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“If thou art sorrowful” – A homily on trials and tribulations

This is a homily I wrote for Sacrament Meeting this Sunday. It’s the first talk I ever wrote out beforehand (I usually just rely on a constellation of talking points and loose outlines the other times) and got a lot of great responses from it so I thought I’d share it with y’all.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Shultz.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Schulz.

Today’s scripture theme comes from Doctrine and Covenants 136:31, “My people must be tried in all things.” Section 136 is my third favorite section, next to 121 and 93, mostly because 136 is a very practical guide to every day life. It is also one of the few sections not given to us through Joseph Smith but through Brigham Young, on January 14, 1847, according to the section heading, at “the Winter Quarters of the Camp of Israel, Omaha Nation, West Bank of Missouri River, near Council Bluffs, Iowa.” At this point in Church history, their beloved prophet Joseph Smith had been brutally assassinated along with his brother Hyrum, the Assistant President of the Church, by a bloodthirsty gang of thugs just two and a half years before this revelation was given. The previous year, persecution had become so intense that the Saints decided the most rational response was to evacuate an entire city and abandon a temple they had sacrificed so much for, a temple that was fully operational for less than three months. At the time of the revelation, a large body of the Church was camped out at Winter Quarters, where their diet consisted mainly of corn bread, salt bacon, a little milk, and occasional meat, usually from any game they could hunt nearby. There were little to no fruits and vegetables. Scurvy, known as “blackleg” during the time (which gets my vote for most terrifying disease name in the 1800s) was rampant, along with tuberculosis and malaria, all horrifying diseases. Hundreds died that winter (see Wikipedia, “Winter Quarters”). Trials and tribulations no doubt were forefront on the Saints’ minds, and it’s understandable to me if at that point some were thinking after hearing the revelation, “Tried in all the things? You’ve got to be kidding me. What did I sign up for?”

Thankfully, we live in very different times and circumstances, yet of all the problems, controversies, and public media battles and scandals, I would venture to guess that the most difficult question the modern-day Latter-day Saint must grapple with is, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The doubt that many experience when grappling with this question stems not from disbelief, as some of the orthodoxy suspect, but from an intense belief in the goodness of God and a selfless love and compassion for all people, a love born from their faith in the promises of the gospel. You will never meet a mean-spirited, uncaring person ask this question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”, unless that person believes himself to be a “good” person who was wronged.

Part of the anxiety we experience with this question comes from this cognitive dissonance, but much of it also comes from the fact we live in a society devoted to and obsessed with comfort. The existence and even any mention of death, disability, suffering, weakness, and helplessness makes us nervous and want to quickly change the subject or shush the speaker on the grounds that such topics are impolite to talk about — unless, of course, you’re trying to sell a new product. Our government, our economy, and our civic ideologies are based upon rugged individualism, maximized personal freedom to do as we choose, and the conceit that everything good that happens in life is a direct result of our own actions and only our actions with the opposite belief that everything bad that happens in others’ lives is a result of their own personal decisions. But the existence of pain, suffering, setbacks, trials, death, disease, and disability destroy our carefully constructed and clever contrivances. In the end, despite our diet plans, medical advances, scientific breakthroughs, and accumulated GDP, the death rate for humans remains stubbornly at 100%, and large portions of our economy are devoted to either trying to escape this sobering fact, or to forget about it through distractions and temporary indulgences.

Perhaps what makes this question so enduring in its difficulty is because many of the more philosophical answers ring as false or trite in our ears when we are in the midst of suffering and pain, especially when it’s ours. Unsurprisingly, trials and tribulations is one of the most popular topics in the scriptures because trials and tribulations refuse to become simply an abstract idea, no matter how hard our current society tries. While suffering and pain is often distributed disproportionately in our world, every human will experience some form of pain, whether physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social, or otherwise. This truth — that everyone must feel pain — and, more importantly, the implications of this truth and what we do with this truth forms the foundational bedrock of almost every religion, faith, and philosophy, our religious faith included.

Our Church’s early history is well acquainted with suffering. Joseph Smith’s life could be described as a continuous stream of devastating personal tragedies punctuated with the occasional spiritual triumph. Our people have experienced historical persecution, have lost lives, property, and sacred places because of this persecution. The Book of Mormon, the keystone of our religion, deals with people “whose lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). The first prophet-author Nephi, in the very first chapter, says he writes this record to “show unto [us] the tender mercies of the Lord [that] are over all those whom he hath chosen” (1 Nephi 1:20) and the final prophet-author Moroni urges the reader to “remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down unto the time that ye shall receive these things” (Moroni 10:3), yet the contents in between these two statements seem anything but merciful. Nephi witnesses his extended family torn apart by jealousy and fear, becoming the basis of two warring nations. Moroni experiences the ultimate conclusion of this family rivalry as he sees his entire people slaughtered and he is left to eke out an existence wandering alone. Ancient scripture gives us plenty of instances where good people suffer and question out loud, culminating in God Himself being born into the world and experiencing first hand rejection and persecution and even torture and execution as the ancient Roman equivalent of a modern-day terrorist despite preaching a message of radical peace and love, an irony crowned by the ultimate irony that it was the leaders of the religion based upon Him who helped to betray Him.

It is easy for many of us born in amazing, unprecedented prosperity, comfort, and opportunity to forget that while we worship the God of Peace and the God of Love, we also worship the Abandoned God, the Forgotten God, the Rejected God, the Humiliated God, a God who experienced all of this and submitted Himself willingly to these experiences with explicit purpose to love us more fully. We believe in a God who weeps because of the hatred amongst His children. We believe in a God who cries out, “What more could I have done for my vineyard?” We believe in a God who, when He appears in our own personal lives, does not come to us as a powerful person or a wealthy person but as a prisoner, as the poor, as the fatherless and the widow. We admire prophets who’ve begged the Lord to show himself, to stop hiding, to unstay his hand and listen to the cries of his people. Even “patient” Job declares (and if you actually read the Book of Job, you realize that he is anything but patient), “I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak to the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul…My soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than life. I loathe it; I would not live always: let me alone; for my days are vanity” (Job 7:11, 15-16).

All credits to Charles Schulz.

All credits to Charles Schulz.

The most poignant, memorable, and beloved passages of scripture, both ancient and modern, are passages in which the author questions, challenges, or downright begs God for relief, for comfort, for explanations. In these passages are often revealed the frailty of humanity and its reliance on God, but also revealed is God’s unlovable hand in both mercy and justice as well as power. Even for Jesus, one of his last words in His mortal ministry was the opening line of a psalm, a hymn and prayer, “O Lord, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, see also Psalms 22:1). Even silent acts, such as the woman who reaches out in hopes of brushing her fingertips against just the edges of divinity or the woman who, without words, bathes the Savior’s feet in her tears — these images and other similar stories etch the deepest grooves in our memories and our souls.

But what does this all have to do with the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” At the end of the Book of Job, contrary to popular belief, one of Job’s friends actually does get the better of him. We usually hear the narrative with Job as the silent, eternally graceful and patient sufferer while his friends rail against him and accuse him of sin and tell him to curse God and die (only his wife says that). It is true that Eliphaz relies on simplistic, overly moralistic, “Gospel of Prosperity” heuristics to accuse Job of sin because bad things only happen to bad people. Bildad indulges in his Deistic Nihilism and the worthlessness of man. And Zophar spouts tone-deaf, Hallmark-esque, even nonsensical cliches that don’t even relate to Job’s situation at all! For those who have experienced suffering and received well-meaning advice from people, you may recognize some of these archetypes.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date. All credits to Charles Schultz.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date and prompted me to actually closely read the Book of Job, which is now my favorite Old Testament book. All credits to Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown’s baseball playing theological seminary.

But Elihu, youngest of the bunch, finally tells Job, “Look, bro. You’ve spent this entire time justifying your own righteousness in the face of adversity, but you have spent little to no time sincerely justifying the goodness of God.” Elihu ignores the question that Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job discuss ad nauseum for over 30 chapters: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Instead, he says to Job, “You asked earlier in this conversation, ‘What’s the point of righteousness if you still have bad things happen to you?’ The answer is because righteousness blesses others (see Job 35:1-8, Job 22:2-3). God cannot be unjust, He cannot pervert justice, and He cannot be a respecter of persons. And if you have faith in this God, you stay righteous to the end not because it blesses you but because it blesses others. God will make up for the rest.”

To bring it all back, Doctrine and Covenants 136:31 tells us that “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.” But only three verses before, the Lord tells us, “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.” But “If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication that your soul may be joyful” (D&C 136:28-29), mirroring that beautiful one in The Book of Mormon, “men are that they might have joy.” Even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even because of it, we must seek out joy in the kindness of others and exercise kindness ourselves and therein see the righteousness of God.

Brothers and sisters, my faith in God is not knowledge or some secret truth I hold. Rather it is a faith born out of hope and desperation. In the face of seemingly infinite sorrow, pain, and suffering, I cling to the promises of the gospel because no other philosophy, economy, ideology, or theology has worked for me — and I’ve tried to find one that does. I have no other choice. Like the Apostle Peter, if the Lord asked me if I, too, shall go like the others, I have no brilliant logical defense or proof or even experienced some majestic, divine manifestation. All I can reply with is, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68) — I hope. Because I have no other options.

It is my hope that in face of adversity, whether our own or others, we ignore our instinct to justify our own righteousness but instead justify and demonstrate the righteousness of God. This is not easy. In fact, it is immensely difficult. But it is exactly what we signed up for according to our baptismal covenant, which, if it means anything to us, “commands us to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). It is my hope that in face of pain and suffering, we can pull together as a ward family and as the family of humanity to find joy in kindness from others and showing kindness to those around us.

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