Anyone who has been in the Church for any length of time has heard their share of inspiring stories and faith-promoting rumors. We hear of destitute families who paid their tithing in faith, not knowing how they would buy food, and the next day got a check in the mail or an unexpected donation from a kind neighbor or random stranger, of families who faced a terrible drought with prayer and fasting and were rewarded with rain, of quiet promptings to slow down that kept a father from becoming a victim of a car accident when an oncoming car ran a red light, and of priesthood blessings given to sick children who were miraculously healed with no lasting effects from their previously-devastating illnesses.
I have witnessed some of these miracles in the lives of those around me, and I, like Helaman, "do justly ascribe it to the miraculous power of God, because of their exceeding faith in that which they had been taught to believe—that there was a just God, and whosoever did not doubt, that they should be preserved by his marvelous power" (Alma 57:26). I know that "it is by faith that miracles are wrought" (Moroni 7:37), and that the power of faith, prayer, fasting, obedience, and the priesthood are real and great. I believe in miracles.
But I've noticed that sometimes we generalize miraculous occurrences and pretend that they represent the general rule. We expect that the Lord will work out all of our material needs and wants for us if we keep the commandments. While the formula "If you're good, the Lord will bless you" may work for children's books, we have to be careful not to expect our lives to be smooth sailing just because we're being obedient. We can't treat God as the Giant Vending Machine in the Sky--insert the right change, press the right buttons, and blessings will immediately be vended.
Now this isn't to say that the Lord won't bless us for keeping the commandments--He surely will. After all, "when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (Doctrine & Covenants 130:21). But His blessings are not always of the monetary or healing variety. I've come to realize, through experiences in my own life and through my recent reading of the Old Testament, that the Lord's thoughts are so much higher than our thoughts, and His ways than our ways (see Isaiah 55:9), that even when our life doesn't fit the cookie-cutter mold of obedience leading to blessings, we still have to have faith in the Lord's purposes and plans.
Sometimes we pay our tithing and have no food for a while. Sometimes we pray and fast and our child still dies. Sometimes we're living right and listening to the Spirit and we still are paralyzed in a car crash. Sometimes the drought continues despite our earnest pleadings. Bad things happen even to good people, and sometimes especially to good people. But God still loves His children, and we still have to have faith in His purposes and His plan.
The Lord told Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail, that even "if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good" (Doctrine & Covenants 123:7). We know that good will come out of even the most terrible pain, that if we "search dilligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted" (Doctrine & Covenants 90:24).
I have long been inspired by the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who refused to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar's idol. Threatened with death, they responded with one of the most powerful refrains ever uttered:
"Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful [that is, worried] to answer thee in this matter.
"If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.
"But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up" (Daniel 3:16-18, emphasis added).
In other words, they were saying, simply, "we don't mind telling you, King, that we believe our God will deliver us from your fire. But if not, but if He chooses to let us burn, still we will not worship this idol, for we will trust the Lord."
There is so much power in these three words: "But if not". There is power in the affirmation that we will choose to trust the Lord's purposes, even when we don't understand them, even when the heavens seem to gather blackness, even when we are left alone. They represent a personal affirmation of enduring faith that isn't dependent on signs or miracles.
I believe that the Lord has the power to send the rain. But if He doesn't, and the heavens remain closed, even if I lose my job and my crops die and my children starve, still I will believe in Him, still I will follow Him.
I believe that the Lord has the power to heal my child. But if He doesn't, even if I fast and pray and still watch my child die of cancer, still I will believe in Him, still I will give Him my heart.
I believe that the Lord has the power to keep me and my family safe from harm. But if He doesn't, if my husband is crippled in a car accident while driving to church on Sunday, still I will not curse God, because I know He loves me, and still I will serve Him.
I believe that the Lord has the power to provide for me. But if He doesn't, if I pay my tithing and keep the commandments and still don't have money to pay my rent, if I get evicted from my home, if I'm broke and peniless, still I will praise the name of God.
Thomas Paine, writing of the American Revolution, echoed a similar sentiment. He wrote:
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value" (The Crisis, December 23, 1776). Paine understood that even when we're trying to do what is right, tragedy and hardship are involved in obtaining anything that is precious.
Job, similarly, when confronted with the loss of his family, his health, and all his earthly possessions, "arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:20-21). Job knew that the Lord had power to prevent the plagues that had come upon him, and chose not to, even though Job was "a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil" (Job 1:8). Job knew that the Lord had power to restore him to health and wealth, but if not, he still proclaimed his devotion to the Lord.
May we also proclaim our devotion to a God who is a God of miracles and also a God of hard times, who has power to move heaven and earth for His faithful children, but if not, we will still follow and love Him.
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