|"We became acquainted with (God) in our extremities"|
Like many LDS children, I began each school year armed with a priesthood blessing of counsel and comfort from my father. Invariably, that blessing promised me "learning experiences" during the course of the year. I soon realized that those experiences generally came accompanied by an uncomfortable amount of pain and frustration.
True to Dad's inspiration, I have had many opportunities over the years to learn through trials. Those difficult periods have taught me bits of empathy and a degree of humility. Scriptures have come alive as they suddenly felt more applicable than ever before. I understand more about unconditional love now, about the blessings of suffering, the purifying role of sacrifice, the freedom of forgiving and seeking forgiveness. I rarely seek for learning experiences, but I do appreciate them (sometimes through gritted teeth). I appreciate that the process of feeling stretched to the point of breaking makes me stronger and allows me to see the hand of God and the compassion of others in my life. I love the epiphany moments, even if they come in the pit. After all, a light shines brighter in a dark cellar than in the light of noonday.
But what about those times when we hit bottom and keep going, or when we hit bottom repeatedly without the hoped for relief, without the brilliant light of understanding? Christians of all faiths (my own included) love to quote 1 Corinthians 10:13 and point out that God will not give us more than we can handle. I agree that God is faithful, that He will provide a way to escape temptation. I have less confidence saying that God will never allow us to be submitted to a trial beyond our own capacity to "handle it."
Long ago, Elder James E. Faust gave a talk about the refiner's fire. In the talk, he used the example of the Martin handcart company, an ill-fated company of Mormon pioneers that ran into harsh conditions crossing the plains. Fully one quarter of the members of the company perished on the way West, and all endured great suffering. And yet, not one of that company abandoned the faith. As one survivor said years later:
"Everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities. ...
“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay.’”
Elder Faust explained: "Here then is a great truth. In the pain, the agony, and the heroic endeavors of life, we pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and the unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. In this way the divine image can be mirrored from the soul. It is part of the purging toll exacted of some to become acquainted with God. In the agonies of life, we seem to listen better to the faint, godly whisperings of the Divine Shepherd."
President Harold B. Lee said something similar: "There is a refining process that comes through suffering, I think, that we can’t experience any other way than by suffering. … We draw closer to Him who gave His life that man might be. We feel a kinship that we have never felt before. … He suffered more than we can ever imagine. But to the extent that we have suffered, somehow it seems to have the effect of drawing us closer to the divine, helps to purify our souls, and helps to purge out the things that are not pleasing in the sight of the Lord. ... We must be refined. We must be tested in order to prove the strength and power that are in us."
Purging Helps Us to Transform
I have noticed lately that these purging experiences seem to occur most often in conjunction with a commitment to a new phase of discipleship. One friend recommitted to her faith after several years apart and almost immediately experienced debilitating health problems. Another finally relinquished an addiction of decades and found unexpected trials that rocked his confidence. Positive transformation does not always immediately result in blessings. Occasionally, a purging accompanies such a transformation. I believe there are at least two reasons for this.
First, as we become new people, we must necessarily shed our former lives, slough off the trappings of the people we used to be. As Elder Faust suggested above, the refiner's fire melts away the dross, and we experience a rebirth.
Second, at times we doubt our own transformation. Have we truly repented? Are we strong enough to hold to this new commitment we have made? Will our conversion stick? Abraham made a covenant with the Lord that would shape the world for generations to come. God promised that he would be a father of many nations. And then God asked Abraham to sacrifice the miracle son, the very posterity He had promised. Elder Hugh B. Brown said of that sacrifice that God knew perfectly well that Abraham would sacrifice anything He asked, but that "Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham." Likewise, when we come through these purging experiences, having made the sacrifice asked of us, we, like Abraham, can know that our transformation is real, that we are truly committed to God. We need that confidence that comes with knowing ourselves.
Is There No Other Way?
My husband posed an intriguing question as we discussed these purging experiences recently. "Is there no positive way to become a new person? Why does this refining process always have to be painful and negative?" I pondered that question for some time. The refining process seems to work best through pain that brings us literally and figuratively to our knees, that forces us to acknowledge our nothingness before the Lord. I thought about why that is, about what the refiner's fire accomplishes in us. The process seems to accomplish several key purposes:
- We come to recognize our complete dependence on God. We feel a great need.
- We accept God's will unconditionally.
- We relinquish everything that gets between us and God: every sin, every wish, every bit of our own agenda.
- The Spirit burns within us. (This is where the true purging occurs.)
- We see things from an eternal perspective.
- We are willing to sacrifice whatever God asks of us.
- Our prayers become true communication.
"Do you want guidance? Have you prayed to the Lord for inspiration? Do you want to do right or do you want to do what you want to do whether or not it is right? Do you want to do what is best for you in the long run or what seems more desirable for the moment? Have you prayed? How much have you prayed? How did you pray? Have you prayed as did the Savior of the world in Gethsemane or did you ask for what you want regardless of its being proper? Do you say in your prayers: “Thy will be done”? Did you say, “Heavenly Father, if you will inspire and impress me with the right, I will do that right”? Or, did you pray, “Give me what I want or I will take it anyway”? Did you say: “Father in Heaven, I love you, I believe in you, I know you are omniscient. I am honest. I am sincerely desirous of doing right. I know you can see the end from the beginning. You can see the future. You can discern if under this situation I present, I will have peace or turmoil, happiness or sorrow, success or failure. Tell me, please, loved Heavenly Father, and I promise to do what you tell me to do.” Have you prayed that way? Don’t you think it might be wise? Are you courageous enough to pray that prayer?"
In short, are we courageous enough to truly stand naked before God and acknowledge that we are nothing without Him? Can we give it all up in order to become what God has designed for us to become?
Thorns That Heal
The ancient Apostle Paul spoke of a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) that he had begged the Lord to remove. "For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me," he said. God did not remove the thorn. Whether that thorn represented a physical malady, an addiction from which Paul craved to be healed, an enemy who refused to back down, or some other trial, we do not know. But we do know that Paul eventually accepted the thorn as a part of his mortal experience, as a gift from God to help him to be strong.
If we accept it, God will offer deliverance through our refiner's fire. We may not find the trial removed. In fact, the fire itself may become our deliverance if we can develop the ability to trust God enough to hand our trials over to Him.
James E. Faust said, "Out of the refiner’s fire can come a glorious deliverance. It can be a noble and lasting rebirth. The price to become acquainted with God will have been paid. There can come a sacred peace. There will be a reawakening of dormant, inner resources. A comfortable cloak of righteousness will be drawn around us to protect us and to keep us warm spiritually. Self-pity will vanish as our blessings are counted."
- April 1979 General Conference, Elder James E. Faust, "The Refiner's Fire"
- Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, Chapter 21: "Striving for Perfection"
- Power from Abrahamic Tests, by Truman G. Madsen, Meridian Magazine, http://www.ldsmag.com
- Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball,Chapter 22: Revelation: “A Continuous Melody and a Thunderous Appeal”