Sunday, July 25, 2010

How Long Shall I Suffer?

Mormon’s admonition to pray for charity with all energy of heart has been on my mind a lot lately. He understood a principle I feel I am just beginning to understand. While there are many good things we can do in life, there is only one way to return to our Father’s presence, and that is through His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. As we live the way He lived, as we choose to do what He did, we become like Him. We become pure.

The gift of charity, or the pure love of Christ, is described as the greatest of all the gifts of God. It is the gift that will lead us to eternal life. While this gift cannot be purchased with money or be received by giving our excess to a charitable organization, the gift comes with a heavy price. The amount is the cost of a single heart offered to the Lord – mine.

The prophet Mormon described this cost to his people. “And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (Moroni 7:45)

In the scriptures the word, “suffer,” has two meanings that are related but different. One meaning is to endure pain, distress, loss, separation, or even death. King Benjamin described the suffering that Jesus would endure for our sakes in similar terms. “And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.” (Mosiah 3:7)

This type of suffering describes all experiences that are difficult and unpleasant. It is usually associated with pain that is either physical, or emotional. Some pain that we feel may only be temporary and fleeting. Pain can also be severe enough that it causes damage and leaves a mark. I find great comfort knowing the atoning sacrifice Jesus made for all mankind will take away our pain and heal our marks. He has made it possible to find hope.

The second meaning of the word, “suffer,” can be found in the New Testament. As a group of people brought their children to be blessed by Jesus, His disciples rebuked them. Jesus’ reply to His disciples was, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:14) The account of this story does not describe the experience of having young children come to Him as difficult or unpleasant. In fact, it was something that Jesus wanted. In this context the word, “suffer,” means to allow or permit.

As I consider these two meanings in relation to the cost of charity, I am left wondering how they relate. Suffering alone does not equate to love. Merely allowing unpleasant things does not guarantee us greater love, either. However, if I take both meanings and I add them to a common purpose, I get a different result. If I am willing to endure difficult trials and allow Father to direct my life because I trust Him, it may not be pleasant, but in the larger picture I can count on Him to make my life better. When I do hard things out of love, my love increases and my capacity to love increases.

Suffering can often teach us lessons we wouldn’t learn any other way. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews describes the prophet Melchizedek who offered “strong crying and tears” with his prayers that God would save him from death. Little more is known about his experience except that he learned “obedience by the things which he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:6-8) Melchizedek was a man of great faith, but that too came with a cost.

At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus went into the wilderness to pray. “And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights and had communed with God, he was afterward an hungered and was left to be tempted of the devil.” (JST Matthew 4:2) I find it interesting that Jesus was doing something good and was rewarded with a trial. That is how it may look from the first appearance, anyway. Instead, consider that Jesus went into the wilderness to submit to the Father. He wasn’t looking for a reward. He was there to worship. Because His vision was clear in spite of His lack of strength, He was true to the Father and chose not to worship the deceiver.

Sometimes, the only way we learn the lessons Father wants us to is through difficult experiences. Joseph Smith taught that Jesus “suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them.” (Doctrine & Covenants 20:22) He lived a perfect life, but He still suffered and learned grace to grace.

King Benjamin also prophesied of the suffering that Jesus would endure. He said that Jesus would subject Himself to the Father, and that He “suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people. … Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father. (Mosiah 15:5-8) This passage includes both definitions of the word “suffer.” Jesus suffered, and He allowed Himself to suffer, that He might gain victory over sin and death.

At a time in his life when it appeared that he could suffer no more, Joseph Smith prayed to the Father for himself and for his people, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed…? let thine heart be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us.” (Doctrine & Covenants 121:1-2, 4)

The Lord’s reply was merciful. “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. Thou art not yet as Job….” (Doctrine & Covenants 121:7-10) The Lord continues, “If thou art called to pass through tribulation;” and he lists a number of examples of suffering, “if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? Therefore, hold on thy way… for God shall be with you forever and ever. (Doctrine & Covenants 122:5, 7-9)

Poor Joseph. In his darkest moment, he had not yet endured as Job. He had not suffered like the Lord of all. But he did have a reason to hope. God did not abandon Job, but blessed him with increase. The Lord “gave Job twice as much as he had before,” and “blessed the latter end of [his life] more than his beginning.” (Job 42:10, 12) God did not abandon His Only Begotten Son, either. After Jesus knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” I love this example because Jesus prayed out of the honesty of His heart. He told Father what he wanted, but then clarified that He would submit to the Father’s will. He suffered. Then, “there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly: and he sweat as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44, JST Luke 22:44)

The Lord told Joseph Smith, “I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit – and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink – Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” (Doctrine & Covenants 19:16-19)

Knowing that someone else knows what you are going through can be a great comfort. Knowing that Jesus has done something for us so that we wouldn’t have to is a tremendous gift! Knowing that even He had a hard time and didn’t want to do it makes His experience that much more personal to me. Believing that God does not lie and He does not change gives me hope that He will help me and save me in my desperation, too. Faith will get me started in the right direction, and hope will provide motivation when things get difficult. But, it is charity, the pure love of God, that will see me through to the end when my trials seem unbearable.

As I compare the many tears I shed in my own suffering with the blood that was shed in my behalf by the Savior, I am tempted to feel small and ashamed that I am so weak and vulnerable. The thing that saves me from greater self-pity and despair is that Jesus does not ask me to do what He did. I don’t have to suffer the way He did. I just need to live the way He wants me to, and that will be enough. I am not as strong as He is, but together we can do anything. I am not perfect like He is, but I am trying. I am not required to be perfect in my weakness. If I want to be like Jesus, I am required to turn to Him in faith when I am having a hard time. As I turn to him, then I can suffer the difficult lessons. I can allow Father to take the time He needs to make me better. I find I can do more and more through practice and prayer, as long as I have hope.

In the midst of that dark moment for Joseph Smith, the Lord gave him some instruction that was also meant to give him hope. And here we come back to the idea that I started with – charity. “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (Doctrine & Covenants 121:45-46) This strength all starts with charity, which never faileth.

Whether it is charity that helps me in suffering, or that I gain more charity through the right kind of suffering, I don’t know for sure. But if I am willing to endure, and allow difficult lessons to shape who I am because I am seeking charity, at least I know that I am moving in the right direction. Little by little, and grace for grace, my heart becomes purer and I become a little more ready to meet my Savior. Each time that my suffering increases, I turn to Father in prayer. And, like Joseph, Melchizedek, and the Savior, Father will hear and answer our prayers. He will send angels to comfort us and buoy us up. I know Father will bless us with that which we seek if we pray for charity with all the energy of heart.

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