The Blessings of Adversity
February 1998

“The Blessings of Adversity,” Ensign, Feb. 1998, 2

First Presidency Message

The Blessings of Adversity

Many years ago when I was practicing law, I organized a company for one of the new car dealers in my area. I served as his legal counsel and as a corporate officer for many years; then one of my sons took over my responsibilities as legal counsel. Later we were both at the dealer’s place of business. I noticed the rows of beautiful, shiny, gleaming, expensive new cars. Out of concern I mentioned to the proprietor that if he didn’t get the cars sold, financing charges would be exorbitant and eat up the profits. My son said, “Dad, don’t look at it that way. Look at all the profit the cars will bring.”

While I think he was more accurate than I, it suddenly came to my mind that my son had never been through a depression. We looked at the rows of cars through different eyes because I am a child of the Depression. I cannot forget what a merciless taskmaster debt is.

For some years we lived near a very skilled mechanic. He and his wife resolved never to go in debt. This resolution was born of a bitter memory. When they were newly married and had their small family, the Depression came along, and, as skilled as he was, he could not find a job. Their home mortgage was foreclosed, and they lived through the Depression in a chicken coop, which was made reasonably comfortable because of his mechanical skills.

Many in today’s generation have not fully known nor appreciated the refining blessings of adversity. Many have never been hungry because of want. Yet I am persuaded that there can be a necessary refining process in adversity that increases our understanding, enhances our sensitivity, makes us more Christlike. Lord Byron said, “Adversity is the first path to truth” (Don Juan, canto 12, stanza 50). The life of the Savior and the lives of His prophets clearly and simply teach how necessary adversity is to achieve a measure of greatness.

Edmund Burke defined the role of adversity well when he said: “Difficulty is a severe instructor, set over us by [one] who knows us better than we know ourselves, and he loves us better too. … He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper. This … conflict with difficulty [makes us acquainted] with our object, and compels us to consider it in all its relations. It will not suffer us to be superficial” (“Reflections on the Revolution in France,” in Edmund Burke, Harvard Classics, 50 vols. [1909], 24:299–300).

Many Saints throughout the world have a difficult time making ends meet; indeed, it may be very painful. From their standpoint it would be unkind to say that this experience may be good for you and may be remembered in more affluent times warmly and even with some fondness. One of my more successful cousins went through law school using much candlelight because he and his bride couldn’t afford electricity to light the rooms.

Years ago I read of an African-American who rose from humble circumstances to become the general counsel of General Motors, without question one of the most lucrative and prestigious positions for a lawyer in all the world. As a boy he was poor; he was required to obtain his education through efforts that were heroic and under circumstances that were difficult in the extreme. He was required to work one and even two menial, dirty jobs regularly, and, if I am not mistaken, occasionally three. He was asked if he felt uncomfortable among the highest-paid executives in the world. His answer was no. He said that most of them had been poor boys, like him, who had worked their way up being tested, challenged, threatened, and discouraged. Adversity is the refiner’s fire that bends iron but tempers steel.

President David O. McKay said: “There are those who have met disaster, which almost seems defeat, who have become somewhat soured in their natures; but if they stop to think, even the adversity which has come to them may prove a means of spiritual uplift. Adversity itself may lead toward and not away from God and spiritual enlightenment; and privation may prove a source of strength if we can but keep the sweetness of mind and spirit” (Treasures of Life, comp. Clare Middlemiss [1962], 107–8).

May I suggest a few things we might do to be happy whether we are affluent or less affluent:

  1. Avoid being totally dependent on material or physical things. This could mean considering a bicycle instead of a car, perhaps walking instead of riding a bicycle. In my day it meant skim milk instead of cream.

  2. Learn to do without some things and have some reserve to fall back on. I recall an article in Indiana that brought much publicity and attention about a member of the Church who was a coal miner and who had a year’s supply of food.

  3. Develop an appreciation for the great gifts of God as found in nature: the beauty of the seasons, the eloquent testimony of God in the sunrises and sunsets, the leaves, the flowers, the birds, the animals.

  4. Engage in more physical activity, including walking, jogging, swimming, and bicycling.

  5. Have a hobby that involves your minds and hearts and can be done at home.

  6. Pay tithes and offerings. The keeping of this commandment will not ensure riches—indeed, there is no assurance of being free from economic problems—but it will smooth out the rough spots, will give the resolution and faith to understand and to accept, and will create a communion with the Savior that will enhance the inner core of strength and stability.

  7. Develop the habit of singing, or if this is not pleasant, of whistling. Singing to one’s self brings less comment and question than talking to one’s self! My father once came home from a deer hunt empty-handed, but his heart was renewed and his spirit lifted because, as he recounted with great appreciation, one of his companions had frightened the deer away by always singing trumpet-voiced as he walked through pines and quaking aspen. Father was more enriched by the mirth of the song than he would have been by the meat of the venison.

In life we all have our times of testing and growth. These trials are necessary. They are growth experiences. Though they are times of deep anguish and suffering, they are also times to draw near to God. The suffering of the Savior in Gethsemane was without question the greatest that has ever come to mankind, yet out of it came the greatest good in the promise of eternal life.

Isaiah described the image of the Savior from a public relations standpoint: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3).

Perhaps in all literature, sacred or profane, there is nothing more eloquent than sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants, received and written by Joseph Smith the Prophet while in the Liberty Jail in the spring of 1839.

First is the plea: “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?

“Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?” (D&C 121:1–3).

Then comes the promised relief: “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).

Out of these circumstances also came this great promise: “God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now” (D&C 121:26).

The Prophet Joseph Smith was warned: “The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee;

“While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.

“And thy people shall never be turned against thee by the testimony of traitors” (D&C 122:1–3).

Why is adversity often such a good schoolmaster? Is it because it teaches so many things? Through difficult circumstances we are often forced to learn discipline and how to work. In often unpleasant circumstances we may also be subjected to a buffeting, a honing, and a polishing that can come no other way.

Most General Authorities are familiar with adversity; they have not been, and are not now, exempt. May I illustrate by referring to three, selected only because of their great familiarity with difficulty.

Early in life, President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) learned the necessity of work. He had many painful experiences in his early years preparatory to his great ministry. As a young boy he nearly drowned. He suffered from Bell’s palsy. His mother died when he was a youth, and while he was still a young man he lost his beloved sister Ruth. Shortly after marriage he contracted smallpox, and Sister Kimball counted over 100 pustules on his face.

He learned early about financial reverses and lost some investments. Like Job, he suffered from boils, which continued for many years and on one occasion came on his nose and lips. On one occasion he suffered from 24 boils at one time; not long thereafter he began to suffer the excruciating pain of heart attacks, which continued for many years and finally resulted in open-heart surgery. He became bothered by a hoarseness of his voice, which was relieved through a blessing from the Brethren, only to return later, along with the boils. A serious cancer in the vocal cords required surgery and thereafter voice training and cobalt treatments. The Bell’s palsy returned, and skin cancers were removed.

The result of this refiner’s fire was to be manifest in a refined spirit, sensitivity, an understanding heart, kindness, and humility.

I have always been intensely interested in the background of President Nathan Eldon Tanner (1898–1982). Years ago I heard him recall his humble and difficult beginnings. Speaking of his parents, he said: “When they arrived in Southern Alberta, Father had no money, and he had to sell his team in order to finance. But the thing I have always been pleased about was that Father never thought of calling on the government. He went and worked for his neighbor, and he broke horses so they would have horses to use. He lived in a dugout on a homestead, where I lived the first part of my life. He often said, ‘I bet ten dollars against a quarter section of land of the Dominion Government that I could make a go of it. I nearly succeeded.’ He also said, ‘You know, when I came to this country, I didn’t have a rag to my back. Now I am all rags.’

“We lived after that in a little hamlet. I don’t suppose this would be of interest to you, but in that little hamlet we didn’t even have a telephone. We didn’t have a daily paper; we didn’t have a weekly paper—regularly. We had no running water, hot or cold water. So you can imagine other things we didn’t have and some things we did have! We had no central heating, you can be sure of that. In fact, I often wondered if we had any heating in the house” (My Experiences and Observations, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [17 May 1966], 6).

From these difficult beginnings came the giant known as Nathan Eldon Tanner. He was Speaker of the Alberta Legislature, Minister of Mines and Lands for the Province of Alberta, president of the Trans-Canadian Pipeline, branch president, bishop, stake president, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, Apostle, and counselor to four Presidents of the Church.

I share with you an incident or two from the early life of President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988), best told in his own words:

“I’m a Mexican by birth. I was born in Colonia Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. My parents happened to be down there at the time. I was raised there until I was about fifteen years old. During the last two or three of those years, the Madero Revolution was in progress. The rebels and the federalists were chasing each other through the country; each taking everything we colonists had, by way of arms and ammunition and by way of supplies. Finally we were forced to leave. I came out of Mexico with the Mormon refugees in 1912.

“I remember I had a very thrilling experience on the way from where we lived to the railroad station about eight miles south of Colonia Juárez. We went in a wagon. … I was riding with my mother and her seven children and my uncle (her brother) and his family of about five or six children. … We had one trunk—that was all we were able to bring. I was seated on the trunk in the back of the wagon. … The Mexican rebel army was coming up the valley from the railroad station towards our town. They were not in formation. They were riding their saddle horses. Their guns were in the scabbards. Two of them stopped us and searched us. They said they were looking for guns. We didn’t have any guns or ammunition. They did find $20.00 on my uncle. … They took that and then waved us on. They went up the road about as far as from here to the back of this room, stopped, turned around, drew their guns from their scabbards, and pointed them down the road at me. As I looked up the barrels of those guns, they looked like cannons to me. They didn’t pull their triggers, however, as evidenced by the fact that I am here to tell the story. That was a very thrilling experience! One of my maturing experiences.

“The rebels blew up the railroad track after the train we were on passed over it. Later, Father and the rest of the men came out to El Paso, Texas, on horseback. We never returned nor did we recover any of our property while my father lived.

“Father and I went to work to earn a living for his large family. There were no welfare programs then. We had a difficult time making a living” (To Him That Asketh in the Spirit, Salt Lake Institute of Religion Devotional [18 Oct. 1974], 2–3).

After he was married and his family was started, President Romney worked full-time at the post office in order to provide for his family while he went through law school. In those difficult conditions his marks were high and his scholarship excellent; he was later admitted to the Order of the Coif, which admits only the most distinguished scholars. He practiced law and became a bishop, a stake president, one of the first Assistants to the Twelve, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and a member of the First Presidency. He demonstrated his great love and compassion for people through his many years of guidance in the welfare program of the Church.

The difficult and adverse experiences of these three brethren could be repeated in the lives of many other leaders and members in the Church.

Thomas Paine wrote, “I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection” (The Works of Thomas Paine [1934], 392).

Let us not presume that because the way is at times difficult and challenging, our Heavenly Father is not mindful of us. He is rubbing off our rough edges and sensitizing us for our great responsibilities ahead. May His blessings be upon us spiritually, that we may have a sweet companionship with the Holy Ghost, and that our footsteps might be guided along paths of truth and righteousness. And may each of us follow the Lord’s comforting counsel: “Be patient in afflictions, for thou shalt have many; but endure them, for, lo, I am with thee, even unto the end of thy days” (D&C 24:8).

Ideas for Home Teachers

Some Points of Emphasis

You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussions:

  1. Many persons today have not fully known nor appreciated the refining blessings of adversity.

  2. There is a necessary refining process in adversity, anguish, and suffering that increases our understanding, enhances sensitivity, and makes us more Christlike.

  3. In difficult circumstances we are often forced to learn discipline. We may be subjected to a buffeting, a honing, and a polishing that can come no other way.

  4. Let us not presume that because the way is at times difficult our Heavenly Father is not mindful of us. He is rubbing off our rough edges and sensitizing us for our great responsibilities ahead.

Discussion Helps

  1. Relate your feelings about the benefits of adversity as well as Heavenly Father’s sustaining help to us during our times of trial.

  2. Are there some scriptures or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?

  3. Would this discussion be better after a previsit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the bishop or quorum leader?

Photo © FPG International/Jim Whitmer

Christ in Gethsemane, by Heinrich Hofmann

Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail, by Greg K. Olsen

Illustrated by Jerry Thompson

From difficult circumstances came the giant known a Nathan Eldon Tanner, shown here with his wife, Sarah, when they were a young couple.