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plan of happiness

18

shaking fist

Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Not everyone has, but in recent days, I have had the opportunity to visit with some people close to me who have, or do. I found the conversations both sad and hopeful at the same time. One reason I am happy to talk about the subject is because – brace yourselves – I have felt abandoned by God. Even beyond feeling abandoned, I have been angry at Him as well. I don’t recommend it, but it can happen.

The most personal and specific example in my life was a stretch of time earlier in our marriage when my EC and I had four young kids in the home, ranging from two to eleven years old. During an eighteen month period we had a non-stop run of heartbreak and challenge. I say this knowing full well that to some of you, our challenges will look difficult, yet to others, they will look like a walk in the park. Everyone faces their own challenges, and they can be wildly different. Our challenges were kicking my butt.

To start off the stretch, we lost a baby to miscarriage. A few months later, my father-in-law passed away from a painful illness. Three months later, my mother died unexpectedly. Shortly afterwards, my father suffered a massive stroke that rendered him invalid. Finally, a few month later, my EC suffered a life-changing leg injury that left her confined to a hospital bed for three months, unable to walk for six.

It was during this last event that I remember how I felt. My wife was stuck sleeping on her back in an extra room in  a rented hospital bed, fuzzy from pain medications. The kids were upstairs asleep when I decided to go outside for a walk. I was so tired. Tired from playing nurse, tired of trying to keep a business afloat, and tired of taking care of a houseful of kids. I was still mourning my mom and dad, and just trying to keep my own head above water.

I vividly remember standing in our driveway that night and bursting into tears. Not tears of sadness, or exhaustion, but tears of anger. I was angry at God for abandoning us. I was angry that he allowed all of these life-crisis to pile up on us without even time to mourn or breath before the next gut-punch came. I felt cheated that our reward for doing our best to live righteously was to be repeatedly pummeled by tragedy. I felt alone and cheated.

It was an unfamiliar feeling to me.

As I tell this, I’m sure that many of you are nodding your heads and saying, “Been there, done that.” I also know that many of you are taken aback because you have never grappled with those kind of feelings. I do guarantee that someone you know and love has walked this path.

One of them is the prophet Joseph Smith. When he was suffering in Liberty Jail, his frustration and feelings of abandonment bubbled up, as recorded in scripture. He pled:

O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? (D&C 121:1-2)

He went on to offer God a list of suggestions of how He could better do His job, but mostly his plea was full of questions. Where are you? Why aren’t you helping? Way aren’t you listening?

The greatest example of feeling abandoned in the scriptures is from the Savior’s own lips. As he hung on the cross, suffering more than any man ever would, or could, he called out to God.

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matt 27:46)

Apparently it happens to the best of us.

The danger in harboring feelings of abandonment or anger towards God is not in that moment, but what it can lead to if unchecked. Something has to stop the slide before we find ourselves hurtling into the abyss of atheism or agnosticism. (Think of Tom Cruise sliding off that skyscraper in Shanghai.)

It would be both trite and naive to suggest that we just “snap out of it.” These challenges are real and can run deep. What I can suggest are some ways that we can stop the slide and climb back into a healthier relationship with God.

– Find something to grab onto to stop the slide.

Might I suggest this thought: Anger towards God is a personal testimony that you believe He is real and that He lives. You wouldn’t be angry if you didn’t believe in Him, right? Grab onto that basic, pure testimony that He does live, and begin to work your way back. As frightening as it is to think God has abandoned us, it is more frightening to think that He doesn’t exist. He does.

– Find a sense of proportion.

Nobody, and I mean nobody wants to be told that things could be worse, and I would suggest that you never, ever do that to someone who is suffering. Yet that is exactly how God responded to Joseph Smith when he called out to Him from Liberty Jail.

“My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.

Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands.

Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgression, as they did Job”. (D&C 121:7-10)

It was a gently rebuke, looking at the bright side – but then the Lord came back again, gave him a dose of proportion and dressed him down:

“And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. (D&C 122:7)

The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8)

– Find a sense of eternal perspective.

The Plan of Happiness does not always mean “Instant Happiness.” it is a plan for playing the long-game. Studying that plan, and what God desires for us, helps us weather the inevitable storms life brings. The immediacy of our current struggles sometimes overwhelms the reality that this life is indeed a “blip” on the eternities. While that perspective does not reduce the pain, it can make it a little more tolerable. It helps to know that God is aware, and that he loves us – even when we can’t tell.

President Boyd K. Packer taught, “Do not suppose that God willfully causes that which, for His own purposes, he permits. When you know the plan and the purpose of it all, even these things will manifest a loving Father in Heaven” (link)

– Find some blessings.

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings; name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

So amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged; God is over all.
Count your many blessings; angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.

Sure, it’s a little cheesy, but the concept is sound. When we focus on gratitude, we become humble. Humility helps us in the next step:

– Find some grace.

President James E Faust: In the many trials of life, when we feel abandoned and when sorrow, sin, disappointment, failure, and weakness make us less than we should ever be, there can come the healing salve of the unreserved love in the grace of God. It is a love that forgives and forgets, a love that lifts and blesses. (link)

As the Lord pointed out to Joseph Smith, “the Son of Man hath descended below them all,” placing the Savior in the remarkable position of having total empathy, understanding and compassion. Turn to Him. By seeking healing through the atonement of Jesus Christ we can mend our strained relationship with God.

I testify that the Savior invites all of us to come and partake of His Atonement. As we exercise our faith in Him, He will lift us up and carry us through all of our trials and, ultimately, save us in the celestial kingdom. (Elder Evan A. Scmutz)

– Find common ground through prayer.

Standing in the driveway that night, I had a one-sided conversation with God, and it wasn’t pretty. But at least I was having a one-sided conversation with God. Fiddler on the Roof is one of my favorite plays/films. The lead character Tevye, walks through his life in a constant running dialogue with God. It is not only funny, but exemplary. I’ll admit standing in a driveway – full of tears and rage – is not the best way to converse with God, it is at least an honest attempt, and the best I could muster at the time. The next step would be to dial it back, and search for a two-way communication that involves much less complaining, and much more listening and searching for understanding.

Elder Bednar added this counsel: “Discerning and accepting the will of God in our lives are fundamental elements of asking in faith in meaningful prayer. However, simply saying the words “Thy will be done” is not enough. Each of us needs God’s help in surrendering our will to Him.

“Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other.” Humble, earnest, and persistent prayer enables us to recognize and align ourselves with the will of our Heavenly Father. And in this the Savior provided the perfect example as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. … And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:42, 44).

Ultimately, when we are angry at God, or feel abandoned by Him, we are focusing on the idea that we know better – that things should run according to our plan. Until we let go of this false sense of control and actually submit our will to His, we will be at odds with God. It is a lifetime challenge, and tougher to embrace when we are mired in struggle.

To those who are suffering, I feel for you and hope you can stop the slide and climb out. To those of you who have never experienced the feelings of abandonment and frustration with God, I am happy for you, and hope you never do.

God does live, and He does love us – even though sometimes we can’t see it.

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27

Have you ever stepped back and looked at your life, or your current situation and said these words?

“It was not supposed to be like this.”

It is usually a phrase born out of sorrow or desperation. A place of pain. At least that has been my experience.

“It was not supposed to be like this.”

We say it when things are out of whack. When we are frustrated by where life has taken us – or where we have taken life.

“It was not supposed to be like this.”

We say it when things are not going according to plan. At least, according to our plan – our “Plan A.”

This simply complex phrase can be an epiphany that spurs us on to improve our situation, or it can become something much more toxic – and that toxin can sicken us, and those around us spiritually, and emotionally. Yes, it is contagious.

I am not about to pass judgment on anyone and everyone who is currently thinking those very words. The last thing someone in that situation needs is someone telling them that “it ain’t so bad.” Everyone has their own challenges, and everyone reacts to them differently.

But I would like to dig in to that phrase a little, to see if there is something to learn. Enlightenment can help, whereas, in the words of Elder Holland“no misfortune is so bad that whining about it won’t make it worse.”

So, for the next few minutes, no whining, no pity party. No thinking that you are the only person who has ever felt this way. Because you are not. We all have. I have. But, even if it loves company, shared misery is still miserable.

“It was not supposed to be like this.”

Are you sure? How exactly do you know?

We tend to look at life in such a linear fashion: We want to get from Point A to Point B as smoothly as possible. That is our “Plan A.
Plan A single

Yet strangely, life rarely pays attention to our Plan A, and presents us with a Plan B that is often not to our liking. It is rarely smooth, and easily accomplished. It winds up feeling more like this:

Plan B

I am quick to point out that we might find ourselves on a very rough path through no fault of out own. Many of the trials and challenges on our lives come at us anyway. (Think Job.) Apparently Lehi loved these kind of challenges: “For it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things… (2 Nephi 2:11)

But often, we find ourselves on a crooked path because of something we chose to do – or did not do. Self-inflicted off-roading. (Think Jonah.) Sometimes these self-inflicted paths are tricky to discern, because we are so busy looking for someone else to blame for sending us that direction.

What about the “right path?” What do we know about God’s Plan A for us? We know this is His Mission Statement: “For behold – this is my work and my glory – to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

You might notice that there is not a lot of detail in that Mission Statement.  Why? I think it is because everyone has a different plan. Wildly different – but the end goal is the same. Which begs the question, why would we ever compare ourselves with someone else to get a fix on where we are on our personalized journey?

 

We are most likely to utter the phrase, “It was not supposed to be like this,” when we are mired in the twists and turns of Plan B. The tricky part is figuring out why we would resort to a potentially toxic phrase. I see three options:

1) It is an epiphany. It would be the “Oh my goodness, I took the wrong exit and need to get back on the freeway,” type of moment. It calls for course corrections, and motivates us – and usually involves repentance in some fashion. This is the best use of the phrase – as repentance is awesome.

2) It is merely an observation. “Hmm. Looks like I took a wrong turn somewhere – I wonder where this road will take me? Do-di-do, I guess I’ll just keep driving.” It is a wimpy approach to life, and won’t return us to the path. (If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else,” Yogi Berra)

3) It is toxic. That phrase can play on an endless loop in our minds, slowly poisoning ourselves until things start to die. What can it kill?

• Hope – I am not where I want to be, and I am never going to find my way back. I give up. I can’t do this anymore.

• Patience – This shouldn’t be taking so long. God does not hear me.

• Gratitude – This is so unfair! As gratitude is absent or disappears, rebellion often enters and fills the vacuum.” (James E. Faust)

• Focus – I don’t have time to worry about you – I’m consumed by worrying about me, me, me!

• Contentment – It is impossible for me to be happy, because I can’t be happy until… The opposite of Paul’s approach, “… I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” (Philippians 4:11)

• Our future – that phrase is mired in the present and in the past. “The past is to be learned from but not lived in. We look back to claim the embers from glowing experiences but not the ashes. And when we have learned what we need to learn and have brought with us the best that we have experienced, then we look ahead and remember that faith is always pointed toward the future.” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland)

 

I wonder if Jonah ever had that phrase run through his head in his “time-out” in the belly of the fish. I imagine he must have said to himself, “I really didn’t see it working out this way in my head.”

Jonah Fish

But while Jonah was probably complaining about his fate in the fish, he probably didn’t realize what was actually going on: He was being saved. He was being saved from death, both physical and spiritual. This smelly, slimy Plan B was exactly what the Lord had chosen for Jonah to get him back on His Plan A, which Jonah had abandoned.

Do we ever do that? Do we regard our difficulties and sufferings as wrong, or unfair, and fail to see them as God’s way of helping us to fulfill His only real goal – His Plan A – to help us return to Him?

“It was not supposed to be like this.”

Perhaps it was supposed to be exactly like this. Now what?

We move forward. If we realize we aren’t where we are supposed to be, we move. We take the epiphany, the nudge, the belief, the prompting, or the divine intervention, and we respond with action. That is what we call faith.

“Faith is for the future. Faith builds on the past but never longs to stay there. Faith trusts that God has great things in store for each of us… Keep your eyes on your dreams, however distant and far away. Live to see the miracles of repentance and forgiveness, of trust and divine love that will transform your life today, tomorrow, and forever.” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland)

“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” (2 Nephi 31:20)

Because THAT is God’s Plan A – and we won’t get there by entertaining toxic thoughts.

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Great talks:

The Best is Yet to Be,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.

Content With the Things Allotted to Us.” Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Gratitude As a Saving Principle.” President James E Faust.