Every so often I meet someone who has chipped a nail and then concludes as a result that there is no God or that God is not good. While there are variations on the theme, the bottom line is that the person has noticed adversity and decided that there is a level of adversity that is “too much” and from which they conclude that faith is vain.
When looking at adversity and suffering in this life, there are several ways to understand what is going on:
- things are much worse than we realize
- the suffering we experience is insignificant
- adversity just is.
First, for the most part we are probably suffering much more adversity than we realize. It is easy to look at others and see how they suffer, but it is often harder to see pain and loss and trials in our own lives. I still remember a story about Amazonian natives celebrating with a feast of grubs. The report was reflecting that it just happened to be Thanksgiving day and how he would much rather be eating turkey. As he thought, his native guide nudged him. Paraphrasing: I know how you feel, back home the the grubs taste so much better too.
In this life, even at the top of the pyramid, we are still eating grubs and looking for better mud. If you look at the best standard of living only two hundred years ago, vs. an average American today, it can sink in. Central heat and air, an absence of ticks, fleas and bedbugs, vaccines and reliable contraception. Fresh food. Kings used to get rotted meat monthly and just covered it up with spices. They thought that they had reached a pinnacle of pleasure, glory and hedonism in a life style none of us would willingly live.
Not only are things worse than we tend to realize, our pains and adversity are actually pretty insignificant. We’ve all seen a young child in histrionics over what is to us a minor injury. To us it is pretty minor, to the child it is the greatest pain they have ever experienced. I still remember thinking I was going to die from the pain when I first hit my thumb with a hammer, when I had my first broken heart, even as a young child when my parents bought me a new pillow.
However, mortal life is terribly, terribly short. The core of mortal life is just that — it is mortal and ends in death — an escape — for all of us, after the shortest of times. It might seem terrible, long and unending to us because it is the most terrible thing we know, but it is of “a small moment.”
For the same reason we do not appreciate how much worse things are than they seem, it can be hard to appreciate that years of pain and disappointment are not very significant. It is a matter of the change in perspective we have by being inside the veil.
Which leads me to the third observation that applies to adversity: it just is. part of a mortal, imperfect life is that parts of it will be adverse. In fact, that is what mortal life is all about. Mortal life provides us with adversity to react in context with. We are tested by how we react to what happens, not by what happens. It is almost tautological that you can’t react to adversity if it doesn’t exist.
That takes me to the real point. If adversity in any amount is “too much” then any amount of adversity is too much. A chipped nail differs little from an earthquake destroying Lisbon in that regard. Understanding that all adversity is too much for us is a core part of understanding the trials and the nature of mortal life.
In the future I’ll address where perspective takes you, but in the end, we suffer as much as we can, yet none of it, in this brief moment we call life, is sufficient to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ.
“Life is pain, Highness! Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something!”
–loosely quoted from The Princess Bride
As I watched my dad suffer through cancer and die in the ravages of the terrible disease that slowly killed his lymph nodes, destroyed his immune system and finally killed him, I came to realize that people who use suffering as an excuse to disbelieve are those who only wish an excuse for their personal weakness in sin. These may come across as harsh words to many, and I am sorry if they offend, but that is the conclusion to which I have come after searching carefully.
Even Christ did not come to this earth and live a life free of suffering and pain. To the contrary he suffered more than any other. I would argue that to the contrary that like Abraham and Christ that the degree of our righteousness will be tested in equal measure by the amount of adversity and trials that we must face. Joseph Smith said, and I know the quote is in Lectures on Faith, but I don’t have it handy beyond that, that had God been able to test Abraham beyond the trial on Mount Moriah with the calling to sacrifice Isaac, he would have done that instead. Kierkegaard, of course, disagrees, feeling that the real trial of Abraham’s faith came not in the calling to sacrifice, but in the calling to abort the sacrifice (as I recall, at least). I’m not going to pit Kierkegaard against Joseph Smith, but the principle is appropriate–God will test us to our utmost as long as we are striving to live the gospel.
Those who fail to understand this principle will ultimately fail exaltation, I think. When this life is called a test, I think that’s what it is really all about–when God deems it time to test our faith, will we remain faithful as did Abraham. The rest of the time we simply endure to the end as did Nephi.
Great post Stephen. Suffering is crucial to our mortal experience. “Life is Suffering” – Buddha
I look forward to your next post.
A very wise post. I remember reading about public figures, clergy, etc. after the massive Asian tsunamis who said that those events and the horrendous loss of life shook their belief in God. I don’t blame them, just as I don’t blame Elie Wiesel and other Holocaust survivors who have lost their belief in a benevolent God because of their life experiences.
Having studied the Holocaust and other horrors in graduate school I find that the hardest thing to do when confronted with suffering and evil on such a large scale is to say, for example, ” For some unfathomable reason, God produced spectacular miracles and plagues to allow the Israelites to be free of Egyptian bondage, but He did not protect the descendants of those Israelites when they were arrested and sent to the gas chambers. God’s ways are mysterious.” That’s not possible for me to do. I know some can…
John, it is even more disruptive when you experience tangible miracles in your own life and then get reverse miracles (where things go miraculously wrong). At that point it isn’t a matter of thinking, “well, there is a story that God helped someone a long time ago, but …” instead it is “err God, not that I didn’t appreciate it when I got kicked in the face and lifted into the air and didn’t even get a bruise, or the time that xxxyyy, etc., but, err, did you forget I was here recently?”
But the truth is that those ancient Israelites are all dead today. Those that survived the Holocaust and those who didn’t are almost all dead today as well.
I’ll be picking up the threads in a later post, but once you accept that there is adversity, you need to realize that at the very best, life is still eating grubs and slapping on mud to keep the bugs from biting too hard and at the worst it is transitory and of a small moment.
But I admit, it may be simple, but it is not easy.
BTW, changing topics just a little, recently read and really enjoyed: http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2008/02/28/repentance-as-a-response/
You might like it.
Stephen, thanks for this wise and insightful post. Knowing the adversity you’ve experienced made this post not only wise and insightful, but powerful and moving for me.
Thanks for the link to the repentance-as-response. I enjoy repackaging gospel concepts like zelophehad’s daughter does. It keeps them fresh.
I just finished reading Nephi’s trial at sea; tied hand and foot by his brothers while in the midst of a raging storm. What does Nephi do?:
Nevertheless, I did look unto my God, and I did praise him all the day long; and I did not murmur against the Lord because of mine afflictions.
(Book of Mormon | 1 Nephi 18:16)
Wow Nephi, thanks for making me look…well, I have a long ways to go.
I’m sorry but if this was meant to be an explanation of the problem of evil and suffering, I seem to be missing something. You say that “we are tested by how we react to what happens, not by what happens.” How does that apply to a victim of famine, genocide, natural disaster, etc. whose only response is to suffer, watch his or her children suffer and die and then die himself. Is it the intention of a loving Heavenly Father who knows each of us personally to watch the killing fields in Darfur or Bosnia or Cambodia and see how we react? We may be comfortable in our suffering and how we face deal with a “chipped nail” but for some it’s a bit more than that and being told that mortality is a brief moment does not make them feel better in the least.
GB Smith, my parents had a friend who came home from work one day to find his entire family chopped to bits, not a single survivor, not his wife, not his father not his children, but his mother was a few hundred miles away in Tanzania, so he started to walk, the flames and looters having taken everything else.
He lost strength and tripped and fell, landing in the dirt to die. All that saved him was an orange peel, which was by his face and that he was able to eat and that revived him.
He was able to walk a couple hundred more miles, where he encountered the Church, was baptized and met my parents.
His only response was not just to suffer, thought that was a major part of what happened. He was aware that in this world we all die ourselves, we all die quickly, and that dieing is (and is not) the point of it all.
The point is not feeling better about things, but in experiencing them and living through them.
I’ve only buried three children. My wife is still alive and I’ve never been down to 1% body fat or less. Realizing that mortality is short didn’t particularly make me feel better. I know I’m going to die from being in mortality as well. That I will die much too soon. That doesn’t particularly make me feel better either.
But it does help me understand. I can truthfully say that it is not the suffering, it is how we react to experiencing it. It is one reason that comparing suffering is a fools game. I’ve another post coming, but you may think that your quality of life is pretty good, but so do those in the Amazon, eating grubs.
By crazy coincidence, just today one of my favorite blogs has started a campaign to replace tired old chestnuts like this one with totally new and far more entertaining unfounded stereotypes about atheists — have a look!!! 😀
That was funny. I was more referring to Voltaire, from the Lisbon earthquake reference and out.
Though I can see where the chipped nail reference comes from:
Now I need someone from the “the universe is hostile and God is the source of all evil” camp to come in and post a humor link.
If they both happened right now, a chipped nail would challenge me a lot more than an earthquake destroying Lisbon. Thanks for holding the mirror up to my face, Stephen. No, really. Thanks.
I enjoyed the post, Stephen. Thank you.
Well, I should have realized all along that my apparent problem with believing in God was simply obscuring my latent desire to sin. Now, which sin should I commit? Gosh, the choices seem so limitless…. Given that this is the internet, the obvious choice would be porn, but it might be that pride is the bigger sin. Aw, heck, I don’t have to be limited to just one sin, do I?
Seriously, I wish you well, but will say “Fare well” to you, fellow travelers on this sphere. Our paths have intersected for a time, but they now diverge too far. Maybe one or the other of us will find a bend in our pathway that brings us together again. I hope your beliefs bring you comfort and peace on your journey through life.
Err, Mike, this post has nothing at all about obscuring a latent desire to sin. I’m not sure our paths intersected at all.
Bruce, you are welcome.
David, you only find in a mirror what you bring to it. Glad you found some use to the post.
John, glad you liked Lynnette’s post. Too bad Mike didn’t read that too (though it would not have explained his obscureness either ;>)
Andrew, Stephen and Benjamin, thanks for your comments.
Jared, good tie in to the current readings in the Book of Mormon. They had it rough some times.
C. L. Hanson — how could you, of all people, miss a reference to Voltaire 😉
Thanks again to everyone who read or commented.
I love the mirror of self-reflection this holds up, but I feel we should remember that the post holds both sides. It is true that the child’s stubbed toe might not be that big of a deal, and by extension that all our mortal trials are but a small moment, but I do not think that means we should devalue the struggle. I have a tendency to beat up on myself when I find things hard. “This should be easy” I tell myself, or “this isn’t really such a big deal, compared with the trials of others.” Well, it may be a small frame of reference, but it is my frame of reference, and it is all I have.
In the big picture, my pain may be small, but that doesn’t make it any less valid or any less painful. A person with a broken foot is still suffering, even if someone on the other side of the world just saw their family killed and walked miles and almost died of starvation. I think it is not a useful exercise to compare pain or trials in that way, but to feel true compassion for all who are in pain.
I’m not sure I understand anything about suffering,other than the fact that it leaves me with greater compassion for humanity,and not greater hatred,and makes me way less judgemental of my ancestors.It makes me love others more for what we all suffer,how wonderful we all are.I believe Robert Graves said’We must love each other or die’
I really liked your blog!