By Elder Neal A. Maxwell
Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
Rather than simply passing through trials, we must allow trials to pass through us in ways that sanctify us.
Neal A. Maxwell, “Enduring Well,” Ensign, Apr. 1997, 7
Trying to comprehend the trials and meaning of this life without understanding Heavenly Father’s marvelously encompassing plan of salvation is like trying to understand a three-act play while seeing only the second act. Fortunately, our knowledge of the Savior, Jesus Christ, and His Atonement helps us to endure our trials and to see purpose in suffering and to trust God for what we cannot comprehend.
Revealed truths reassure us that we are enclosed in divine empathy. As Enoch witnessed, we worship a God who wept over needless human misery and wickedness (see Moses 7:28–29, 33, 37). Jesus’ perfect empathy was ensured when, along with His Atonement for our sins, He took upon Himself our sicknesses, sorrows, griefs, and infirmities and came to know these “according to the flesh” (Alma 7:11–12). He did this in order that He might be filled with perfect, personal mercy and empathy and thereby know how to succor us in our infirmities. He thus fully comprehends human suffering. Truly Christ “descended below all things, in that He comprehended all things” (D&C 88:6).
Without the gospel fulness, many understandably have equivocal views not only about human suffering but also about Jesus Christ and the Resurrection. Without freshening and reinforcing modern prophets, the ancient prophets can easily become less read and less revered and can seem less relevant to daily life. Similarly, without the confirming and freshening of additional, attesting scriptures, the Bible is less read, less believed, and less convincing for some. Mankind desperately needs doctrinal nourishment!
Even daily life’s repetitiveness actually occurs for a reason. President Brigham Young reflectively observed:
“Sometimes I think it quite strange that the children of men are so constituted as to need to be taught one lesson all the time, and again it is not so marvellous to me, when I reflect upon … the designed effect … of this state of probation. Men are organized to be independent in their sphere, … yet they have, as soldiers term it, to run the gauntlet all the time. They are organized to be just as independent as any being in eternity, but that independency … must be proved and tried while in this state of existence, must be operated upon by the good and the evil” (in Journal of Discourses, 3:316).
So often in life a deserved blessing is quickly followed by a needed stretching. Spiritual exhilaration may be quickly followed by a vexation or temptation. Were it otherwise, extended spiritual reveries or immunities from adversity might induce in us a regrettable forgetfulness of others in deep need. The sharp, side-by-side contrast of the sweet and the bitter is essential until the very end of this brief, mortal experience. Meanwhile, even routine, daily life provides sufficient sandpaper to smooth our crustiness and polish our rough edges, if we are meek.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh wisely cautioned: “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable” (“Lindbergh Nightmare,” Time, 5 Feb. 1973, 35).
Certain forms of suffering, endured well, can actually be ennobling. Annie Swetchine said, “Those who have suffered much are like those who know many languages; they have learned to understand and be understood by all” (quoted in Neal A. Maxwell, We Will Prove Them Herewith , 123).
The Apostle Paul spoke from considerable personal experience when observing that “no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous” (Heb. 12:11). You and I are not expected to pretend chastening is pleasant, but we are expected to “endure it well” (D&C 121:8). Only afterward is “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” enjoyed by those who “are exercised thereby” (Heb. 12:11). But what demanding calisthenics!
Moroni said that only “after the trial of [our] faith” do we receive certain assurances and blessings (Ether 12:6). Taking Jesus’ yoke upon us really does help us learn of Him as we personally experience His special love for us (see Matt. 11:29). We also come to appreciate more His meekness and lowliness.
Edith Hamilton observed: “When love meets no return the result is suffering, and the greater the love the greater the suffering. There can be no greater suffering than to love purely and perfectly one who is bent upon evil and self-destruction. That was what God endured at the hands of men” (Spokesman for God, , 112).
Many parents love and care but experience unreciprocated love. This is part of coming to know, on our small scale, what Jesus experienced. Part of enduring well consists of being meek enough, amid our suffering, to learn from our relevant experiences. Rather than simply passing through these things, they must pass through us and do so in ways which sanctify these experiences for our good (see D&C 122:7). Thereby, our empathy, too, is enriched and everlasting.
Thus life is carefully designed to produce for us, if we are willing, a harvest of relevant and portable experience. But there is such a short growing season! The fields must be worked intensively amid droughts, late springs, and early frosts. For the disobedient and despairing who refuse to plant, plow, or harvest, theirs is not simply a “winter of discontent” but a despair for all seasons. The indifferent and lackluster who work only on the surface of life will harvest little. Only for the perspiring and “anxiously engaged” faithful will the harvest be manyfold (see Matt. 19:29).
There is another very powerful inducement for us to endure well. President Young said of Jesus, “Why should we imagine for one moment that we can be prepared to enter into the kingdom of rest with him and the Father, without passing through similar ordeals?” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe , 346). The Apostle Paul noted how this sacred process produces an exclusive cadre—those who have known the “fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings” (Philip. 3:10). These are they who will have the greatest capacity for endless service, joy, and happiness.
President Young observed that real faith requires faith in the Savior’s character, in His Atonement, and in the plan of salvation (in Journal of Discourses, 13:56). The Savior’s character necessarily underwrote His remarkable Atonement. Without His sublime character there could have been no sublime Atonement! His character is such that He went forth “suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind” (Alma 7:11), yet He gave temptations “no heed” (D&C 20:22).
C. S. Lewis has said that only those who resist temptation really understand the power of temptation. Because Jesus resisted it perfectly, He understood temptation perfectly; hence He can help us. (See Mere Christianity , 124–25.) The fact that He was dismissive of temptation and gave it “no heed” reveals His marvelous character, which we are to emulate (see 3 Ne. 12:48; 3 Ne. 27:27).
Jesus Christ, who by far suffered the most, has the most compassion—for all of us who suffer so much less. Moreover, He who suffered the most has no self-pity! Even as He endured the enormous suffering associated with the Atonement, He reached out to others in their much lesser suffering. Consider how, in Gethsemane, Jesus, who had just bled at every pore, nevertheless restored an assailant’s severed ear which, given Jesus’ own agony, He might not have noticed! (see Luke 22:50–51).
Consider how Jesus, while hanging so painfully on the cross, instructed the Apostle John about caring for Jesus’ mother, Mary (see John 19:26–27). Consider how in the midst of the awful arithmetic of the Atonement, Jesus nevertheless reassured one of the thieves on the cross, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). He cared, even in the midst of enormous suffering. He reached outwardly, when a lesser being would have turned inwardly.
Jesus’ loving and discerning character is such that He gives customized counsel, taking into account our differing bearing capacities. He healed 10 lepers, but only one returned to thank Him. He didn’t chide that leper, whereas you and I sometimes unload on the undeserving. Instead, He simply said, “Where are the nine?” (Luke 17:17).
To the more informed mother of James and John, who requested next-world status for her sons, Christ was more reproving: “Ye know not what ye ask” (Matt. 20:22). Jesus further pointed out that the determination would be made by the Father. Jesus pressed Peter three times: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” (John 21:15). The third time, when Peter could bear it no more, he implored, “Lord, thou knowest … that I love thee!” (John 21:17). Back came divine direction, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Affection but with direction!
It takes perceptivity, patience, and love to so customize counsel. Doing so is the very opposite of the unloving and impatient stereotyping we see in so many sad human relationships.
Consider another great insight into Christ’s character. Jesus—just as He had promised premortally—always gave glory to the Father, as revealed in those marvelous words “Glory be to the Father” (D&C 19:19). This glory giving, President Howard W. Hunter once told a small group of us, was for him the most impressive thing among those great and perfecting words in section 19.
The Atonement is the chief expression of Christ’s loving-kindness. He endured so many things. For instance, as prophesied, He was spat upon (see 1 Ne. 19:9). As foretold, He was struck and scourged (see Mosiah 3:9). Likewise, He was offered vinegar and gall while aflame with thirst (see Ps. 69:21).
Yet in His later description of His agonies, Jesus does not speak of those things. Instead, after the Atonement, there is no mention about His being spat upon, struck, or proffered vinegar and gall. Instead, Christ confides in us His chief anxiety, namely, that He “would that [He] might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink” (D&C 19:18)—especially desiring not to get partway through the Atonement and then pull back.
Mercifully for all of us, He “finished [His] preparations unto the children of men” (D&C 19:19). Jesus partook of history’s bitterest cup without becoming bitter! Significantly, when He comes again in majesty and power, He will cite His aloneness, saying, “I have trodden the wine-press alone” (D&C 133:50).
The Book of Mormon describes Jesus’ Atonement as the “infinite atonement” (Alma 34:12); it certainly required infinite suffering. When suffering and burdened Jesus entered Gethsemane, He “fell on the ground” (Mark 14:35). He did not merely kneel down, pray intensely and briefly, and leave. His agonies were so great that He began to bleed at every one of thousands of His pores (see D&C 19:18). An angel, whose identity we do not know, came to strengthen Him (see Luke 22:43). Mark wrote that Jesus became “sore amazed” and “very heavy” (Mark 14:33), meaning in the Greek, respectively, “astonished and awestruck” and “depressed and dejected.” None of us can tell Christ anything about depression!
In the course of that great prayer, He pled with the Father in the most intimate and familial of terms, “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36). This was not theater but real pleading to a loving Father from a suffering Son in the deepest possible distress!
In the Atonement Jesus experienced what He later described as “the fierceness of the wrath of Almighty God” (D&C 76:107; D&C 88:106). We can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like as He stood in our places and paid the price for our sins.
Though sinless Himself, He bore the sins of billions. Thus His empathy and mercy became fully perfected and personalized. Indeed, He thus “descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things” (D&C 88:6; see also 122:8).
He was scourged, most likely with a Roman flagellum of several thongs; at the end of each were sharp objects designed to tear the flesh. His tensed back muscles would have been torn. If he was struck with the usual number of blows, 39, the first blows would have bruised and the last blows would have shredded His flesh. Believing Christian physicians wrote that, medically speaking, Jesus would have been in serious, if not critical, medical condition because of the loss of blood; and, as we know by revelation, He had previously bled from every pore in the Garden of Gethsemane (see William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 21 Mar. 1986, vol. 255, no. 11, 1458).
The divine reproach Jesus felt so exquisitely, because of His meekly standing in for us, fulfilled yet another prophecy: “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (Ps. 69:20). His heart was broken, as He did “suffer both body and spirit” (D&C 19:18). He trembled because of pain, and yet He, amidst profound aloneness, finished His preparations, bringing to pass the unconditional immortality of all mankind and “eternal life” for all those who would keep His commandments (Moses 1:39).
At the apogee of His agony, Jesus uttered on the cross the great soul cry of foresakenness: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). President Young’s insight helps us understand His aloneness, which was a unique dimension of His agony:
“At the very moment, at the hour when the crisis came for him to offer up his life, the Father withdrew Himself, withdrew His Spirit, and cast a vail over [Jesus]. That is what made him sweat blood. If he had had the power of God upon him, he would not have sweat blood; but all was withdrawn from him, and a veil was cast over him, and he then plead with the Father not to forsake him” (in Journal of Discourses, 3:206).
When Jesus comes in overwhelming majesty and power, in at least one of His appearances He will come in red attire, reminding us that He shed His blood to atone for our sins (see D&C 133:48; Isa. 63:1). His voice will be heard to declare, again, how alone He once was: “I have trodden the wine-press alone … and none were with me” (D&C 133:50).
The more we know of Jesus’ Atonement, the more we will humbly and gladly glorify Him, His Atonement, and His character. We will never tire of paying tribute to His goodness and loving-kindness. How long will we so speak of our gratitude for His Atonement? The scriptures advise “forever and ever”! (See D&C 133:52.)
Praise be to God for the harvest of such bounteous blessings from the Restoration which, truly, are running over. I humbly exclaim with Jacob, “O how great the plan of our God” (2 Ne. 9:13).
Praise be to Jesus for His great Atonement, the central act of all human history! Praise be to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the conduit through whom this cascade of restored doctrine flowed!
You and I are so blessed to be part of a work that is really going somewhere, a work that will succeed, a work that really matters! Of Him whose work this is and of the reality of His marvelous Atonement, I humbly bear witness.