lot of time outside) and have always burned easily in the sun. I had done a good job of slathering myself with sunblock – or so I thought. I missed (or, it rubbed off) about an fifteen square inch area on the front of my lower left left (starting just below the ankle and extending upwards about five inches). Over the next couple of days this area of skin turned bright red and then purple. It was blistered, swollen, and very painful; I had a difficult time walking, which was unfortunate because my summer job involved a lot of walking. After a couple weeks the color returned to normal, the blisters drained, the swelling went away, and the pain subsided. I was able to walk without pain once again. However, I still have a patch of freckles over that area – the permanent residuals of my carelessness.

There’s a spiritual lesson in this. In Mosiah 4:30 we read: “But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not.” We need to watch ourselves – our thoughts, words, and deeds. We need to do this all our lives. This is not all. We also need to don the armor of God in order to protect ourselves. “Put on the whole armour of God,” the apostle wrote, “that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11).

I had covered myself in sunblock, at least I thought I was covered, but I missed a large area of my skin. I did not “put on the whole armor of God” – my “feet were [not] shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15), so to speak. I, like Achilles, had an unprotected spot that led to great pain and suffering (although, unlike Achilles, mine did not result in death). I was severely burned by the sun. There is another spiritual analogy with this and making sure we are in a position where we are not burned at the Second Coming (or in the next life) but I’ll not expand on that.

Are you protected against all the wiles of the adversary? Have you completely protected yourself with a spiritual sunblock? Do you reapply it frequently? Have you donned the armor of God? If so, do you wear all your armor all the time? We need to protect ourselves – physically and spiritually.

C. S. Lewis on Suffering

Standard

Why does God allow us to suffer if He is all-good and loves us? Many today confuse love with kindness. C. S. Lewis wrote:

“By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness…by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness — the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven — a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.‘” (Source).

This reminds me of the scripture in 2nd Nephi:

“Yea, and there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us. And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.” (2 Nephi 28:7-8).

A loving God, according to many, would simply dote on His children. Many think He should be like the grandfather who spoils His grandkids and then hands them back to the parents. We think God should just let us have a good time, eating, drinking, and partying. However, God really does love us, which means that He, like any good parent, allows His children to learn by experience. How many parents, as their children learn to walk, never allow them to fall down? Parents do not like to see their children hurt or upset but it would be a spoiled child who always had its way and never once got hurt.

Again, it is because God loves us that He allows us to suffer. It is part of His plan for us to become like Him. We should not confuse love with kindness, as C. S. Lewis so eloquently pointed out. When people ask why God allows us to suffer, they do not understand the nature of God or His plan for us. This is not necessarily their fault but the question is evidence of ignorance or at least temporary blindness.

A House of Prayer Podcast Episode 7 – Strangers in a Strange Land

Standard

In this episode I present an essay I wrote about wandering in strange lands. Throughout the generations, the followers of God were often called to dwell in lands away from their ancestral homes. We too might feel like we wander in the dusty and lonely wilderness. The Lord is there to support us. The text for this podcast is available clicking on the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

If you’ve subscribed to my feed, you should receive the audio file automatically. If you have not subscribed to my feed, it’s never too late! You can also click on the following link to download the podcast directly (right-click {or option-click on a Mac} to save the file): A House of Prayer 7 – Strangers in a Strange Land.

You can also subscribe directly from the iTunes Store by clicking on this link: A House of Prayer podcast (notice: requires and opens iTunes).

Let me know what you think!

Credit: The short music clip I use as an entrance and exit to the show is an arrangement of Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing from the album Reflections of Christ. Visit that link to find out how you can purchase the music (I’m not associated with the artists; I just enjoy the music).

The podcast album art is an image by Irwin-Scott. Check out his photo stream on Flickr. I thought his photo of the Salt Lake Temple would be a fitting image as a house of prayer. His night-time photo of the illuminated temple surrounded by darkness has a lovely symbolic meaning of the temple as a light on a hill, an ensign to the nations, a lighthouse shining forth in the darkness.