“Finding the Divine Design in Our ‘Un-ideal’ Family,” Liahona, Jan. 2023.
Nothing brings deeper feelings of meaning, joy, yearning, and pain than the relationships that are most central to our experience in mortality—our family relationships. And because these relationships matter so much, our Church leaders were inspired to create “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”1 Its truths bear witness of a loving Father who yearns for us to know the divine patterns that lead to eternal happiness in family life.
President Henry B. Eyring, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, taught: “Because our Father loves his children, he will not leave us to guess about what matters most in this life concerning where our attention could bring happiness or our indifference could bring sadness.”2 This includes the myriad of sacred family roles we could have in this life: daughter or son, sister or brother, mother or father, aunt or uncle, grandmother or grandfather.
The truths in the family proclamation light the way to the “eternal ideal” that many of us deeply desire—strong, happy eternal family relationships. The problem is that we live in the “mortal real.” And that gap between “real” and “ideal” can be painful. Sometimes, instead of seeing it as a light to guide us, we may even experience the family proclamation as a poignant reminder of where we have “failed” in meeting the “ideal.”
We may yearn for marriage but not see it as a possibility.
We may have married and experienced a devastating divorce.
We may yearn for children we are unable to bear.
We may have experienced abuse in family relationships we trusted.
We may have experienced significant pain because of the choices of loved family members.
We may feel divided despite our best efforts to bring unity among our loved ones.
We may even feel disillusioned by unfulfilled yearnings and promises.
In reality, all of us will know challenges, pain, and sorrow in family life—some more than others. To some degree, all of us will fall outside the ideal patterns outlined in the family proclamation.
What we may not realize is the divine design in that reality.
As a single woman yearning for marriage and children for many years, I desired and believed that a fundamental purpose of my life was to achieve the ideals of family life set forth in the family proclamation. Yet despite my most sincere efforts, I could not seem to make them happen the way I believed they should. That struggle was painful.
At the time, I could not see the miraculous work the Lord was bringing about in my heart through that struggle.
Looking back, my unfulfilled yearnings played a sacred role in inclining my heart toward my Redeemer to seek peace and direction He alone could provide and deepen my trust in His perfect love and enabling power. Daily prayer and scripture study, and especially the words of general conference, became a lifeline of hope and direction. I felt compelled to turn to the words of my patriarchal blessing—and other priesthood blessings—to find love and direction that were personal to me from my Eternal Father.
As I poured out my heart to the Lord, even when I was tempted to turn away in bitterness, sacred impressions came to my mind and heart that assured me He knew where I was, that my life had a beautiful plan, and that I could trust Him. Covenant belonging3 to my Redeemer became a conduit of profound peace and joy surpassing any other sources of fulfillment or happiness.
I came to see that though I had believed the purpose of my life was to achieve my dreams of the ideal family, the Lord was making possible what Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles called the fundamental purpose of mortality. Quoting King Benjamin, he explained, “Perhaps the fundamental purpose … is to become ‘a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord,’ which will require us to become ‘as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.’”4
My need for the help and strength of the Savior led me to seek and experience His heart of submission, meekness, humility, patience, and love. In the process I was changed by His enabling power. And in truth, that was what I most deeply wanted. What had seemed so “un-ideal” had actually paved the way for the most beautiful “ideal.”
My friend and colleague Ty Mansfield described a similar truth. As a man who experiences same-sex attraction, Ty witnessed the spiritual growth that can take place as we anchor our lives in Jesus Christ and willingly surrender our entire hearts to Him, allowing Him to consecrate all difficult experiences for our gain. For Ty, that began as the Spirit taught him “that whether I ever married, I was infinitely loved and accepted by God. My responsibility was to continue to live one day at a time while seeking and following the guidance of the Spirit.”5 And eventually, trusting God led Ty to enter into a joyful, beautiful, eternal marriage to his wife.
I too finally got married after wondering if I ever would. But the need to be deeply anchored in Jesus Christ has only continued, if not increased, in the years since I was sealed to my husband. I again started to seek Him for peace as I struggled with infertility. I didn’t know how I could ever have the joy I hoped for in family life without children. But even after my husband and I were blessed with two children, I often focused on my weaknesses as a mother. Even though I finally had what I had always wanted, in some ways the gap between the “ideal” and the “real” had seemed to grow.
These circumstances invited me to rethink the purposes of mortality and the divinely ordained processes through which we grow. Maybe the purpose of life isn’t actually to attain the ideal family. Maybe the ideal doesn’t even exist in mortality. Maybe family is, instead, an opportunity for progression.
In fact, maybe the reality that feels so painfully “less than ideal” actually fulfills the sacred purpose of inviting the growth we need to actually live “ideal” relationships. Maybe the power lies in the fact that the profound gap between the real and the ideal invites us into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ where He heals and sanctifies what feels broken, building wisdom, strength, and love in the process. Miraculously, it is through His grace and redemption, and His alone, that we can become the kind of people in the kinds of relationships that we seek to have in heaven.
I have come to believe that “perfection” isn’t actually possible in family relationships, for anyone—at least in this life. But honesty, integrity, and genuine closeness are. In fact, pretending or expecting perfection will interfere with genuine closeness to God, our families, and others. Instead, as we allow ourselves to be seen as we truly are by Christ, our families, and others, including in all that is “less than ideal,” we can invite His sanctifying power into our lives. We can experience His miraculous power to reconcile the unresolvable, fill us with His love, and change us into beings that have deeper relationships with Him and our loved ones.
Perhaps the most sacred purpose of the family proclamation is to assure us that because of Jesus Christ, the “ideal” family can be the eternal destiny for each of us.
As beloved sons and daughters of heavenly parents, we all belong to an eternal family. Our unique experience in mortality is an essential part of our Father’s plan to help us progress and “ultimately realize [our] divine destiny as heirs of eternal life”6—the same beautiful family life He experiences, however different from the ideal our family experiences now seem to be. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles declared: “The Atonement of Jesus Christ has anticipated and, in the end, will compensate all deprivation and loss for those who turn to Him. No one is predestined to receive less than all that the Father has for His children.”7
Just as the Lord promised Jacob in the midst of the challenges of his “less than ideal” family, His covenant relationship with us reassures us, “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again [home]; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of” (Genesis 28:15). As we follow Him, no matter what our imperfect realities look like, He will not “let us go,” until we have become all we desire to be, bound in family relationships of sublime joy eternally.