Friday, April 22, 2011

Suffer No More, the Good Friday Miracle

Our scant knowledge of the events of the historical “Good Friday” informs us of one fact – God is in the details of the plan of salvation all the way, for there are no half measures here.

Interestingly, Utah may be one of the few states in the nation that does not observe Good Friday except in a casual way as an excuse for a quasi-extra day for a long weekend. Nationwide, Good Friday is a bona fide day off work when businesses formally shutter early for the weekend.

We pause on this day to contemplate the role of suffering. But there is normally cringing over suffering. I could never bring myself to watch the Mel Gibson film about The Passion. I felt I knew enough already in the Savior’s own chilling words:

Therefore I command you to repent — repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore — how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.
For behold, 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.
Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken, of which in the smallest, yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit.
And I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me. (D&C 19:15-21).

He suffered for all of us so we wouldn’t if we repent and come unto Him. Why repent? To avoid suffering. It’s a simple covenant. Do we suffer for our sins? No doubt. Do others suffer because of our sins? Of course they do. There is no such thing as a "victimless" sin. The ripples in the ponds of our self-indulgence send rings of agony if left unchecked into future generations. That suffering, when it is intense enough, when the dregs have been drained, leads us to the foot of the cross at Golgotha in a figurative way. We partake of the fellowship of His suffering (see Philippians 3:10) only in part, in the allegorical sense by comparison. Our guilt for sin is an inestimable gift to help us keep our bearings on our mortal journey.

Our Father in Heaven and His Only Begotten Son showed us the way to avoid pain and suffering. However, the plan of salvation must be and is completely voluntary. We accept the vicarious suffering accomplished for us to avoid it ourselves. He accepts our repentance and we come to know in time that our earlier pain and suffering can be assuaged and relieved. But only if we truly forsake our sins, not in some feigned confession during Lent, then a quick return to degradation. Agency to choose and to act obediently overarches and undergirds the plan.

All these facts are lovely and they are true. However, when we witness a family member who sustains suffering for many, many years, when we are faced with personal or family tragedy and adversity over a protracted period of time, when addictions claim their victims among those we love most, there seems to be no relief in sight. How is our tolerance for faith in the plan then?

While serving in a bishopric years ago, we routinely visited a homebound sister who had lain in bed for many years, the victim of a debilitating disease that slowly disabled her. On those Sunday afternoons when we entered the temple of her suffering for visits we always came away uplifted. On one such afternoon, I dared to ask, “Mary, how is it that you maintain your faith, when the pain is so great?” She had raised a wonderful family, but lamented she could now do so little for them. Then she said something I never forgot. Diminished as she was in her physical limitations, she said, “But I can still pray for them.” And we all knew her prayers for them went straight to the throne of God.

In recent years, our global communication networks have assured we see human suffering without respite. Little is left to imagination. The work of earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, oil spills, nuclear power plant meltdowns, gang and drug murders -- all of it -- is on full display with unedited accuracy. Political strife and discord assault our senses. Awareness of suffering is on a grander scale now than at any time in history perhaps. Imagine what God sees and knows that we do not! Even seeing in part causes some to turn away and doubt there could be a God in the face of such agonies.

It is ever so much more difficult when trials of faith are no longer detached from us halfway around the world. When it is me who suffers, the pain is acute. The words, "All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good" (D&C 122:7) hauntingly remind us there is still much to learn, apparently. The wintry reminders often make us shiver at the implications. We cry out, "Haven't I had enough of that experience yet?"

Elder Orson F. Whitney wrote: “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude, and humility. . . It is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire.” (Cited in Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle [1972], 98).

Lacking understanding of God's plan of salvation, we often misread life's trials. We see others stricken with unrelieved ailments and we wonder, "Why?" The answer is that God and Jesus, possessed of perfect love and omniscience, demand that we trust Them. That simple requirement, "Trust me," is not discipleship for the faint of heart, knowing what the Savior said about His agony. "Trust me," He reminds us, "that my suffering was sufficient for you, and that ample provision has been made for your deliverance." That's tall timber in a vast forest of human suffering to have to chop sometimes, isn't it?

Do you sometimes shudder at the mention of “liken” scriptures? (See 1 Nephi 19:23). It seems everywhere we look on the pages of scriptures we find an invitation to engage – anxiously – in similar outcomes.

If in the plan we are not required to exercise moral agency, accept the risk of failure, and if uncertainty did not play a major role in our decision making, there could be no real sustainable and lasting character growth. Our faith must be tried in the furnace of affliction and accompanying discipleship. What will we choose first? Will we choose happiness? We are admonished to “be of good cheer.” Can we really choose that in the face of everything seeming to destroy us and make us suffer? Absent insecurity or anxiety, can you really step up to be counted?

Rest assured, we are informed we will all be tried at the weakest point of entry (see Ether 12:27) only so we can plumb the depths of our lowest lows, as did the One who descended below all things. In recent years, I have wondered as I have seen others' suffering, "Even this, Lord? Can you mend even this broken vessel?" In time as we grapple with weaknesses, we learn to see the enemy coming from afar off and we are given strength to overcome in the agony of Christ’s suffering for us if we ask for it.

There is comforting assurance of the purpose of our suffering. We read about it in Abraham 3:25 and Mosiah 3:19; 23:21). These true doctrines can brace better for the battle within us. Unwillingness to even try to slay the natural man within can turn him into a raging beast that will rob us of our agency if we succumb and submit, however. I love what C.S. Lewis said:

C.S. Lewis
"Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. . . We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist." (Mere Christianity).

President Brigham Young was ever the optimist, a much-needed attribute today, when he observed:

"If you could see things as they are, you would know that the whole plan of salvation, and all the revelations ever given to man on the earth are as plain as would be the remarks of an Elder, were he to stand here and talk about our every day business. You may now be inclined to say, 'O, this is too simple and child-like, we wish to hear the mysteries of the kingdoms of the Gods who have existed from eternity, and of all the kingdoms in which they will dwell; we desire to have these things portrayed to our understandings.' Allow me to inform you that you are in the midst of it all now." (JD 8:115).

President Brigham Young
Having faith in all the subtleties of the the plan of salvation here and later on and forever, is probably what the Apostle Paul understood when he said "that all things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28). Nephi, likely overwhelmed with what he had just experienced, concluded, "I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." (1 Nephi 11:17).

Isn’t it strange that a little boy in our ward who took an “unsupervised swim” at age two and nearly drowned, lost all his mental and physical faculties? Now he lies thirty-odd years later in a special needs chair, his limbs badly atrophied and without speech. He seems to want to “get out" of his crippled body and do so much more, while there are so many able-bodied ones out there in the world, who seem to want to just “get out” of this life by ending it with their own hands. They suppose their pain is so much harder to bear than my shriveled friend in a chair.

Some languish for years in old age longing for departure, searching in vain it seems for the exit door, while young people are snuffed out in the prime of life instantly in a tragic accident. How can one make sense of any of that?

I have wondered if there is another level of understanding in the parable of the talents. When we know more, perhaps we will learn that those with so little in this life like the crippled one in the special needs chair, have done so much before and even now without our knowing. The sanctifying care giving of his parents and family stand as a testament of love, charity and service. God's perfect love and mercy will someday bestow a crown upon those valiant parents and brothers and sisters. The words for which the disciples yearn, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant," will no doubt ring in their ears. And what if we were to learn later on of a pre-mortal agreement to accept those physical limitations? Would such awareness now further humble us in our haughtiness over how much we are called upon to suffer in selfishness? Look around. You can count so many more blessings on fingers and toes that work.

Have you often wondered as I do, "Does God really know what I’m dealing with? Does He really hear my impassioned pleas for help?” We believe in a God with body parts and passions like our own. That’s a good question to ask on Good Friday. Does the Father understand passion? The Passion? Would He listen to your pleas now, knowing what His Beloved Son sacrificed for you? The answer is "Yes!" He knows! He cares! He loves you! He knows the end from the beginning. His foreknowledge of your life, your pain, your suffering was all taken into account in the plan. Only in His knowing beforehand, perfectly, could He deliver us here and now. We worship an omniscient Father. His perspective is attuned to our pleading for deliverance. We are endowed with the very the DNA of the Gods. But in our neophyte mortal state we can only develop faith by not knowing, not seeing, not being perfect yet. Experience is lacking. It enables our progress.

Alma prophesied, “he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and. . . he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. . . That his bowels may be filled with mercy, . . . that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:11-12, emphasis mine).

So why does He not always intervene for us? Why are not all blessings for health answered? Why are not all wayward children restored instantly to the path of righteousness in answer to a parent’s passionate plea?

Knowing everything as He does will never alter agency one bit. We and our children are left to choose, even though He knows the choice in advance. It’s why we call the atonement infinite. Everything was taken into account in advance. Joseph Smith said God "has made ample provision," so the purposes in His plan of salvation will be achieved — including our part within that plan if we are faithful. (See Luke 10:17, 18; John 8:44; Revelation 12. In the light of these references consider also Isaiah 14:12-32, and D&C 76:25-90). To overcome evil and the tempter's snares, the plan was based on His perfect knowledge of Satan's role too.

“Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth. Fear not, little children, for you are mine. . . Wherefore, I am in your midst, and I am the good shepherd." (D&C 50:40-41, 44).

This Easter weekend there will be legions of Christians around the world proclaiming their belief in Jesus Christ. The better question is, “Do you believe Christ?” Without the willingness to believe in the foreknowledge of the Father and Jesus Christ, one stares with vacant eyes at the prophecies in scripture and wonders aloud, “How can that be?” To say God is not there or does not care is to discard foreknowledge, if believed, that will sanctify and save us.

So believe it. You will be resurrected. You can be transformed, redeemed and exalted. Yes, even you and me.

On this Good Friday before Easter Sunday, in the midst of destruction in all its manifestations, remember the Lord Jesus Christ is working on a plan of eternal increase, of wisdom, intelligence, honor, excellence, power, glory, might, and dominion, and all the godly attributes that fill eternity. In an upper room the night before Good Friday, knowing what was coming, He gave us the ordinance of remembrance. How simple the objects, broken bread and wine, to symbolize His suffering for us.

What principle does the devil work upon? It is to divide, subtract, destroy, dissolve, decompose, and tear in pieces. This destruction includes marriages, friendships, faith, self-esteem, and life itself.

We worship the One who made the "great and last sacrifice." (Alma 34:10). He triumphed. We benefit when we recognize and accept the gift by emulating His life.

His suffering on Good Friday was sufficient for us all, and today we remember that after Gethsemane followed by the betrayal, the false accusations, the miscarriage of justice, the scourging, the crown of plaited thorns, the mocking at the crucifixion and the thunder and lightning with the earthquake, comes Easter Morning.

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