President, I appreciate that introduction, but I am most especially grateful for the calming influence of Emily’s testimony and that beautiful performance by the choir. I want all of you to know how honored I am to be invited to visit with you today. You already know this, but you are greatly blessed to be led by President and Sister Kusch, who have become friends to my wife Lauri and me. Somehow, we have become General Conference tailgate buddies, sharing a meal in the Church Office Building garage between General Conference sessions every six months, and it’s clear that you are on their minds all the time. I have thought about you a lot over the past few weeks as I’ve pondered what I might say. I have prayed to know something of your circumstances and what might be appropriate to share with you. In many ways I envy you – you’ll never have more energy, or enthusiasm, or brain cells, or hair than you have today! In many other ways I’m very grateful for the experiences of my life that have brought me to where I am, and I’m happy with my life, despite its challenges and stresses.
Although it may not look like it to you, to me it hasn’t been that long since I was your age, trying to figure out which of life’s paths I should pursue. When I graduated from high school I struggled to know how to proceed in college, and eventually I joined the Air Force for what would become a 22-year career. In the four years following that decision, I joined the Church, spent a year and a half in Europe, met and married the love of my life, and became a father. Along the way it became pretty clear to me that I needed to find a way to get an education in order to support my growing family. By the time our first born child arrived, I was working full-time in my Air Force job from 11 at night until 7 in the morning. Most mornings, I would then head to work for a second job moving office furniture and delivering appliances, like refrigerators, until 4 in the afternoon. Several nights each week, I would then head to the University of Maryland to take classes in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree that would qualify me to apply for officer training. I almost never drove a car because I was in such a constant state of exhaustion - I didn’t trust myself at the wheel. Lauri was also working full time during this period, so we had very little time together. She was serving as Laurel Advisor in our ward, and I was the scoutmaster. Our budget was ridiculously tight; after all our bills were paid, we had $10 every two weeks to spend on extras like a movie or restaurant meal. To sum up, this is how my life felt to me: no money, no time, no energy, and very little confidence that I was on the right track. I have to confess, there were many times I wondered if the Lord knew me and understood what I was going through. I longed for this period of my life to be over, but I kept pushing forward. I was taking punches, but I stayed in the fight. Now, that’s a metaphor, of course. I highly doubt my ability to take an actual punch.
Maybe some of you have felt this way at times. Others of you have dealt with all of the stresses that I’ve mentioned but have had to endure the additional pain of loneliness, anxiety, poor physical health, or even abuse. On the topic of loneliness, I recently reviewed an article in Forbes magazine about a study that was conducted by Cigna Insurance Company. The basic interpretation of the results of the study was that if you feel alone, you’re not alone in feeling lonely. This study, which was published in May of 2018, involved surveying over 20,000 Americans aged 18 and older and revealed the following interesting data:
46%, or almost half, of respondents felt alone, either sometimes or always
47% felt left out
27% rarely or never felt as though there are people who really understand them
43% felt that their relationships are not meaningful
43% felt isolated from others
20% rarely or never felt close to other people
18% didn’t feel that there are people they could talk to
Only 53%, barely half, have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis
The loneliest generation of adults was Generation Z, or those 18 to 22 years old, followed very closely by Millennials, ages 23-37. I assume the majority of you fall within those two age groups. 68% of Millennials and Generation Z felt that no one really knows them well.
The Cigna study determined that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it more dangerous than obesity. Loneliness may be the great challenge of your generations.
Well, regardless of the source of stress in our lives, I suspect that there comes a time for all of us when we’re overwhelmed with life’s challenges, and like Joseph imprisoned in that place with the deliciously ironic name of Liberty Jail, we cry “O God, where art thou?”. The reality is that while the message of the gospel is that eternal happiness and joy are available through the Atonement of Christ, we are also confronted by what Elder Neal A. Maxwell sometimes referred to as the “wintry doctrine.” The “wintry doctrine” is that on our path to discipleship, we will each be asked to do that thing which is most difficult for us. As Elder Maxwell put it, "You and I cannot really expect to glide through life . . . naively petitioning, 'Lord, give me experience but not grief, a deeper appreciation of happiness but not deeper sorrow, joy in comfort but not in pain, more capacity to overcome but not more opposition; and please do not let me ever feel perplexed while on thy errand. Then let me come quickly and dwell with thee and fully share thy joy.'” The Savior did not come into the world to eliminate suffering, but to turn into joy all suffering which had to be endured. As C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain, which he wrote after the death of his wife, “Christ came not to free us from our pains, but to transform them into his.” The key to becoming truly Christ-like is to ensure that the suffering we must endure is not wasted, but transforms us into sons and daughters who understand both the cost and value of discipleship.
Let me illustrate this point by sharing two examples I have observed during the course of my service as a priesthood leader. Many years ago when I was a stake president in Montana, I noticed on my interview schedule that I had an appointment with Sister Ellarae Nelson to renew her temple recommend. The anticipation of our meeting made me smile, because Sister Nelson was always smiling. She was one of the happiest people I knew, and although I didn’t know a lot about her background, I knew she had been a single mother. My own mother had raised five children after my parents’ divorce, so I had great respect for the challenges she had endured. That night when Sister Nelson arrived for her interview, she was even more animated and cheerful than usual. When we had completed the process for renewing her recommend, I asked why she seemed so unusually happy that night. She then told me a story I have never forgotten. Sister Nelson told me of her son who had grown up as a typical young man in the Church. She took him to Primary as a boy, and as a young man he had participated in all the usual Sunday and Mutual activities of their ward. However, on his 18th birthday, he confronted his mother with one of the worst challenges a parent can face – he had decided to leave the Church. Her son felt that he had been “brainwashed” to go along with the teachings and practices of the Church and had never really been given the opportunity to choose for himself. Now, as an adult, he was choosing to leave the faith of his mother and told her that nothing she said would change his mind.
Before long it was clear to Sister Nelson that her son’s decision was firm and irrevocable. She went through all the agony a parent experiences in these circumstances. She finally went to someone she trusted with her tender feelings, her own sister, to seek counsel and support. The two of them, a loving mother and aunt, pondered and prayed to know what they could do that might both honor her son’s agency and demonstrate their commitment to his spiritual well-being. They settled on the idea that they might fast together once a week. She had agreed not to discuss her son’s decision with him in order to maintain their relationship, and this was something they could do that he wouldn’t even have to know about. So Sister Nelson and her sister decided to fast together every Tuesday, and they did. For 17 years. On his 35th birthday Sister Nelson’s son called her on the phone. After she wished him a happy birthday, he shared with her some feelings he’d been having. He had married and had children of his own by then, and he and his wife had begun discussing the need for some religious influence in their family. He had decided it was time to come back to Church. This call had actually come some time before my meeting with Sister Nelson; her happiness that night had been precipitated by another call from her son to tell her he had been called as a counselor in his ward’s bishopric and was to be ordained a high priest.
I have pondered Sister Nelson’s story many times in the past 20 years as I’ve tried to understand its message for me. In my heart I know I might have enthusiastically embarked on the journey with her and her sister, but I know myself well enough to say that after a few weeks, or maybe months, of weekly fasting I would have concluded that her prodigal son’s return would have to occur in the Lord’s due time and I would have moved on, having entirely missed the point. The important thing in this story to me isn’t the transformation that 17 years of fasting brought in her son, it was the transformation it brought in Sister Nelson. She found joy and happiness in her relationship with a Savior whose own suffering brought meaning to her experience. Frankly, her prayerful fasting enabled her to find joy and happiness in her relationship with her son who spent nearly two decades away from the gospel that was the core of her life. I can say that in those many years Sister Nelson’s pain was transformed into faith, devotion, and a rare understanding of what it cost our Heavenly parents to endure the loss of so many of their children. All Sister Nelson will say is “fasting works!”
A few years later, while presiding in the Kenya Nairobi Mission, Lauri and I had the opportunity to attend a fast and testimony meeting in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia (at that time our mission included Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania). During the meeting a 21 year-old man stood to bear his testimony and told a story that was familiar to the Ethiopian members in attendance, but brought tears to Lauri and me. When he was still a small boy, this young man had been kidnapped from his family. The man who had taken him then intentionally blinded him, and put him on the streets begging money. Each morning he would be taken to a busy intersection in the city, where he would spend the day begging. In the evening, the man who had taken him from his family would then retrieve him, collect his day’s earnings, and take him to a sparse, loveless home to sleep. At some point, some kindly, inspired soul understood what was happening and kidnapped him again, this time taking him to a boarding school for the blind where he could receive proper care and obtain a basic education, and where he excelled. Still later, he came into contact with a Latter-day Saint family who was helping with a humanitarian project at the school, and they introduced him to the Church. When we met him, he had been a member for about four years, and had just received the results of his examination for entrance into law school. He ranked fourth out of the 4,000 who had taken the test. With the support of his branch president this young man went on to law school while serving as a leader in his branch.
Now, the most remarkable part of this young Ethiopian man’s testimony was his expression of gratitude for all that had happened to him, including his appreciation for the man who had kidnapped and blinded him. He said that had he not been kidnapped and blinded, he would never have gone to the school for the blind, would never have gained a good education, and would never have met the family who introduced him to the gospel. With his strengthening testimony and his prospects for a professional career, he was happy. He had transformed the pain and suffering he had endured into a deeper understanding of the unfairness and brutality of Christ’s suffering, and discovered purpose in all that he and the Savior experienced. He was connected to the Lord in a powerful way.
Earlier I made brief mention of the Prophet Joseph’s experiences in Liberty Jail. You all know the story, and the almost unbearable conditions he and his five fellow prisoners endured during the winter of 1838-39. They were constantly cold and had only filthy and contaminated food to eat. The cell where they were confined was below ground level, damp and poorly lit, and the ceiling height was barely six feet, so that the men, like Joseph, who were over six feet tall could never stand fully erect. These awful circumstances followed the decision of a military court that the men were to be summarily executed, a fate they escaped only by the intervention of Brigadier General Alexander Doniphan. It is hard to imagine a more unfair, unjust, miserable situation. But Elder Brigham H. Roberts, Elder Neal A. Maxwell, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland have all spoken of the facility in Liberty as a “prison-temple.” Some of the most powerful revelations in scripture, found in Doctrine & Covenants Sections 121, 122, and 123, were received near the end of the prophet’s fourth month of captivity, when he feared that he had reached the end of his capacity to endure those circumstances.
In a devotional held at BYU in September 2008, Elder Holland said this about Joseph’s experience in Liberty Jail: “As we think on these things, does it strike us that spiritual experience, revelatory experience, sacred experience can come to every one of us in all the many and varied stages and circumstances of our lives if we want it, if we hold on and pray on, and if we keep our faith strong through our difficulties? We love and cherish our dedicated temples and the essential, exalting ordinances that are performed there. We thank heaven and the presiding Brethren that more and more of them are being built, giving more and more of us greater access to them. They are truly the holiest, most sacred structures in the kingdom of God, to which we all ought to go as worthily and as often as possible.
But tonight’s message is that when you have to, you can have sacred, revelatory, profoundly instructive experience with the Lord in any situation you are in. Indeed, let me say that even a little stronger: You can have sacred, revelatory, profoundly instructive experience with the Lord in the most miserable experiences of your life—in the worst settings, while enduring the most painful injustices, when facing the most insurmountable odds and opposition you have ever faced.”
So how exactly are we supposed to harvest these powerful blessings from unwanted, unfair, and painful experiences? Here are a few thoughts to consider:
First, it is absolutely reasonable and acceptable to pray that the burden you’re struggling with be removed. Even the Savior, when faced with the agony of Gethsemane, prayed “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me.” Using Ellarae Nelson’s example, sincere and sustained fasting and prayer can demonstrate our faith and our acknowledgement that our Heavenly Father can heal all our wounds.
Second, we can learn to say, “Thy will be done”, and mean it. Elder Maxwell taught, “the submission of one's will is really the only uniquely personal thing we have to place on God's altar. The many other things we 'give' are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us.” When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were threatened with being placed in the fiery furnace, their response showed that they understood that their faith rested in Christ and not in some arbitrary outcome that they had hoped to see. Their response is recorded in Daniel 3:17-18 – “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” Our willingness to accept the Lord’s will in all things is not indicative of a lack of faith in His power to remove our burdens, but is an expression of our faith in the righteousness of His will.
A third practical thing we can do to ease our burdens is to engage in service. As we become involved in helping others, our thoughts are lifted from our own personal problems. President Lorenzo Snow said, “When you find yourselves a little gloomy, look around you and find somebody that is in a worse plight than yourself; go to him and find out what the trouble is, then try to remove it with the wisdom which the Lord bestows upon you; and the first thing you know, your gloom is gone, you feel light, the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, and everything seems illuminated.”
Fourth, we can seek the counsel of trusted friends and family members. True friends who can listen to our problems and give us counsel and encouragement are a great help in times of stress. The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote of the joy of friends: “How sweet the voice of a friend is; one token of friendship from any source, whatever awakens and calls into action every sympathetic feeling.”
Finally, for gaining a better perspective during our times of affliction I recommend a thorough reading of Doctrine & Covenants 121, with a focus on the blessings promised to those who endure their burdens well found in verses 7-9: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment. And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes. Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands.”
And now just a brief word of caution – what happens if we don’t transform our suffering into increased understanding, greater spiritual sensitivity, or a more sacred relationship with the divine? Too often, those painful experiences are simply added to our reservoir of bitterness and our catalog of injustice, and we forfeit the opportunity for growth. Worse yet, as David Brooks, the New York Times columnist said in a devotional at BYU last month, “pain that is not transformed, gets transmitted.” Said perhaps less elegantly, “hurt people, hurt people.” My own experience has been that people who struggle to transform their pain, struggle to build and maintain successful relationships with others.
I hope you aren’t getting the sense that my message to you today is to “buck up!” On the contrary, my intent is to encourage all of us to see how consistently the Lord is reaching out to us to offer His peace in our most troubled moments. As Alma taught the Gideonites in Alma 7: 11-12: “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people, And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”
From Alma we learn that the Atonement of Jesus Christ had more than one purpose. It is true that the Atonement was the payment of penalty for sin, so that the second death, eternal separation from our Heavenly Father, can be overcome. But through the atoning process the Savior also experienced all our “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind.” What does “every kind” include? Does it include loneliness, anxiety, and confusion? Does it include financial insecurity, loss of jobs, and broken relationships? I testify that through some way we do not yet fully understand, our Savior did experience every challenge common to the human condition, and that he did so in order that there will always be one about whom you cannot say “you don’t understand, you don’t know how I feel, you don’t care about me.” I testify that He does understand you, He knows you, and He cares deeply about you. In the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.