My last year at BYU, I sat through an Elders Quorum lesson where the teacher discussed the etymology of “atonement.” I was skeptical that it actually derived from “at-one-ment,” and, immediately after church ended, I walked across campus to the Writing Center, keyed in my code, and pulled out the Center’s OED.[fn1]
And, to my surprise, I learned that, although it looks suspiciously convenient, atonement does come from “at-one-ment.”
Fast-forward a decade or more. I continue to be skeptical of stories that seem a little too pat and convenient, including Elder Cook’s story of the missionaries who didn’t board the Titanic. It felt a little too much like the story of the missionaries who called off their meeting in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.[fn2] Thrown off, I didn’t catch the profundity of his remarks.
After Conference, I quickly Googled and discovered (a) there is credible evidence, predating Elder Cook’s remarks, that Elder Sonne, et al., did, in fact, cancel their fateful tickets, and (b) there is also credible evidence that Sister Corbett did, in fact, believe that Mormon missionaries would be on the Titanic with her.
As a result, the second time I listened, I actually listened. And I realized that I had entirely misheard Elder Cook’s talk. His was not a laundry-list of Mormon cliches—rather, he complicated our simplistic view that righteousness = happiness.[fn3] Elder Cook says that
[t]he scriptures are clear: those who are righteous, follow the Savior, and keep His commandments will prosper in the land.
But what does it mean to “prosper in the land”? Sometimes, apparently, it means our lives will be saved, whether through divine intervention or hapless lateness. Other times, though, it means we will suffer, even though we were “careful, thoughtful, prayerful, and valiant.”
Elder Cook does not suggest that the missionaries were spared because of their righteousness, or that Sister Corbett died because she lacked something. Instead, suffering is part of this life. Sometimes, Elder Cook says, challenges are the result of others’ agency; sometimes, they’re the result of our own. And sometimes they provide us with experience that we need.
Ultimately, Elder Cook does not try to solve the problem of evil. He acknowledges that there are things we don’t know.[fn4] But, he says, there are things we do know: we have a loving Heavenly Father, an atoning Savior, and are participating in a plan of happiness that doesn’t end with our death. And, unlike the Titanic, the Savior’s sacrifice provides lifeboats for all of us.
[fn1] Yes, I worked at the Writing Center, and yes, it was my favorite undergrad job (even better than teaching at the MTC).
[fn2] For the sake of anybody who doesn’t click on the link, let me make clear that there was no missionary meeting in the WTC to be called off. I don’t want to get rumors started again.
[fn3] “Happiness” may not be the word I want here, if you believe that happiness is the ultimate state of the righteous. But I mean happiness at a specific point in time; my righteousness clearly does not guarantee me that I will be happy every moment of every day, even if it does mean that ultimately, I’ll be happy, or that on a net basis, my happiness will exceed my not-happiness.
[fn4] That there are things we don’t know is not at all central to his talk, but is, nonetheless, profound: although we have access to all truth, that does not mean that we know everything. Sometimes when we struggle to understand, it is because we really and truly don’t have all of the information.