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What are trials?


I'll begin this quick blog post with a confession, and this very well could show how one of my weaknesses is empathy for others. With that said, I cringe, often, when the word "Trials" is used in the context of religious conversations. 

The thought, while well-intentioned and maybe not necessarily untrue, is usually something about how trials are a necessary part of this life in order for us to fully experience Heavenly Father's divine plan. Again, I reiterate that this isn't necessarily untrue, but, in my estimation, it isn't consistent with what ancient prophets taught and it misses the point a bit if it is overemphasized over other things.

For example, the word trial is rarely used in the scriptures. It really is only used a few times in the context of afflictions affecting the righteous. Even so, in those few instances, it is used with the phrase "the trial of your faith" most of the time.

Admittedly, and in the spirit of full transparency, this word is used a ton in General Conference. It has been used 65 times in the past 2 years and was used 270 times in the decade before that. It is being used more now than at any other time in our history.

The difference between how the scriptures use this word and how often living prophets use it has given me pause recently. I have sat in many meetings and have been guilty myself of reflecting on trials so much that it would sound to outsiders that God is sort of like the gamekeeper for the Hunger Games. 

In essence, I personally feel that the overuse of the word "trials" sort of plays into the theological and philosophical question of the problem of evil. If God has sent us here to experience a heap of trials it makes Him partly responsible for the evil that exists in the world. Philosopher Anthony Flew, who is quoted by Elder Maxwell and David Paulsen, put it this way:

"We cannot say that God would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent. We cannot say that he would help if he only knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God creates those others [out of nothing]. Indeed an omnipotent, omniscient God must be an accessory before (and during) the fact to every human misdeed; as well as being responsible for every non-moral defect in the universe." (Antony Flew, “Theology and Falsification,” in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony Flew and Alasadair Macintyre, p. 105)

In other words, to persist on the focus of trials, in my estimation, puts us in a platonic stance when it comes to our salvation and the nature of our life on earth. It puts God within a box that he never claims to be in nor should we put him in.

To answer the problem of evil should be left for another blog post, but I think what I have written above gets the point across for my current point. Namely, to insist that the purpose of this life is to endure a heavy dose of trials must self-evidently miss the point of the Father's plan. Sure, we are to prove ourselves in the here and now, but for what purpose?

What do we make of the brethren's frequent use of the word, "trial" or "trials"? As I have scanned over their words, it is almost universally attached to the warm embrace and mission of the Savior Jesus Christ. You can do a word study for yourself, but almost universally when the living prophets invoke such a word they almost suggest in the same breath that this care of trials should be swallowed up in trust in covenants and the eventual embrace of the Father and the Son. With this in mind, an overemphasis on why we experience trials might hint at us not being tethered to covenants or having in remembrance the divine mission of Jesus Christ. One could say that it shouldn't be considered bad if we must always remind ourselves why bad things happen to us, but we should remember that our explanation as to why these things are happening to us might have its root in platonic/greek influenced Christianity. We can also say, to borrow the Neal A. Maxwell line, that if we have to constantly remind ourselves of these things it is like the constant opening of the oven door to see how the cake is doing; because we have missed the point, perhaps, the cake doesn't rise. There is a sign of a lack of trust somewhere if we are willing to look deeply enough.

To end, the wonderful theologian N.T. Wright (Elder Holland and Elder Christofferson have been known to quote him in General Conference) explains in better terms what I am trying to say here. He writes:

"Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world... The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible... It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell." (https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/)

This is timely for our study recently in Moses 7 with the God who weeps. It is a grand paradigm shift to understand that trials are not given to us to show ourselves worthy of God's love and salvation. He already weeps over us because it just might be the nature of our cosmic existence that since mankind is fallen, trials abound. In the words of Elder Maxwell:

“… One distant day, brothers and sisters, it will even become more apparent than it now is that-given whatever constraints within which God began His work (so far as whatever each of us was, way “back of the beyond”), and also given the agency and independency of man-our loving Father God is doing all even He possibly can do to help us!" - Neal A. Maxwell (O How Great the Plan of Our God, Address to CES Religious Educators, 3 February 1995, Temple Square Assembly Hall)

In short, our "trials" might very well be a witness that we are called to build the kingdom of God now as it is in heaven (see Matthew 6:10 and 1 Peter 4:12-14). It is worth noting and closing with Jesus' explanation as to why a man was born blind; notice how he doesn't say anything trials but he speaks about bringing glory into the world:

"And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." (see John 9:1-3)


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