“All these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good”

For a long time, I underestimated the depth of the trauma experienced by the Latter-day Saints in Missouri and the impact that it had on their psyche.  I think I started to grasp it more when I was researching for an essay about Latter-day Saints and their relationship with the US Government (which was an earlier version of the “The constitution of this Land” post I put up on this site in September).  What they endured was horrific and that left deep scars on the Latter-day Saints.  In the midst of all of this, however, Joseph Smith began to write general epistles to the Church, portions of which were later incorporated into the Doctrine and Covenants as Sections 121, 122, and 123.  Within those epistles, he began to explain a theology of suffering that grappled with what they had endured.

The fallout of the 1838 Missouri-Mormon War was terrible (trigger warning that this section of the post may be distressing).  Parley P. Pratt famously recalled how while Church leaders were in prison:

We had listened for hours to the obscene jests, the horrid oaths, the dreadful blasphemies and filthy language of our guards … as they recounted to each other their deeds of rapine, murder, robbery, etc., which they had committed among the ‘Mormons’ while at Far West and vicinity. They even boasted of defiling by force wives, daughters and virgins, and of shooting or dashing out the brains of men, women and children.[1]

Rape, murder, and pillaging were among the horrors endured by the Latter-day Saints, while the perpetrators enjoyed bragging about what they had done.  In one example of these war crimes that received coverage a few years ago, it was suggested that Eliza R. Snow was brutally gang-raped by eight Missourians and attributed infertility to that event.  It is likely the reason for why she wrote about Missouri with an uncharacteristic level of fury, calling Missourians on one occasion “hordes from nether shades let loose— / Men without hearts—just made for Satan’s use!”[2]  Joseph Smith would also write about the war with fury and indignation, referring (for example) to the horrible conditions of his imprisonment as being “in this hell surrounded with demonds if not those who are damned, they are those who shall be damned,”[3] that the deeds of the enemies of the Saints “are enough to make hell itself shudder and to stand aghast and pale,”[4] and led Smith to pray for God to “let thine anger be kindle against our enemi[e]s and in the fury of thine hart with thy sword avenge us of our rongs.”[5]

Yet, in these conditions, Joseph Smith wrote words of comfort that the Lord spoke to him.  He wrote that “the voice of inspiration steals along and whispers my son pease be unto thy soul thine advirsity and thy afflictions shall be but a small moment and then if thou indure it well God shall exalts the[e] on high.”[6]  While the Lord promised to deliver vengeance upon the enemies of the Saints, the statements to the Saints that follow are interesting.  Joseph Smith wrote that “God?> hath said that he would have a tried people that he would purge them as gold now we think that this time he has chosen his own crusible wherein we have been tryed.”  The experiences in Missouri were a crucible to purify the people of God, and as a result of this trial, they would be forged as a purer people and their sacrifice would stand as “a sign to this generation all together sufficient to leave them without excuse.”[7]  In a second epistle from Liberty Jail (the one that D&C 122 and 123 are excerpts from), Joseph Smith added that the Lord told him that all that Smith had endured: “shall give thee experiance and shall be for thy good. The son of man hath desended below them all art thou greater than he?”[8]  This last statement is a sobering response to the horrors that the Saints had experienced.

It may not be a comfort to hear that suffering gives experience while suffering, but it helps to make sense of life in a broader context.  As Richard Lyman Bushman explained it: “Experience instructed.  Life was not just a place to shed one’s sins but a place to deepen comprehension by descending below them all.  The Missouri tribulations were a training ground.”  He added that: “In an earlier revelation, Joseph wrote that humans grew from grace to grace like Christ.  Here growth into a fulness comes from suffering.  Those who would be like Christ must suffer like Christ.”[9]  Suffering is part of the Plan of Salvation for its effects in growth and development.

President Brigham Young made similar observations while discussing the fallen condition of humankind.  He once said that: “I would praise God in the highest for his great wisdom and condescension in suffering the children of men to fall into the very sin into which they had fallen, for he did it that they, like Jesus, might descend below all things and then press forward and rise above all.”[10]  As he explained on another occasion: “Darkness and sin were permitted to come on this earth. Man partook of the forbidden fruit in accordance with a plan devised from eternity, that mankind might be brought in contact with the principles and powers of darkness, that they might know the bitter and the sweet, the good and the evil, and be able to discern between light and darkness, to enable them to receive light continually.”[11]  To become like Christ, we must suffer like Christ, learning to discern between light and darkness as we act and are acted upon and see the results of those actions.

That being said, this doesn’t imply that God is a sadist who enjoys witnessing our suffering.  In the vision of Enoch, found in Joseph Smith’s Old Testament Revision, we read that: “the heavens wept” for seeing that “the powers of Satan were upon all the face of the Earth.”  When Enoch asked “how is it that thou canst weep Seeing Thou art holy & from all eternity to all eternity,” the Lord responded that: “these thy Brethren, they are the workmanship of mine own hands” and He “gave unto them their <intelligence>” and “agency.”  And although He “gave commandment, that they should love me one another, & that they should Choose me their Father <?serve me their God?>,” they did not choose to obey that commandment and “they are without affection, & they hate their own blood. … Wherefore, for this shall the heavens weep.”[12]  God is pained and weeps for the suffering of humankind but maintains our agency nonetheless.

Why does He maintain that agency, even though it leads to suffering?  Francine R. Bennion, who served on the general boards of the Young Women and Relief Society in the 1970s and 1980s, offered some exploration of why God allows suffering to exist.  She looked to the War in Heaven, noting that Lucifer proposed a plan where “no one would be hurt or afraid. He would allow only whatever experience and identity he chose for us, and if we met pleasure, pain, or success.”  Strikingly, she pointed out that if we expect that God would hold our immediate happiness as the highest goal and He obliged and intervened to prevent suffering at all times, then “Lucifer’s intended universe is exactly the universe many now attribute to God, or want from him.”  In the universe that God shaped, however, “Law in God’s universe is a matter of processes or relationships that are knowable and predictable, not whimsical or inconsistent. Such law is inherent in all matters. Agency in such a universe is not only the capacity for moral choice, but more largely, the capacity for real thought, action, and invention, with inherent consequences for oneself and others.”[13]  Regularity of law, and resultant suffering, allow for true choice in our lives.

Bennion went on to explain what the implications of these observations are for making sense of our sufferings:

We suffer because we were willing to pay the cost of being and of being here with others in their ignorance and inexperience as well as our own. We suffer because we are willing to pay the costs of living with laws of nature, which operate quite consistently whether or not we understand them or can manage them. We suffer because, like Christ in the desert, we apparently did not say we would come only if God would change all our stones to bread in time of hunger. We were willing to know hunger. Like Christ in the desert, we did not ask God to let us try falling or being bruised only on condition that he catch us before we touch ground and save us from real hurt. We were willing to know hurt. Like Christ, we did not agree to come only if God would make everyone bow to us and respect us, or admire us and understand us. Like Christ, we came to be ourselves, addressing and creating reality. We are finding out who we are and who we can become regardless of immediate environment or circumstances. …

If we are to become more like God, we must experience and understand the reality of physical law. … God functions according to laws that we are experiencing and trying to learn here. We have many scriptures indicating that our God is a God of law, and we are coming in contact with the same kind of laws he understands. Laws are real for him, and the same laws are real for us. …

Nobody is manipulating every human decision that would affect every human experience. If God did, we would have the kind of existence now that Lucifer offered permanently.

Thus, she felt that: “I think suffering … is an indication that God does not want us to be simply obedient children playing forever under his hand, but wants us able to become more like himself. … We have to be able, as he is able, to meet what comes of others’ agency, and of living in a lawful universe that allows creation of a habitable planet only when it allows also the difficulties that come in natural operations of such a planet.”[14]

Suffering can be seen to be the consequence of orderly law and agency.  God does not control the actions of everyone and thus is not the direct cause of their choices.  He may nudge and guide people through the Light of Christ and the Holy Spirit since, as Mormon noted, God “inviteth and enticeth to do good continually”,[15] but He does not take direct control and only rarely intervenes.  The implication of this is that God isn’t directly responsible for everything we suffer, particularly when that suffering is the result of choices that someone (ourselves or others) made.  We can’t always ask “what does God want me to learn from this?” or “why did God do this to me?” and assume that He planned out and executed the whole experience just for us.

That being said, the revelations of Joseph Smith do make it clear that God can make good come of evil in our lives.  As stated in the epistles from Liberty Jail, the Lord can make it so that suffering can “give thee experiance and shall be for thy good.”[16]  Likewise, as stated in an 1833 revelation (now D&C 90), if we “search diligently pray always and be believing,” then “all things shall work together for your good if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant where with ye have covenanted one with another.”[17]  Or, as the apostle Paul put it long ago, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”[18]  While suffering in and of itself may not be good, God is able to make good things come of it for those who love Him.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/44896/pg44896-images.html

[2] See Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Shocking historical finding: Mormon icon Eliza R. Snow was gang-raped by Missouri ruffians,” Salt Lake Tribune 17 March 2016, https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=3613791&itype=CMSID.  See also Andrea R-M, “Eliza R. Snow as a Victim of Sexual Violence in the 1838 Missouri War—the Author’s Reflections on a Source,”  Juvenile Instructor 7 March 2016, https://juvenileinstructor.org/eliza-r-snow-as-a-victim-of-sexual-violence-in-the-1838-missouri-war-the-authors-reflections-on-a-source/. Accessed 10 October 2021.

[3] “Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839,” p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 19, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-the-church-and-edward-partridge-20-march-1839/2

[4] “Letter to Edward Partridge and the Church, circa 22 March 1839,” p. 6, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 22, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-edward-partridge-and-the-church-circa-22-march-1839/6

[5] “Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839,” p. 4, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 20, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-the-church-and-edward-partridge-20-march-1839/4

[6] “Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839,” p. 8, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 20, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-the-church-and-edward-partridge-20-march-1839/8

[7] “Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839,” p. 10, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 20, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-the-church-and-edward-partridge-20-march-1839/10

[8] “Letter to Edward Partridge and the Church, circa 22 March 1839,” p. 4, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 20, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-edward-partridge-and-the-church-circa-22-march-1839/4

[9] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 380-381.

[10] Discourses of Brigham Young, p.103

[11] Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (SLC: LDS Church, 1997), 39.

[12] “Old Testament Revision 2,” p. 22, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 22, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/old-testament-revision-2/27

[13] Francine R. Bennion, “A Latter-day Saint Theology of Suffering,” in At the Pulpit, https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/at-the-pulpit/part-4/chapter-43?lang=eng

[14] Francine R. Bennion, “A Latter-day Saint Theology of Suffering,” in At the Pulpit, https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/at-the-pulpit/part-4/chapter-43?lang=eng

[15] Moroni 7:12-13.

[16] “Letter to Edward Partridge and the Church, circa 22 March 1839,” p. 4, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 20, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-edward-partridge-and-the-church-circa-22-march-1839/4

[17] “Revelation, 8 March 1833 [D&C 90],” p. [2], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 22, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-8-march-1833-dc-90/2

[18] Romans 8:28, NRSV.

6 comments for ““All these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good”

  1. Chad, apologies, I’m late to this interesting post.

    The Bennion quote has got me puzzling again.

    Her sentiments are, for the most part, a common thread in LDS devotional life, however, claims that earthly suffering evidences a pre-mortal ‘willingness’ to ‘pay the cost’ for suffering; hunger, hurt, harassment, abuse, and any number of distressing conditions is for me overdrawn.

    It’s not that we don’t learn from experience and all its circumstances and contingencies, and I can quite see how that may be God’s ‘plan’, but ‘willingness’ suggests we knew full well what to expect, (perhaps had even experienced it) and the ‘innocent in the beginning’ factor doesn’t seem to figure in the decision-making to come to earth, the subtext of which also seems to be that it was ‘we’ who made that decision, not God, for example .
    I grant D&C 93:38 is a little ambiguous around the question of when we were redeemed, and what ‘became again …innocent ‘ means
    but do we have any more definitive scriptural basis for this than perhaps divining a view from Abr 3; D&C 93, Job, etc.

    PS I’m also trying to work through the tension between ‘we came to be ourselves’ and we came to find ‘out who we are’. The former suggests we had a prior sense of ‘self’, the latter that we did not.

    Any thoughts appreciated

  2. Those are really good points, sjames. Ultimately, I suspect that we don’t know enough about the pre-mortal existence to offer good answers to the questions that you’re puzzling over, and particularly not any answers that are more than speculation. There just really is not a lot of details to divine a view from the scriptures, as you indicate.

    The speculation I can offer is that we likely didn’t know the full extent of what life on earth would be like, but it would make sense that God would present all of the information that He possibly could to help us understand. What the format and method of presenting that information would be like, though, I can only guess. There are likely ways to communicate as spirits that we don’t understand, but there were likely limits to how far that could get us (if it could be communicated perfectly, why bother with the actual experiencing of life rather than just go through some equivalent training?).

    As to the second point, those do seem to be paradoxical, but perhaps there is some understanding we can wring out from that tension. The indications are that we did have a sense of self, hence God being able to discern between “the intelligences that were organized” and determine which ones were “noble and great ones” in Abraham 3. We had enough sense of self and ability to choose that “a third part of the hosts of heaven turned he [Lucifer] away from me [the Lord] because of their agency” (D&C 29:36). Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we came to learn more about ourselves through experiencing a mortal existence? That way, we carry with us a sense of self, but add to that sense through the testing and development as we gain and tame a physical body (as Parley P. Pratt put it, “You came to the earth to be born of flesh, / To fashion and perfect your earthly house”).

    Again, I think any real discussion of pre-mortal existence is speculative at best, since there aren’t a lot of details given.

  3. Appreciated.

    I will put ‘those’ Bennion remarks (and their implications) in the ‘speculative at best’ category.

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