This is a talk I gave in sacrament meeting on March 12, 2017. The topic was “Trials and Their Purpose.”
I appreciate the thoughts and words of [the previous speakers]. I hope that you all can find some solace in our various messages, even if the answers are a bit incomplete. The purpose of trials—or what is more commonly known in philosophical circles as the problem of evil—is a question that has plagued philosophers and theologians for centuries and I don’t pretend that I’m going to resolve it in a 15-minute sacrament talk. The evolving and at times contradicting theologies found within the scriptures make it difficult to pin down a coherent, all-encompassing explanation of suffering. However, my goal at the very least is to provide a couple perspectives that might be helpful to you in processing your own trials while being sufficiently sensitive to the different experiences you all have. Neal A. Maxwell once offered this advice to Jeffrey R. Holland: “You must tread with caution on the hallowed ground of another’s suffering.” I intend to tread carefully on this rather sensitive subject.
The problem of evil can be boiled down to the question, “If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?” Evil is often divided into two categories:
- Moral evil: the evil committed by people.
- Natural evil: natural disasters, disease, etc.
I’ve mentioned in class before that I have a strong averse reaction to the idea of God “giving” us trials in the sense of being the cause behind them. Yet, this is the language we often use when discussing the trials in our own lives. Questions such as “What did I do to deserve this?” or “What is God trying to teach me?” (which, I should note, is very different from “What can I learn and possibly teach from this?”) or “Why do bad things happen to good people?” tend to rest on the assumption that God is in fact the cause behind our afflictions. We sometimes assume the suffering we experience are punishments inflicted because of sin or, perhaps more commonly, specific tests for us to pass with right and wrong answers; a hidden grand meaning just waiting to be discovered. This mindset can be incredibly damaging as we desperately try to uncover the supposedly buried lesson within the pain or wrack our brain trying to remember what we did wrong so we can repent. I propose that these assumptions tend to be problematic. Here are a few reasons why.
Most Christian—as well as most Jewish and Islamic—traditions believe that God created the universe out of literal nothingness. Everything that exists was brought into existence by God, who continues to maintain everything’s existence in the here and now. In other words, the only reason we all don’t pop back into nothingness is because God continually preserves our existence right now. This is why he has no body, parts, or passions: God is what explains everything else and if you give him parts, you have to explain those things and that screws up the whole concept. He is not seen as a being—an object among many—but Being Itself, transcending space and time. When understood this way, the idea of God being behind everything that happens (including our trials) seems almost unavoidable. But in contrast to this classic view of God, Mormonism teaches that God has a body (D&C 130:22), which implies that he occupies some form of space and time rather than transcending it (Abraham 3:4). An 1833 revelation to Joseph Smith declared that “Intelligence…was not created or made” and that “the elements are eternal” (D&C 93:29,33). Over a decade later, Joseph taught that “the mind of man”—his “intelligence” or “spirit”—“is as immortal as, and is coequal with, God Himself.” Drawing on his study of Hebrew, he explained (correctly) that “create” in the Genesis account means “to organize” rather than create out of nothing. “The pure principles of element,” he said, “are principles that never can be destroyed.” In short, God must contend with what Joseph called “the laws of eternal and self-existent principles.” The late LDS philosopher Truman G. Madsen explained it this way:
[A]s soon as it is recognized, as in modern revelation it is, that there is more than one eternal will in the universe…we have cut the thread that supposes God can “do anything.” …To say…that God has all power and that He is almighty and that with Him all things are possible is to say that He has all the power and might it is possible to have in this universe of multiple selves. And as soon as it is recognized…that there are eternal inanimate things which are subject to laws…which God did not create but Himself has mastered, we have cut another thread of illusory omnipotence…In short, [God] did not make us from nothing and what He makes of us depends on us and the ultimate nature of a co-eternal universe.
My point in reviewing the nature of God as taught in our doctrine is to suggest that maybe—just maybe—we assume far more divine micromanagement than is warranted. Our daily lives are immersed in complex webs of human interactions, natural laws, and random events. For example, when the Teton Dam burst in the mid 1970s—killing 11 people and causing $400 million in property damage—Elder Packer accompanied President Kimball in his visit to Idaho. When he heard someone ask, “What did we do wrong to deserve such a disaster?” Elder Packer responded, “The answer is probably nothing. If you attach tragedy or suffering or disaster to sin only, how do you explain the suffering of Christ? Fine people, living worthily, can be subject to disasters such as you have faced here. The difference will be in how you face it.” Or, as Madsen summed it up, “It happened to you because the dam broke.”
Furthermore, our life experiences are in large part shaped by the ripple effects of others’ choices, from the direct to the indirect, from the past to the present. In many (if not most) instances, for God to literally “give” you a particular trial would require the manipulation of someone’s agency somewhere down the road. As the First Presidency wrote in 1915, “While we do not charge the Almighty with causing the evils of any kind that afflict humanity…we recognize the fact that He is over all and that He will eventually control everything to bring about His own almighty plans. The agency of man is not interfered with by Divine Providence.”
There are without a doubt numerous questions and paradoxes when it comes to the limits of God, human agency, and divine intervention. Far too many to address today. But in my view, there is an even more disturbing implication of the idea that God deals out trials and traumas in order to teach us; one that goes far beyond the violation of human agency. For me, it is difficult to understand what the 9-year-old girl who is kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered is supposed to “learn” from her experience. Or what the children burnt alive during the Holocaust were supposed to learn from their “trial.” Or what the 230,000+ killed by the South Asian tsunamis were supposed to learn from the complete devastation. Or what the 70,000+ killed both directly and indirectly were supposed to learn from the eruption of Mt. Tambora. Or what the 3,000 killed were supposed to learn from the 9/11 terror attacks. Sometimes you don’t survive a trial, which cuts its learning curve rather short. And if the supposed answer is that others were supposed to learn from these tragedies, then that makes these victims nothing more than sacrificial pawns in God’s grand master chess game. And despite the Nietzschean claim “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” sometimes it doesn’t. It often leaves deep scars, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I find it difficult to imagine what moral calculus would justify the tampering of brain chemistry to produce depression. Or the debilitating effects of dementia. Or the physical and sexual abuse of a child. Or the PTSD-inducing, limb-severing horrors of a war zone. I’m not sure if it’s a calculus I even want to attempt, but it seems to me that any of the utilitarian arguments for the “greater good” end up casting God in a pretty deplorable light. To be frank, that doesn’t sound like a God worth worshiping. We should remember what Mormon wrote, that “all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil…[T]hat which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God” (Moroni 7:12-13; emphasis mine). To dress up the atrocities and sicknesses listed above with the label “good” is, in my view, to do just as Isaiah warned against and to “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).
So, now that I’ve seemingly told you that life is pain and anyone who says differently is selling something, allow me to clarify. I do not mean that all suffering is meaningless. Nor am I advocating the admittedly cleaned-up version of “life sucks, then you die.” The purpose of trials is the purpose of mortality: to grow, to learn, to experience, to make choices, to progress. Elder Poelman proclaimed, “The plan of salvation presented to and accepted by us in our premortal state includes a probationary period on earth, during which we experience opposites, make choices, learn the consequences thereof, and prepare to return to the presence of God. Experiencing adversity is an essential part of the process. Knowing this, we elected to come into mortality.” Yet, to acknowledge the necessity of “opposition in all things” (2 Ne. 2:11) or the learning process of mortality is not the same as saying a specific trial was given so you or I could gain experience. Furthermore, it doesn’t explain why so much suffering is necessary (genocide seems a little over the top) or why its distribution is so uneven. These things are simply the result of living in a fallen world. Sister Carole Stephens of the Relief Society General Presidency divided our trials into three categories: (1) “the sorrow caused by our own sin”, (2) “pain because of the unrighteous actions of others”, and (3) “‘the realities of mortality’, such as disaster, mental illness, disease, chronic pain, and death.”
In the opening of the Genesis account, the world is described as “without form, and void” (Gen. 1:2). The Book of Abraham states that it is “empty and desolate”; a place in which “darkness reigned” (Abr. 4:2). And yet, out of the darkness and chaos, God was able to fashion something he could declare as “good” (Gen. 1:25). God did not create the chaos, but he did forge something beautiful from it. Similarly, I seriously doubt that God is the one wreaking havoc in your lives, but he can plow through it with you until you emerge a (hopefully) more compassionate, loving, and empathic person on the other side. Consider the case of Joseph sold into Egypt. Following the death of Jacob, he told his now fearful brothers that while they “thought evil against [him]…God meant it unto good” (Gen. 50:20). It’s safe to say that God did not cause Laban to cheat Jacob, leading to the unhealthy competition between Leah and Rachel and the rift between their sons. God did not cause Joseph’s brothers to throw him into a pit or sell him into slavery. What God did do was redeem the evil situation for good. This is likely what Paul meant when he wrote that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28). Or what Lehi meant when he told Jacob that God would “consecrate thy afflictions for thy gain” (2 Ne. 2:2). Or even what the Lord meant when he told Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail that his suffering would “give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7). Indeed, trials can give us experience and can work toward our good; what some have referred to as “soul-making.” Psychologists have described the positive outcomes of highly challenging life crises as “posttraumatic growth.” However, this is miles away from the claim that God willed Joseph Smith’s imprisonment. Indeed, God attributes it to Joseph’s captors being “servants of sin” and “children of disobedience” (D&C 121:17). But he does comfort Joseph with the promise that “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).
It is this promise of triumph that will be my final focus. Too often we attempt to intellectualize, rationalize, and justify evil and suffering instead of combating it. We teach a kind of Stoic resignation to our plights because to have otherwise normal and perfectly healthy human emotions about our awful situations somehow translates into “murmuring.” It is easy to give theological reasons for suffering when you are not the one being affected. Consider Alma’s reasoning for the burning of women and children in which he states that their agonizing deaths were allowed because “the Lord receiveth them up unto himself” and so that the wicked would seal their fate come judgment (Alma 14:11). Yet, when he finds himself beaten, humiliated, and starving in prison “many days” later, he does not rationalize his predicament with, “I’m gaining brownie points in heaven and you all are going to hell.” He instead cries out, “How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord?” (Alma 14:26). He seems to forget his sophisticated rationale in favor of lament. His cries mirror that of the Psalmist (“How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? – Psalm 13:1) and of Job. As one scholar put it, “The phrase “the patience of Job” has become idiomatic among people who have never opened a Bible.” God Himself laments over the evil and suffering in the world. When Enoch witnessed Satan holding power over the earth, God did not say, “Yeah, I’m letting all this death and destruction take place so that people can learn things. It’s really important, yo.” Instead, He weeps and exclaims, “[U]nto thy brethren have I said…that they should love one another, and that they should choose me…but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood” (Moses 7:33). Perhaps this is why we are expected to “mourn with those who mourn…and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). No one needs you to rationalize their suffering. They need you listen to them, to grieve with them, or, if possible, to alleviate them of it.
It should be recognized that Christ came to conquer death and hell (2 Ne. 9), which should indicate that they have no place in His kingdom, no eternal purpose. He came “to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12), not dole them out. He came to bring good news to the poor, not tell them that poverty is a great learning tool. He came to preach deliverance to the captives, not explain how prison and slavery would teach them valuable lessons. He was sent to heal the brokenhearted, give sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18); not to lecture them about how God works in mysterious ways. When the woman with an issue of blood touched his cloak, Jesus didn’t say, “That’s cute, but your 12-year hemorrhage is an excellent learning opportunity.” Instead, she was healed (Mark 5:25-34). When friends of the paralytic lowered him from the roof, Jesus didn’t say, “You know, I’m sure God is just trying to teach you something with this whole paralysis thing.” No, he forgave and healed him (Mark 2:1-12). If we want to know how we should think about trials and suffering, we should look to the Savior. He confronted evil and drove it out. He nurtured those suffering and relieved them of their afflictions. This is what His kingdom looks like. And if we are trying to build God’s kingdom here on earth, we should be engaged in the same kind of work. We are meant to build Zion in the midst of Babylon. We are meant to, as Joseph Smith put it, “turn the devils out of [hell’s] doors and make a heaven of it.” This doesn’t happen by resigning ourselves to evil and suffering, but by opposing it. But not only is Christ our example, he is our hope. He offers hope for a time when all these things will cease. And He offers hope in the present as one who loves and weeps with you in your trials. Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart captures my feelings well:
Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things news” [Rev. 21:4-5].”
There is so much hurt and pain in our ward alone. As disciples of Christ, we should seek to emulate Him by reaching out to those who are suffering. They don’t need you to justify their suffering to them. I’m reminded of the film Lars and the Real Girl in which the title character is going through a bout of grief. His neighbors come over “to sit” because “that’s what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over and sit.” Perhaps we could all do a little more sitting.
 See Philip L. Quinn, “Philosophy of Religion,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., ed. Robert Audi (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Michael Tooley, “The Problem of Evil,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/
 See Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ in Early Christian Thought, trans. A.S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994); James Noel Hubler, “Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1995); Keith E. Norman, “Ex Nihilo: The Development of the Doctrines of God and Creation in Early Christianity,” BYU Studies 17:3 (1977): 291-318; Blake T. Ostler, “Out of Nothing: A History of Creation Ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought,” FARMS Review 17:2 (2005): 253-320.
 See David L. Paulsen, Hal R. Boyd, “The Nature of God in Mormon Thought,” in The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, ed. Terryl L. Givens, Philip L. Barlow (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Blake T. Ostler, “The Mormon Concept of God,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Summer 1984): 65-93.
 Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18:2 (1978): 11.
 Ibid., 10-11.
 “Account of Meeting and Discourse, 5 January 1841, as Reported by William Clayton,” pg. 7, The Joseph Smith Papers: http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/account-of-meeting-and-discourse-5-january-1841-as-reported-by-william-clayton/4
 Truman G. Madsen, “Human Anguish and Divine Love,” in Four Essays on Love (Provo, UT: Communications Workshop, 1971), 57-59.
 Quoted in David Mitchell, “Thousands of Saints Left Homeless by Idaho Flood,” News of the Church (Aug. 1976): https://www.lds.org/ensign/1976/08/news-of-the-church?lang=eng
 Quoted in “Human Anguish and Divine Love,” By Study and Faith blog (Feb. 13, 2011): http://bystudyandfaith.net/2011/02/human-anguish-and-divine-love/
 “A Christmas Greeting From the First Presidency,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, No. 1, Vol. 77 (January 7, 1915): 7.
 See Loyd Ericson, ““Which Thing I Had Never Supposed”: The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Man,” Sunstone (June 2010): 54.
 Ronald E. Poelman, “Adversity and the Divine Purpose of Morality,” General Conference, April 1989: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1989/04/adversity-and-the-divine-purpose-of-mortality?lang=eng
 Carole M. Stephens, “The Master Healer,” General Conference, Oct. 2016: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2016/10/the-master-healer?lang=eng
 See Blake T. Ostler, David L. Paulsen, “Sin, Suffering, and Soul-Making: Joseph Smith on the Problem of Evil,” in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, eds. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002).
 See Richard G. Tedeschi, Lawrence G. Calhoun, “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence,” Psychological Inquiry 15:1 (2004): 1-18; Kenneth E. Vail III, Jacob Juhl, “An Appreciative View of the Brighter Side of Terror Management Processes,” Social Sciences 4:4 (2015): 1020-1045.
 See Jacob Baker, “Theologizing in the Presence of Burning Children: From Theodicy to Lament,” Sunstone 168 (Sept. 2012): https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/theologizing-in-the-presence-of-burning-children-from-theodicy-to-lament/
 Michael Austin, Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 7.
 James McLachlan refers to this as the “promethean element to the Mormon solution of the problem of evil” (“The Problem of Evil in Mormon Thought,” in The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, eds. Terryl L. Givens, Philip L. Barlow. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, 284).
 “History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844],” p. 1680, The Joseph Smith Papers, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-e-1-1-july-1843-30-april-1844/50?highlight=turn%20the%20devils%20out%20of%20doors
 David B. Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 104.