A People of Sorrow and Acquainted with Grief

While teaching in the MTC, I realized I could not let “my” missionaries enter the field without telling them the truth: a mission is a difficult, taxing, and often harsh experience. Oh, there are miracles a plenty, to be sure, but most days are long, most doors are slammed, and many people are rude. I made a point of looking each of my Elders and Sisters in the eye and saying this may be the hardest thing you will ever do. I knew I taught truth, at least during that lesson, because I learned from what I taught. I articulated feelings through which I had never thought.

Further reflection, however, led me to ask why? Of course, if you have read Elder Holland’s Missionaries and the Atonement, you know he atriculates both the questions and the answer better than I ever could. Still, I’ve spent many hours pondering sorrow, and I hope I have learned a couple of things.

Perhaps most importantly, sorrow is often proportional to spirituality. Yes, that’s right, directly proportional. Consider the following examples:

  • Joseph Smith was, as Richard Bushman has wisely dubbed him, a “prophet of sorrow.” Consider Joseph’s trajectory: born in poverty, called to bear a mantle which nearly suffocated him, rejected and misunderstood at almost every turn, and finally killed for his integrity (whatever flaws Joseph possesed, and those flaws are real, his integrity remained firm). Joseph was, as he said, wont to swim in deep waters. Considering the betrayal, persecution, and rejection that haunted him at nearly every turn, I am hardly surprised when I read his beautiful, steely cry from Liberty Jail: “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?”
  • C.S. Lewis, the converted atheist and preeminent Christian apologist of the twentieth century, was devastated to find God had apparently abandoned him in Lewis’ moment of greatest need. Using the same strong words with which he had, for so long, explained away “the problem of pain,” Lewis wrote, following his wife’s death: “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. If you remember yourself and turn to Him [when you are happy] with gratitude and praise, you will be–or so it feels–welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”
  • Ammon and his companions, perhaps the greatest missionaries of whom we have record, found rejection, temptation, and affliction at almost every turn. For every discussion with a Lamoni, there were many nights spent in prison–languighing and waiting for deliverance. As a student of the Book of Mormon, I am often so eager to bolster my faith I skip straight to the “inspiring” parts of Ammon and Co.’s story. In so doing, however, I neglect to acknolwedge, “Now these are the circumstances which attended them in their journeyings, for they had many afflictions; they did suffer much, both in body and in mind, such as hunger, thirst and fatigue, and also much labor in the spirit.”

Sorrow, it seems, will constantly accompany those who seek Christ. I at first thought this absurd; Lehi, after all, is clear: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have hoy.” How can sadness inescapably dwell with Christ’s disciples if He promises joy to those who follow Him–indeed, if joy is the very reason for our creation and existence? I realized, however, joy and sorrow are not related as are light and darkness. The latter pair are, by definition, mutually exclusive; they cannot both occupy the same space simultaneously and as one advances the other must retreat. Such is not the case, though, with joy and sorrow.

Instead, joy and sorrow are forever sealed together; just as “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord,” joy cannot be complete without sorrow, or sorrow without joy, in Christ. All things must exist in opposition, as Lehi explains, and so joy finds meaning in sorrow. Furthermore, as we trek through life, we find meaning in each of these only as we experience the other.

Sorrow, I believe, is holy.

Consider the last time you attended a funeral for someone who lived a full and faithful life. The sorrow you felt was, no doubt, both real and deep. Joy, however, infused you sadness with hope. Your joy may have sprung from memories of the past or from hope for future reunions. Your joy was real, but it was made so by the impinging sorrow. Joy and sadness are inseperable. Often, indeed, our ability to feel one increases our ability to feel the other.

This analysis leaves many questions unanswered, however. Most acutely: what of sorrow not infused with such obvious hope–what, for instance, of a funeral for a beloved and wicked man. What about rape? Incest? Murder? Hatred? Abduction? War? The missing? The dead? The estranged? The hopeless? Comfort may abound at the funeral of a saint, but what of the craven criminal who dies alone in the street?

The first answer is: I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that “the keeper of the gate is the holy one of Israel, and he employeth no servant there.” In other words, every man will eventually face the Savior for judgement. I believe quite strongly that meeting will surprise many of us–many of the most confident will, for the first time, recognize glaring problems and many of the most humble and fearful will find much greater compassion than expected. When it is all over, though, each of us will receive, as Elder Maxwell has pointed out, “according to his desire.”

One final thought. I have glaringly ommitted the Savior from the list above; I have done so, however, because the arc of his life teaches special lessons concerning the promises of the Lord to those who find themselves beset by trials and hopelessness they cannot easily overcome. No scene, ever, evokes pathos like the Savior kneeling in Gethsemane. A poem depicts the scene:

He kneels alone, His friends asleep, the weight is bearing down.
His blood is seeping out like wine, He claws the barren ground.
He groans beneath the world’s weight, His shoulders weary grow–
but love sustains Him through the night, compassion downward flows.

Most terribly, the Savior found himself without His Father’s help. An angel came to bear him up, but the Father had to turn from Him–to be infinite, the Atonement apparently had to include what felt like the betrayal of the Savior’s constant companion and friend: His Father. From later in the same poem:

They crown His brow with thorns and hang His frame upon the cross.
In disbelief disciples watch and count salvation’s cost.
His Father hides his face and cries. Christ’s pain is like a knife
thrust deep inside His Father’s heart–God mourns the sacrifice.

Do we wonder that the Savior, sensing the suffering about to engulf Him, pleaded “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me?” Do we realize what he taught about submissiveness when he concluded his anguish with faith: “nevertheless, not my will but thine?” Do we remember, in our moments of suffering, the anguish of the Savior?

More importantly, however, do we, in those most difficult moments, remember that the Savior’s story did not end in Gethsemane? Nor did it end on Calvary, in the empty tomb, or even among the hosts “awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world.” No. So far as we have record, the Savior’s ministry in the meridian of time ended in the land of Bountiful, among the Nephites.

When sorrow descends like night upon me, I like to read 3 Nephi 17. There, I find the Savior weeping with joy. I find him blessing, healing, and discovering himself filled with compassion. I like this chapter because it reminds me that, for the faithful, Gethsemane is real but not final. One day, those who keep their covenants will find themselves safe in the arms of Jesus and the Father, surrounded by compassion and healing. The arc of the disciple’s journey will have begun in Eden, and it will pass through Gethsemane, but it will end in Bountiful–a land of endless joy and sorrow.

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Published in: on August 3, 2006 at 11:09 pm  Comments (1)  

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