I gave a talk this past Sunday in sacrament meeting on the theme “trials and their purpose.” I received a lot of good feedback and posted it at Times & Seasons. My main focus is that God does not “give” us trials in any literal sense. To do so would would, in most cases, violate natural law, human agency, or morality. Here are a couple excerpts:
In the opening of the Genesis account, the world is described as “without form, and void” (Gen. 1:2). The Book of Abraham states that it is “empty and desolate”; a place in which “darkness reigned” (Abr. 4:2). And yet, out of the darkness and chaos, God was able to fashion something he could declare as “good” (Gen. 1:25). God did not create the chaos, but he did forge something beautiful from it. Similarly, I seriously doubt that God is the one wreaking havoc in your lives, but he can plow through it with you until you emerge a (hopefully) more compassionate, loving, and empathic person on the other side. Consider the case of Joseph sold into Egypt. Following the death of Jacob, he told his now fearful brothers that while they “thought evil against [him]…God meant it unto good” (Gen. 50:20). It’s safe to say that God did not cause Laban to cheat Jacob, leading to the unhealthy competition between Leah and Rachel and the rift between their sons. God did not cause Joseph’s brothers to throw him into a pit or sell him into slavery. What God did do was redeem the evil situation for good. This is likely what Paul meant when he wrote that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28). Or what Lehi meant when he told Jacob that God would “consecrate thy afflictions for thy gain” (2 Ne. 2:2). Or even what the Lord meant when he told Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail that his suffering would “give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7). Indeed, trials can give us experience and can work toward our good; what some have referred to as “soul-making.” Psychologists have described the positive outcomes of highly challenging life crises as “posttraumatic growth.” However, this is miles away from the claim that God willed Joseph Smith’s imprisonment. Indeed, God attributes it to Joseph’s captors being “servants of sin” and “children of disobedience” (D&C 121:17). But he does comfort Joseph with the promise that “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” (D&C 121:7-8).
…It should be recognized that Christ came to conquer death and hell (2 Ne. 9), which should indicate that they have no place in His kingdom, no eternal purpose. He came “to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12), not dole them out. He came to bring good news to the poor, not tell them that poverty is a great learning tool. He came to preach deliverance to the captives, not explain how prison and slavery would teach them valuable lessons. He was sent to heal the brokenhearted, give sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18); not to lecture them about how God works in mysterious ways. When the woman with an issue of blood touched his cloak, Jesus didn’t say, “That’s cute, but your 12-year hemorrhage is an excellent learning opportunity.” Instead, she was healed (Mark 5:25-34). When friends of the paralytic lowered him from the roof, Jesus didn’t say, “You know, I’m sure God is just trying to teach you something with this whole paralysis thing.” No, he forgave and healed him (Mark 2:1-12). If we want to know how we should think about trials and suffering, we should look to the Savior. He confronted evil and drove it out. He nurtured those suffering and relieved them of their afflictions. This is what His kingdom looks like. And if we are trying to build God’s kingdom here on earth, we should be engaged in the same kind of work. We are meant to build Zion in the midst of Babylon. We are meant to, as Joseph Smith put it, “turn the devils out of [hell’s] doors and make a heaven of it.” This doesn’t happen by resigning ourselves to evil and suffering, but by opposing it. But not only is Christ our example, he is our hope. He offers hope for a time when all these things will cease. And He offers hope in the present as one who loves and weeps with you in your trials.
Read the whole thing here.
13 thoughts on “Times & Seasons: Trials and Their Purpose”
“My main focus is that God does not “give” us trials in any literal sense.”
To get to that point you pretty much have to ignore the BOM. For example see Mosiah 23:18-24
Doesn’t look like you read my T&S post.
I don’t think it requires us to ignore the BOM. The verses you pointed to don’t really demonstrate much of anything. The “chastening” that takes place isn’t literally performed by God. He doesn’t *make* the Lamanites conquer the Nephites and to bring them into bondage. The Lamanites could have chosen *not* to conquer the Nephites. Just as the Babylonians could have chosen *not* to sack Jerusalem.
These particular verses use “chasten” for a similar context in Heb. 12: persecution. Are you saying that persecution is brought about by God? Does he inspire others to persecute his followers so he can “chasten” them? Does he manipulate people’s agency to make them want to persecute his followers? That strikes me as very problematic.
The scripture attributes the actions to God “the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people”; “he trieth their patience and their faith” and then it says “he did deliver them”.
Seems pretty clear that the Lord is directly involved in the circumstances that result in the chastening, the trial and the deliverance.
It is not clear to me what you think the Lord’s role is in all of this. A distinction between causing it to happen and letting it happen or some totally different role?.
If the distinction is between causing and letting then it would seem to be a distinction without a difference. Whether he caused it to happen or simply put them in a situation where Amulon could exert his authority and his influence makes little difference to them. If he choses to chasten and try me by having me experience unemployment I’m not certain it makes a real practical difference whether he lets my boss fire me or causes my boss to fire me.
If some other role feel free to educate as to your view.
Also do you draw the same distinction with respect to the good things that happen in life?
For example, with respect to the deliverance of the people of Alma it specifically says “the Lord caused a deep sleep to come upon the Lamanites”. Do you believe that he actually did that or did it just happen?
On the same note, what about when he says “I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders”. Do you believe he actually did that or did the relief just happen naturally?.
Just curious: did you read the entire T&S post?
“The scripture attributes the actions to God…Seems pretty clear that the Lord is directly involved…”
The language of attribution does not guarantee an *actual* attribution. And it’s far from clear exactly *how* God is involved. I’m aware that various verses and books attribute a large portion of earthly events to the actions of God. Other passages (such as the Psalms) chastise God for his lack of involvement and for failing to uphold justice as the forces of evil run amok. Others allude to the battle motifs in older creation myths in which God has to battle the forces of chaos and keep them contained in order for the creation not to devolve back into disorder. See Jon Levenson’s ‘Creation and the Persistence of Evil’.
In other words, there is not a single coherent theology of “the scriptures.” They evolve. They contradict. This is what I acknowledge in the very beginning of my talk and allude to elsewhere.
“A distinction between causing it to happen and letting it happen or some totally different role?”
I’m personally fine with the idea that in some cases God intervenes, in some cases he could but doesn’t for good reason, and in others he’d like to but can’t due to limitations of some kind. I think our theology of a God bound by the limits of a co-eternal reality allows for all of that. This is why I say there are paradoxes to the limits of God, human agency, and divine intervention. And this is why I say at the end to stop rationalizing people’s suffering and help them instead. To try to nail down which one it is in any specific case strikes me as near impossible.
“Whether he caused it to happen or simply put them in a situation…”
*How* would he put them in the situation? This is what I’m getting at. We say things like this, but what exactly do we mean by it? I think we play fast and loose with our language here. And sometimes I wonder: Do we really just mean “predestine” when we say “foreordain”? For all our talk of agency, do we really think free will is a sham? Is our God just the Calvinist God with a body?
“If he choses to chasten and try me by having me experience unemployment I’m not certain it makes a real practical difference whether he lets my boss fire me or causes my boss to fire me.”
I think the flaw would be the automatic assumption that God’s wanting it to happen to you to begin with. I see no reason to attribute job loss to God when it can be explained quite easily by a jerk boss, downsizing, bad economy, etc. Why even attribute it to God in the first place? Because in random places in the scripture it seems to indicate direct involvement by God for punishment or “chastening”?
I know we like to rip verses out of context and generalize them, but that’s how we ended up quoting Scripture Mastery verses that didn’t mean what we thought they meant. There is a specific context to Hebrews 12 and Mosiah 23 (not to mention the Greek for “chasten” in Heb. 12 simply means “discipline, train, instruct”). The author of Hebrews moves from an athletic analogy to a parent-child analogy. Christians learn discipline and instruction as they go through persecution. To take on the name of Christ is to expect persecution. But I would find it very odd to assume in actuality that God is willing the persecution of his people. I thought he was wanting all people to repent and come unto him.
But you’re right about one thing: the scriptures feature examples of God interfering with human agency, which contradicts what a lot of Church leaders say.
“Also do you draw the same distinction with respect to the good things that happen in life?”
I would certainly hope that we draw a distinction between the good things in life and the evil things. So, yes, I do. I think there is something profoundly wrong with saying God causes evil.
But you’re getting into *divine intervention* and *miracles*. This is not the same as evil and suffering. I think debates over when, why, and how God intervenes in our world can be fruitful. It’s a topic worth thinking about. But I think it is wrong to assume that just because God is depicted in scripture as performing miracles (which are relatively rare occurrences) that he therefore is causing people to act horribly, killing thousands of people via natural disasters, unleashing epidemics among nations, etc.
And even if we grant that in *some cases* he does, this is hardly proof that this is *the rule*. If the scriptures are any indication, they are the exception. The scriptures tend to be highlights of divine-man interactions. They are hardly examples of your everyday experience.
In short, I would probably agree with you about divine intervention, say, bringing about deliverance of the Israelites from slavery.
I would disagree with divine intervention causing the Holocaust.
You’re premise seems to be “if I can’t understand it, there must be no purpose in it.” I disagree that God isn’t, as Elder Neal A. Maxwell put it, in the details of our lives. God didn’t say his anger is kindled against those who don’t acknowledge his hand in only good things that happen, but in all things (D&C 59:21).
You also seem to assume that the good must be learned in this life, and that seemingly meaningless evils like the Holocaust must have meaning in this life; that life must be long enough to turn them to our good in mortality (which leads to your “being victims for someone else’s good” claim). I disagree that the good of our experiences must be apparent in this life. They might not be realized until the next. (A simple Hitler heart attack by God’s intervention could have resolved things. If that was too late, a miscarriage during his birth could have done the trick.) That we don’t understand how it might be turned to our good doesn’t make God subject to the same limitation.
Christ healed blindness, sickness, etc., but that doesn’t mean he willed none of it. He stated the man born blind from birth was born that way so the works of God might be made manifest in him (John 9:1-3). He didn’t have to be the cause of something in order for it to be his will. He could certainly cause all, or any particular, suffering to cease if that was his will.
I see God as having far more “detailed” control, without limiting moral agency. I see God as having an infinite number of permutations/combinations of people, places, and things over which he has control (including, I suspect, which intelligences he chooses to organize as spirit children for any particular world) that allow him to both fine tune our individual experiences and yet not limit our agency in any way through his foreknowledge of which of the infinite permutations/combinations that he foreknows will tailor life to our needs while allowing full agency at the same time.
“…but in all things.”
So by that uber literal reading, God is the author of evil. Got it.
“That we don’t understand how it might be turned to our good doesn’t make God subject to the same limitation.”
So, if I understand you correctly (or at least the implications of your thought process), you believe that the only reason pre-Holocaust Hitler didn’t suffer a heart attack was because God willed the Holocaust to happen. The tortures, rapes, starvation, murders, trauma, etc. would provide benefits in the afterlife. You are, quite seriously, arguing that *everything* that happens is according to God’s will. Otherwise, he would have done something about it.
I can’t get on board with that.
“He stated the man born blind from birth was born that way so the works of God might be made manifest in him.”
Even if we grant this to be the case, it would still be the *exception*–not the rule–of Jesus’s ministry. And I’ve said I’m open to exceptions. You seem to be the one who is convinced that *everything* happens because God wills it.
But I’m not sure that’s even a proper interpretation on John 9. As theologian Greg Boyd points out in ‘God at War’: “The verse should not be interpreted as suggesting that God’s will is behind this man’s blindness…The original verse does not say that “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed.” The Greek simply has ‘hina’ with the aorist subjunctive passive of ‘phaneroa’ (“to manifest”) and can readily be translated as, “But let the works of God be manifested” (pg. 233). New Testament scholar Craig Keener notes that “[i]t is also possible to repunctuate the sentence so that, after it declares that neither sinned, it declares that Jesus had to work the Father’s works that they might be revealed; in this case revealing God’s works may not constitute the cause of the man’s blindness. Such a reading would cohere adequately with Johannine theology and would be intelligible on ancient presuppositions” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pgs. 778-779). To be fair, Keener also points out that it may be similar to Lazarus’s sickness and death in which he is raised “for the glory of God” (John 11:4). A purposive blindness would fit views held by some of the sages (e.g., Israel being allowed to suffer so that God could redeem them for his glory). The Dutch biblical scholar Herman Ridderbos wrote, “The clause beginning with “so that” is elliptical. Materially it refers back to the blindness of the man about whom the disciples have asked. Still we do not explicitly read: “This man was born blind so that…” Hence, as far as God’s hand and works are concerned, the emphasis is not on what caused the blindness but on what will happen to the blind man now (cf. vs. 4). This does not answer all questions about God’s involvement with the blindness of people born blind; but for Jesus’ disciples it opens a perspective from which they may and must view people born blind: the perspective of the manifestation of the works of God, which are the works that the Father has charged Jesus to accomplish (5:19f., 36). For in those works God is made manifest in his glory (11:4)” (The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, pg. 333).
Now there are disagreements over this even among scholars, but to interpret the verse as proving that God *caused* the man’s blindness strikes me a stretch, largely because it ignores context: Christ is rejecting the common association of blindness and sin. Christ is the light of the world sent to drive out darkness (which includes blindness, both spiritually and physically). The miraculous healing is the work of God. *That’s* the actual point, not who caused the blindness. It is also worth noting that Christ is known for turning assumptions on their head with a dash of hyperbole.
I’m actually open to your last paragraph. I don’t find it implausible. But I think there are a number of problems with it and I haven’t heard any satisfying arguments in its favor. In my opinion, the strongest arguments are (1) our limited perspective and (2) indication from the scriptures. However, I’m not willing to jettison moral reasoning in favor of “we just don’t understand.” But the lack of knowledge is also in part why I’m less worried about rationalizing suffering in favor of alleviating it. Scriptural language is trickier for a variety of reasons. For one, it is often lacking in details. Second, it has different cultural assumptions. Three, there are different theologies throughout the scriptures. For example, pre-exilic Israelite beliefs aren’t the same as exilic Israelite beliefs. Deuteronomists aren’t the same as Yahwists. Second Temple Judaism(s) isn’t the same as ancient Israel. Johannine Christology is higher than that of the Synoptic Gospels. And so on. This is why I say, “The evolving and at times contradicting theologies found within the scriptures make it difficult to pin down a coherent, all-encompassing explanation of suffering.”
But despite not being able to “pin down a coherent, all-encompassing explanation of suffering,” my first thought when I see/hear/experience atrocities will *not* be “God did this” or “God is testing me/them.” Instead, I’ll call evil evil and try to fight against it.
Yes I actually read the T&S post before I read this post. This venue seemed like a better opportunity to get some insights into aspects of your views that were not clear to me.
“In other words, there is not a single coherent theology of “the scriptures.” They evolve. They contradict.”
Assuming we accept that this is true, how does that impact what God does or does not do? It would seem that the scriptures accuracy or inaccuracy in detailing events does not change what his actions were or were not or his ability to act in any way if he chooses. It may affect our ability to be certain about whether he was actually directly involved in any given set of circumstances or if it was just happenstance but not the fact that in certain circumstances he did or does act or his ability to act if he chooses to do so.
“I think the flaw would be the automatic assumption that God’s wanting it to happen to you to begin with”
I don’t know that in any given set of circumstances I would necessarily be able to say that God is wanting the unemployment (or other trial) to happen to me so there is no automatic assumption. Maxwell says (I’m paraphrasing) that trials, challenges, hardships etc happen in our lives for three reasons: sins or mistakes, just because it is life (rain falls on the just and the unjust) and when he wants to chasten or prove us. In any given set of circumstances I may not know whether it just happening (my boss is a jerk) or if the Lord has something specific he wants me to learn from the experience (develop faith and trust in him) but my knowledge or lack thereof does not change what gave rise to the experience. I would add that I think you can ascertain in some circumstances through prayer and priesthood blessings etc whether it is just life or whether the Lord is chastening you.
“But I would find it very odd to assume in actuality that God is willing the persecution of his people. I thought he was wanting all people to repent and come unto him.”
I agree he wants people to repent and come unto to him but I think he also wants them to become like him and that is where the exercise of faith and trust is necessary. Accordingly, he accepts that undergoing persecution or other trials are a necessary part of the experience.
“*How* would he put them in the situation? This is what I’m getting at. We say things like this, but what exactly do we mean by it? I think we play fast and loose with our language here. And sometimes I wonder: Do we really just mean “predestine” when we say “foreordain”? For all our talk of agency, do we really think free will is a sham? Is our God just the Calvinist God with a body?”
I’m not certain that my ability or inability to explain how God does something has any impact on his ability to do something or whether he does do something. And I do not think that his foreknowledge “predestines” what my action or reaction will be in any given set of circumstances. I still have my free agency to determine my own actions, he just knows what my choice will be. While it has limits as an analogy, it is true that if I take my kids to a Duke-UNC basketball game I can tell you before we go which team each will cheer for but they still have their agency to cheer for whom they want. In the same way, accepting that the Lord would know that if he allowed the people of Alma to be put under the control of Amulon and his boys they would react by burdening them does not mean he predestined it or that he caused it to happen. Thus I don’t think it could be said that God caused the evil or the burdening. I don’t think God causes evil but I think he allows evil things to happen precisely because there is free agency. Also, he allows the occurrence of the natural events of life on earth – natural disasters, epidemics – which I think are just part of what we signed up for when we determined to come to the earth. Accordingly, simply by putting us on this earth he put us in a situation where we would have to deal with evil, pain, suffering so I’m puzzled by the thought that he would not do essentially the same thing while we are actually on the earth. If you accept that he would intervene to save the Israelites from slavery because he thought it was in their best interests is it not equally as plausible that he would allow (intervene) the people of Alma to be in a situation where they could exercise or increase their faith because he thought such increase in faith would be in their best interests?
“And even if we grant that in *some cases* he does, this is hardly proof that this is *the rule*. If the scriptures are any indication, they are the exception. The scriptures tend to be highlights of divine-man interactions. They are hardly examples of your everyday experience.”
It appears we would draw different conclusions here. I would see the fact that he does it in some cases as evidence that he can do so anytime he wants and scriptures such as Mosiah 23 as being evidence that it is part of his course of instruction. I do not see that the frequency with which such actions may be recorded in the scriptures has any meaning at all since that, in most cases, results from the thoughts and actions of those recording and reporting on events rather than anything God may or may not have done.
“how does that impact what God does or does not do?”
It doesn’t. It simply diminishes the power of proof-texting.
“but my knowledge or lack thereof does not change what gave rise to the experience.”
This looks like you’re backpedaling. You seem now to be open to “stuff just happens” vs. “God caused it.” My problem is the knee-jerk assumption of the latter.
“…he just knows what my choice will be.”
Maybe. How known the future can be is debated theologically, even among non-Mormons. Check out Open Theism.
“which I think are just part of what we signed up for when we determined to come to the earth.”
Which is basically what I said in the middle of my talk. Maybe we there is a lot more common ground between us than we suppose.
“I’m puzzled by the thought that he would not do essentially the same thing while we are actually on the earth.”
I think they are pretty different. Physically putting you in a different realm out of his presence is different from manipulating all the circumstances once you’re in that different realm.
“…anytime he wants…”
I would say this is up for debate, but that’s mainly a philosophical argument.
“I do not see that the frequency with which such actions may be recorded in the scriptures has any meaning at all since that…”
I think frequency is a big deal. It opens up questions of why, when, how. And that’s what I’ve been saying: generalizing a particular experience or event in the scriptures I think is misguided. But these are discussions worth having. And they are more fruitful when I’m less combative (which I’ve kind of been, for which I apologize).
No need to apologize. It has been interesting.
I will close with one final point in response to your note that I appear to be backpedaling in that I am open to the “stuff just happened” vs. “God caused it.”
I am open to both in that I subscribe to the Maxwell position that I paraphrased earlier. I think sometimes things just happen because we are here on the earth where things happen but I also think that God does take it upon himself to put us in positions from time to time where we have experiences that he thinks will be to our ultimate benefit. There is no knee-jerk assumption of the latter but it is not excluded, which is where we appear to differ.
Thanks for stopping by, LWilde.
//“…but in all things.”
So by that uber literal reading, God is the author of evil. Got it. //
You’re still confusing will with causation (and the idea that if you do not understand it, there must be no reason for God to allow it).
1) If specific evils are contrary to God’s will and he could easily have stopped them, are you saying God is impotent in the matter? If not, and he allows them to happen, how does that not reflect his will that they be allowed to happen?
2) Are you claiming that there are some experiences that God cannot turn to our good (like the Holocaust; having one’s child thrust from our side by the sword would seem to fall into the list of horribles God could not possibly will to happen, but does nothing about as well)? You seem to be saying the mere horror of it makes it meaningless, whereas God (in D&C 122–again, that pesky word “all”) seems to make clear it is not–that good will actually flow from it for those who endure well.
Is there nothing but God’s unwillingness to act when someone suffering from treatment resistant severe clinical depression, for example, where every day is lived in torture, despite their having prayed for 40 years to be relieved of it, but God does not heal them? If the experience is random, pointless evil, what does that make a God who refuses (*does not will*) to relieve it?
“You’re still confusing will with causation”
I don’t think I am, but let me clear it up: I don’t think God causes or wills evil.
“If specific evils are contrary to God’s will and he could easily have stopped them, are you saying God is impotent in the matter?”
This question seems odd to me because you say “he could easily have stopped them,” but then ask if I think he’s impotent. The metaphysics of Mormonism implies a somewhat limited God. I’m completely open to–in fact, I lean toward it–that God may be constrained in how much he can intervene. I talk about that a little bit here: http://www.withoutend.org/mourn-mourn-weeping-god/
When God is dealing with “worlds without end” consisting of potentially trillions upon trillions of co-eternal intelligences, co-eternal chaos that needs ordering, co-eternal laws that need abiding, and demonic opposition, the idea that he *can’t* intervene in some (read: *a lot*) of cases on our planet doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
“Are you claiming that there are some experiences that God cannot turn to our good”
Well, I don’t think there is anything good that can come from being burnt alive by Nazis to *those burnt alive*. Could the experience and history of the Holocaust, say, increase Jewish solidarity among survivors and future generations? Sure. I think that could be seen as redemptive in some sense. But I would not even go near the thought that the Holocaust was caused or willed or allowed by God *in order* to bring about that solidarity. I’d rather call it what it is: a damnable waste and the epitome of evil.
When we start saying that God wills, causes, or allows evil to occur, the implication is that these things aren’t actually evil because they are for the “greater good”; they are part of “God’s plan.” And even if we say that some suffering is necessary because of “opposition in all things,” that doesn’t explain why there is so much of it. Or why some of it is so heinous.
And maybe the answer is “Well, we just have a limited perspective. We just don’t know, but God does.” If that’s the case, he’d better have a damn good explanation. But as far as I can tell, a reality in which the suffering of innocent children is necessary or intelligible isn’t a reality worth inhabiting. And God who thinks the suffering of innocent children is necessary or intelligible isn’t a moral one.
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