Doctrine: Christ had to suffer unfairly to receive His glory and advance the possibility of ours. We must do the same for ourselves and others. Suffering unfairly helps us come to know Christ, not just about Him. Trials faithfully endured increase righteous power, faith, and confidence in our worthiness before God, which can be attained no other way.
I have had my share of trials of all kinds (though I suspect my current ones have yet to play themselves out and that there are many more in store). Some of my trials I may admittedly have brought upon myself. But, most, I feel quite certain came to me based on the natural opposition of life or because of the poor and unkind choices of others.
When we’ve have caused our own suffering—whether to a lesser or greater extent—and are receiving the brunt of consequences we very well could have avoided through wisdom or righteousness; the suffering isn’t necessarily more pleasant, but because we have a cause, we understand it better. And, that understanding gives us purpose in repenting or enduring the consequences. Such suffering is often what leads us to resolve to be more righteous, more repentant, or in general more wise.
However, when those trials and troubles come that we likely have no, or little, fault in, they seem to be particularly distressing. These kinds of trials shake faith, bring about personal crises, and cause a much greater level of agony. This is because we are suffering in what might be considered an UNFAIR manner. Struggles have come to us despite our best efforts to live righteously, be good citizens, and be healthy. So, it feels worse. It feels like a gyp. And therefore, it causes more wretchedness due to a lack of understanding.
I remember, as a youth growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often hearing my church leaders saying things like, “If you keep the commandments and get married in the temple you’ll be happy.” Now, what they said wasn’t necessarily untrue. Yet, it was so general as to leave my young and inexperienced mind open to interpret such a phrase in many incorrect ways.
For example, many incorrect interpretations included:
If you do what’s right you’ll never have any major problems
If you keep the commandments you’ll always be happy (or never be sad)
If you get married in the temple your marriage is guaranteed to last
If you keep the commandments God will always save you from troubles
As I have studied the scriptures and experienced many unfair trials (despite my best attempts to be righteous) I have come to laugh at the early ideas I had regarding the meaning of this phrase. Because, if you read the scriptures, they are replete with stories of super righteous (although imperfect people) experiencing trials at every turn. Indeed, by the accounts open for study, it often seems the more righteous a person is, the more UNFAIR trials they receive.
The scriptures illustrate that being righteous has nothing to do with getting out of UNFAIR suffering and trials. The scriptures do, however, provide explicit advice on how to avoid the suffering and trials that come from FAIR suffering—meaning the suffering that sin, wickedness, and unwise choices bring naturally and that we are capable of avoiding to a large extent. As well, the scriptures never promise no troubles, suffering, or sorrow. They do promise blessings, support, guidance, and help. The happiness that the scriptures often promise correlates more powerfully with peace—and not the peace the world gives (which we might equate with the emotion of happiness), the but the peace that Christ gives (St. John 14:27) which is much more likely to be a peace of conscience, an unwavering trust in God, certainty of eternal compensation and restoration, and consequently a lack of undue fear.
However, because God prizes agency above all else, He sometimes, but does not always remove or prevent the UNFAIR suffering that comes to us from the actions of others. Nor will He always remove the disinterested and unfeeling acts of nature. Suffering is necessary, both the FAIR and the UNFAIR, to our eternal progression.
How is it necessary? In Romans 8:16-17 we learn: “The Spirit beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if it so be that we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified together.”
What Paul is saying here is effectively the same thing said in Joseph Smith’s Lectures on Faith: “It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtain faith in God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they, in like manner offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him” (Lectures on Faith, p. 58).
So, if we hope to be joint-heirs with Christ, who more than any other suffered UNFAIRLY for our mistakes, issues, weaknesses, and sins, as well as our sicknesses, illnesses, infirmities, and so forth; why should we think it unfair to also suffer UNFAIRLY at times due to the nature of mortality and the agency of others?
Now, I’m not saying that we have to smile through such UNFAIR suffering, or that we can’t struggle through it, that we can’t have bad days where we want to give up, etc. When God says, “endure it well,” I think He means a Job-figure type of endurance. Job whined and complained plenty. He simply never blamed God.
So, what I’m saying is, we should not sit around in a puzzlement wondering, “Why me? Why did God let this happen? Why didn’t God step in and fix this? This is God’s fault for not saving me… Why didn’t God make these people act differently? Has God abandoned me? Did I fail to keep some commandment perfectly and that’s why I have to suffer this? Why did God let me marry so-and-so if He knew it would end like this? Why didn’t I get a prompting to leave before this horrible tornado hit? Etc.”
Christ never spent a selfish moment in His life. He never said, “Why me?” He did say, in effect, if there be another way (Matthew 26:39) then that would be nice, but He never complained against the God and Father whose will was His constant and primary focus the entirety of His life. He never said, “I don’t deserve this.” Because, He already knew that He didn’t.
So, why did Christ suffer UNFAIRLY on purpose? Because it was God’s will (St. John 4:34; 6:38). Christ knew what His mission was. That mission was to suffer UNFAIRLY on purpose so that all the UNFAIR and FAIR suffering we would pass through could be overcome—eternally—if not always in the present life. What a gift!
I have also begun to think about Christ’s words in the Doctrine and Covenants (19:16-19), where He says:
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 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.
There was a clear purpose in Christ’s suffering. For those who follow Him and repent and become Christlike, whatever mortal suffering they suffer, they will not have to experience the torment that awaits those who do not repent. Those who do not repent will someday suffer what Christ suffered for them because they refused Him and His offer of salvation. In other words, if they fail to repent, the gift of Christ’s suffering will be retracted.
As well, Christ suffered more horrifically than any of us will ever suffer for any reason. He says quite clearly, as I’ve already iterated, that it was daunting even to Him and that He asked if there was any other way. But then, what did He say? “Glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” Meaning, He accepted God’s will and partook of the bitter cup that was offered to Him.
So, when trials come to us, it is okay to blanch at the scope of them. It is okay to cry. It is okay to have some depressed days. It is okay to walk through them without a perfect smile on your face during every moment. It is okay to say, “If it be thy will, let this cup pass…” But, if it is not God’s will for the cup to pass, then we must also say, “the Glory be thine, Father, give me the cup and I’ll drink it. I’ll set an example of humility, diligence, patience, and long-suffering for others. I’ll find ways to refine myself to be more like Christ through this trial. I’ll do what you want me to do.”
To me, there is another very critical piece to the purpose of UNFAIR suffering. I remember very clearly the first time I understood what UNFAIR suffering felt like. It was emotional, psychological, and also physical. I felt wretched in a different way than I had ever felt before. Physical injuries and maladies bring horrific pain. But there was no pain killer, no morphine for this UNFAIR injury which seemed to be ripping my soul apart.
It was in that moment that I remembered John 17:3, “And this is life eternal that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.”
How can we hope to be like Christ if we don’t understand even a spec of who He was and what He did for us? How can we hope to stand at peace in His presence if we haven’t even come to understand Him? We cannot.
It was during this time that despite all my religious upbringing, I began to comprehend for the first time how deep, powerful, and horrific the Atonement must have been for Christ. I saw His suffering with new eyes. I saw beyond the physical pain He suffered. I saw the whole picture—that He was crushed in spirit, emotional, and mind, just as He was physically. Why? Because He was feeling the weight of the UNFAIRNESS and betrayal of all of us.
So, there are many more reasons why trials are necessary to God’s plan of salvation. But, to me, these two stick out as some of the most important. We have to “suffer with Christ” to gain the faith necessary to inherit such a rich weight of glory as God offers to us. As well, we simply cannot move beyond knowing about Christ to truly knowing Him without understanding, even in the smallest part, what it meant for Him to suffer for us.
Trials are hard. Like I said in the beginning, I’m not without my own. They are ever-present. And yet, I’m learning (very slowly of course) to say as Paul said, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distress for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong,” (2 Cor. 12:10) because as I rise above each and every trial my faith and confidence in God becomes stronger and stronger and more unshakeable. In fact, trials have never weakened me when I have persevered through them. I can look back and gratefully appreciate them all (even the present ones). Seeing how far I’ve come, all I’ve learned about Them, gives me confidence in myself and in God. It gives me the knowledge that I can continue on and that as Theoden said in Return of the King, “I go to my fathers in whose mighty company I shall not now feel ashamed.”
I don’t claim to be perfect or extremely Christlike. But, my confidence in my ability to keep trying and make small gains is certain. Trials, even the UNFAIR ones, create in each of us a sense of worthiness before God. They remove shame (if we endure them faithfully) and increase our understanding of ourselves and improve our personal relationship with Christ.