What to Do with Adversity
February 1981

“What to Do with Adversity,” Ensign, Feb. 1981, 54

What to Do with Adversity

When my great-great grandparents joined the Church in Sweden over one hundred years ago, they were faced with a long ocean voyage to America, a train trip from New York to Omaha, and then a trek by wagon to Salt Lake City. But when they boarded the train in New York, they discovered that they were to ride in stock cars that had been used to haul hogs to market—and the cars were filthy and filled with hog lice.

Grandmother accepted the inconvenience, but the humiliation was almost more than grandfather could bear. “To think we are no better than hogs,” he grumbled. Reluctantly he made the trip anyway.

Grandmother was expecting another child, and when they reached Omaha to begin their long trek west, grandfather was concerned about her health and the safety of the baby. The wagon master assured him that there were competent midwives available and that everything would be all right, so they commenced their journey.

Somewhere on the plains of Nebraska, a healthy baby was born. But a few days later, the three-year-old son contracted cholera. In the middle of the night, grandfather went to a neighboring wagon to borrow a candle, but was told they couldn’t spare one. This angered him, and he fumed as he sat in the dark with his son’s limp, feverish body in his arms. The boy died that night.

The next morning the wagon master said they would hold a short funeral service and bury the boy in a shallow grave, apologetically explaining that they were in dangerous Indian country and didn’t have time to do anything more. But grandfather couldn’t accept this, and insisted on staying behind and digging a grave deep enough so the animals wouldn’t get the body.

Throughout the day and into the night he worked, building a strong wood coffin and digging a grave five feet deep in the hard soil. Finally, exhausted and sobbing, he buried his son and then walked all night to catch up with the wagon train. He was heartbroken and he was mad—mad at the wagon master for not waiting to give his son a proper burial, and mad at God for “allowing” his son to die. When he arrived at his wagon and vented his feelings to his wife, she spoke to him tenderly:

“Father, we have to make the best of it. The baby and I are all right and, thank the Lord, the rest of us are well. If we get to our journey’s end without any more trouble, we must be very thankful to our Heavenly Father. We have joined the Mormon Church because we believed it was the only true one and I have faith that it is. We are not the only ones that are having sorrow and trouble on this trip” (from the history of Hakan Hanson).

This wasn’t the end of their difficulties; they continued to suffer serious hardships and adversities throughout their lives. But although they both went through identical experiences, each was affected differently by them. Grandfather became withdrawn, cantankerous, and bitter. He stopped going to Church and found fault with Church leaders. He became caught up in his own miseries, and the light of Christ grew dimmer and dimmer in his life. On the other hand, grandmother’s faith increased. Each new problem seemed to make her stronger. She became an angel of mercy—filled with empathy, compassion, and charity. She was a light to those around her. Her family gravitated toward her and looked to her as their leader.

As I’ve read and re-read this story and have contemplated my grandparents’ opposite response to their tribulations, and as I’ve been faced with afflictions of my own, I’ve studied the scriptures to gain a better understanding of the role of adversity. At first I found it somewhat confusing. In some scriptural cases, it appears that tribulation and difficulties are punishment for sin—the fruits of unrighteous actions or unwise decisions. But paradoxically, I’ve discovered at least as many scriptural examples of righteous individuals being confronted with the same adversities as those who were wicked.

I’ve learned to accept that breaking God’s laws brings unpleasant consequences—adversity—and that sometimes the Lord may allow us to struggle with difficulties that will give us the opportunity to overcome particular weaknesses. And I have also become aware that some of the adversities we face are simply a natural consequence of living in a telestial world instead of a celestial one. Possessing telestial bodies, living among telestial people, and having telestial knowledge and wisdom naturally bring difficulties, problems, and frustrations.

More importantly, I have come to realize that to live in a telestial world but to be celestial people is the test. Our exemplar is Jesus Christ who, referring to Joseph Smith’s great hardships, told the Prophet: “Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

“The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:7–8).

Now, like my grandmother so many years ago, I am trying to be less concerned with why I have adversity, and more concerned with what I’m going to do about it, how I can learn from it, and how I can become more Christlike as a result of it. The way I react—whether I rationalize or overcome, whether I give up or endure, whether I become bitter or compassionate—is my choice. And that choice will help determine how close I’ll come to the Savior’s way of living.

The Apostle Paul understood well the relationship between adversity and exaltation: “We are troubled on every side,” he said, “yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

“Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed. …

“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:8–9, 17).

Even though at times our adversities may seem neither “light” nor “for a moment,” we can detect—if we follow Christ’s example—not only that we are increasing our ability and desire to overcome, but also that we are making progress in the right direction. Each difficulty can lead us one step closer to our Heavenly Father—if we will let it.

  • Steve Dunn Hanson, a businessman and father of eight children, serves as first counselor in the Tustin, California, Second Ward bishopric.

Illustrated by Howard Post