The Church Historian's Press


A Latter-day Saint Theology of Suffering

An original recording of this discourse is available at (recording courtesy BYU Women’s Conference).

Brigham Young University Women’s Conference

Harris Fine Arts Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

March 28, 1986

Francine R. Bennion

Francine R. Bennion. 1995. Bennion served on the general boards of the Young Women and Relief Society in the 1970s and 1980s. Photograph by Busath Photography. (Courtesy Francine Bennion.)

“What I’m passionate about,” said Francine Russell Bennion (b. 1935), “is human existence, and the relationships between people and God, and what works and what doesn’t.”1 In an interview, Bennion explained that when she taught a Relief Society or Gospel Doctrine lesson she never wanted to brush off reality and speak only of ideals. Instead, she tried to present fresh, useful, and reality-affirming perspectives that would lift and enhance human relationships.2

Born to Latter-day Saint parents in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, Bennion is a classically trained pianist who studied at the Banff School of Fine Arts and has degrees from the Royal Schools of Music in London, England, and the Western Board of Music. She earned a bachelor’s degree in French from Brigham Young University (BYU) and a master’s degree in English from Ohio State University, where her husband, Robert C. Bennion, earned a doctorate in clinical psychology at the same time.3 Together they raised three children. Bennion taught reading, writing, and logic courses part time at Ohio State between 1957 and 1961. Between 1961 and 1997, she taught courses in English, piano, Book of Mormon, and history of civilization at BYU.4 Throughout her career and church service, she expressed her devotion to logic, words, and ideas.

During the 1970s, Bennion served on ad hoc committees both at the general level of the church and at BYU. One of these committees was foundational to forming the Women’s Research Institute at BYU.5 Bennion also worked on the church’s instructional development committee, writing curriculum for both the Relief Society and the Young Women programs.6 She served on the Young Women general board under President Ruth Hardy Funk from 1976 to 1978.7 When Barbara B. Smith was general president of the Relief Society, Bennion and Aileen H. Clyde were asked to develop a workshop about depression, since many church members were reporting a struggle with depression to their bishops. From 1980 to 1982 Bennion and Clyde tested and conducted the workshop in various settings, including a twelve-week Sunday School course in two wards, selected Relief Society groups, and some all-day Saturday meetings.8 In 1983, Smith asked Bennion to join the Relief Society general board, where she served until Smith’s release in 1984.9

Bennion had long thought about the assumptions undergirding human opinions and behavior. “Human experience is an endless revealer of underlying assumptions. … Being real means trying to make sense of what truly is good and real—and what is consistent with a God who is love and joy,” she expressed.10 In response to a request from the BYU Women’s Conference committee that she focus on the topic of suffering, Bennion gave the following talk designed to address “vital issues in the lives of all thoughtful Latter-day Saints.”11

It is not my purpose here to give careful definition of the term suffering or to distinguish between various kinds of suffering. For purposes of this discussion, suffering is anything that hurts badly, in any way.

Nor is it my purpose to answer all questions about suffering, or even to suggest that we all have the same questions. We have our own quests, and the search for peace must be our own. My intent is to discuss the reservoir to which many of us go for understanding and comfort in time of anguish.

My friend Sheila Brown came out of brain surgery with one side of her body paralyzed and with her speech and sight badly impaired. As we worked one day at stretching and relaxing her muscles, Sheila asked me what I was going to talk about at the BYU Women’s Conference.

“A Latter-day Saint theology of suffering.”

“Oh,” she said, searching for words and trying to form them, “I think—you should talk about theology of—courage—hope—like looking out a window.”

“I think it’s the same thing,” I replied.

We are accustomed to talking of fragments of theology—a topic here, an assumption or tradition there, often out of context with the whole. We are a people accustomed also to fragments of scripture out of context—a phrase here, a verse there, words that say something appropriate to the matter at hand, and ring with clarity and conviction. We have to do it; we haven’t time or ability to say everything at once. Sometimes, however, the clarity becomes blurred and the conviction open to question when a person puts some fragments with others. For example, what do you make of the following?

2 Nephi 2:25

“Men are, that they might have joy.”

Job 5:7

“Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”

Deuteronomy 4:29–31

“But if from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul. When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice; … he will not forsake thee.”

Psalm 22:1–2

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.”

Matthew 27:46

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Abraham 3:18

“Spirits … have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.”

2 Nephi 2:14

“God … hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.”

Proverbs 3:13

“Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.”

Ecclesiastes 1:18

“In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

One function of theology is to provide a comprehensive framework that gives meaning to the fragments and the seeming contradictions or paradoxes which they suggest. Theology provides a framework that binds diversity and complexity into a more simple net with which we can make some sense even of things we don’t fully understand.

If we live long enough, we find diverse views and contrasting fragments not only in scripture but also in life. For example, Dorothy Bramhall went to Hawaii in February for the birth of a grandchild.12 She went also for a visit with a longtime friend, not LDS, who had lost two sons in a traffic accident and then struggled with her own cancer and amputations for many years. Dorothy wrote:

It’s been a week of varied emotions. My friend, Jean Kerr, died the morning after I arrived.13 It seems I’m destined to spend part of my beach time in Hawaii contemplating the death of a good friend. The beach, at least for me, like the mountains, is a good place for such contemplation. Again, my thoughts have been drawn to the “why” of it all. For those of us in the church, there are at least a few answers to that question. But as I look at my friend and wonder what her purpose in life was—it seems that suffering has been the only purpose. … Suffering without a sense of purpose seems bitter indeed. Her mother said her husband prayed all night for her to die. Does one who doesn’t believe pray to anyone or anything? Or is it merely another way of saying—he yearned for or hoped that she would die? Do you think such a prayer will be heard when all those given for her healing have not been?

Enough! My grandson was born at 5 a.m. Sat. Eight lbs., 8 ozs.! I don’t know where she put him—from the back you would never know she was pregnant. He has lots of black hair, and I’m hoping maybe this one will be brown eyed. This is a miracle baby. When he was born the doctor showed them that the cord was knotted. The reason the baby survived is that his cord was unusually long, and the knot was never pulled tight. They are feeling very blessed. It’s always such a humbling feeling to look at a newborn—such utter perfection! I can hardly wait to hold him.14

The same week, the daughter of another of my friends gave birth to a premature Down’s syndrome child who has already had two of the six operations needed for survival. On March 2, a report released by the World Bank estimated that 730 million people in poor countries, not including China, lacked the income in 1980 to buy enough food to give them the energy for an active working life.15

One function of any religion is to explain such a world as this, to provide a theology that makes sense of love and joy and miracles but also of suffering and struggle and lack of miracles. Good theology makes sense of what is possible but also of what is presently real and probable. In this twentieth century, it is not enough that a theology of suffering explain my experience; it must also explain the child lying in a gutter in India, the woman crawling across the Ethiopian desert to find a weed to eat, and the fighting and misery of many humans because of pride, greed, or fear in a powerful few.16 Satisfying theology must explain the child sexually abused or scarred for life, or the astronaut who is blown up and leaves a family motherless or fatherless.17 Good theology of suffering explains all human suffering, not just the suffering of those who feel they know God’s word and are his chosen people.

It is not enough that theology be either rational or faith promoting. It must be both. It is not enough that satisfying theology be mastered by a few expert scholars, teachers, and leaders. It must be comfortably carried by ordinary people. It is not enough that theology help me to understand God. It must also help me to understand myself and my world.

Theology does not prevent all hurt and anguish. No knowledge of theology can remove all pain, weakness, or nausea from all terminal cancer. Nor can it fill an empty stomach. What sound theology can do is to help those who believe it to make some sense of the suffering, of themselves, and of God, such sense that they can proceed with a measure of hope, courage, compassion, and understanding of themselves even in anguish.

There is no single theology of suffering in our church, one framework uniform in all respects in the minds of all leaders and all other members. Though we may share the same scripture, the same revelation, prophets, and belief that God and Christ are real, we have various frameworks for putting them together and for seeing suffering, either our own or someone else’s. One person thinks God sends suffering to teach us or to test us. Another thinks God or Satan can affect only our response to the suffering, and some think it is Satan who is causing the suffering. Others think there should be no suffering at all if we are righteous and certainly no misunderstanding at all about why it is happening. These are only a few of the varieties of LDS belief about the origins of suffering, and however contradictory they be, each can be supported by fragments of scripture.18

We do not use identical principles or patterns to bind together fragments of scripture and life. In this twentieth century, with the history of the world before us, each of us has taken ideas and patterns from various sources to form our personal theologies of suffering. The complexity and power of those sources are evident in the story of Jephthah.

According to the book of Judges, chapter 11, Jephthah was asked to lead Israel against invading Ammonites.

And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If … the Lord deliver them before me, shall I be your head?

And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, The Lord be witness between us, if we do not so according to thy words.

Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and captain over them. …

Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah. …

And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,

Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord delivered them into his hands.

And he smote them … with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.

And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.

And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.

And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.

And she said unto her father; Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.

And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.

And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed.19

As the story is told, Jephthah makes the sacrifice because he believes it to be right. At the core of his and his daughter’s theology are these principles: God controls human events and determines either victory or defeat in battle. God can be bargained with. God gives Israel victory because of Jephthah’s all-encompassing vow, his willingness to give God anything he has. God’s law requires that the vow be kept. According to our record in the book of Numbers, “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.”20

A human being’s function is to obey the law. If God had wanted the obedient daughter saved, he could have prevented her from dancing out at so inopportune a moment.

We do not all read the same things into Jephthah’s story, or into sacrifice.21 Even in so short a story, the context for suffering is complex and today provokes questions such as these: Who is really responsible for the suffering in this story? Jephthah? God? The religious leaders who taught the theology that contributed to the making and keeping of the vow? Persons who developed a social system in which a daughter is her father’s property? What of Jephthah’s wife, who isn’t even mentioned? What about Jephthah’s father and harlot mother, and the half-brothers who threw Jephthah out of the house earlier in his life and perhaps contributed to his great desire for the power that victory would bring?22 What about Jacob, who set a precedent by bargaining with God?23 Or Moses, who, without regard to circumstances, seemed to teach that keeping a vow was more important than “selfish” compassion?

This list does not, of course, exhaust the questions, which go beyond reasons for Jephthah’s vow; for example, is obedience always a virtue? Is the major difference between God and Satan just a matter of who’s in charge, demanding obedience?

Custom can make the whole matter of Jephthah’s vow seem simple, and we tend to like simplicity and clarity, even if it means ignoring some things. There is power in simplicity. Some thousand and more years after the time of the judges, Paul the apostle praised Jephthah for his faith without condemning him for ambition or rashness.24

Today, many who do think Jephthah rash nevertheless have “simply” made his version of God their own: a God who controls all human events; a God who can and must be bargained with; a God who considers unquestioning obedience to be the highest good—not just the means to goodness, but goodness itself; a God who causes suffering in the innocent and also authorizes theology that fosters it. Many who believe in such a God either ignore or are confused by inconsistency with other scriptures that seem to speak of God’s valuing agency above obedience,25 love above tradition,26 and the human heart above ritual sacrifice.27

What do you think about Jephthah, his vow, and his God? Your answer will depend in part upon your own version of theology.

Does it really matter what we think? Can’t we just be kind and patient, without worrying about various points of theology?

It matters. For one thing, our assumptions affect how kind and patient we are likely to become. What Jephthah believed was central to what he did about suffering, and what we believe is central to what we do about it. For example, if we believe that inflicting suffering will further God’s work or glory, we may inflict it, as Irish and Lebanese and Iranians are currently doing, or as a father did by punishing his young son by putting his hands under scalding water, which nearly destroyed them, or as a husband is doing by telling his wife she can do nothing unless he tells her she can.28

If we believe God wants suffering, we may not take responsible action to relieve or prevent it. Thirty-five years ago, one of my schoolteachers would not take medical help for a lump in her thigh because “God had given it to her.” In Relief Society one Sunday last year, a class member told us we shouldn’t concern ourselves with events in the newspaper because God is planning destruction before the Millennium anyway, and all we should concern ourselves with is our own righteousness and that of our children, and then we’ll be all right. A few years ago, one young woman’s confusion about God and suffering was central to her anguish and paralysis in the face of repeated violence: “I don’t know what it is God’s trying to teach me with my husband’s temper.”

Many who believe God is causing the suffering will not, or feel they cannot, ask him for help or comfort at the very time they need it most.

Another of the reasons our theology of suffering matters is that we may live comfortably with a framework which has inherent holes and contradictions as long as the suffering is someone else’s or as long as our own suffering isn’t very great. But holes and contradictions have a way of becoming very important when anguish is our own or when we feel the pain of persons we care about. Job’s friends said to him:

Behold, thou hast instructed many, and thou hast strengthened the weak hands.

Thy words have upholden him that was falling, and thou hast strengthened the feeble knees.

But now it is come upon thee, and thou faintest; it toucheth thee, and thou art troubled.29

If, like Job, we find that the comforts we’ve offered others aren’t sufficient for our own experience, then the suffering itself, however great, is not the only problem. The problem is also that the universe and our ability to make sense of it have fallen apart, and we are without hope or trust in ourselves or in God.

Theology can become an even heavier problem than the anguish of suffering itself. If we believe suffering shouldn’t exist, but it does; or suffering is God’s way of testing and teaching, but what can a wailing infant be proving or learning; or prayer should cure the problem, but it hasn’t—then it is not only the suffering that troubles us but also the great cracks in a universe that should make sense but doesn’t. I have seen the pain of persons in this place, the pain of persons fumbling with their long-held assumptions when the ancient questions rise afresh, though they had thought them already answered: Why is this happening? Can I stand it? What can I do? What am I? Is God real, or powerful, or good? What is life for? What does he want us to do with it?

Important to one’s struggles with such questions are the implications of elements at the core of one’s theology—for example, Latter-day Saint belief that we can become more like God, our Eternal Father, not just obey him or imitate him or follow his Son, though these things are part of the process, but become gods ourselves with his help.

For many Christians, such doctrine is scandalous, radical, heretical. On February 17, 1600, the Dominican priest Bruno of Nola was burned at the stake as a heretic. Among other things, he had taught that there is an infinity of worlds, the universe is eternal, and “from a more vile creature I become a God.”30 Today there is widespread agreement that there is indeed an infinity of worlds, and that so-called matter or energy is eternal, though fluctuating in form and state. But the idea of humans becoming gods is still considered by traditional Christians to be a vain, presumptuous, heretical notion.31

Even among those who believe it, the idea of our possible state as gods sometimes remains as nebulous as traditional views of pink clouds and golden harps. A group of BYU Honors students was discussing Voltaire and “the best of all possible worlds.”32

“Tell me,” I said, “what you consider to be the best of all possible worlds.”

“It would be like the celestial kingdom.”

“What is that like?”

“Well, there won’t be problems like we have here.”

“What kind of problems?”

“Well, for one thing, everyone will be—happy. There won’t be any unkindness. No one there will be rejected or abused, or laughed at, or ignored.”

“Oh,” I said. “Are you suggesting that God experiences none of these things now?”

And then there was silence, for a moment.

In wanting to get to the celestial kingdom, these students had more awareness of traditional struggle-free utopias than of our own God and our own world. The celestial kingdom was a place to get away from suffering, not a place to understand it and address it in ways consistent with joy and love and agency.

It is not only professed points of doctrine such as potential godhood or the celestial kingdom that matter but also the meaning and larger framework that a person gives to them. The larger framework gives meaning to the fragments. I haven’t heard anyone in or out of our church ask why God caused seven persons to fall in bits to the bottom of the sea when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. We are accustomed to a methodical framework for space travel, and we looked within that framework for explanations of the disaster. A commission began to examine video reruns, O-rings, materials, workmanship, memos, organization, and decision making, among other things, to identify and address problems before proceeding with the next manned space project. The process was complex, but even minor steps had been recorded, and a meticulous report was possible.

We can make such a report to trace the steps in many kinds of suffering, but usually we have neither time nor ability to reduce all causes and all effects to a satisfying xeroxed page.33 Even when we can do it quite accurately, we are most likely reporting how the suffering came about, not why. Some twenty years ago, a man watched his mother die miserably of cancer and then, closing up the house, said, “I cannot pray to a God who would let my little mother suffer like that.” He did not want a step-by-step report on how cancer causes pain, or how she got the cancer. He wanted to know why cancer exists at all, why there is pain, why God doesn’t prevent it, why the innocent suffer, why a small frail human would have such undeserved hurt. What purpose could justify such anguish? What comprehensive model of existence could make sense of it?

We have not the mind of God. We see through a glass darkly now and will till we meet him and ourselves face to face and “know as we are known.”34 There are times we must say, “I don’t know.” If we think we know everything, it is a sure sign we do not. But we are capable of learning much about this world and of considering what difference LDS doctrines can make to how we put together our experience, our diverse scriptures, our traditions, and well-supported but contradictory theological explanations. The better we understand what is at the core of LDS doctrine, the better we can distinguish what is not. We need not shroud ourselves helplessly in a crazy quilt stitched haphazardly from Old Testament theology, such as that of Jephthah, with a few patches of utopian thought and LDS doctrine embroidered on top. We can extend our understanding of LDS principles and use them as the core for a framework with which to make some sense of contradictory fragments.

Of course it may seem simpler to stay on well-worn traditional ground, but God—and this is one of the most important things we believe about him—has invited us to go further, to make suffering worth the trouble and to meet it as well as we can. We can be in the process of learning to do that whatever our current limitations or circumstances. Though our search for understanding be long or incomplete, it can lead us to courage, peace, and an increasingly truer sense of ourselves and God.

The traditional views are that we are alive because God put us here, or because Eve and Adam fell from innocence and trouble-free paradise through disobedience. These views are expressed in scripture. The Latter-day Saints believe, however, that these traditional views are fragmentary because they leave out several important things—for example, that we have existed without beginning and that we are here because we chose to come.35 We are here not just because God decided it would be a good idea and made it happen, not just because Adam and Eve fell and we automatically followed, but because we chose to come. However essential what God or Eve or Adam did to make it possible, we believe the decision to be born was our own. Our very brief accounts of life before this earth suggest that we chose as Eve chose, and we defended that choice in whatever kind of war can take place among spirits.36 Our birth is evidence of courage and faith, not helplessness, shame, and disobedience, and yet we must make sense of conflicting reports about it, seemingly contradictory fragments about it. If we are to make sense of them, we had better understand well the implications of those brief fragments we have about our existence before human life began.

We don’t know if there were several possibilities of which we have no record, but I doubt there was a never-never land where we could have been happy children without responsibility forever.37 Apparently there was a point at which we had to grow up or choose not to. Our scriptures suggest that there were unavoidable decisions to be made consciously and responsibly by all inhabitants in the premortal council, as in Eden. We could not be mere observers, only thinking about the decision, only imagining what might happen if we made it, only talking about the meaning of it all. At any rate, God’s directive to Alma when he watched good women and children being burned alive in Ammonihah suggests that it was not enough to imagine what might have happened if they were burned to death, or what might have become of the persons who were doing it.38 God didn’t want to know just what could happen and neither, apparently, did they in the beginning.

At any rate, we are told that there were two alternatives. Lucifer proposed a way so different from God’s that it would have destroyed this universe in which God speaks of I and thou, they and we, this universe in which Elohim and Jehovah speak of their own names and also address by name Eve, Joseph, Moses, Mary, Abraham, Helaman, Peter, and Emma.39 Lucifer would have for all of us only one name, one will, one identity: his own. It was not obedience and “success” (by his definition) he would prevent; rather it was disobedience and failure he would not allow. In his universe, no one would be hurt or afraid. He would allow only whatever experience and identity he chose for us, and if we met pleasure, pain, or success, it would be wholly because of himself, not because of ourselves. The wonder is that Lucifer’s intended universe is exactly the universe many now attribute to God, or want from him.

God offered a profoundly different possibility, that with his help we meet and create reality as individuals in a universe of law and personal agency, and ultimately choose who we want to be, choosing to become more like himself if that is what we want, choosing to become gods if that is what we truly want for all eternity.40 Law in God’s universe is a matter of processes or relationships that are knowable and predictable, not whimsical or inconsistent. Such law is inherent in all matters. Agency in such a universe is not only the capacity for moral choice, but more largely, the capacity for real thought, action, and invention, with inherent consequences for oneself and others. An agent is one whose self cannot be permanently determined by other persons, or by events and circumstances. The implications of this doctrine are important to our suffering whether we live in England or Africa, with or without current understanding of God’s ways.

We wanted life, however high the cost. We suffer because we were willing to pay the cost of being and of being here with others in their ignorance and inexperience as well as our own. We suffer because we are willing to pay the costs of living with laws of nature, which operate quite consistently whether or not we understand them or can manage them. We suffer because, like Christ in the desert, we apparently did not say we would come only if God would change all our stones to bread in time of hunger. We were willing to know hunger. Like Christ in the desert, we did not ask God to let us try falling or being bruised only on condition that he catch us before we touch ground and save us from real hurt.41 We were willing to know hurt. Like Christ, we did not agree to come only if God would make everyone bow to us and respect us, or admire us and understand us. Like Christ, we came to be ourselves, addressing and creating reality. We are finding out who we are and who we can become regardless of immediate environment or circumstances.

What is the point of that? What is the point of knowing reality and being ourselves, of suffering as Dorothy’s friend Jean Kerr suffered and as many other people suffer daily? Why did this matter so much?

One reason we were willing to pay the high costs of continuing to address reality and become ourselves is that God told us we can become more like himself. We can become more abundantly alive, with ultimate fulness of truth, joy, and love—fulness impossible for souls unable to take real part in creating it, souls ignorant of good or evil, pleasure or pain, souls afraid of the unknown.

According to my understanding of scripture, we are not preparing now to begin in the next life to become more like God. We are not simply waiting to get started with the process. We are in it here and now. The implications of this are many, and there is time here to suggest only a few relevant to suffering.

If we are to become more like God, we must experience and understand the reality of physical law. Nobody in our world or in God’s universe is manipulating mass, energy, motion, gravity, or quantum leaps so that they have no more reality than a TV movie or some imaginary adventure. For God, these matters of quantum leaps and mass and motion are real, and for us they are real. God functions according to laws that we are experiencing and trying to learn here. We have many scriptures indicating that our God is a God of law, and we are coming in contact with the same kind of laws he understands.42 Laws are real for him, and the same laws are real for us. If they were not, we would have either incomprehensible chaos or the kind of existence which Lucifer offered.

Important to our experience is the reality of operations we can learn to depend upon and predict. Where would we be if gravity were inconsistent and we tried to sit down? Where would we be if gravity were working for some of us and not for others? Yet, when a child falls out of a high window, some wish gravity were not in effect at the moment, or suppose that God is using it to cause suffering, or look to him to stop it. The same thing occurs with other laws of mass and motion. We want to drive to the grocery store or across the country, but the same laws of motion and mass that take us on these trips can result in accidents that disfigure people for life or leave them helpless in bed for thirteen years unable to move. We live with natural law.

Nobody is manipulating every human decision that would affect every human experience. If God did, we would have the kind of existence now that Lucifer offered permanently. For God, the agency and real existence of other souls is of prime value, value that exceeds any reason for his arbitrarily controlling all they experience and become. God does not make himself the only reality, or the only source of reality.

“All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.”43 We cannot exist without agency and its results. Neither can we become like God if we think others must be deprived of their agency so that we can be ourselves. We are not coddled toddlers in playschool or Disneyland; we are not preparing to meet reality someday. We are in it here and now.

Soon after I learned to read, I discovered folk tales and myths on a bottom shelf in the public library and devoured all that were there. Heroes and heroines were kind and brave, sharing bread with persons much uglier and very different from themselves; they were able to ride the wind east of the sun and west of the moon, and they met mountains and forests and giants and persons who could turn them to stone, and they would emerge always triumphant and happy. I was one of them and walked to school disguised as an ordinary Canadian girl in the early 1940s and thought myself kind and brave. I could meet those things and would, as the people in the stories did. I didn’t know then what it was really like to be turning into stone, so to speak, or what it was like trying to swim beyond my strength, but I know now. Though I would certainly share my bread with ugly old hags or anyone else who was starving, I didn’t understand compassion for someone hurting me in their own ignorance. I thought only evil persons could hurt me. The folktales were imaginary; life is real.

There is a fragment of Isaiah which illuminates the matter for me. It is better in context with surrounding chapters and best in context with all scripture but is useful even alone:

Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.

For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:

For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.

To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.

But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.44

Why would he speak to us in a way that would let us “fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken”? For many years the passage puzzled me. I couldn’t understand it. And yet, I think, if we are to understand God we must understand that passage.

I learned much about it one day in sacrament meeting, not from anything I heard but from watching a little boy playing in the row ahead of me. He had a quiet book open to a page with colored shapes—a purple square, an orange circle, red rectangle, green triangle, and on top of these, attached with Velcro, matching shapes and colors. The boy was clearly inexperienced. He pulled off all the shapes, then stuck a purple square on a green triangle, pulled his father’s knee, and beamed up at him in utter delight because he had put a purple square on a green triangle and it stayed there. The father looked down, saw the mistake, shook his head, and turned his attention back to the speaker. The boy pulled the purple square off the green triangle, stuck it on an orange circle, pulled his father’s knee, and beamed up at him with utter joy and delight. The father looked down, saw the mistake, shook his head, and turned back to the speaker. The boy pulled off the purple square and put it on a purple square, discovered the match, pulled his father’s knee, and beamed up at him in utter delight. The father nodded and turned back to the speaker, and the boy began to experiment with the removable green triangle.

Of course, this is not a perfect metaphor for our experience with suffering or with God, but it suggests much to me in conjunction with the Isaiah passage. The boy was learning about shapes and colors, not just about being a good boy and pleasing his father by matching the right shapes and colors. Shapes and colors, useful though they be, were part of more comprehensive matters he was learning: he can learn, ignorance or mistakes need not be indelible, he is becoming himself, he is not the circumference of everyone else’s universe, there is delight in discovery and invention, some “utter” joys are better than others, and so forth. The learning was his own, and he was taking part in creating as well as discovering that which he learned.45

Beyond the specifics of suffering, we too are being “weaned from the milk and drawn from the breasts” and are agents learning comprehensive matters, however brief, painful, or severely restricted earth experience might be. Even an infant born yesterday and dead of starvation or abuse within a week will experience physical reality, the quantum leaps, elements, motions, or processes which constitute physical existence. Even such an infant experiences something of how agents can affect each other and be affected by each other. Even such an ignorant child discovers that with God’s help one can survive pain, imbecility, anguish, or death, and transcend them. What we meet in the way of suffering is far more important than purple squares, but we too are discovering that we can learn, and that we can take help from our Father in order that we might survive.

The history of the earth, the history of religion, is the history of human problems with understanding our Father in Heaven. We have the verse from Deuteronomy which says that if we seek the Lord with all our hearts, he will not forsake us.46 We have also, in the Twenty-second Psalm and in the words of Christ on the cross, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”47 Can we trust God? Is he a reliable help in times of trouble?

In response to such questions, some vigorously nod their heads, some look doubtful, some vigorously shake their heads, and some go to sleep. Our perceptions are not identical. God is not making them identical. He is not the only source of our understanding of him or our relationship with him. We take part in creating the understanding and the relationship. He invites us to come to know him, not just to know about him. The way to know him better is to become more like him.

If we are to find help from scriptures in this process, we must read them all in context with the writers’ own language and understanding, and choose what is most important and most meaningful.48 If we take some writings, we may look to God only for vengeance, fury, and infliction of suffering when we make any mistake or are in need of help. But I believe other writings are more expressive of LDS belief in the love of Elohim and Jehovah, their love, their relationship with us, and their preservation and enhancement of our agency. For example:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.49

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.50

Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth;

And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;

And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning.51

He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world.

… he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.52

I know the love of God. It is one of the very few things I do know with absolute certainty. I think suffering on this earth is an indication of God’s trust, God’s love. I think it is an indication that God does not want us to be simply obedient children playing forever under his hand, but wants us able to become more like himself. In order to do that we have to know reality. We have to be real ourselves and not dependent on externals. If we are to be like God, we cannot live forever in fear that we may meet something that will scare us or that will hurt us. We have to be able, as he is able, to meet what comes of others’ agency, and of living in a lawful universe that allows creation of a habitable planet only when it allows also the difficulties that come in natural operations of such a planet.

We exist now as adolescents between ignorance and full truth, with real interactions among ourselves and the universe more numerous and complex than we yet observe or comprehend. It is within this context that I trust God and his commandments. I do not believe I could do it within the traditional framework where his love and power are supposed to keep us from pain or struggle if we are good. Neither could I find it easy to trust him if I believed him to make a habit of manipulating natural law and other persons to give me just what I need to test or teach me—in other words, to make me the center of the world without regard to other persons’ agency or experience, and without regard to consistent, knowable law. In LDS theology, I believe, it is the large context for all humans that gives meaning to suffering. Within the context of LDS theology, I find hope for understanding and changing what I can, but also hope for transcending what I cannot: “Here is my dragon now, here is my magician who might turn me to stone, but I am able with God’s help to be myself. I’m able to hurt and survive.”

Some of the most difficult questions about suffering are why does God seem to intervene at some times but not others, and why should we pray for his protection. There are times we just have to say, “I don’t know,” and then trust God. I find this more satisfying within the context I’ve suggested than within traditional theologies; however, it is within the traditional framework that many LDS persons ask questions about suffering and God’s part in it. Whatever they may say they believe about law or human agency, when the anguish comes, many LDS believers look to Jephthah’s version of God and his power. In LDS theology, the power, goodness, and love of God as defined in traditional theologies are not the issues at question. Our being alive and meeting the suffering are evidence of his power, goodness, and love.

The real question is what is God’s present relationship with us? I believe he loves us for ourselves, not only for himself. I believe he is our help, our guide, the means of our present existence, our comforter, but I believe these things must be understood in a larger context than may be immediately apparent. When Elijah calls for rain to end local drought, the writer of his story does not discuss relevant necessary changes in large weather systems circling the earth, or the results of them for India or Japan.53

God’s power is real. The power of faith is real—it is not that God arbitrarily awards help to a person good enough to have sufficient faith, but that the faith itself is power.54 Physical laws inherent in the universe are also real. God has repeatedly urged that we ask his help, with faith that he will do what is good. In every case, his definition of what is good is a matter of truth and law, not arbitrary whim. We may not comprehend all the specifics, or all the interactions involved, but we can understand the theological context within which the fragments occur.

Knowing that we can stumble or fall, knowing that some do not have the gospel, or lack freedom or capacities—in other words, knowing our various limitations here—I find sense in LDS doctrine that our learning goes on after this life, and that when we fall, it need not be permanent. Many causes and effects of suffering are evident in our sense of who we are and what we can do about it. Because of our ignorance and inexperience, we are hampered by things we don’t understand and also by things we assume we do understand. What other persons have taught us, whatever their intentions, may hamper as much as help us. One of my prayers to my Father is that my children will be healed of my ignorance and will not bear forever the difficulties caused by things I have mistakenly done or not done as a parent. As I think of the atonement of Christ, it seems to me that if our sins are to be forgiven, the results of them must be erased. If my mistakes are to be forgiven, other persons must be healed from any effects of them. In the same way, if other persons are to be released by the atonement, then we must be healed from their mistakes. I think that is an essential part of understanding God’s gift: He did not make a plan whereby we simply prove ourselves already right or wrong. Rather, we must make sense of the fact that who we are and who we become is not wholly dependent on where we are now, and on never having made a mistake. Christ’s atonement makes it possible for us to go through the meeting of reality, the falling, the hungering, the screaming, the crawling on the floor, the being disfigured and scarred for life psychologically or physically, and still survive and transcend it. If that were not true, then our whole universe would have no meaning, and we had just as well be what Lucifer suggested, simply obedient robots.

I know the goodness of God, and I also know the hurts of this life. Of the very few things I truly know, the most certain, drawn from the most vivid and inexpressible experience of my life, is this: God is love, and our becoming so is what matters. I pray we may gain courage and faith to affirm the choice we made, to remember that we are active and alive and meeting suffering here because God knew we could and because we believed we could.

Let us choose well the theology with which we frame our experience. Let us trust ourselves and God, asking continually for the help which is good. Let us love each other, mourn with each other, and sacrifice fear for courage. Let us seek reality and truth, forgiving ourselves and each other, learning to help ourselves and each other as we can. Let us become more like our God, who is good.

Cite this page

A Latter-day Saint Theology of Suffering, At the Pulpit, accessed July 23, 2024