In my last blog post on “owning our stories,” I included a favorite quote from psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. “The most beautiful people we have known,” she wrote, “are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

I’ve continued to think a lot about that statement over the last couple of weeks. Life can be painful. Hardship of one form or another escapes no one. The prophet Joseph Smith even taught that such pain and trying experiences—experiences that would “wrench [our] very heart strings”—would be required of us as a means of developing the capacities and qualities of godliness. As a therapist I’ve walked with people through deep pain and difficulty of infinite variety, and as a human I’ve tasted of some portion of that pain and difficulty in my own life. One of the themes I see arise again and again as individuals work through their pain—enough to see the potential sanctifying power of that pain if they turn it over to the Lord and allow it to make them better—is that they can look back on those difficulties as a “blessing” or even a “gift.”

There have been several experiences in my life that, in the midst of them, I would never have considered to be a blessing from God. And now, as I look back to see how those experiences have shaped me into the person I’m becoming today, I can genuinely view them with a deep sense of gratitude. To be clear, that doesn’t mean I’d want to experience them again, but it does mean that I’m grateful for how the Lord has been able to consecrate those experiences for my gain (see 2 Nephi 2:2). Elder Neal A. Maxwell once stated that “the cavity which suffering carves into our souls will one day also be the receptacle of joy” (“But for a Small Moment,” BYU Devotional Address, 1 September 1974).

LDS Apostle Orson F. Whitney similarly taught,

“No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God . . . and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven.”

The poet Robert Bly offered a yet similar thought in his book Iron John:

“Where a man’s wound is, that is where his genius will be. Wherever the wound appears in our psyches, whether from alcoholic father, shaming mother, shaming father, abusing mother, whether it stems from isolation, disability, or disease, that is precisely the place from which we will give our major gift to the community.”

I love this idea. It’s not so much that our pain and suffering have sanctifying powering in and of themselves, but they do have that potential as we are willing to allow that pain and suffering to turn us more fully to Jesus Christ so He can heal us. As we recall in the Book of Mormon, the Nephites seemed to respond in one of two ways to the afflictions they experienced as a result of “the exceedingly great length of the war.” Many had “become hardened” because of what they experienced, while others “were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility” (Alma 62:41).

There are two video clips I’d like to share here. Both speak so poignantly to me of  the gift and blessing and sanctifying power pain and hurt and suffering can have when we maintain an eternal perspective and allow those experience to deepen rather than weaken our faith in and worship of our Father in Heaven and our Savior Jesus Christ. The first is a song/music video by LDS artist Hilary Weeks called “Beautiful Heartbreak”:

The Lord truly does make our heartbreaks into something beautiful. I know this because I’ve lived it.

The other is a video titled “99 Balloons,” in which a young Christian couple shares the inspiring/heartbreaking story of their son, Eliot, who was born with a genetic disorder called Trisomy 18. Elliot lived only 99 days. Despite what could have been a faith-shattering experience—why would God allow this kind of thing to happen to those who are trying so earnestly to serve Him?—this young couple elected instead to allow the experience to increase their faith and to manifest the glory of God:

There is something about this video that brings me to tears every time I watch it. Being the father of a little boy, I can’t imagine the pain I would feel in losing my son. And yet, this couple chose to experience and cherish each day as a gift, with God revealing Himself in each precious moment. At the end of this video, they include the words of Job 1:21: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” The sentiment of that verse humbles me and leaves me with this deep awareness of how vulnerable my faith can be. Should something so heartbreaking ever occur in my life, I pray to have the faith to speak such words.

One of the greatest lessons my life experiences has taught me is that when we let Him be God, trusting that there is meaning and purpose in all life has to teach us, allowing Him to consecrate all of our experiences for our gain and His glory, He will give unto us “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isaiah 61:3).

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10 comments

  1. avatar

    Steven Frei

    Thank you Ty. Beautiful message. It is so easy to become bitter and hardened. I hope my spirit will be softened by my trials, and I will learn what Father would have me learn.

  2. avatar

    Nonrandom Set

    This is exactly what I needed to read. I’ve spent so much time wondering, “Why me?” And even after I moved on from that, I was simply feeling sorry for myself.

    This makes me think of the Master’s Touch or the Refiner’s Fire. Now with every heartbreak, I will try to think of Him making me into someone like Him. Thanks.

  3. avatar

    Mark

    As a parent of a children who was born with a genetic disorder and only lived a short earthly life before returning to Jesus, upon reflection I was surprised at how little anger I felt upon her passing. I too was reminded of the words from the Book of Job, “The Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And like Job, many around me questioned how I could feel at peace with such an injustice.

    The only explanation I can offer is that previous trials in my life have deepened my faith in Heavenly Father’s all-knowing wisdom and in Jesus Christ’s atonement. I can have faith that earthly injustices have a purpose I may never understand, but that through reliance in God, I can become whole and happy. How did I gain such perspective? I suppose I attribute it my experiences with same-sex attraction.

    Although, from a more distanced and analytic approach, I would say that losing a child is far worse than the challenges of unwanted same-sex attraction, as a teenager and young adult, being gay was the worst thing I had ever experienced. I felt it hindered and destroyed everything in my life, and it was certainly the worst trial I ever experienced. Somehow, I made peace with that “injustice” and was able to resolve my anger towards God. Years later, when I experienced the loss of a child, as horrible as it was, I had already experienced disappointment and injustice. I already dealt with feelings of anger towards God and knew that it offered little relief unless I acknowledged to his will and had faith in his ability to make my heart whole. Because of that, I surprised myself at how easy it was to accept the (temporary) separation from our child.

    I believe the words of Moroni, as recorded in the Book of Ether: when we rely on the Lord, our weaknesses can become strengths. Through him, we gain power to do things we never thought possible. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

    • avatar

      Ty Ray

      Thanks for sharing this, Mark. I can’t imagine what that would be like, and the thought of losing this little boy that I love so much seems almost unbearable. As Elder Bowen was speaking in GC about the loss of their little boy, I could feel the tears starting to well. I know I would be hopeful if that ever happened, knowing that the separation would be temporary, but the pain of the moment seems like it would be unbearable.

      At the same time, I resonate with the idea that the difficulty of working through SSA has served as a kind of spiritual grounding that has blessed me in every area of my life. I’ve gained an eternal perspective that has blessed my profession, my marriage, my friendships and relationships with others… everything.

  4. avatar

    Michael Packham

    Over the last year as I’ve been to the depths of hell and back, I took small consolation in folks’, “You’ll be a better person for what you are going through.” Yet now that the hardest part of the journey is behind me, I can see that the joy in my life now, the love I feel for the Savior, the appreciation for the atonement that made my return possible are so much deeper, so much more embedded in my heart than they were before. I would not wish upon anyone the despair and anguish of soul that I’ve experienced, but it seems to be coming to pass—that I am “a better person.” I know that I have been humbled, been taught patience and long-suffering, and have felt the infinite love and compassion that God has for me.

  5. avatar

    Jaramiah

    “It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility.”

    Wisdom spoken by Elder Whitney. I think of Alma the Younger and the Sons of Mosiah, who were the very vilest of sinners, yet the transformation they achieved made use of the mistakes they made as education that led to their great accomplishments. I can’t compare my life to theirs, but feel that I am a better husband and father for overcoming stages of my life that have helped me to recognize the true value of the blessings I have now and the need to invest all I can give to making my family’s lives enriched in every way I can. I wish I had trusted the Lord with all my heart and didn’t lean to my own understanding, but I can’t change my history of not having done that. Yet I wouldn’t give up the lessons I have learned as part of my mortal experience, even if I could somehow undo the actions that put me on the path of learning them. The description of that cavity becoming a ‘receptacle of joy’ describes how I feel. Yet, I know I am not invulnerable to the temptations that I have fallen to in the past. Thank you brothers for strengthening me.

  6. avatar

    Rex

    Thanks very much, Ty. It is hard to explain to people how trials can be blessings and we can be grateful for having endured them. You said it very well.

  7. avatar

    Frank Hays

    This was truly an answer to my prayers. My life has been full of many Trials and Challenges. My SSA has been the greastest of challenges, but has brought many great blessings. This past six months have been particularly difficult as I face an uncertain future and come out of a life “Living in Quiet Desperation”
    Frank Hays

  8. avatar

    Mine is more a question than a comment. My 17 year old daughter has a close male friend at school. A fine young man by many standards who despite the fact that he has ver had a relationship of any kind with a male or female individual insist that he is gay. My daughter is ver non-judgemental of his choice and I am proud of her for doing so. What I do not understand is how someone who says to me that he has never had a relationship of any kind can know/tell his orientation. Since he is not my son I have mixed emotions on whether I should get involved and how much I should do so.

    • avatar

      Ty Ray

      Thanks for the comment, Mark–and the question. Aside from the fact that I take issue with how we construct orientation and identity around sexuality as a culture, regardless of behavior, men and women know they are attracted to something before they choose to follow through with the impulse to act on that attraction (whether it be related to a financial purchase, a hobby, a job, a relationship). If someone has the impulse to hold another person’s hand or kiss them, or if they fantasize about a relationship with them, they’re typically aware of this attraction or impulse before they act on it. Those who are primarily heterosexually oriented are aware of the orientation of their attractions and are probably going to identify as “straight” even if they’ve never held someone’s had, or kissed them, or been in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. If someone feels persistent attractions to they same sex, whether or not they act on it, in today’s culture they’re likely going to identity as “gay” or homosexual.

      From a humanistic standpoint, there are 3 or 4 major pieces to understanding sexuality: 1) attraction/orientation, 2) behavior, and 3) identity (I say 3 or 4 depending on how far people want to go in teasing apart attraction and orientation, something I personally feel is important). While pop cultural discourse seems to lump everything together under a “gay” identity construct, the Church has tended to focus on the first piece, adopting/preferring the parlance of “same-gender attraction.” While Church leaders have stated that it’s not a sin to feel an attraction toward someone of the same sex (implying a sexual attraction because there are certainly other kinds of attraction to others of the same sex we would judge to be perfectly healthy and appropriate), it would be a sin to inappropriately entertain or fantasize around that attraction, in addition to any inappropriate acting out sexually on that attraction behaviorally. With regard to identity, Church leaders have discouraged adopting a “gay” identity, but there has been a less clear line on that. I wrote a N* essay sometime back, “Beyond Gay. Beyond Straight. Beyond Mormon.“, exploring my own journey with identity.

      I’m not sure how much that helps answer your question but please feel free to offer any other thoughts or questions you have.