The Test

March 12, 2010 | 20 comments
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300px-Usain_Bolt_Olympics_CelebrationWhen asked why life is hard, the Sunday school teachers of my youth replied, “Life is a test. It’s supposed to be hard.” The scriptures support the life-as-test perspective — a “probationary state” where we “prove” ourselves.

Of course, if life is a test, then that means it’s designed to prepare us for what comes next. We test medical students on anatomy (as opposed to, say, Russian grammar) because knowing anatomy will help them after they’ve graduated.

So if I can be justified in taking the life-as-test perspective seriously, perhaps I can draw some inferences about the next life by our experiences in this life. What are we being tested on here? In other words, what kinds of hardships do we experience in life, and how can they prepare us for what is to come? Here are the major ones that come to mind for me, and the ways we address them:

  • Want — managing limited resources to meet needs effectively
  • Contention and Loneliness — building constructive relationships through kindness, patience, wisdom, love, and effective communication
  • Pain — learning to avoid suffering through preparation and wise decision making
  • Ignorance — planning for the unknown future by extrapolating based on our limited knowledge and experience
  • Emptiness and Fruitlessness — finding meaning by coming to know God, engaging in rewarding work, and living in accordance with eternal principles
  • Confusion — understanding the world through study, experience, reflection, and analysis

So if want, contention, loneliness, pain, ignorance, emptiness, fruitlessness, and confusion are some of the trials we face in this life, and if this life is a test where God is preparing us for the life to come, then I imagine that the skills we gain in facing these trials will be valuable to us in the next life.

How does that affect our concept of heaven? We teach heaven as a place without want, without pain, without ignorance. Perhaps this vision is true only to the extent that we learn the lessons in the life that God has prepared for us here. If heaven is a place without need for resourcefulness, wisdom, patience, and planning, then why would God design a test that teaches those very things? If God will provide for all my needs in His celestial abode, then why did He have me go to the trouble of learning to provide for myself and for my family?

20 Responses to The Test

  1. jks on March 12, 2010 at 3:03 am

    If you sign your kid up to play soccer, it probably isn’t because you think they will become a professional soccer player. You probably think think that while playing soccer they will learn some character traits that will help them. Things like:
    1. If you practice, you improve.
    2. Listen to your coach.
    3. Follow the rules of the game.
    4. Work together as a team.
    5. Be a good winner.
    6. Be a good loser.
    Of course no two people have the same sports experience. Some people are really bad and so they learn how to keep going even when you suck. Some kids are great so they learn how to carry a team and not get frustrated that you are better than others. Some kids make friends on the team. Some teams don’t come together as friends. Some kids want to quit because it is boring so they learn from that. Some kids gain confidence as they improve. Some kids battle frustration as they don’t improve.
    As a mother, I monitor my children’s development. Social, physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, etc. They really don’t see why they have to do their spelling homework or why they can’t have an iphone or why we clean the house or why they get shots at the doctor. Guess what my 12 year old said last week, “I can’t wait until I’m a mother and my kids can be my slaves.” LOL, classic.
    My point is that signing your kid up for soccer isn’t always just about soccer.

  2. Bill of Wasilla on March 12, 2010 at 4:10 am

    If you think about it, Heaven, as is commonly envisioned, would become a mighty boring place.

  3. Bryan in VA on March 12, 2010 at 6:49 am

    Truman Madsen tells a story of being with Hugh B. Brown in the Holy Land and asking him why Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. President Brown responded that “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham”. Surely because of Abraham’s trials his confidence in the presence of God waxed stronger (D&C 121:45). Also, Alma 7:12 tells us that the Savior will take upon ourselves our infirmities that His bowels will be filled with mercy that he know acording to the flesh how to succor his people. If we live righteously our trials will help us gain a measure compassion for others. Certainly there are countless other benefits to be gained by our Earthly experiences.

  4. Dan on March 12, 2010 at 8:00 am

    I don’t think describing this life in one simple word, “test”, does us much service. Prophets themselves have had to qualify that description. “Oh, well, if a child dies at the age of 5 days, he’s in heaven.” What test did that child pass? He certainly had no opportunity to actually take any of life’s tests, certainly none of his own volition.

    Then there is of course the question of who actually passes the test. To pass a test, surely you would need to know beforehand that you are taking a test. How can you pass a test you don’t even know you are taking? If we Mormons are the only ones who have knowledge of the framework of the test then everyone else simply passes the test on chance, and again, not of their own doing. I guess that’s why we help everyone cheat on their test by performing baptisms for the dead, right?

    There are definitely tests in life which alter the course of your life. There isn’t much doubt about that. But life isn’t a test that you pass to get something better. Life is an experience. Some have awfully short experiences while others longer ones. According to our theology, the simplest things one needs from this life is the physical body to become like our Heavenly Father. By all accounts, it is best that we all die before the age of accountability. But of course, that is impossible because reproduction doesn’t happen until after the age of accountability, thus the challenge: to live a righteous life while being tempted to evil acts.

    For me, knowing of tests in this life doesn’t alter my perception of the afterlife, because I do not believe this life simply to be a test. That analogy is too simplistic and does not account for all the complexities of this life. Experience is the better term to use, IMHO. But even there, that doesn’t do much for children who die before the age of accountability who are nevertheless saved in the Celestial Kingdom, according to our theology.

  5. Reese Dixon on March 12, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Your version of a test sounds like an entrance exam to heaven. I’ve always thought of “the test” as more of an entrance exam to godhood.

  6. Dane Laverty on March 12, 2010 at 11:27 am

    Dan, your statement, “By all accounts, it is best that we all die before the age of accountability. But of course, that is impossible because reproduction doesn’t happen until after the age of accountability, thus the challenge: to live a righteous life while being tempted to evil acts,” sums up the way I used to view life and the gospel. I remember, as a youth, lamenting having been born in the church, since that made me accountable. I remember wishing, at times of hard temptation, that I had died before I turned eight. Now that’s just an awful way to live, and I think that is the “too simplistic” view of the gospel — that we’re here either to die young and thus be saved, or live long enough to have babies and then try to dodge temptation until we’re either saved or damned.

    You also mention preferring the term “experience” to “test”. I’m fine with that, since it supports my original point: why would God prepare this life for us to gain experience, if that experience doesn’t serve us in the eternities?

    I also wanted to respond to your statement, “How can you pass a test you don’t even know you are taking?” The trials that I listed above are universal. You don’t need to be Mormon to experience and learn from want, contention, loneliness, etc. (In fact, the universality of those trials helps provide an explanation for why God is created a world where the vast majority of people will never even hear about the gospel.) However, being Mormon (and understanding and living the principles of the gospel) provides you with tools to respond effectively to those trials. Life isn’t a pass/fail test with Heavenly Father holding big “A+” and “F” stamps on the other side. It’s a test where we will benefit in the next life to the extent that we learn constructively in this life.

  7. Dan on March 12, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Dane,

    The trials that I listed above are universal. You don’t need to be Mormon to experience and learn from want, contention, loneliness, etc

    My point in saying you’re taking a test you don’t even know is that such life experiences are not framed as tests to be had for eternal progression, thus how could someone pass a test he never even knew he was taking?

    I honestly have no idea what life will be like in the afterlife. Many have made attempts at giving some understanding to it. Joseph Smith said it was similar in the societal fashion we are used to now. Non-Mormon theology varies as widely as the color spectrum on the afterlife. My guess is that we’ll have music (even non-religious music) because of how much it touches our souls (for example I’m listening to Julian Lennon’s “Too Late For Goodbyes” as I’m writing this, and I just love how it touches my soul. It’s a gorgeous piece. I would be sad if I could not listen to it in the afterlife). I don’t know how much of this life will be replicated in the next. After all, eating and sleeping, for example, are related to the physical body as we have them now. While we wait around for the final judgment and resurrection, how exactly are we living? Not sure about that one at all.

    I’ve attempted to gain an understanding of what others have thought about the afterlife and I’ve given up caring that much. It is too far away to deal with now. It is too unclear. I’ll stick with worrying about raising my daughter in the here and now. :)

  8. lyle on March 12, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    If we take seriously that God has revealed that Saints are to become “grown ups” like God, and we are currently in a teenage/probationary state, then those skills you mention sound terribly important in an afterlife where we are called upon to help others become “grown up” also.

    Sum: Trying to live in Heaven, without having learned the necessary skills first, probably would feel a lot more like what we associate as living in Hell.

  9. Alison Moore Smith on March 12, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Dane, I love posts like this. I’ve often thought how the war in heaven narrative must have felt to our Father. He must have felt so many of those things states you mentioned. Although I don’t think I’d mind a couple of years on a cloud with a harp (and chocolate), allowing agency ensures many of these.

    Eternal want isn’t something that’s occurred to me before, but it seems obvious now that you point it out.

    So much to think about. Thanks.

  10. Scott on March 12, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    I believe we really can’t begin to comprehend in much detail what is in store for us in the next life. It hasn’t been revealed, and the Brethren don’t discuss it other than in general terms. Whatever our final judgement may be, I have no doubt that the struggles we experience during mortality are essential and will certainly help prepare us for the hereafter and Eternal life.

    Based on the Temple dialogue, I believe there is a possibility that our next life may include at sometime, a return to a form of mortal existence on another sphere. To me this boggles the mind with the infinite array of possibilities we face in the eternities as we go along the path of Eternal progression.

  11. Geoff-Australia on March 12, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Perhaps because of my culture I do not see this life as a time of trial.
    Abraham 3:25-26 the world was created so we could prove ourselves by keeping our second estate, which I would understand to be to recieve the necessary ordinances for exaltation and then…..
    Learn to have Joy
    2nd Nephi 2:22-27 no mention of trials but “man is that he might have joy” (in the index there is more space for joy than obedience or trials)
    I do NOT believe the Lord gives us trials. Do you see your children doing well and think, they need more trials what can I do to them? The Lord wants us to succeed, he doesn’t make it any more difficult than it need be. He has already lost a third of his children.

    With some notable exception such as sickness, most of our “trials” are the result of our earlier decisions. If we didn’t come to this earth… If we didn’t have children, we wouldn’t have wayward teenagers etc.
    Again, perhaps if we were more perceptive when we made choices we could forsee the possible problems that might result from that decision and then when they eventuated, see them, not as trials, but part of the process we made the decision to achieve. (this kind of decision making could be usefull to teach our children)

    One of the perceptions I have of the afterlife is that (Brigham I believe said this) we will each have to build our own mansion, after that i’m not clear, but If, as I believe, we have to learn Joy here so we will fit in there it should be a lot of fun. I want to learn to snow board, water ski etc. I’m sure there will be some courses in creating worlds, as well as building mansions. One of this life’s greatest joys is building, creating achieving and of course relationships. Working together. There will be no one there going on about obedience or trials.

  12. Barry on March 13, 2010 at 3:41 am

    With the ultimate goal of becoming like our Heavenly Father, I can see the value in learning lessons like coping with grief, managing time, building relationships, exercising patience, developing leadership, learning to learn, etc. These are elementary skills in God’s eyes, but ones that help us to advance to a higher skill set. This life, as I see it, is the milk before the meat. The eternal life of Heavenly Father is a life of work. (Moses 1:39) And eternal progress means you’ll constantly be learning, having knowledge and power added unto you. Those who cease to work and learn in the eternities are they who find an end to their progress.

  13. ad on March 13, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    I’ve often thought that although we have words like ‘angels’ and ‘heaven’ and ‘God’ and the like and we’ve ascribed certain images to them, we probably can’t even imagine how different things are from those images and ideas that are in our heads. When reading accounts in the scriptures of heavenly visions and encounters, reading how the writers struggle to describe what they saw and experienced with the limited language they had I’m sometimes reminded of the movie Contact when the character Jodie Foster plays is going through the wormhole and witnesses a celestial event. She tries to describe it and her words failing her, she says with tears in her eyes “they should have sent a poet.” – by the way, that movie is full of what I would call ‘faith promoting movie quotes’ :-) Especially the part at the end of the movie when the Jodie Foster character is giving her testimony before the committee about the experience she had. I know it’s a movie but that testimony is so emotional and clear and it encapsulates so perfectly what it’s like to receive a real testimony and how it changes you.

    We don’t really know what awaits us in the sense of how things will be. We do know the purpose of it all and we do know why we are here, and yes, it is in part to be tested but it is also so much more. We’re here to go through experiences, and to learn from them. And I believe that at certain points in life we come to situations that test what we have learned.

    Dan said – “…how could someone pass a test he never even knew he was taking?”

    The thing is, we all signed up and we all knew about it being a test before coming to this earth. But if we all had knowledge about it being a test while in mortality, if we had no veil, then of course everybody would try their hardest to pass the test. But it wouldn’t be sincere, and we wouldn’t really show who we really are. In a sense, I have more respect for the honorable person who is kind to others and is righteous but doesn’t happen to believe and hasn’t even thought of whether God exists than the orthodox believer who locks himself up to abstain from being sullied by the world out of fear of God’s fire and brimstone and has contempt and disdain for the ‘unbelievers’. I know a few of both types.

    So, to sum up my view of this life, it’s not so much a test as it is a school. And it being a school, it implies there will be tests to see if we have learned. And in a sense it isn’t so much about learning as it is about becoming. We become something else as we are transformed through the things, both good and bad, that we experience in life. What we become is up to us, and how we let those experiences change us is for us to decide. We learn to become humble, we learn empathy, charity, faithfulness, patience, perfect love. Or we learn to become bitter, selfish, self absorbed, spiteful, prideful. It really isn’t about knowledge, it’s about moral attributes. A being who will have dominion over others and the power to organize life has to have a perfect morality or it will cause others to suffer. Just look in this life how easily those who have some power over others turn into tyrants and monsters. And in this school we can’t see the teacher or principal because we would always give them the answers we know they want to hear rather than tell them what we really believe.

    As a final thought, all those other churches who are so terribly offended at the thought of the divine potential of man after this mortality, what exactly is it that they think we’re gonna be doing for eternity in heaven? What is the point of it all? Anywho, sorry for my way too long, way too rambling post.

  14. James Heywood on March 13, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Child Hurbinek
    Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of
    Auschwitz. He looked about three years old, no one knew
    anything of him, he could not speak and he had no name; that
    curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps
    by one of the women who had interpreted with those syllables
    one of the inarticulate sounds that the baby let out now and
    again. He was paralysed from the waist down, with atrophied
    legs, thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted
    face, flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will
    to break loose, to shatter the tomb of his dumbness. The speech
    he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of
    speech charged his stare with explosive urgency: it was a stare
    both savage and human, even mature, a judgement, which none
    of us could support, so heavy was it with force and anguish….
    During the night we listened carefully: …from Hurbinek’s
    corner there occasionally came a sound, a word. It was not,
    admittedly, always exactly the same word, but it was certainly
    an articulated word; or better, several slightly different
    articulated words, experimental variations on a theme, on a root,
    perhaps on a name.
    Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been
    born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had
    fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the
    world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him;
    Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm – even his – bore the
    tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March
    1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears
    witness through these words of mine.34
    —34Primo Levi, “The Reawakening,” pp. 25-26.

  15. Robert C. on March 13, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Dane, in bimonthly perusal of T&S, it seems I’ve missed most of your guest-post stint. Nice job, it looks like it’s been very successful.

    Regarding this post, I think it’s curious that you’ve inverted the way I tend to think about theological issues. That is, I tend to wonder “how does (or should) our concept of heaven affect the way we live this life?”

    The danger of posing the question the way you have is that I think it runs the risk of looking beyond the mark. I worry that this kind of theological undertaking too easily becomes an a kind of will-to-power exercise, trying to grasp knowledge of the next life so that we can gain all the more advantage (esp. in the next life).

    Now, I think the question you’ve posed is very interesting, but I find myself very much wanting to close the theological loop by asking, “and if heaven is this way, then what does that imply for how we deal with challenges in this life”? Perhaps you intended the post this way in the first place?

  16. Jader3rd on March 14, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    One attribute that I’m surprised I haven’t seen mentioned yet is idleness vs. work. The gospel teaches people that heaven is a great place without want. It’s possible that it’s a place without want because those who live there are hard workers.

  17. sl on March 15, 2010 at 9:33 am

    I think Dane’s point has been lost among quibbles about the meaning of th word “test.” Personally, I like the word “lesson” because it implies that assistance and explanation attend the experience, as opposed to the idea of a “test” where the proctor just sits back indifferently to watch you succeed or fail.

    However, I think Dane’s point is that if heaven is a place of love and cooperation and beauty and glory, it is because its inhabitants, drawing upon the lessons of earth, have learned how to make and maintain such a place. Thus, this is not just a temporary vale of hardship but an important lesson in the art and science of eternal kingdom building.

    Dane, though I agree with you, I’d like to know what you make of the concept of faith? Is faith one of those attributes that the god’s continue to use? I mean faith in the sense of acting and believing in the face of uncertainty. If not, then why would we need to learn it here. If so, would that make God uncomfortably finite?

  18. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on March 15, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Dane: Your postings are great attempts at seeking answers to some of the most vexing challenges in maintaining our FAITH in God, our Father. Regretfully and blessfully, there is a veil between Him and His children. God, has not left us without answers. Today, when we are confirmed after baptism, we also receive His personal Spiritual representative, the Holy Ghost.

    For most of my life, I actually believed, that I in fact had this companionship, but now I have concluded, that He is always present, but doesn’t answer unless I asked. Then the principle “line, upon line and precept upon precept” kick’s in, but don’t be frustrated and abandon this special relationship. It is a Faith building process and life long endeavor.

    Jesus of Nazareth in Luke 16 was confronted by the question about an Unjust Steward and the beggar Lazarus at the city’s gate. It seems, Lazarus, upon his death, made it to the bosom of the Patriarch Abraham and the Unjust Steward, now also dead and dying of thirst and requested answers for his “burning” situation in spirit prison. Abraham told the Unjust Steward he could not help him out now, but that God, our Father had sent Prophets and the Messiah, with messages to redeem him and his family and friends. Therefore, the Steward had no other recourse than following the Plan of Return established by Father Himself in the pre-existence. The principle taught was that the Steward was an agent to himself and had not followed the doctrines, that qualified him for return to receive his second estate.

    I find the Holy Ghost works very well, because it gives me hope for passing these “tests”. Jesus, Christ is the Righteous Judge over this Plan toward Salvation. Today, He works through the First Presidency and the Twelve to restore the teaching of the Laws of heaven. This is the heart of the Plan, to restore the accountability of Jesus, Christ and His prophets among the Gentile nations. The First Presidency and the Twelve have the still small voice of our Lord in their ear. I Know, that the day will come that the reputations Of Jesus of Nazareth and Joseph Smith, Jr shall be fully restored.

    Who gives us these “tests”? God consented to the Plan for our Return as His sons and daughters. God, our Father gave His children tabernacles and temples, throughout His children’s journey, that we shall come to Him to ask for redemption.

    Jesus of Nazareth had a most difficult task, because He did not only come as the Son of God, our Heavenly Father; but He came as a the son of Adam and Eve. We are all Adam’s sons and and daughters and we only have “the breath of His life”. Jesus was often confronted by the Herodian Temple Priesthood with the violations of the faithful disciples as they tried to live under the false interpretations of the 10 Commandments and their covenants. He pointed out their errors “as the traditions of your fathers”. He pointed out that Moses and their King David made some changes by allowing divorces and the eating of the temple’s show bread. Moses was in the middle of the Sinai desert and was unwilling to be divide the Nation Israel. David was on the run from King Saul’s Army and He and his men were often hungry and his motive was probaly survival under threat.

    Most damning in the eyes of the Herodian Temple Priesthood were the sinners; publican’s [tax collecting bureaucrats] and many others who sought after Him and dined with Him. He did not rebel against the Herod’s Priesthood Authority, but taught the Laws in heaven and said put your yoke on My shoulders. He promised that the time would come, when He will restore all things.

    God, our Father in heaven, is the Proprietor of the Universe and He has given His spirit children in heaven; a galaxie and an earth for our future possession. He did not leave us to our own blind ways, but gave us hope, that we shall find His Path.

    Now, who gives us these “tests” that removes the vision and hope for returning to that life in the eternities? Jesus of Nazareth even warned that in the Last Day, many of His elect will be deceived by the false solutions that are offered. Our politicians give us a 1000 facts, to cover everyone of their lies. Again, today, they tell us the traditions of the fathers must prevail to preserve their entitled offices. They will not prevail.

    The Herodian Temple Priesthood in prevailing with their divide and keep what I have today, because it is better for me. Did not win, they are “ashes to ashes” dead and have accepted a lesser place in the eternities. The sinners, publicans and disciples, who found Jesus of Nazareth were given the hope to try again or He asked them to place their yoke on Him and follow.

    Today is a BLESSED day, because Joseph Smith, Jr vision of God, our Father and Jesus, Christ standing at His side. As a 17 year old teenager in Holland, when I first heard the story of that vision; I thought; Father in heaven must have a very important message and I wanted to hear the rest. My father was a Protestant, who always confronted the local Ministers and Pastors, because he blamed them for the falsehoods that entered into our devotion to God. After the Missionaries left I asked him: “what do you think of Joseph’s vision?”
    I was very surprised by his answer, because he was never baptized until very much later in his years. This is what he told me, “If the Truth must be determined, then God Himself must do it.” He consented to my effort to be baptized and persue this Plan toward Salvation.

    The opening of this last dispensation began with Father in heaven freely and openly endorsing His Son Jesus, Christ. Many reject it as quaint and belonging to an imagenary darker tradition. It is not, it is the pathway back.

    God, my Father in heaven kept His Word and restored the Covenants made with Adam and Eve in our Temples. He has restored the opportunities to devote more of our time to study of the Laws, that rule the Eternities and bind our children and spouses to us in preparation to become His flesh and blood sons and daughters in heaven.

  19. Enna on March 15, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Dane, didn’t you also post about your version of God – the God who loves you but can not do anything but cry with you? Learning about want and fear and lonliness would make us much more empathetic when our children will go through these things in their own period of mortality…

  20. James Olsen on March 17, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    I think a terrific point that Dane has made that I haven’t yet seen brought out in the comments is that our ability to cope with want, grief, tragedy, agency, etc. will not merely help us be gods in the sense of helping others (e.g., our future children) progress, but that they will continue to help us cope while living the sort of life that God lives. There’s a huge disconnect between our version of heaven and that often portrayed in other faiths. I shout hallelujah when Joseph talks about the “added weight of glory” that comes in the next life; but this can’t detract from the reality of our weeping God. To think that God did not suffer when a third part of his children were lost or that he was merely putting on a show when he and the rest of the heavens wept with Enoch over the current state of the world strikes me as ridiculously implausible. We need to learn to cope with suffering now because our vision of heaven is one where suffering is a reality.

    And in this sense, I don’t think Robert C. has a substantive difference in his attempt at a paradigm shift for this post. I think the right answer to his question is to merely state that it’s sixes. Because we lack an unbridgeable transcendental gap between us and God, there ought not be a major difference between our experience of and righteous response to suffering here and there.