There is a purpose and a plan in all suffering
When faced with adversity, we might ask Heavenly Father, “Why me?” But do we think to ask in times of bounteous blessings, “Why am I so blessed?” Jesus’ comments in John 9:3 are not vague. His disciples ask why the man was born blind. It was common in that time to believe that suffering was a result of sin. Jesus goes against this line of thinking, instead giving us another way to look at the problem.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie said:
Birth deformities may or may not result from parental disobedience, but we have no reason to believe that children are so afflicted because of acts done in the pre-mortal life. All children are born free from the taint of sin because of the great plan of redemption ordained for them by a gracious God. 1
With regard to those born with physical or emotional handicaps, Elder Boyd K. Packer taught: I bear witness of the restoration which will come. Each body and mind will be restored in perfect frame. However long and unfair mortality may seem, however long the suffering and waiting may be . . . I am a witness to the condition of those who have gone beyond the veil, and we all have reason to glorify Him who is our Father and Him who is our Redeemer, of whom I bear witness… 2
Elder Packer alluded to the danger of supposing that every trial is a result of sin:
We may foolishly bring unhappiness and trouble, even suffering upon ourselves. These are not always to be regarded as penalties imposed by a displeased Creator. They are part of the lessons of life, part of the test. Some are tested by poor health, some by a body that is deformed or homely. Others are tested by handsome and healthy bodies; some by the passion of youth; others by the erosions of age. Some suffer disappointment in marriage, family problems; others live in poverty and obscurity. Some (perhaps this is the hardest test) find ease and luxury. All are part of the test, and there is more equality in this testing than sometimes we suspect. 3
Jesus invites us to look at the problem differently
Jesus is saying to his disciples: Turn away from your obsession on causality as the crucial explanation of suffering. Do not believe that our stations in life are just random, chaotic, or meaningless. Rather, look for the purposes and plans of God in every situation in your life. There is no child and no suffering outside of God’s purposes and plans. Do you view your situation as being “driven forth” by some predestined plan of God? Perhaps we do experience some of our trials that we may be “carried forth” (Ether 1:38), in other words, do you see yourself as one that is carried by the Lord through your trials, or one who is driven by the Lord into the storms of life?
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated:
It is not without a recognition of life’s tempests but fully and directly because of them that I testify of God’s love and the Savior’s power to calm the storm. They sustain us in our hour of need — and always will, even if we cannot recognize that intervention. Some blessings come soon, some come late, and some don’t come until heaven; but for those who embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, they come. 4
Elder Paul Johnson stated:
No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. … All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable… It is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire. 5
But there is another and a higher aspect of it, since Christ has come, and is really the Healer of all disease and evil by being the Remover of its ultimate moral cause. This is indicated in His words, when, putting aside the clumsy alternative suggested by the disciples, He told them that it was so in order “that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” They wanted to know the ‘why,’ He told them the ‘in order to,’ of the man’s calamity; they wished to understand its reason as regarded its origin, He told them its reasonableness in regard to the purpose which it, and all similar suffering, should serve, since Christ has come, the Healer of evil—because the Saviour from sin. Thus He transferred the question from intellectual ground to that of the moral purpose which suffering might serve. 6
It is difficult to imagine all trials being handpicked by the Lord. Sometimes things go wrong as a result of the mortal sphere in which we live. Others use their agency in ways that are detrimental to others. How much of what happens in our lives is attributable to the workings of the Lord? Some think of God as a divine puppeteer, pulling the strings, causing all things to happen in a predestined sort of way. I do not believe this is an accurate portrayal of the God that we worship. Spencer W. Kimball, addressing this question, made the following remark:
Was it the Lord who directed the plane into the mountain to snuff out the lives of its occupants, or were there mechanical faults or human errors? Did our Father in heaven cause the collision of the cars that took six people into eternity, or was it the error of the driver who ignored safety rules? Did God take the life of the young mother or prompt the child to toddle into the canal or guide the other child into the path of the oncoming car? Did the Lord cause the man to suffer a heart attack? Was the death of the missionary untimely? Answer, if you can. I cannot, for though I know God has a major role in our lives, I do not know how much he causes to happen and how much he merely permits. Whatever the answer to this question, there is another I feel sure about. Could the Lord have prevented these tragedies? The answer is, Yes. The Lord is omnipotent, with all power to control our lives, save us pain, prevent all accidents, drive all planes and cars, feed us, protect us, save us from labor, effort, sickness, even from death, if he will. But he will not. 7
The greatest peace I have found came when I stopped wondering whether God was the cause of the trials in my life and instead realized that the answer to that question didn’t matter. Knowing the “why me” to our situations doesn’t change the answer to the deeper question of what to do with our suffering. In either scenario the answer is the same. It is important to realize that in Jesus Christ all things are made whole.
All for the Glory of God- Those that are healed, and those that are not
For Jesus, this mans blindness from birth is sufficiently explained by saying that the Lord intends to display some of his power through this mans blindness, that because of this circumstance, others might come to know the only true God. In the case of the man born blind, it happens to be healing—the glory of God’s power to heal. But there is nothing that says it has to be healing. When Paul cried out three times for his thorn in the flesh to be healed, the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In other words, I will put my power on display, not by healing you, but by supporting and sustaining you. My power will be on display through you, and my works shall be your works.
In other words, healing displays the works of God in John 9, and the enabling power, or grace of Jesus Christ displays the works of God in 2 Corinthians 12. What these two events have in common is the supreme importance of the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ. The blindness is for the glory of God. The thorn in the flesh is for the glory of God. The healing is for his glory, and the non-healing sustaining power is for his glory.
We see this illustrated in Mosiah 24 as Alma and his people are being persecuted by Amulon. As recorded in verse 14, the voice of the Lord came to these good people in their affliction and indicated: “And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs.” Notice that the Lord did not deliver the people of Alma from their affliction, but he did strengthen them to be able to bear them. Their situation didn’t change, but they did. Their capacity to carry the weight was increased because of the enabling power of Jesus Christ.
Elder Bednar related the following:
Examples of the enabling power are not found only in the scriptures. Daniel W. Jones was born in 1830 in Missouri, and he joined the Church in California in 1851. In 1856 he participated in the rescue of handcart companies that were stranded in Wyoming by severe storms. After the rescue party found the suffering Saints, provided what immediate comfort they could, and made arrangements for the sick and the feeble to be transported to Salt Lake City, Daniel and several other young men volunteered to remain with and safeguard the company’s possessions. The food and supplies left with Daniel and his colleagues were, to say the least, meager and were rapidly expended. I will now quote from Daniel Jones’ personal journal and his description of the events that followed:
“Game soon became so scarce that we could kill nothing. We ate all the poor meat; one would get hungry eating it. Finally that was all gone, nothing now but hides were left. We made a trial of them. A lot was cooked and eaten without any seasoning and it made the whole company sick. Many were so turned against the stuff that it made them sick to think of it. . . .
“Things looked dark, for nothing remained but the poor raw hides taken from starved cattle. We asked the Lord to direct us what to do. The brethren did not murmur, but felt to trust in God. We had cooked the hide, after soaking and scraping the hair off until it was soft and then ate it, glue and all. This made it rather inclined to stay with us longer than we desired. Finally I was impressed how to fix the stuff and gave the company advice, telling them how to cook it; for them to scorch and scrape the hair off; this had a tendency to kill and purify the bad taste that scalding gave it. After scraping, boil one hour in plenty of water, throwing the water away which had extracted all the glue, then wash and scrape the hide thoroughly, washing in cold water, then boil to a jelly and let it get cold, and then eat with a little sugar sprinkled on it. This was considerable trouble, but we had little else to do and it was better than starving”
All that I have read thus far is a preparation for the next line from Daniel W. Jones’ journal. It illustrates how those pioneer Saints may have known something about the enabling power of the Atonement that we, in our prosperity and ease, are not as quick to understand: “We asked the Lord to bless our stomachs and adapt them to this food”. My dear brothers and sisters, I know what I would have prayed for in those circumstances. I would have prayed for something else to eat. “Heavenly Father, please send me a quail or a buffalo.” It never would have occurred to me to pray that my stomach would be strengthened and adapted to what we already had. What did Daniel W. Jones know? He knew about the enabling power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. He did not pray that his circumstances would be changed. He prayed that he would be strengthened to deal with his circumstances.
Just as Nephi, Amulek, and Alma and his people were strengthened, Daniel W. Jones had the spiritual insight to know what to ask for in that prayer. “We hadn’t the faith to ask him to bless the raw-hide, for it was ‘hard stock.’ On eating now all seemed to relish the feast. We were three days without eating before this second attempt was made. We enjoyed this sumptuous fare for about six weeks.” 8
In class I shared the challenges faced by Stephanie Nielsen. Her story is so worth the time spent in class. You can see her story here. After viewing this, every student wanted to share their experiences with trial, and the lessons they learned. I had two questions on the board for the students to ponder and write answers in their journals. They were:
1. Think of a circumstance in your life that has been difficult, or a particular trial you have been through. Write it down.
2. What was the result of this? In other words, what changed in you (or didn’t change) as a result? Write this down.
I invited students to share. So many students shared their situations with their peers, it was truly a marvelous experience in the classroom- many hearts were touched.
I conclude with the following from Elder Holland:
Whenever these moments of our extremity come, we must not succumb to the fear that God has abandoned us. … We must continue to believe, continue to have faith, continue to pray and plead with heaven even if we feel for a time our prayers are not heard and that God has somehow gone away. He is there. Our prayers are heard, and when we weep, He and the angels of heaven weep with us… When suffering, we may in fact be nearer to God than we have ever been in our entire lives.
That knowledge can turn every such situation into a would-be temple. Regarding our earthly journey, the Lord has promised: “I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up (D&C 84:88). That is an everlasting declaration of God’s love and care for us, including—and perhaps especially—in times of trouble. 9
1. Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, 3:199.
2. Boyd K. Packer, John 9, Ensign, May 1991, p. 9.
3. Boyd K. Packer, “The Choice,” Ensign, Nov. 1980, 21.
4. Jeffrey R. Holland, An High Priest of Good Things to Come, Ensign, November 1999.
5. Paul Johnson, Ensign, April 2011.
6. Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p.180 emphasis added.
7. Spencer W. Kimball, Tragedy or Destiny, as quoted in Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972., pp.95-106.
8. David A. Bednar, In the Strength of the Lord, BYU devotional, October 23, 2001. See also: Daniel W. Jones, Forty Years Among the Indians [Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1890], 81.
9. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Sept 7, 2008, CES Fireside.