“Personalized, Purposeful, and Sometimes Ironically Painful Trials,” Ensign, February 2020
I sat in stake conference, listening to my stake president admit to veering from his prepared talk. “Think about what hard things have happened to you in the past week or so,” he said. That was easy—I had just gone through the worst breakup of my life and had spent the past week wondering why Heavenly Father had let me go through that experience when it just further aggravated the sorest part of my life.
My stake president continued, “Now think, is there any way that Heavenly Father doesn’t know what you’ve been through? Any way that He didn’t know that would happen?”
Of course He knew that it would end in heartache for me. And still, He allowed it to happen. As I pondered that, I started to accept that maybe there was a reason I had to go through that breakup. Maybe there was some purpose I couldn’t see but that He saw, some lesson I couldn’t have learned otherwise.
Since that stake conference, I’ve thought a lot about why we go through the trials that we do, where trials come from, and how essential they are to our eternal progress—even if we can’t always see the reasons behind them.
Trials come to all of us. That was the plan from the beginning. During the Council in Heaven, the Savior said, “We will prove them herewith” (Abraham 3:25), and in modern days He has reminded us that He “will prove [us] in all things” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:14). Our faithfulness is constantly tried by whether or not we remain true to our covenants with Heavenly Father, even when life is hard.
So, the fact that throughout mortality we will be tried is pretty well established (see also Acts 14:22 and 1 Peter 4:12). What isn’t explicitly set forth is that many of our trials were going to be meant specifically for us. Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained that there are not only challenges in life “which are ‘common to man[kind]’ (1 Cor. 10:13” but also “customized trials such as experiencing illness, aloneness, persecution, betrayal, irony, poverty, false witness, unreciprocated love, et cetera.” He noted that “we … came ‘into the world’ to pass through our particularized portions of the mortal experience” and how we often forget “that some tests by their very nature are unfair.”1 Elder Maxwell also taught that “the customized challenges are often the toughest and the most ironical.”2
It’s that irony that really gets me. I’ve witnessed someone with the strongest testimony whose spouse decided to leave the Church. I’ve seen someone with a dedication to long-distance running whose body was deteriorated by cancer. I’ve seen a dedicated wife whose spouse gave up on their marriage.
But the trials that affect you the most are also the ones that change you the most. As Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “These fiery trials are designed to make you stronger. … They take root in our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, our sensitivities, or in those things that matter most to us.” He also warned us that because of the ironic, painful nature of these trials, “they have the potential to diminish or even destroy your trust in the Son of God and to weaken your resolve to keep your promises to Him.”3 That’s why meekness is such an important attribute4 and why understanding the source and reasons behind these personalized trials is so important.
Mortality comes with challenges—and those challenges can create trials for us. Our bodies are subject to injury, illness, and death. Nature is unpredictable and outside of our control—we can suffer from weather, animal encounters, natural disasters, and other calamities. And Heavenly Father gave all His children the knowledge of right and wrong, commandments, and agency—all of which are essential to the success of His plan for us. Just as we can’t become like Him without exercising agency, we must also learn how to navigate living in a world where we are influenced by others’ agency. His commitment to honoring our agency is paramount, but that also means we will be affected by how others use their agency.
Regardless of their source, Heavenly Father allows these trials to come. As an omnipotent Being, He has the ability to stop bad things from happening to us, but He lets us face adversity because we need it to learn and grow.
Take the story of the people of the brother of Jared, for example. They were instructed how to build barges and commanded to put their trust in the Lord and cross the ocean. They were out on the ocean for almost an entire year (see Ether 6:11), facing “great and terrible tempests which were caused by the fierceness of the wind” (Ether 6:6).
That fierce wind could be seen as a terrible trial—after all, what kind of weather could be worse when you’re out on the ocean? But the scriptures say that it was “the Lord God [who] caused that there should be a furious wind blow upon the face of the waters, towards the promised land” (Ether 6:5; emphasis added; see also Ether 2:24). So it was the Lord who caused the furious winds to blow, and there was a reason for it! And those people rejoiced and thanked and praised the Lord because of it (see Ether 6:8–9). Who knows how much longer they might have been out on the water or where they might have ended up without that furious wind?
That’s not to say that the Lord causes the trials in our lives. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the trials in my life, it’s that Heavenly Father is endlessly kind and loving, and He is always there for us when we turn to Him. He would never allow us to experience more than we could handle with His help. Still, He allows trials to come to us knowing that He can turn all those trials to good for those who love Him. He sees the end from the beginning, so no matter what those terrible winds are in our lives or where they are coming from, God can use them to move us toward our promised land.
The Lord has said, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Instead of thinking of trials as unfair punishments from a harsh or uncaring Creator, we might instead think of them as experiences that will help refine us into beings fit for His kingdom.
Even if we can’t see the purpose behind our specific trials, we can know that they are meant to give us crucial experience. There’s always the temptation to compare our trials with others’ and think we received the short end of the stick, even when we don’t know all the details of what other people have been called to endure. Elder Richard G. Scott (1928–2015) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “The path you are to walk through life may be very different from others. You may not always know why He does what He does, but you can know that He is perfectly just and perfectly merciful. He would have you suffer no consequence, no challenge, endure no burden that is superfluous to your good.”5
It can still be hard to learn from our trials, especially when they can seem so all-consuming. But as Elder Maxwell taught, there is a way to find purpose behind our trials: “Our knowledge of the Savior, Jesus Christ, and His Atonement helps us to endure our trials and to see purpose in suffering and to trust God for what we cannot comprehend.”6 The more we learn about the Savior, the clearer our understanding of trials will be.
The Lord taught the Prophet Joseph Smith about purpose in trials while he was separated from his family, unlawfully imprisoned, and worried about the recently exiled Saints: “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:7). Elder Maxwell explained:
“The premise [of this scripture] is that experience is valuable, and the only way to have it is to have it. And whether it involves adversity or whatever, then we are blessed. …
“… It is so essential that out of these experiences we form character.”7
The why of trials, then, is that they present, as Elder Maxwell said, “numerous opportunities to become more Christlike.”8
Although the end goal of trials—becoming more like Christ—may be positive, getting there is not always easy and it rarely seems fair. But fair is relative, especially when it comes to trials. It’s not fair that you have an illness or disability that impairs your daily life. It’s not fair that your hopes of having children have been dashed because of infertility. It’s not fair that you aren’t married yet when you’re doing all you can to make it happen. But it also wasn’t fair that our sinless Savior had to suffer and die to pay for our sins. He too asked if the bitter cup could pass—if He really had to suffer that trial that seemed too great to bear—but was still willing to do the Father’s will (see Matthew 26:39; Doctrine and Covenants 19:18–19).
Understanding and accepting that personalized trials will come to you, that they are known to a loving Heavenly Father, and that they can be for your eternal benefit will help you gain the eternal perspective necessary to do just that—endure the bitter trials of life without becoming bitter and maintain hope of overcoming through Christ (see Numbers 13:30; John 16:33; Revelation 3:21; Doctrine and Covenants 50:41; 63:47; 64:2; 75:22; 76:60).
It seems like God has used some of my trials, like that painful breakup, to test me in the most painful ways. President John Taylor (1808–87) declared: “I heard the Prophet Joseph say, in speaking to the Twelve on one occasion: ‘You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham … , and (said he) God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.’”9
But God will also help us through our trials. He will not only deliver us from the trial when the time is right but also help us get through it until that time. He wants us all to return home to Him.
Just as “there is no other way … whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ” (Alma 38:9), just as there was no other way for Adam and Eve to progress but to partake of the fruit and to pass through all the challenges of mortality, just as there was no other way for the Savior to redeem us but to suffer and die, there is also no other way that we can become like Him and qualify for eternal life except to experience our own personalized trials.
When we find ourselves asking, “Is there no other way?” we can remember the counsel from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “Remember the Savior’s own anguished example: if the bitter cup does not pass, drink it and be strong, trusting in happier days ahead.”10